Wednesday, August 31, 2016

James and Lovecraft: First Stories

I bought an iPad recently, and because of that I've started listening to a bunch of different podcasts. (Yes, I know there are other ways than the misery that is iTunes to get podcasts. But this is the one that's convenient enough to overcome my laziness about tracking, downloading, and listening to things.) Two of them are The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast and The M. R. James Podcast, which pretty much do what they say on the tin. Each episode focuses on a particular work, though the Lovecraft podcast has long since exhausted him and moved and to other weird writers (and a subscription model), and the James podcast seems headed that way. Both podcasts are fun. The early episodes at least are more casual, jokey, and um, less fully informed than those who emulate the subjects' pedantry might prefer, but after all, these are podcasts, not symposia.

Anyway, I've decided to reread the stories as the podcasts cover them, and blog about them until the impulse fails (i.e. after I hit publish on this post). Both podcasts begin with their authors' first mature work. The most obvious difference between "The Tomb" and "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is that the latter shows an author whose style is already fully-formed and essentially at its finest, while the former is both minor and derivative. Lovecraft famously wrote in 1929 that he had created "Poe pieces" and "Dunsany pieces" but had never managed any "Lovecraft pieces." Certainly "The Tomb" is a Poe piece, and not even a terribly good one.

I don't think I've mentioned here that I'm not exactly a Lovecraft fan anymore. I admire some aspects of his work technically-- the mastery of narrative structure, the cosmic pessimism-- but it's been a while since I've been able to take a lot of pleasure from it. It's the style on a sentence-by-sentence level that I can't relate to these days. Not the lugubriousness, the antiquated diction, but the fact that Lovecraft does them badly. For all his 18th-century affectations, he can't write a 19th-century pastiche. He has a tin ear for the kind of Gothic rhythm that Poe understood instinctively.

Poe piles up febrile adjectives, nouns, and the odd adverb the way Lovecraft does. In the first paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher" alone you have dull, dark, soundless, oppressively, singularly dreary, melancholy, insufferable gloom, sternest, desolate, terrible, bleak, vacant, rank, decayed, utter depression, bitter, hideous, iciness, sinking, sickening, unredeemed dreariness... look, I'm only halfway through the paragraph, can I stop now? I'm not going to claim this isn't excessive, teetering on the edge of ridiculousness, but I still think it works. Poe isn't aping a past diction that is different from his own natural mode; he's writing contemporary language in an elevated poetic style. A phrase like "an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart" is as indicative of the intended effect as "the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn."

In "The Tomb" Lovecraft makes the mistake that many of his own imitators have made: assuming that the best way to do homage is to soak every sentence in the past master's language, failing to recognize that sometimes verbal gymnastics detract from atmosphere rather than enhancing it. There's nothing wrong with describing mundane actions and plot points in simple language. Take a phrase like "the unexpected genealogical discovery that my own maternal ancestry possessed at least a slight link with the supposedly extinct family of the Hydes." Genealogical is superfluous, and "possessed a link" is stilted. "Maternal ancestry" is passable, but what on earth would be wrong with say, "the unexpected discovery that I was descended, upon my mother's side, from the supposedly extinct" etc? That's closer to how an actual 19th-century writer might have put it.

And yet I have to say I enjoyed "The Tomb" a lot more than I expected to. As is so often the case with Lovecraft, the style recedes when the plot has drawn you in. Looking back at Poe gives you a greater appreciation of how close Lovecraft comes to successfully emulating him. It's a sign of authentic talent, as the almost-there clunkiness of Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraft pastiches was a foreshadowing of his brilliance. And, while the manner is undoubtedly Poe, the details-- the bookish, reclusive narrator, the obsession with ancestry and the historical past, the sense of a terrible beauty in the natural world, the hints of graveyard grue-- show that Lovecraft's preoccupations were already in place in his first mature work.

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is a better story than "The Tomb," and yet I got less pleasure out of this reading of it. That's partly down to simple familarity: I still enjoy James, so I've reread his canon more recently than Lovecraft's, though not all that recently. The other thing is that "The Tomb" is far enough from Lovecraft's distinctive mode that I approached it without expectation. "Scrap-Book," by contrast, is so close to first-rate James that its minor imperfections are all the more evident.

And they are minor, though given the delicate balance of a ghost story small blemishes can stand out. I don't remember who pointed out that "Good God! a hand like the hand in that picture!" is a terrible piece of dialogue at the worst possible point in the story for such a failure, but they were quite right. And the descriptions of the demon, both there and earlier, are overlong. The Jamesian haunting works by quick impressions-- "crumpled linen"-- rather than by this accumulation of almost zoological detail. How much more effective "It was drawn from the life" would be if it followed a much shorter description, one that made you feel the narrator actually despaired of conveying the image's effect in words. (I had never noticed before the echo of the "drawn from the life" line in "Pickman's Model." As likely to be coincidence as homage, but one wonders.)

The humor is slightly off as well. "I had no notion they came so dear," is in context really quite funny, but "an unbearably henpecked husband" and "a more formidable persecutor even than a termagant wife" are rather less subtly expressed than James' other forays into sexist humor. This isn't just about nitpicking. James' stories work by creating a placid atmosphere into which horrors insinuate themselves, almost gently at first, then with greater and greater force. Bland social comedy is part of that placidity, and "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" doesn't spend enough time generating the normal world before dispelling it. We're introduced to the sacristan's unease at the end of the first paragraph. The sense of exquisite progression that marks James' best work is absent.

And yet this is, indisputably, James. Not only the surface elements (the over-curious scholar, the casual erudition, the "ghost" that is actually a demon), but also and more significantly the sense of how to write what would come to be called a Jamesian story, is immediately evident. There's none of the long evolution, through homage and past traditional supernaturalism, of what would come to be called the Lovecraftian. That doesn't make James a better writer, obviously. This is a case where the destination does actually matter more than the journey. And the downside of emerging fully-formed is that you have nowhere to go but down. I have a great fondness for "A Vignette," but that's more for its apparent autobiographical elements than for its artistic merit. There won't be a "Last Stories" post in this series, both because I'll have given up and because I'll run out of James before I run out of Lovecraft, but the contrast between "A Vignette" and "The Haunter of the Dark" would be much less kind to James than the contrast between the current stories is to Lovecraft. (Yes, I know, "In the Walls of Eryx" and "The Night Ocean." Never mind.)

So that's the beginning. Next will be "Lost Hearts," never a favorite of mine, and "Dagon," of which I remember very little. Until then, don't buy any old books that are going too cheap, and stay away from locked but ajar tombs.