By Jason Ray Carney
Recently scholar Bobby Derie brought to my attention an interesting passage from a letter from H.P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea. In this passage, Lovecraft admits to admiring Ernest Hemingway:
"Hemingway is the sort of guy I intensely admire without any great impulse to imitate him. His prosaic objectivity is a very high form of art--which I wish I could parallel--but I can't get used to the rhythm of his short, harsh sentences."
- H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 18 Sep 1931, LJS 56
Initially, one cannot think of two more diametrically opposed writers. Hemingway the Literary Modernist hews closely, even quasi-journalistically, to a harsh reality principle. In novels such as The Sun Also Rises (1926) and short stories like "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" (1933), Hemingway uses a narrative rhetoric shorn of all superfluidities to bring into stark focus the disenchanted, dehumanizing reality of interwar modernity. With spartan prose, Hemingway creates flawed and pitiful characters such as Jake Barnes, Francis Macomber, Santiago the Fishermen, men who are portrayed as defeated, emasculated, and undermined by the harsh conditions of their unromantic lives.
Compare this oeuvre to Lovecraft the Pulp Sensationalist, whose work bridges every variation of the unreal genres of science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror. Lovecraft's dream stories are overripe with Dunsanian lyricism and baroque language. Lovecraft's Gothic pastiches adopt antiquarian affectations and have truck with a rhetoric of pulp spectacle, replete with ghouls, yawning graves, and lots of exclamation points. Finally, consider Lovecraft's science fiction masterpieces, such as At the Mountains of Madness (1936), loquacious tales that gush with pseudo-ethnographic thick description.
In execution and style, these two writers could not be more different.
But Lovecraft's admiration of Hemingway reminds us to consider these two writers' thematic similarities, their perverse preoccupation with the extent to which modernity disenchants the world, disinvests humanity of a sense of belonging in the cosmos; how modernity transforms the cosmos into a vacuum of meaninglessness. Consider the reflections of the protagonist from Hemingway's, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," a man who contemplates what he believes to be the bedrock foundation of the human condition: an undeniable fear of nothingness that can only be temporarily arrested by light.
What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too […] but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada […]. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
We hear the echoes of this philosophy of the ubiquity of fear in many of Lovecraft's famous, aphoristic asides in fiction, as well as in his criticism, not least from his opening to his literary historical survey of weird fiction, "Supernatural Horror in Fiction":
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive […].
For both Hemingway and Lovecraft, fear of an all-consuming emptiness taints all of our human endeavors. Both writers are bards of the absurd, giving aesthetic form to humanity's alienation in the Western world between the wars.
Blogger bio: Jason Ray Carney teaches popular literature and creative writing at Christopher Newport University. He is the co-editor of The Dark Man, the area chair of the "Pulp Studies" section of the Popular Culture Association, and the editor of Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery.
The Pavilion Blog is the companion blog of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. It features brief, conversational reflections related to Robert E. Howard at around 500-600 words. Interested in contributing? E-mail the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org