Thursday, September 1, 2016

James and Lovecraft: "Lost Hearts" and "Dagon"

In his introduction to the anthology Ghosts and Marvels, M. R. James discussed the elements of a successful ghost story. His preference for a a placid atmosphere slowly disturbed and a setting only slightly remote are well-known; what interests me today is a more equivocal piece of advice slipped in between those two recommendations. "It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable." I'm not sure James really does this himself, unless we take "not quite practicable" as a form of ironic understatement, but he comes as close as possible in today's story, "Lost Hearts." Lovecraft's "Dagon" is also technically susceptible to a natural explanation, but again, not a convincing one.

I said yesterday that "Lost Hearts" had never been a favorite of mine. Actually it was the first James story I ever read. When I was young I had a copy of a children's horror anthology with the admirably direct title Ghosts, which brought together a bunch of public domain classics in an oversize volume with a handsome binding and very nice artwork by Walt Sturrock. (You can see his pencil drawing for "Lost Hearts" here. I recommend clicking through to check out the other illustrations as well.) The story didn't particularly catch my attention at the time, but I must have read it, because I remember associating Stephen's vision of the ghost in the disused bathroom with an abandoned bathroom in my grandparents' house. It wasn't much like the bathroom in the story-- just an old toilet-- but it was at the top of the relatively narrow and dark stairs. Was I slightly scared of it before I read the story? I don't know. I was also nervous around the bathroom in my aunt's apartment, which for some reason was up a half-flight of stairs that turned a corner, so it was out of sight in the darkness. The bathroom in the mobile home where I grew up wasn't scary, though I did have dreams where I would go in there and be addressed by a godlike voice that was, I think, assigning me tasks at which I was always found wanting. I was an odd child. What were we talking about?

Oh, right, "Lost Hearts." I really liked it this time around. It's a fairly traditional story by Jamesian standards, one of the few where the hostile presence is definitely the ghost of a person rather than a demon or unclassifiable spirit. It also has a revenge motif, which is part of why it used to leave me cold. I find the ghost story of revenge unsatisfying because it muddies the darkly numinous with petty human life, leaving a moralizing taste that's antithetical to genuine eerieness. To be truly scary, a haunting must be unfair. James' typical protagonist may be over-curious, greedy, a little pompous, but these are not failings that warrant having a demon set on you. Murderers and thieves, on the other hand, deserve what they get. And so one can never really feel implicated in a revenge story. James suggested in the preface to one of his collections that he wanted to make the reader say, "If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!" But most of us are in no danger of inadvertently becoming Mr Karswell, George Martin, or Mr Abney.

(Well, perhaps "no danger" is putting it too strongly. I can't remember who remarked that James' scholarly protagonists exist along a sliding scale that runs from the impetuous curiosity of Parkins or Paxton toward the likes of Karswell and Mr Humphreys' uncle. Certainly the quote from Mr Abney's papers, with its arrogant, pedantic description of horrors-- "the libellous phrase employed by the author of the Clementine Recognitions," "to employ a word repugnant in the highest degree to my feelings"-- are a viciously ironic commentary on scholarly self-regard and single-mindedness.)

The reason "Lost Hearts" works anyway is that its protagonist is not Mr Abney but Stephen Elliott, who has certainly done nothing to deserve what he gets. It is easy, reading this story through the lens of other tales of ghostly revenge, to imagine that the spirits of Giovanni and Phoebe have come back to save Stephen from Mr Abney's dark design. But, as C. E. Ward observes in his essay "A Haunting Presence," on closer reading that doesn't make much sense. The boy's "appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing," and his attack on Stephen's door and nightdress, make it clear that he doesn't care whose blood he draws. While Mr Abney ends up the physical victim, the mere encounter with such creatures, and the discovery of his cousin's ruthless cruelty, will surely take a psychological toll on Stephen himself. The title may have a more than literal meaning. (Readers interested in a similar story that foregrounds those psychological effects should seek out Reggie Oliver's novella "A Child's Problem," which has several echoes of "Lost Hearts" that I'm sure aren't accidental.)

If James inverts the revenge story by focusing not on the deserving victim but on an object of collateral damage, he inverts the traditional ghost by giving it a more forceful physical presence. Vengeful ghosts tend to get what they want by indirect means, as befits a shade. They scare people to death, manipulate them into falling off buildings or jumping into rivers. They force crimes into the light, as in "Martin's Close," the most genuinely traditional story James ever wrote. Perhaps they manage to do some actual violence of a delicately unspecified type. What they don't do is use "fearfully long," translucent nails to leave "a terrible lacerated wound, exposing the heart." Giovanni is more a monstrous presence than a classically ghostly one.

Another way "Lost Hearts" successfully diverges from James' usual approach is in its emphasis on the atmosphere of the surrounding landscape. James doesn't do much with nature; his hauntings take place indoors, or in outdoor settings where the focus is on the ghost and not the world through which it moves. But here we have the "pleasant impression, though tinged with the sort of melancholy appropriate to an evening in early autumn" with which the story opens, and then by contrast the "windy, noisy day, which filled the house and the gardens with a restless impression," the "strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers," of the fateful night of March 24th. It's all so subtly done that isolated quotes can't capture the overall sense of a countryside in ceaseless, mournful motion.

James himself didn't particularly like this story. It isn't clear why. All we know is that he didn't think it was worth including in his first collection, saying breezily "I don't care much about it." It was used anyway to pad out the volume. Was it too conventional for him? Too bleak? I'm sorely tempted to speculate, but I'll resist projecting anything onto the author.

Then there's "Dagon." Did I say yesterday that there was a long, tortuous evolution from the likes of "The Tomb" to the recognizably Lovecraftian story? Well, never mind that, because here is the Lovecraftian distilled into six pages. Monstrous creature mistaken for a god? Check. Horrible knowledge that has destroyed the protagonist's mind? Check. Scientific rather than supernatural framing? Check. Sense of humanity's puniness within the cosmos? Check. All that's really missing is the slow, deliberate unfolding of plot that would come in the longer stories. It's positively staggering that, having laid out his innovations in miniature here, Lovecraft would go nearly a decade before producing another story so obviously his own.

I think I had a little less fun with "Dagon" than with "The Tomb." It's the same almost-but-not-quite issue James had with "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book." "The Tomb" is derivative, lurid hokum, but it knows exactly how to be derivative, lurid hokum, and "Dagon" doesn't know how to be innovative science fiction/horror.

For one, thing it's too short. This means it lacks the accumulation of scientific, geographic, or anthropological detail that contributes so much to the major works: imagine what the Lovecraft of the early 1930s might have done with that "unprecedented volcanic upheaval." The 1917 Lovecraft just tells us "It was gross-- lots of fish parts," and then moves on. There's no time either for the gradual revelation that builds anticipation. In a longer story "they seemed to have been chiselled badly out of proportion to their scenic background" would be a sly hint coming well ahead of the climactic discovery, but here it's all of one paragraph later that the narrator discovers how correct those proportions are.

Let's talk about the narrator. His diction, while not so tangled as the conscious antiquarianism of Jervas Dudley in "The Tomb," is not really credible for a supercargo in about 1914. (That is, when "the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sunk to their later degradation." Stay classy, Howard.) In his Lovecraft biography S. T. Joshi draws a distinction between "density of idiom" and "archaism of idiom." (Am I alone in thinking that "archaism of idiom" is right up there with "agenbite of inwit" as far as the poetry of five-dollar words goes?) That's useful up to a point, but bits like "Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery" are not merely dense. Later work like At the Mountains of Madness manages density without that whiff of archaism, but here Poe has not been completely shaken off.

The ending is also limp. Obviously the narrator is hallucinating, although the prospect of Dagon squeezing its orcine bulk into a hotel hallway and knocking on the door is pretty amusing. (This opens the possibility that the whole thing has been a hallucination; there's that loophole I mentioned so many paragraphs ago.) But it's a pretty lame hallucination compared to the narrator's earlier prolixity. It distracts from rather than complementing the vision that immediately precedes it, of the nameless sea-things rising to dispossess a ravaged humanity. The transition at the end of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" has always been too rapid for my liking, but it's much better handled than this.

And again, all that notwithstanding I did get a kick out of this one. There's stylistic excess here, but I like the chill simplicity of "...and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then." Right from the start Lovecraft liked him some slimy, decaying, pulpy (in both senses of the word) horrors. He punctured the largely psychological melancholy of Poe with the literary and metaphorical visceral, much as James tore open the delicacy of the Victorian ghost story with Giovanni's long fingernails.

That's all today, I hope. Next up are "The Mezzotint," once my favorite James story, and "Polaris," which, um, is definitely a thing that exists. Until then, don't visit your cousin when it's past your bedtime, and if some Germans capture you, maybe just stay on the sea-raider with them.

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