Tuesday, September 20, 2016

James and Lovecraft: Travelers

We're a little outside normal territory in this installment, as M. R. James takes us to Denmark and H. P. Lovecraft to the American West. The difference is that James had actually been to Viborg when he wrote about it, while Lovecraft, though he traveled more widely than his reclusive reputation would suggest, pretty much stuck to the Eastern Seaboard. Also, "Number 13" is a good story, and "The Transition of Juan Romero" is not.

"Number 13" is another example of how unusual a writer James, sometimes assumed to be a traditionalist, actually was. Haunted rooms are a dime a dozen, but the ghost of a room is something else again. And he makes it quite unsettling, to a point where the arm that comes clawing out of the door, far from being necessary, actually feels like a cheap device,irrelevant to the overall shape of the story. One of the guys on the M. R. James Podcast felt that "The Mezzotint" was weak because there was no overt threat to the present day characters, and sketched out what he thought was an improved ending where it all turns out to be the usual revenge bollocks. For me, these stories are effective because they're creepy despite containing nothing more than a changing photograph and dancing in the next room.

The opening paragraph of the story is a small masterpiece of Jamesian style. We go from the gentle description of Viborg's natural charms, to the brutal details of Erik Glipping's murder, to the ironic (and metafictional) self-deprecation of "But I am not writing a guide-book." And then, in the middle of the story, there is that very weird scrap of light poetry, as the shadowy dancer in the next becomes not ominous but amusing. And then back to ominous again, when the singing starts. The way James balances humor and horror is really quite something. It's interesting that the protagonist of the story is the narrator's cousin; there's usually more distance than that between the Jamesian protagonist and the Jamesian narrative voice, so that no emotional response is required. It's not surprising, then, that there is little evidence of personal warmth in the narrator's account: the cousin is "Anderson" and even "Mr Anderson" throughout.

One small point worth noting is the dialogue of the archivist, Herr Scavenius. Its mild syntactic quirks are a subtle reflection of his status as a non-native speaker whose English mostly comes out of books. Herr Kristensen, an innkeeper with occasional English guests, who therefore has more chance to practice the spoken language, sounds more natural. This is a level of nuance that James does not extend to English characters of the working class, and that Lovecraft does not extend to much of anyone. Which brings us, I suppose, to Juan Romero.

It's not actually a terrible story. It certainly doesn't belong in the "Early Tales" holding pen with actual early tales like "The Alchemist" and "The Beast in the Cave" and embarrassing racist, nativist tosh like "The Street." Don't get me wrong: the story is racist. "A large herd of unkempt Mexicans" is one of its politer moments. But it's not tosh, except in the sense that all Lovecraft is tosh. Lovecraft himself declined to publish it, but he did publish "The Street," so what the hell did he know?

The Western setting is a strange one for Lovecraft, who loved his gambrel-roofed New England. A couple of his revisions have Western settings drawn from the drafts and concepts supplied by his clients, but I think this is the only time a story purely by Lovecraft is set in the West. And with a British protagonist too, one who had been a soldier in India. Very jet-setting for Lovecraft, though both the West and British India are of course settings for pulpy (and racist) entertainments of different sorts. Consider the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, which trade between them on the perceived exoticism of both. A Study in Scarlet presents Mormon Utah as a sinister frontier cult, while The Sign of the Four deals with exactly the same sort of shady ex-military Englishmen as the present story.

The plot of "Juan Romero" is underdeveloped, but there's nothing wrong with it. S. T. Joshi faults the ending for being too vague, as he often does with early Lovecraft, but I think it leaves just enough ambiguity to be unsettling rather than uninteresting. For me, as for Thomas Ligotti, the formless horrors of "minor" Lovecraft are better than the cosmic aliens of the more innovative and more famous works. This, like "Dagon," is a story that you can see evolving into something significant if Lovecraft had revised and expanded it a little later in his career. As it is, it's just another quasi-juvenile curiosity. And racist. Did I mention it's pretty racist?

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