‘Lovecraft and Landscape‘ (1978)
by Angela Carter,
in The Necronomicon,
edited by George Hay and introduced by Colin Wilson.
Corgi Books, 1980 (1978).
In 1980, at the age of forty, Angela Carter took a year-long teaching post as visiting professor at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. While there she attempted, together with her friend – Christopher Frayling, an expert on popular culture – to locate the grave of the horror writer H P Lovecraft, though without success.
Her biographer, Edmund Gordon, tells us she was keen on Lovecraft’s fiction, “finding in it ‘an odd stylistic resemblance’ to [Jorge Luís] Borges,” his work doubtless resonating with her own taste for the macabre.¹ Despite the fruitless grave search – unsurprising given that there are some forty thousand interments in the 60-acre cemetery – the pilgrimage was a logical extension to her interest in weird fiction.
Two years earlier that interest had already manifested itself in a collection of fictive studies of Lovecraft’s own concept of an occult volume ascribed to the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred, to which she contributed – as had Frayling – a piece about the Providence author. Published by Neville Spearman Ltd, The Necronomicon reflected the publisher’s customary eclectic taste for a range of off-beat topics, and Carter’s piece on Lovecraft’s visionary landscapes obviously suited the brief.²
‘Lovecraft and Landscape’ elaborates on the kinds of environments he set his weird tales, especially those in his so-called Cthulhu Mythos. These include primeval forests in New England, the frozen wastes of Antarctica, labyrinthine cities and dreamscapes full of impossible architecture. She cites short stories and novellas where these landscapes feature, many of which I’ve read over the years: At the Mountains of Madness (1931) at the South Pole, for example, ‘The Dunwich Horror‘ (1929) in rural Massachusetts, ‘The Haunter of the Dark‘ (1936) in Providence itself, ‘The Picture in the House‘ (1920) which mentions Arkham and the Miskatonic river for the first time, and so on.
But it’s the language she uses, both reminiscent of but distinct from Lovecraft’s own style, that really stood out for me and emphasised how invested she was in the power of words to create atmosphere as well as tell a story. So when she talks of “an expressionist landscape of imminent dread” she encapsulates what Lovecraft aimed to achieve – a state of nervous anticipation in the reader. When she says “Lovecraft’s geography is that of dreams” she knows that the places he described were typical of those that exist primarily in our heads. And when she writes that the “elementary fear of non-being shapes the paranoid perspectives” of his landscapes she instinctively puts her finger on the nameless fear that both repels and attracts us when seeking out such writing.
Of these landscapes the forest is a kind of sentient maze, Carter tells us, full both of necromancy and of malevolent growths; but puzzle paths are also found in townscapes and in mindscapes – which in this fiction almost amount to the same thing. Whether real places, like Providence or New York, or imagined, like Sarnath, Arkham or R’lyeh, Carter finds it useful to compare them to Piranesi’s fantastic environments, de Chirico’s surreal scenes, or amalgams of Aztec, Gothic, Moorish and even non-Euclidean spaces; in effect uninhabitable “stone puzzles” and the stuff of nightmares.
All this she identifies, as with the hidden city in Antarctica, as ultimately “the authentic landscape of interiority, of the archetypal Inner Place, the womb.” But, as in The Statement of Randolph Carter (Lovecraft’s 1920 story inspired by a dream and, coincidentally, involving another Carter), the stairway which leads down into the earth from an opened tomb may well lead, not to a womb, but a rendezvous with one’s worst fears.³
What form could these worst fears take? Her friend Christopher Frayling wrote in ‘Dreams of Dead Names: The Scholarship of Sleep’ – a companion piece in this volume – that Lovecraft’s own ‘nightmare of nightmares’ seems to conclude in “extraordinary experiments with some scientific and electrical apparatus.” Angela Carter also suggests that becoming some sort of laboratory specimen may often result from straying into a Lovecraft landscape.
A living death, I suppose – and not unlike the case of a writer continuing to live in the works they leave behind.
¹ Edmund Gordon. 2016. The Invention of Angela Carter. A Biography. Vintage Books, 2017: 305-6
² George Hay, editor. 1978. The Necronomicon. Corgi Books, 1980: 173-181
³ Strange to tell, it was a third Carter – Howard Carter – who two years later, in 1922, was to make the archaeological find of the decade when he descended steps to break into the tomb of Tutankhamun.
A short nonfiction read for #NovNov Novellas in November