Skip to content

C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me

22 April 2018

 

I’ve just been reading a blog post by a namesake of mine, which set me thinking about how the order in which one reads things could affect the way in which one interprets them.

This other Stephen Hayes discovered me on Twitter a few years ago when someone made a comment to him on something I wrote that didn’t seem to fit, and we’ve followed each other there, and I’ve linked to his blog about apples. But this time he was writing as a guest blogger on The Oddest Inkling, and I felt more able to comment on it than on apples. H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and Me. | The Oddest Inkling:

I became addicted instantly [to H.P. Lovecraft]. Like my beloved Tolkien, and to a lesser extent Mervyn Peake (The Gormenghast Trilogy) Lovecraft had created an imaginary world which was strange and different. Unlike Tolkien, whose ‘sword and sorcerer’ adventures were in far off Lothlorien, The Misty Mountains, Rohan and Atlantis, Lovecraft’s world was rooted in our own time and space–Antarctica, New Zealand, the fictional New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, the swamps of Louisiana. But just round the corner from those sleepy towns and ordinary offices and universities, lay dark, hidden manuscripts and nameless horrors. Furthermore, these were horrors against which there was no defence, no God or hero to deliver you from the attentions of the mad gods of space, Nyarlathotep the crawling chaos, the evil rat Brown Jenkin, the noxious Yog-Sothoth who froths in primal slime, or countless other malign entities. A grim universe indeed, of which I will offer a handful of examples.

Of the authors he mentions, I encountered C.S. Lewis first. My mother had some theological works of Lewis, which as a teenager I thought rather dull. But she also had Perelandra, which piqued my interest, so I read Out of the silent planet and That hideous strength as well. On my first reading I regarded them more as science-fiction adventure stories than anything else. Then an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, lent my mother All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams and I read it as well, and worked my way through all the Charles Williams books.

A few years later a friend lent me The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and I worked my way through the Narnia books as well. But by then I had had more experience of studying theology, and had become involved in the strange battles between the Liberal Party and the Security Police. Evil in its political form was much more existentially real, and Maugrim the wolf, chief of the witch’s secret police, was existentially real. Narnia might be in an imaginary world in another dimension, but was in thrall to evil just as South Africa was to the ideology of apartheid. As one child remarked, when her sister had told that it wasn’t real, it was in a book, someone wrote it, “Yes, but what it means is real.”

In 1966 I went to study in England, and a friend who had encountered Tolkien told me about his books, and when I saw The Hobbit I bought it, and immediately went on to The Fellowship of the Ring. I finished The two towers one evening, and could not wait for the bookshops to open the next day, so borrowed The Return of the King from a fellow student, and never bought my own copy. The friend who had told me about Tolkien, John Henderson, also told me that Lewis, Williams and Tolkien knew each other, and were part of a group called the Inklings. I hadn’t known that, and for me Tolkien was the third Inkling.

In all this, I knew nothing of H.P. Lovecraft, though I did have a taste for horror stories. Most of the ones I knew were in a three-volume set of books called Detection, mystery, horror edited by Dorothy Saywers (who I later discovered was an “almost Inkling”) — see A Taste for Horror, and Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Horrors, Kidlit & more.

In 1971, when I was living in Windhoek, Namibia, I bought a book of horror stories, The abominations of Yondo, by Clark Ashton Smith. It was a book of short stories, and I was expecting something like the stories I had read in the collection edited by Dorothy Sayers. I was sadly disappointed.

The few stories I did read were badly written. They tried to create an atmosphere of horror by piling up adjectives upon adjectives, so that they lost all meaning. That was where I first encountered the word “eldritch”, which has ever since then been for me the mark of bad horror writing.

I put the book back on the shelf and forgot about it.

Twenty years later I found Stephen King, who wrote somewhat better horror stories, and avoided words like “eldritch”. Some of his books seemed much better than others. But Stephen King’s stories seemed rather nihilistic. There were evil monsters that were just evil. More on that in another post on Monsters and Horror.

And then in an online discussion forum on New Religious Movements an old friend, Professor Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary, mentioned fictional religions that had become real. He mentioned the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and noted that a lot of them were dreck, but some had some flashes of brilliance. He said that some believed that the Necronomicon was a real book, that the Miskatonic University actually existed, and practised a religion of worshipping some of Lovecraft’s evil creatures, like Yog Sothoth.

I was sufficiently curious to go to the university library and take out books of stories by Lovecraft. The first one I read was At the mountains of madness which didn’t seem to be bad, and claimed to be the completion of an incomplete story by Edgar Allen Poe, which I also read. I read a few more, and also came across the dreck. Lovecraft was far, far more nihilistic than Stephen King. Reading Lovecraft actually helped me to appreciate Stephen King more, as in most of Kiung’s stories the focus was not on the evil monsters themselves, but on the response of people to them. His books said nothing about the nature of evil, but rather how the response of people could determine whether they were overwhelmed by it or overcame it. Evil could be resisted. Lovecraft was far more pessimistic than that. But even when King’s writing was pessimistic, as in his story The Mist, the writing was much better than Lovecraft’s.

I went back to the book by Clark Ashton Smith, and found that it was composed of stories in the Lovecraftian style. I was a bit more appreciative after having read Lovecraft. But I still found the piling up of adjectives irritating.

But when I compare my experience to that of my namesake, I see that Lovecraft influenced him far more deeply and ominously than me. I attribute this, at least in part, to the order in which we read the books. I approached Lovecraft having read Lewis, Williams and Tolkien from within a Christian worldview, and so regarded Lovecraft’s writing as nihilistic and of lesser value. We had different frames of reference from which to interpret what we read. I could understand why he burnt his Lovecraft books, because of the way they had influenced him. I would not burn mine (not that I actually have any), but might refer to them occasionally to understand the nature of the nihilism that I reject.

But I’ve just bought a copy of Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons, which is supposed to be the original nihilist work, so perhaps after reading that I’ll change my mind.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 April 2018 9:03 am

    You can find the original post I was responding to, on the original blog here H P Lovecraft, C S Lewis compared and contrasted | Old Hampshire C S Lewis Society. I’ve added it to my blogroll because there are other posts that are worth reading there too.

  2. 23 April 2018 1:00 pm

    Ha, very cool! I love book “conversion” stories.

  3. 24 April 2018 2:32 am

    Reblogged this on The Oddest Inkling and commented:
    Check out this post by a *different* Steve Hayes in response to the guest post by Stephen Hayes that I’ve just recently put up! And revel in the dance of responsive, relational internet-writing.

  4. 24 April 2018 9:28 am

    H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (and Robert E. Howard, of Conan/sword & sorcery fame) were both important contributors to Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s & 30s. They were influenced by Poe and Dunsany before them, and August Derleth and many others afterward wrote in the same “Cthulhu Mythos” universe. Innsmouth Free Press still publishes in this sub-genre down to the present day–I have a story in their Sword & Mythos anthology (http://fiction.grahamjdarling.com/sword-mythos/), where heroes face horrors in a variety of historical settings.

    After you’re done with Turgenev, you might try Dostoyevsky’s anti-nihilistic novels “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Kamarazov”.

  5. 24 April 2018 9:31 am

    H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (and Robert E. Howard, of Conan/sword & sorcery fame) were both important contributors to Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s & 30s. They were influenced by Poe and Dunsany before them, and August Derleth and many others afterward wrote in the same “Cthulhu Mythos” universe. Innsmouth Free Press still publishes in this sub-genre down to the present day–I have a story in their Sword & Mythos anthology, where heroes face horrors in a variety of historical settings.

    After you’re done with Turgenev, you might try Dostoyevsky’s anti-nihilistic novels “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Kamarazov”.

    • 25 April 2018 5:36 am

      As with Lewis and Lovecraft, I’ve read The brothers Karamazov and Crime and punishment twice each. I learned about Fathers and sons from the introduction to one of them, so there’s another case of a different reading order.

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds permalink
    25 April 2018 6:25 pm

    Thanks for this! I hope to catch up on the three earlier posts you link in it, soon! About all I remember about Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons is how boring it was (unlike as much Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov I’ve read so far).

  7. 30 September 2018 7:17 pm

    This was great. Interesting fact Tolkien refused to have his books on paperback. But lost to a legal loop hole of some sort

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: