Burkean Lovecraft

Kenneth Hite writes of the Burkean Lovecraft:

lovecraftHoward Philips Lovecraft (1890–1937) is, after Poe, the most important and influential American writer of horror fiction. This, it seems, is as far as consensus extends. He has been savaged by Edmund Wilson and praised by Joyce Carol Oates, published in lurid paperbacks and in the Library of America, damned as a racist, and exalted as a model of the unified philosophical life. His personality incorporated similar contradictions: much-traveled homebody, good-humored pessimist, mechanistic aesthete. These tensions power Lovecraft’s tales, as he time and again subverts his own cherished principles for the sake of effective horror. Characters who share Lovecraft’s philosophy of scientific inquiry and materialism meet horrifying dooms embodying his belief in human insignificance on a cosmic scale. Towns populated exclusively by the Anglo-Saxon race he champions in his letters decay into animalistic demon-worship in his fiction. The landscape of New England, which he loved with an almost palpable fervor, conceals monstrosities older than its hills; its architecture is “witch-haunted” or even extra-dimensional.

In Lovecraft’s seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, a philosophy of literature, Hite sees a Burkean streak:

Lovecraft believed it was the duty of the artist to maintain tradition, especially in the modern age, writing for example in a letter of 1929 that “there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon . . . & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed us by the massed experience of our ancestors. . . .” That Burkean belief resonates throughout Lovecraft’s writing, along with Burke’s theory of the Sublime and its relationship with fear. The aesthetics of both Burke and Lovecraft emphasize such elements as vastness, infinity, obscurity, power, ruination, impossibility, and the astonishment of horror. In 1926 Lovecraft presented these themes in the magisterial fugue of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and continued ringing changes on them for the rest of his life.

Here in his fiction, and only here, could Lovecraft reconcile his own contradictions. His stories reconcile the tradition of the Gothic with the reality of the modern age by creating a new vocabulary of horror. The unutterably ancient geology of the Earth becomes the “haunted castle” of the Gothic; unknowable aliens replace mysterious foreign nobles; violation of scientific law transcends the Gothic’s concerns with moral law while echoing its storms and specters; above the Catholic trappings of the Gothic, Lovecraft erects a new mythology of ancient alien gods and blasphemous tomes of para-scientific lore. Even the fainting and persecuted protagonist remains, becoming an Anglo-Saxon scholar rather than a fair-haired damsel.

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