Cthulhu

Currently translating my last article on the Cthulhu mythos, just in case…

The day I discovered Lovecraft, I was browsing the €2-books at the local bookstore. The title "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" caught my eye. I found it hilarious that someone ever dared to invent a title like this (don’t they always tell you to cut out the adjectives?), especially since the French version sounded even more contorted than the English original. At the same time, it was like seeing a collection of pleasant sounds and entrancing meanings, as if the author couldn’t make up his mind between a few beautiful worlds, and decided to use them all. Like a cake with fruit, custard, whipped cream, sponge cake, almonds, icing and cherries on top that somehow manages to be scandalously delicious.

(It was only much later that I discovered that this title isn’t from Lovecraft–which made much more sense to be, because Kadath was never the ultimate goal of Carter’s quest–anyway)

Lovecraft is one of those few writers I somewhat despised for his absurdously gothic style when I was at school (though I enjoyed his stories a lot) and them came to admire with a passion, with every new reading. The brilliance of his stories is hidden very deep under a layer of formidably bad taste. Lovecraft goes against every single piece of advice that is ever given to writers: don’t overdo the adjectives and adverbs (no comment on this one), write lively and realistic dialogue (there is almost no dialogue at all in his stories, and the little that is there always reminds me of how lonely the man must have been), cut out all unnecessary words (if I didn’t know magazines paid by the word, I would have guessed), show instead of telling (ah, but what a brilliant teller!)… Yet he somehow manages to pull it.

It took me several readings to understand. Lovecraft was a genius. At the best of times, his accumulated adjectives read like epic poetry (you know Homer didn’t bother with all that modern writer advice either). Please read that aloud if you don’t believe me:

"the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amid the muffled, maddening beat of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly and absurdly the gigantic ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other Gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathothep" (The Dream-Quest)

At the same time his sense of myth was deep indeed. He wove apocalypse with legend, the supernatural and science, in a way that was more deeply mythic than most heroic fantasy has since managed to be. There is more to myths than long-gone eras, heroes and legendary geography. It takes a whole rethinking of time and space, of the place of laymen and initiates (whose understanding of the myths will be radically different), of consequences and archetypes. Lovecraft created a universe that was mythical in everything, except in the fact that his myth crushes mankind instead of exalting it. Here lies the truly disturbing power of his prose, that the grim carnival colours of his unnecessary cherries-on-top-of-icing-on-custard-on-sponge-cake don’t always manage to hide.

Of course, it was something I would have had a hard time understanding at school. No writer is ever as hard to appreciate as the truly stylistically inept one.

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