H.P. Lovecraft: The Spectral Art

“Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction.”
– H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft broke the modern Weird Tale into four distinctive types: (1) the Mood Tale, (2) the Pictorial Tale, (3) the General Tale, and, (4) the Dramatic tableau. He affirmed the idea that the Weird Tale fit two basic categories: “those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.”[1]

He also discovered five distinct elements within all weird tales:

a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality;
b) the general effects or bearings of the horror;
c) the mode of manifestation – object embodying the horror and phenomenon observed;
d) the types of fear – reaction to the horror;
e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

The most important thing for him was  “mood” and “atmosphere”:

“One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan-fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to over come, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.”

The influx within the real of the marvelous is the central theme of the weird:

“This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately – with a careful emotional “build-up” – else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.”

Lovecraft tells us that he chose to write weird stories “because they suit my inclination best – one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.”

Weird tales emphasize horror and fear “because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.”

Time is the key to the mystery of the weird tale: “The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.”

Lovecraft’s emphasis on the “the strange reality of the unreal” seems for me pertinent. I was reminded of one of Thomas Ligotti’s tales, Vastarian where the protagonist discovers the Book of Books, the one book that is the “thing itself”, the book is a doorway, a portal to the realms of the Unreal:

Each day thereafter he studied the hypnotic episodes of the little book; each night, as he dreamed, he carried out shapeless expeditions into its fantastic topography. To all appearances it seemed he had discovered the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.”[2]

Both Lovecraft and Ligotti, his ephebe, have a profound hatred and disgust of the real world, this material world of our bric-a-brac lives, yet each made his ascent, his quest toward the unreal in his own unique way. Lovecraft used the art of “subtle suggestionimperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal.” While Ligotti has always made an assault on the unreal through the direct use of language as a weapon, as a vehicle for incarnation, for cutting the thin threads between the real and unreal worlds that surround us, renting the veil between our world and that Other One that lies just Outside our vision. As he says of the Book Vastarien found:

“It seemed to be a chronicle of strange dreams. yet somehow the passages he examined were less a recollection of unruled visions than a tangible incarnation of them, not mere rhetoric but the thing itself.”[3]

This vision of language as incarnation rather than recollection is profound. Ligotti reminds us elsewhere that to him it “is not whether the spectre is within or outside of a character… but the power of the language and images of a story and the ultimate vision that they help to convey. For all that, everything that happens in every story ever written is merely an event in someone’s imagination – exactly as are dreams, which take place on their own little plane of unreality, a realm of nowhere in which outside and inside are equivalent ontological status, where within is without and both are phantasmal in essence.”[4]

James Trafford commenting on the rift between the real and unreal discovers that “the secure foundations of the phenomenal and the real dissolve, not into a universal solipsism, but into a rigorous realism; ‘it is not, in the end, a replacement of the real world by the unreal, but a sort of turning the real world inside out to show that it was unreal all along’.”[5]

This is the conclusion that Lovecraft himself draws in his tale “The Tomb“:

“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.”

Is this not the central theme of Lovecraft’s cosmic tale, “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), in which “a group of scientists run up against the limit of their understanding when they analyze a meteor with physical and aesthetic properties never seen before.[6] Something so unreal, something that confounds our knowledge of science and the physcial world leaves us full of dread and cosmic fear. “It was just a colour out of space—,” the narrator concludes at the tale’s end, “a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”

In her study of the the unreal, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially the Fantastic, Christine Brooke-Rose makes the issue of the real and unreal exchanging places a central issue: “Like partners in a country dance the crucial concepts of reality and unreality exchange places, the unreal becoming real while the real becomes unreal.”(p 446) Derrida in his Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the International, told us “There has never been a scholar who, as such, does not believe in the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being (‘to be or not to be,’ in the conventional reading), in the opposition between what is present and what is not, for example in the form of objectivity. Beyond this opposition, there is, for the scholar, only the hypothesis of a school of thought, theatrical fiction, literature, and speculation” (Specters 11).

But what if Lovecraft and Ligotti represent just such a move, what if they are such scholars of nothingness and night, who have broken down that boundary separating the unreal from the real? What if they have created within the body of their work something on the order of a new ‘Anontology’ a “kind of crypto-ontology, liberating the force of ontological thought from its self-imposed criterion of sufficency to the Real.” [7] What if the foundations of science had found such monstrosites? “Could there not be ontological voids or black holes? Could there not be entities that are entirely vaccuous to the extent that they deny Being to those entities around them, that is, that like black holes, actually exist not only as void in reality but destroy existence itself?”[8]

With Lovecraft’s love of ruins and great and mysterious cities we might begin to see what Eric L. Santer terms ‘spectral materialism’: “‘Spectral materialism’ refers to responsiveness to past suffering as it persists in the ‘setting’ of human history, in cities, in ruins of buildings ; as well as the capacity to stay near the unredeemed suffering, the material hauntedness of another person’s ‘spirit world’ that remains unarticulated, enigmatic, and thus inaccessible to empathy.”[9] This spectral affect haunts us as an “act of bearing witness to the perpetual ‘mythic violence’ (Benjamin) of the rise and fall of states, institutions, commercial trades, each of which leaves enigmatic material deposits in persons, as their ‘signifying stress,’ their distortions, woundings, disfigurations, or ‘cringe’ (Kafka) effect.”[10]

In Spectral Dilemma, Quentin Meillassoux tell us that a spectre is a “dead person who has not been properly mourned, who haunts us, bothers us, refusing to pass over to the ‘other side’, where the dearly-departed can accompany us at a distance sufficient for us to live our own lives without forgetting them, but also without dying their death – without being the prisoner of the repetition of their final moments.”[11] But what if that spectre was the Big Other: those fabrications, myths, theological musings of the mad and religious? He tells us that essential specters are “those of terrible deaths: premature deaths, odious deaths, the death of a child, the death of parents knowing their children are destined to the same end – and yet others. Natural or violent deaths, deaths which cannot be come to terms with either by those whom they befall, or by those who survive them. Essential spectres are the dead who will always refuse to ‘pass over’, who obstinately cast off their shroud to declare to the living, in spite of all evidence, that they still belong amongst them. Their end attests to no meaning, brings with it no completion. These are not necessarily shadows who declare their revenge, but shadows who cry out beyond all vengeance. Whoever commits the imprudence of lending an ear to their call risks passing the rest of his life hearing their complaint.”[11]

I say again, what if that spectre is the Death of God (that Nietzsche proclaimed) haunting us as the spectre of our atavistic thought forms – those grand archetypal powers that reside just outside the range of our limited consciousness, haunting us like ghosts on the edge of reason. As one writer states “spectres are unsettling because they are that which can not, by their very nature (or lack of nature), ever be fully seen; gaps in Being, they can only dwell at the periphery of the sensible, in glimmers, shimmers, suggestions. It is not accidental that the word ‘haunting’ often refers to that which inhabits us but which we cannot ever grasp; we find ‘haunting’ precisely those Things which lurk at the back of our mind, on the tip of our tongue, just out of reach.”[12]

As Arthur & Marilouise Kroker put it “existential anxiety was the real hauntology of modernity. The gradual coming into mass consciousness of the sense of the absurd — the late modernist acknowledgement in the spheres of knowledge, power, sex, desire — of the truth of that which had always been disavowed and thus acknowledged, instantly gave rise in our lifetime to the spectacular death — in rhetoric, at least, if not necessarily in fact — of the great referentials.”[13]

It is those “great referentials”, the great mythic powers of our human past that have become spectres haunting us like forbidden traces of a delirious thought, reminding us of something forver out of reach just on the other side of the mind’s absolute limit. Maybe the greatest spectre is the revivified zombie of our own subjectivity lost in the maze of data:

“Bored with the logic of presence, the ablated neural mechanisms of the networked subject sift in deepest fascination among the debris of the human remains of the species — shards of memory, strands of forgotten codes, dead media, broken thoughts, book after book of fatally overcome faces. It is this hint of death that drives the necropolis of software. Feasting on the remains, the massive accumulation that is dead information is finally free to express itself as a pure technical will, and nothing besides. Literally, data today is a nervous breakthrough. Refusing stability, never stationary, data is condemned to a cycle of endless circulation.”

Or, maybe, as Lovecraft once wrote: “Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.”[14] Even stronger is his forcasting of our posthuman sciences: “Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species — if separate species we be — for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” [15]

What wisdom is left for such as us in a realm of the real become unreal? I leave you with that last will and testament of the narrator from The Call of Cthulhu: “I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”

1 Notes on Writing Weird Fiction
2 The Nightmare Factory (1996) p 187
3 ibid p 186
4 The Language of Nightmare
5 Collapse IV, The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood, p 203
6 A Mountain Walked or Stumbled: Madness, Apocalypse, and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (2004)
7 On Spectral Realism
8 ibid.
9 On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald By Eric L. Santner
[10] Ars Disputandi Volume 7 (2007) Alyda Faber: Review of On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald
11 Collapse IV
12 k-punk Hauntology Now
13 Code Drift
14 “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” in Pine Cones, Vol. 1, No. 6 (October 1919)
15 “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – written 1920; first published in The Wolverine, No. 9 (March 1921)

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