Friday, February 17, 2012

Lovecraft 101 - Dr Samuel Johnson and Polaris

Two strange tales this time as they are really short. Make sure to check out the second story and the illustration after the jump.

The Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson
The tale of Dr. Johnson is probably the biggest example that not everything that HPL wrote was a treasure. In fact most printed collections of his work do not even include this short. That isn’t to say anyone is missing much by skipping over it.
Reminiscence is a strange little tale with no discernable plot. It is written in a bizarre archaic memoir form, told and originally published under the pseudonym Humphrey Littlewit. The name is the biggest clue. This is meant as a joke. In fact Lovecraft is actually making fun of himself and his own writing. Poking, lightheartedly, at his tendency to write in an older style, not always popular with his contemporaries, and that his demeanor was often that of grave seriousness.
The writing style and odd use of colloquial spellings and random capitalization are certainly something to get used to when reading this short story. But Lovecraft is pushing the style he chooses to its extremes for a more comic effect. And while HPL is certainly not one I think of for his wit (in fact very little wit, haha), it is hard not to chuckle or at least smile when reading this tale aloud or silently in your head, and slowly that pretentious Boston Brahmin accent creeps up.
The complete text can be found here: HPL’sThe Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson

Illustration by Jeff Powers © 2012


Polaris is a hard story to define within the greater collection of HPL’s work. It is in part a fantasy, a poem and even an autobiography of Lovecraft’s own heart. The narrator tells of his woes as he painfully watches his people go off to war. Lovecraft paints a familiar and yet alien world befitting what would later become the pulp novels of high fantasy (one of HPL’s closest colleagues and literary group members was Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian). But the Poe-influenced prose really stands to allegorize the feelings HPL had as his friends and acquaintances went off to fight in WWI.
Polaris also marks the introduction of some new elements into what I will call the Lovecraftian vocabulary. Those elements that become crucial in creating the stories that we instantly associate with Lovecraft and will be felt in hundreds of pastiches created long after his career. In Polaris we see the first mention of a great ancient text, the Pnakotic Manuscripts. HPL loved the power of the written word, and knew that given the right opportunity could hold great influence over man. Many arcane texts get mentioned by Lovecraft throughout his stories, and perhaps that is one of the best examples of what he has done for genre fiction writing. Not only does he create the words we see on the page, but he creates the essence of words we never see. Great texts of unknown knowledge, that he makes believable enough for us too as readers to desire to see those lost works. Powerful arcane tomes will show up time and again in the stories to come.
And lastly is a subject I am usually hesitant to approach when speaking of Lovecraft, but in this reread I will be addressing it head on. Not apologizing for it, for it is really inexcusable. It is the issue of race. It is hardly a concern in this story, but it will soon become one. I will state, I love the writing and the creative mind of Lovecraft, that is not the same as saying I love or agree with everything he said or thought. Yes, it is a sign of the times he was living in, but really that shouldn’t be an excuse either. Lovecraft was racist, and it does show up in many of his works. I will be pointing it out, not as a judgment of the works, but merely as a further investigation into the work itself. There are however some grey areas here. Lovecraft did love culture, though he often looked down at others that he thought were a bit more primal, the idea of the savage tribe was nothing new in that time, or his beloved gothic era. So culture does play a heavy part in these tales, and in fact it is often the case that the terror the protagonist feels is often because of his own xenophobia.
Polaris is our introduction to the esoteric tribes of the north, as well as the land of Lomar, which will appear in later tales. It is a mythic land that rose from an ancient sea then was encased in the growing ice of the northern arctic. It is obvious that these tribes are influenced by the lack of knowledge generally known about Inuit people. But I am also not entirely convinced that the “squat, yellow creatures” referred to in the story are actually the Eskimo. For in other tales we are told that the ancient yellow creatures are slaughtered countless centuries ago by an invading group of long-armed demons known as the Gnophkehs. So if they were all killed off, how could they be the contemporary tribes of the north? So perhaps HPL escapes into one of those grey areas in this story. Trust me, it isn’t the case in others. But it gives us a good opportunity to discuss some of this now in the context of a simpler story where I would have had a bit less to otherwise write about.
The complete text can be found here: HPL’s Polaris

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