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Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe

Copyright Date: 1990
Edition: 1
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890--1937) has been described variously as the successor to Edgar Allan Poe, a master of the Gothic horror tale, and one of the father of modern supernatural fantasy fiction. Published originally in pulp magazines, his works have grown in popularity since his death, so that more than thirty editions are currently in print.

    Yet only recently has Lovecraft received serious attention from literary critics. And until now no one has examined his work from a post-structuralist perspective. Donald Burleson fills that void, for the first time in an extended study bringing the resources of deconstruction to bear on the works of this modern gothicist.

    In an introductory overview, Burleson gives an unusually readable account of deconstruction theory and terminology, a field all too often discussed in densely opaque fashion. He goes on to deconstruct thirteen Lovecraft stories, delving into their fascinating etymological mazes, abundant ambiguities, and shifting levels of meanings. His lively and remarkably jargon-free readings explore Lovecraft's rich figurality to unprecedented depths.

    At the same time Burleson develops the view that in practicing self-subversion and structural displacement, literary texts perpetuate themselves. His final chapter explores the broad themes running though Lovecraft's fiction, arguing that these themes in themselves prefigure the deconstructive gesture.

    This insightful and provocative volume will go a long way toward displacing the label of popular writer and establishing Lovecraft as an important figure in American literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4751-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1. Pre-lude: The Manner of Reading
    (pp. 1-16)

    By the time structuralism, as a school of literary criticism and theory, fully arrived in America in the 1960s by way of translations from the French, it was already in the process of being unsettled, reconsidered and reshaped into a yet newer mode of thinking about literary texts, a mode that has come to be calledpost-structuralism.The term is a broad umbrella covering a variety of viewpoints, and its relation to its predecessor, classical structuralism, is by no means one ofcomplete separation; post-structuralism is clearly an outgrowth and extension ofstructuralism. Critical theorist Richard Harland has even coined the term...

  5. 2. “The Statement of Randolph Carter”
    (pp. 17-27)

    Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (ATM,299-305), an early tale written in December 1919, has a narration taking the form of a legal statement, a sort of deposition given by the narrator Randolph Carter and addressed to a body ofinterrogators, presumably the police. Carter and his friend Harley Warren, the story goes, visited an ancient graveyard by night, carrying (as corroborated by a witness) lanterns, spades, and a coil of wire with instruments attached. But only Carter returned, and the necessity of his making the statement suggests that he is suspected, perhaps, of foul play, or at least is...

  6. 3. “The Terrible Old Man”
    (pp. 28-38)

    In January 1920, about a month after writing “The Statement ofRandolph Carter,” Lovecraft wrote “The Terrible Old Man” (DUN,272-75), a very brief tale (what would today be classified as a short-short story) about a sinister old man living in the New England seacoast town of Kingsport. The Terrible Old Man, evidently a long-retired sea captain from clipper ship days (Melville’s Starbuck inMoby-Dickat one point refers to Captain Ahab as “terrible old man”), has a sinister reputation with the townsfolk. He is “so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few...

  7. 4. “The Cats of Ulthar”
    (pp. 39-48)

    In June 1920, some five months after writing “The Terrible Old Man,” Lovecraft wrote “The Cats of Ulthar” (DAG,55-58), a short tale in the manner of Lord Dunsany and, as a biographical point worth mentioning in passing, a darkly playful bit ofself-indulgence on the part ofthe author, who, as is well known, loved cats. “It is said that in Ulthar,” the story opens, “which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat.” The narrator, before relating the events of the story, regards the cat “who sitteth purring before the fire” and muses that the cat is...

  8. 5. “The Nameless City”
    (pp. 49-57)

    In January 1921 Lovecraft wrote what was probably his first story of that highly productive year: “The Nameless City” (DAG,98-110), in which the first-person narrator seeks out the remote ruins of an ancient and evilly fabled city “in the desert of Araby,” ruins “protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave” (98). Finding the site, the narrator, feeling that the “antiquity ofthe spot” is “unwholesome,” examines the ruins, longing “to encounter some sign or device to prove that the city was indeed fashioned by mankind” (99). He finds certain “curiously low”...

  9. 6. “The Outsider”
    (pp. 58-66)

    Sometime in 1921 Lovecraft wrote what has turned out to be one of his most variously interpretable stories, “The Outsider” (DUN,46-52). In this tonally and stylistically Poesque tale, the first-person narrator, the Outsider, dwells miserable and alone in the clammy bowels of an ancient and ruined castle, “vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books” (46). He yearns for light and gaiety and some company other than that of the “noiseless rats, bats, and spiders” sharing his abode. At times he ventures outside under the dark trees that blot out the sky, but he...

  10. 7. “The Music of Erich Zann”
    (pp. 67-76)

    Lovecraft in December 1921 produced one ofhis most unusual and intriguing stories, his own second favorite among his works: “The Music of Erich Zann” (DUN,83-91). The only Lovecraft story to be set (à la Poe) in France and the only one to employ music as a major motif, this tale has a first-person narrator who comes to a city (presumably Paris) as an impoverished student of metaphysics. He comes to live in a tall old house in the steep and narrow rue d’Auseil, which, oddly enough, he cannot find again after the events of the story, despite “peculiarities which...

  11. 8. “The Call of Cthulhu”
    (pp. 77-85)

    During the summer of 1926 Lovecraft wrote a story that in traditional critical terms has often been considered, with much reason, to have turned out to be thematically central to his work: “The Call of Cthulhu”(DUN,125-54). The story features a parenthetical colophon immediately following the title: “Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston.” The tale itself opens: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability ofthe human mind to correlate all its contents.” The narrator editorializes upon the fear that “some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will...

  12. 9. “Pickman’s Model”
    (pp. 86-93)

    The year 1926 saw the writing of H. P. Lovecraft’s “portrait of the artist,” not in the Joycean sense necessarily. This fictional portrayal of a painter of weird canvases is called “Pickman’s Model” (DUN,12-25). The narrator, whom we know only as Thurber, relates the tale as if speaking to an art club acquaintance whom he addresses as Eliot. Evidently Eliot has asked the narrator why it is that the artist Richard Upton Pickman, a person of odd repute at the art club, has recently vanished. The narrator regales Eliot with remarks about Pickman’s exceedingly weird and morbid art, canvases...

  13. 10. “The Strange High House in the Mist”
    (pp. 94-105)

    Perhaps the most stylistically pleasing of all the tales that Lovecraft wrote in the dreamy manner of Lord Dunsany is “The Strange High House in the Mist” (DAG,277-86), written in November 1926. The story is set in the coastal village of Kingsport (Lovecraft’s fictional version of Marblehead, Massachusetts) and describes, in an effective, visually oriented style rather reminding one of certain Japanese paintings, the crags that hang over the town, crags that “climb lofty and curious, terrace on terrace, till the northernmost hangs in the sky like a grey frozen wind-cloud” (277). Atop this northernmost crag, “a bleak point jutting...

  14. 11. “The Colour Out of Space”
    (pp. 106-117)

    In March 1927 Lovecraft wrote what he would come to call his own favorite of his stories, “The Colour Out of Space”(DUN,53-82), a darkly atmospheric tale treating of the slow and morbid demise of a farm family on whose land a meteor has fallen, a meteor spreading a kind of alien poison that scintillates with a bizarre color not of the familiar spectrum. The narrator comes to the region—which is only described as “west of Arkham” (53), though on the basis of its planned flooding for a new reservoir we may associate it with the Quabbin region...

  15. 12. “The Dunwich Horror”
    (pp. 118-132)

    In late summer of 1928 Lovecraft wrote what has come to be one of his most widely read stories, “The Dunwich Horror” (DUN,155-98). The setting is the squalid and decadent backwater village of Dunwich, which (like the setting of “The Colour Out of Space”) one may place in western Massachusetts near the Quabbin region. At the outset we are given to understand that at the time of the narrator’s arrival, some horror has already transpired there—an effective means of distancing and deferring presence—a past horror in the wake of which “all signboards pointing toward [Dunwich] have been...

  16. 13. “The Shadow over Innsmouth”
    (pp. 133-146)

    During November and December 1931, Lovecraft wrote the novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (DUN,303-67), a story set in a fictive Massachusetts seacoast town (by details in the text, placeable around the mouth of the Ipswich River, north of Boston), Lovecraft’s degenerate and horrific community of human/nonhuman miscegenation. The unnamed narrator, a young man from Ohio, is starting off in the summer of 1927 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, celebrating his coming of age by “a tour of New England—sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical” (303). A ticket agent in Newburyport tells him of a strange town between Newburyport and Arkham (Salem), an...

  17. 14. “The Haunter of the Dark”
    (pp. 147-155)

    Lovecraft in November 1935 wrote what was to be his last major story, “The Haunter of the Dark” (DUN,92-115), a tale dedicated to his correspondence friend, the then teenage writer Robert Bloch. The protagonist is named Robert Blake. This Blake, with a report of whose mysterious death the story opens, has been “a writer and painter wholly devoted to the field of myth, dream, terror, and superstition, and avid in his quest for scenes and effects of a bizarre, spectral sort” (93). The story is narrated in the third person, supposedly deriving from a diary left by the hapless...

  18. 15. Deconstructing Lovecraft: An Open “Conclusion”
    (pp. 156-160)

    H.P. Lovecraft’s texts not only richly and intriguingly support deconstructionist readings but they also interweave to form intertext characterized by shared thematic concerns, which themselves lead to further deconstructive potential.

    One may discern certain broad themes that permeate Lovecraft’s fiction. One notes, for example, the theme of “forbidden knowledge,” or “merciful ignorance”—the theme that there are species of knowledge only by ignorance of which humankind can maintain even the semblance of wellbeing. The story “The Call of Cthulhu” fairly well spells out this thematic notion in its opening paragraph: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is...

  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 161-166)
  20. Index
    (pp. 167-170)