The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
Landscapes of Intertextuality/ Reflections on H.P Lovecraft and J.R.R Tolkien from three decades past..
by Philip E. Kaveny
Have you ever noticed how the eyes of a portrait seem to follow you as you walk all over the room? What I mean is as I become involved in a work of literature, I tend to interpret it as if it were meant only for me. These same eyes can be both beautiful and dark, or bloodshot and ghastly as the case may be.
Lately, I have fallen in with those that are interested in horror and those that are interested in fantasy literature. In l983 I attended the Marquette University conference (site of the J.R.R. Tolkien Archives) commerating ten years of scholarship since J.R.R. Tolkien’s death. If I learned anything at all at the conference it is that a major portion J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction was conceived and in some cases published at least 30 years before its rather runaway popular acceptance. One member of the conference noted that Tolkien’s first fictional publication pre‑dated those of Virginia Woolf. That is where I first started to think of J.R.R. Tolkien as the literary contemporary of H.P.Lovecraft.
Later that year I went to World Fantasy Convention held in Chicago over Halloween weekend. World Fantasy Convention is a non‑academic convention which takes on many of the aspects of a trade show. The big fishes come to the surface and the little fishes keep out of the way and watch. The list of attendees at World Fantasy Convention is a virtual who’s who in horror fantasy literature (Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Stephen King, and Peter Straub).
The atmosphere is much different than that of the Tolkien conference. And yet as sure as the Tolkien conference is permeated by Pre‑World War II literary events, world fantasy conventions is permeated by the publication of Weird Tales which is in turn greatly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. As my eyes follow the eyes following me around the room, I think I see something.
In 1977 when I was teaching a course on S.F. I asked Hank Luttrell to tell me a few things about the then unknown to me writer, H.P. Lovecraft, in order that I would be able to answer a friend’s question as to whether Lovecraft was a science fiction writer a fantasy writer or a sex manual. Luttrell, who used to review books for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, informed me that in the late sixties and early seventies it appeared as if H.P. Lovecraft might become as important popular and publishing phenomena as J.R.R. Tolkien had become. There are now a lot of folks who run around with Mishatonic University T‑shirts. Furthermore, at least once a month someone comes into Twentieth Century Books trying to buy a copy of The Necranomicon. So far it has not appeared for sale in the Bookman’s Weekly.
I have good fortune of knowing R. Alan Evertts, who is thorough and dedicated scholar who has offered us a number of insights into the field of fantasy literature. In Oct of 1981, Mr. Evertts gave an unpublished paper on the topic of H.P. Lovecraft as a Neo‑realists. Mr. Evertts documented how Lovecraft addressed contemporary fears and concerns in a number of his stories. He pointed out how the twenties were a period of fear and misgiving in the minds of the sensual man in the street. I would take that thought a step further and say that he touched an element of big city fear and pos‑industrial terror which made his stories as timely now as they were in the thirties. The elements that Mr. Everts has documented still drive Lovecrafts work. In his story, “Color out of Space”, Lovecraft could have been writing about PCB contamination.
What I am attempting to deal with in this essay is Lovecraft and Tolkien as part of literary milieu which has infused power and substance into fictional universes. In turn these fictional universes have been given some kind of tangible substance in these two conferences I attended. When we deal with the particular area of science fiction. and fantasy literature we are dealing with a literature which is highly derivative and interactive in its properties those that write it and those that study it and those that sell it are at least to an extent all in the same ball park and it is my contention that this ballpark represents a set of agreement or ground rules which are at least to an extent agreed upon by all of us that go play in the park.
When I started thinking about this I used the working title “The City and The Shire” as a title for this essay. I want to write about the city as both an abstraction and a location for much of the action of the Weird Tales which Lovecraft wrote. For the pulps, whose ancestors I suppose must have been the chapbooks; I suppose the existence of the city is essential for there to be a commercial market to exist for these stories. A city means trucks, distributing, and printing. It means workers with a few cents disposable income in order to buy the pulps. Having an interest in a book store I know that sometimes you are competing for people’s beer money and maybe even grocery money. If this is true in the eighties, it would have been even truer fifty years before and during the depression. While I do not want to slip into the jargon of demographics, nevertheless it is important to think about what we mean by the urban market of fifty or sixty years ago. Again we are forced to define the city by the parameters of someone else’s fictional universe.
I suppose it is fair to ask which city I am talking about. It is safe to say, at least, that I am talking about the city as seen from the bottom up. I will start my own litany of hopefully less obscure references. It is a city that existed before the narcoleptic trance was introduced by television, which may have had the effect of leveling it all off and destroying the mass markets at their lowest levels. This city existed on the god of electricity and the furnace of coal. It was peopled by lonely desperate individuals. Maybe O’Neil had some of it in mind in Long Days Journey into Night. Some of the proletarian realists such as the black writer Richard Wright may have sensed it. Baldwin was too late for it and perhaps Ralph Ellison is not accessible enough. What do I sense when I see this city; I see it through the overhead concrete abutments of elevated trains platforms. I see it in cavernous subway tunnels and closed down factories and workers afraid, hungry and out of work. Justice is Illusion and we see no classic characters in tragic roles because it seems to me that hubris does not exist without pride and thus we move from the tragic to the pathetic. In Lovecraft stories victory is not possible, the best we can hope for is escape. Where then is the appeal of these stories, why are they still read? Perhaps because some see their own dark universe reflected within. Love craft’s gods are like sharks or buzz saws, predatory, unfeeling, alien, draconian, and unforgiving, they are stern eyed and walk the night motivated by the force of their own evil. The evil can manifest itself in a number of different forms, perhaps it is a story teller telling a lost traveler about the cannibal butcher in the picture on the wall, you are given the feeling that the traveler does not escape. Soon he is to be a part of whatever it is oozing from behind the wall. It is the craft of the story teller that carries that story into the heart of the reader. I write about this city a great deal though I do not know if it still really exists. Surely it has decayed some in the last fifty or sixty years. Perhaps, in fact, Lovecraft’s city has become an historical artifact.
The shire is an unfamiliar place to me. Jared Lobdell has suggested in a soon to be published paper that the shire exists as England might have developed without Christianity. I suppose that that shire represents a possibility, a hope, and a place to save. Perhaps it is to be thought of as Erewhon, to be cherished as in a dream. This does not do justice to this province. That which it represents is one of the major hopes of my century. Evil must not have its way and the forces must be in balance. There is more to hope for than a mere possibility of escape in Tolkien’s work, there is the quest and the marvelous journey. Some of us chose to drink straight double shots of despair and others chose to mix it with a little hope.