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shocking horror (but not the way I expected)

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shocking horror (but not the way I expected)

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I was thinking about Cthulhu recently. Shamefully, I believe that the things I have picked up about his works have come solely from subsequent homages, I having read none of the original materials. That being the case, I felt that I should, oh, yanno, maybe perhaps read some actual Lovecraft. To start, I checked out The Best of H. P. Lovecraft.

I just read the first story, "The Rats in the Walls." I did not find it all that eerie. I can blame some of this on the Tolkien effect, in that descendents of his works are more palatable to me than this seminal form, due to refinements of the techniques and my own jaded viewpoint. There is also the language of this story - to continue the comparison, it was not LOTR-clonky but in some ways it was worse; for example, there's not a single quotation mark to be seen, and the sparse bits of dialogue are all told anecdotally by the main character. Knowing how unreliable a reporter the average human is, this is a more realistic portrayal of human memory than would be pages and pages of exact quotes, but even so, I could really do with some people talking to each other. Honorable mention even goes to the culture gap between "modern" when written and modern now. This story is a hundred years old; this matters for "weird tales," unlike for total fantasy, which escapes much of the risk of becoming dated. Bierce suffers similarly, though I think his stories were stronger than this particular Lovecraft tale.

Those are pretty broad issues, though, and I will know more about how much they apply to his body of work as I read more of the stories in the book. The main problem I had with reading this story was very specific, in the person of "my old black cat, whose moods I know so well:"

The following day a servant complained of restlessness among all the cats in the house. He came to me in my study, a lofty west room on the second story, with groined arches, black oak panelling, and a triple Gothic window overlooking the limestone cliff and desolate valley; and even as he spoke I saw the jetty form of Nigger-Man creeping along the west wall and scratching at the new panels which overlaid the ancient stone."

Now, from the first time the cat appeared, I was torn. On the one hand, I am a librarian at heart, and I feel strongly about the preservation of artistic endeavors in their original form - I am incensed by censorship and I think that Bowdlerization differs from bookburning only in degree. By all means, bracket things with rhetorical criticism, in fact, PLEASE do, but do NOT try to pretend that "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is just a misspelling of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." The past informs the present, and looking at what USED to be acceptable seems to me to be a far better way to show how racism or sexism or any institutionalized -ism works than harping on and on about privilege in debate (my general feeling about privilege is yes, it's real, but the audience who most needs to hear about it is not listening, and I feel battered to the point of oh my stars and garters shut UP about it). I would feel about the same if I learned that this story had been edited to conform to modern sensibilities as I did that the first Harry Potter book was rendered from UK English to American English - a combination of insult, horror, and amusement at the stupid.

On the other hand, oh my GOODNESS could I not get past it. Every time the cat did something else, I flinched a little bit farther away from willing suspension of disbelief, and that kitty was prominent in this story. There were other cats, but they were only mentioned. I resented them for that. There weren't any actual black people in the main story, only in the backstory, 50 years prior, as slaves on the family plantation that was burned when the main character was a child. There wasn't even a hint of anger at them or anything, this was just, "Hm, what should I name the black cat? Oh, of course!" I didn't hate the character, as it was an outcropping of institutionalized racism rather than overt hatefulness, but ick ick ick. Cumulatively, it was so offputting that by the end of the story I didn't care WHAT happened to the main character.

Googling "Lovecraft racist" was... edifying and, uh, scholarly. His racism seems to be fairly widely acknowledged but it surprised me, as I hadn't heard it said of him. Then again, I can't think of anything I know about him as an author that didn't come from a recent webcomic find called Lovecraft Is Missing - and it's, mm, got at most a tenuous relationship with reality (it's really fun!). All I ever remember hearing about when it comes to Lovecraft is the stories - mostly the Elder Gods, with an occasional Thing on a Doorstep or somesuch.

So. I guess forewarned is forearmed, at least for the stories I will subsequently read. The book does not have a bibliography, so I don't know how it's arranged, and probably won't research before reading. Meanwhile, the articles I skimmed about the author did not agree about his openmindedness regarding his views, so that's something I'll be thinking about as I read, and making my own judgement - like all of us, he was a product of his times, but not every product is a good one.

At some point, though, I hope to be enveloped by story, since that's largely my purpose. *sigh*
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