I checked out the Library of America collection of HP Lovecraft’s tales, and I perused it a little bit today. The ones I read were “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He.” Both, interestingly, were very similar on a thematic level. They were about New York City, and how the horrible urban conglomeration will overwhelm the earth with its mongrel hordes (yes, Lovecraft was definitely hella racist). Or something like that. They were both ultimately about seekers who glimpsed monstrous visions of alternate New Yorks.
And that worked for me. I was impressed. Previously I’ve been put off by Lovecraft’s prose style. But no one spins a horrifying vision like he does. And even today, in the world of television and film, his visions still stand out starkly.
Avenues of limitless night seemed to radiate in every direction, till one might fancy that here lay the root of a contagion destined to sicken and swallow cities, and engulf nations in the foetor of hybrid pestilence. Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding. Satan here held his Babylonish court, and in the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved. Incubi and succubae howled praise to Hecate, and headless moon-calves bleated to the Magna Mater.
What works so well for me is the mix of the immanent and the transcendant. Here you can clearly see that this is a city–a place where people live and engage in commerce. And we’ve seen so many times, in so many fictions, this same vision of a demonic city. But in those stories, it’s always reduced. When you turn devils into people who walk and talk and have hopes and dreams, they’re no longer horrifying–they’re just people with magic powers. Here, though, there’s always that element of distance. Yes there are these devils. Yes they live in this place. Yes, they transact business.
But you can never know what it is. This is a vision. You can see it, but you can’t understand it. It’s very impressive.
It almost made me feel a little bad about my own writing. For all his faults, Lovecraft had both voice and vision. What do I have? Where are my avenues or infinite life? What are my headless moon-calves and fungous abnormalities?