Wednesday, September 7, 2016

James and Lovecraft: Classy

H. P. Lovecraft was a consummate bigot. So much is known. What is insufficiently understood is that he was not merely a racist and a xenophobe. To put it bluntly, he hated "inferior" white people just about as much as he hated everyone who wasn't white. His letters to Robert E. Howard, which among many better things are a sickening record of what happens when two bigots find common cause and really get going, are full of a need to classify different white ethnic groups by how close they come to the Anglo-Saxon pinnacle. And, like another American original known by his initials, H. L. Mencken, he was a firm believer in good and bad stock within an ethnicity. Which brings us to "Beyond the Wall of Sleep."

This is a better story technically than what has preceded it, and a good example of what I was talking about when I said it wasn't the style but the quality that I objected to in "The Tomb." Yes, the narrator of this story is incredibly pompous, and yes, his word choice and diction are a little unlikely in the early 20th century, but the flow of the language is much more natural than before: it's a difficult style but not a bad one. And the narrative is well-paced, with evocative hints of Slater's dream-world that are, if anything, better than the whole that is subsequently revealed. This is the first time that Lovecraft manages the gradual revelation of the supernatural that's so central to his modern reputation.

There is, as the guys in The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast point out, a kind of poignancy in this concept: the communion between two intellects trapped in frail and insufficient human forms. One thinks of Lovecraft, who at this time had few if any in-person friends but was already a great correspondent and a member of the amateur journalism movement, reaching out and communing as the narrator and Slater's inhabitant do. Reductive psychobiography is grating, but Lovecraft by his own account often felt like a man out of his own time.

But of course what draws your attention is the narrator's unbelievable contempt for Joe Slater. I would list all his insulting turns of phrase, but I don't have that kind of time. Here's a flavor of it: "strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock... who correspond exactly to the decadent element of 'white trash' in the South." We get scarcely a sentence in reference to Slater without some demeaning adjective: "debased," "filthy," "inferior," "pitiful," and so on. In a modern story this arrogance would be part of a character study of the narrator, whose own mental state would be called into question. There's no such complexity in "Beyond the Wall of Sleep": we're simply meant to take the narrator's self-regard at face value.

People like to talk about "separating the man from the work" when they deign to address bigotry in classic artists, but this story is as good an indicator as any of how facile that notion is. A person's worldview is not a series of discrete ideologies; it all blends together. The sense of isolation and discontent that powers many of Lovecraft's tales is inextricably bound up with his idea of himself as "unmixed English gentry" and therefore superior to virtually everyone else on the planet. There is of course something inherently defensive about that idea, the claiming of racial superiority to distract from questions of individual merit. The way "The Outsider" reverses this dynamic, making its protagonist the only monster in a world of normal people, suggests certain dualities in Lovecraft's self-conception. But we're drifting toward psychobiography again.

Issues of class superiority also pop up in "The Ash-Tree," an odder story than I had remembered. The guys in The M. R. James Podcast have a bit of a debate about what's happening and why. The problem, I think, is not a lack of explanations but an abundance of possible ones. The strangeness begins in the account of Mrs Mothersole's trial. James does a fair amount of throat-clearing about whether witch trials were entirely an irrational phenomenon, or if there might have been some real witches. This is obviously to do with the tension between his awareness as an intelligent observer that witch trials were horrifying nonsense, and his need as a ghost story writer to have an actual witch. But this hemming and hawing sets an ambiguous tone that will remain throughout the story.

James then goes out of his way to tell us that Mrs Mothersole is "rather better off and in a more influential position" than most accused witches. I imagine this is said to make clear that the kind of social anxieties and power dynamics visible in actual witch trials were not a factor here. And yet you have to wonder about Sir Matthew's evidence. I don't mean that he might be lying; it's perfectly obvious that he's not. But you do wonder about the implications of that night when he went right up to Mrs Mothersole's door and, finding her not obviously engaged in witchcraft, "had no good explanation to offer of his visit." I don't quite believe that James is alluding to more gossipy interpretations that might be placed on these events, but it does niggle. Nor can I quite escape the impression that the description of Sir Matthew's response to the whole affair, with the capper "as any reasonable man must have done," has an air of irony about it, of protesting too much. But perhaps I'm only projecting.

Certainly we're never really invited to sympathize with Sir Matthew, or with Sir Richard. It's easier to feel bad for the cat at the end of the story than for either of the two humans. The immediate follow-up to "they found their master dead and black" is not anything mournful but a brisk "So much you have guessed." (I love that line, by the way. For the way it casually tugs at suspension of disbelief, and for its knowing wink at readers who might have thought they'd outsmarted the writer by guessing his plot twist. The Simpsons once described marriage as "a beautiful thing, but also a constant battle for moral superiority." So too is the reader/writer relationship, with each trying to get one up on the other.) And all we see Sir Richard do is ignore the sensible advice of his social inferiors to form an immediate friendship with a stranger based on ancient family ties.

All this is coincidence, probably. The value of the folk wisdom of the lower classes is a trope in supernatural stories, and James was hardly any kind of revolutionary. But what is on the surface a superficial revenge yarn keeps spinning off questions, if only because James keeps piling up ominous indicators and coincidences without ever stringing them together into a full explanation. Why do Mrs Mothersole and her spiders strike when they do? Were they stirred up by the removal of Mrs Mothersole's grave (not that she was in there)? Were they waiting for a Crome visit, to enhance the overall narrative synchronicity? Could they only get into the room that's right next to the ash-tree (and if so, how were they "rattl[ing] about his window" in the other bedroom)? Never mind. This is a yarn, and while James' stories are in some ways deeper than they appear, we're not going to recover a secret plot underneath the obvious one.

Other stray observations:

This is the first story to show off James' great capacity to mimic period prose. The excerpt from Crome's papers is quite something. 

The end of the first paragraph is interesting. Are we to imagine that the actual M. R. James wanted a house like that? He seemed pretty happy at Eton and King's. Or is this simply a picturesque notion, to lull the reader before GIANT HAIRY SPIDERS start poking their limbs in?

I also find myself wondering if Mrs Mothersole's sort-of curse (which implies that she has pretty specific visions of the future) is a conscious echo of Sarah Good's "God will give you blood to drink," or if gallows curses from witches were common enough that James had some other source in mind. Good's reputed words were, of course, an inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables.

I think that's all this time. Next up are "Number 13" and "The Transition of Juan Romero." The latter is a story so dire Arkham House stuck in it an "Early Tales" section at the end of its minor Lovecraft collection Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, alongside "The Street," easily the worst story Lovecraft ever wrote, even though neither is actually all that early. So, um, fortunately "Number 13" is pretty good as I recall.

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