Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: Weird Tales of Modernity

Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft by Jason Ray Carney. 197 pages. McFarland & co., 2019. $39.95

Four score and two years, hundreds of essays and articles, and at least a dozen full-length books later, academia is still struggling to come to grips with H. P. Lovecraft and the remarkable posthumous success of the man and his fiction. The same can be said for Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, who if they have achieved less name recognition, are nonetheless incredibly influential writers in contemporary fantasy, horror, and pop culture who are still read, referenced, parodied, and pastiched today. Together, these three writers form a node of association, both in terms of literary output (all three contributed to what has become the Cthulhu Mythos) and their market (all three wrote for Weird Tales).

Jason Ray Carney’s interest is less on the shared mythology of their fiction than the shared context that Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft were operating within and influenced by. Literary immortality is not the usual fate for Weird Talers. Pulp authors are generally forgotten. Pulp fiction is popular, ephemeral, and by many critical standards contains no more literary value than the cheap pulpwood paper it was printed on. Serious authors generally did not write for the pulp magazines; gaining academic attention for what made Weird Tales different has been an uphill battle for decades.

Which is as close to the central tenet or take-away of Weird Tales of Modernity as anything else: academics should turn their critical gaze to pulp fiction, and not reserve judgment or analysis only for “artistic literary fiction.”

This is an academic text, and the intended audience are not necessarily pulp scholars, who might quibble over certain fine points of dialogue and approach and get lost in the four-dollar-words and have to pause to remember what ekphrasis, imbrication, and de-reification mean. This is aimed primarily for professors and graduate students, the kind of folk that might need an introduction to pulp fiction in terms they understand—the technical language of folks that earnestly read and discuss philosophy and literary criticism.

There are three essential points on this book, which are woven together rather than addressed as three distinct and self-contained ideas: 1) Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft were influenced by modernism in their contemporary culture; 2) the three authors expressed this interaction in their fiction in Weird Tales as a form of “shadow modernism”; and 3) Weird Tales was uniquely suited as a vector for this kind of fiction.

Carney does not attempt an exhaustive proof of any of these particular points via minute survey of the existing literature; Weird Tales of Modernity is more of a conversation, expressing general ideas and then following them up with specific examples in the life and fiction of the “Weird Tales three.” His particular interests focus on ekphrasis (the vivid description of an object or work of art) which is characters of their work and modernity (the particular re-examination of form and technique in music, art, and literature that occurred around the turn of the 19th century to the mid-20th).

There is certainly meat for such work: Lovecraft et al. specifically discussed various modernist writers and artists in their letters, they had brushes with various contemporary artists, writers, and publications associated with modernism. That these remarks and encounters were often critical is not damaging to Carney’s thesis; a writer can be shaped by what they react against as much as any other influence. A useful companion work for this kind of analysis is Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012).

Whether the readers will whole-heartedly agree with Carney’s critical analysis is another matter. Carney’s individual takes on specific works or perceived themes in Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft have to be evaluated and digested. Some assertions like “Cthulhu Is Beautiful,” which comes at the end of a brief analysis regarding Lovecraft’s ekphrastic efforts in “The Call of Cthulhu” and a discussion of Kant and Burke’s definitions of beauty and the sublime are fairly easy to accept. The assertion in “Sword and Sorcery and Anti-Intellectualism” that Howard’s heroes are deliberately anti-intellectual, by contrast, feels like it needs more nuanced treatment—Conan the Cimmerian being, as Frank Coffmann put it, a “Bright Barbarian” who can speak multiple languages, fills in the lonely hours by drawing in the borders of far countries on maps, knows the works of sages dead for 1,500 years, and holds poets as greater than kings—and that’s before getting into the conversations between Howard and Lovecraft in their letters on the exact subject.

I’m quibbling. That’s a pulp scholar approach, trying to nail specifics down to a line in a letter somewhere. There isn’t much in the book to quibble with; break through the ice of literary theory and its vocabulary and the actual points Carney makes are fairly succinct and largely inarguable. There is definitely more to be said about how each of these writers (and Weird Tales as a whole, which consisted much more of these three writers) interacted with modernism, but this is an introduction to the subject, not an end-point.

Weird Tales of Modernity sits comfortably on a shelf next to The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales (2015), Conan Meets the Academy (2013), and New Critical Essays on Lovecraft (2013). These are all works that speak to the same audience, trying to bring academic insight and attention to bear on the enduring popularity of ephemeral fiction. Whether it will find an audience only the future can tell, but it certainly deserves one.

—Bobby Derie

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