On “Memory” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

“Memory” is only about four paragraphs long.

The Wikipedia page for this story refers to it as a work of ‘flash fiction’ but I think that implies some desire to work at very short lengths. Flash fiction is not just very short fiction, it’s a style of fiction with its own set of formal challenges. Lovecraft may have written a story short enough for it to be considered a piece of flash fiction but I suspect that Lovecraft was less interested in the challenges of very short fiction writing than he was in helping to fill out the pages in an amateur magazine.

The amateur magazine in question is the June 1919 issue of The United Co-Operative, a periodical that was co-edited by Lovecraft and which produced only three issues between 1918 and 1921. Lovecraft co-edited the magazine with W. Paul Cook and Winnifred Virginia Jackson, the woman with whom he would co-write not only “The Green Meadow” but also “The Crawling Chaos”, which would appear in the final issue from April 1921. The June 1919 issue is also significant for seeing the first publication of one of Lovecraft’s better-known works of non-fiction, a rather spectacularly snooty piece entitled “The Case for Classicism”.

I may admittedly be writing about this because the story itself is rather short but I also think that there’s something to be learned from Lovecraft’s initial choice of publication venues. Nowadays, there are so many magazines paying professional rates for short fiction that getting your story published is no guarantee that it will actually be read. Conversely, back in the days of the pulps, there were not that many venues willing to pay for weird fiction but if your story got into print then it would most likely be read by hundreds if not thousands of people.

Given how different genre publishing was a hundred-odd years ago, it is fascinating that Lovecraft’s first forays into getting his work out there involved him working with other ‘amateur journalists’ to put together their own magazines as vehicles for publishing their own stuff. Indeed, if you wanted a modern equivalent to what Lovecraft was up to, you’d have to look to that moment when the blogosphere started to collapse and people started creating group blogs in an effort to not only sustain a regular publication schedule but also to make it feel a little bit less like they were yelling into the void.

Despite being more of a space-filling fragment than a proper story, “Memory” shows some interesting progressions in Lovecraft’s artistic development. Indeed, if you read stories like “The Green Meadow” and “Polaris” you can see Lovecraft trying out different ways of relating his dream-based stories back to the real world.

In “Polaris”, the story’s narrator stares up at the sky and is transported to what is usually seen as a distant future in which the uncivilised Asiatic hordes are massing at the gates of the grey-eyed Aryan citadel. In “The Green Meadow” you have a text embedded in a meteorite and sent to Earth from what can be read as either the afterlife or some sort of semi-mythical past. “Memory” is another story about relating Lovecraft’s dream-like imagery back to the real world but in this case, the relationship is far more direct.

The story comprises a single scene. Set amongst lush valleys and elegantly ruined citadels, the scene describes a meeting between two magical beings who are struggling to remember who built the ruins that litter their valley. Given the dream-like and fantastical nature of the imagery described in the story, you half expect these ruins to have been built by ancient gods but in reality they turn out to have been built by humans. Thus, what we assume to be a story about a semi-mythical past is actually a story about a distant post-human future.

Some sources describe “Memory” as a prose poem. This is, I suspect, partly down to the very short and fragmentary nature of the story and partly down to the fact that Lovecraft layers on the prose with a fucking trowel:

At the very bottom of the valley lies the river Than, whose waters are slimy and filled with weeds. From hidden springs it rises, and to subterranean grottoes it flows, so that the Daemon of the Valley knows not why its waters are red, nor whither they are bound.

Ask most people to describe Lovecraft’s prose style and you’ll often find them referencing these kinds of hyper-ornate and self-consciously archaic sentence structures and word choices: Purple prose and squamous gibbering.

However, while “Memory” is undoubtedly an example of Lovecraft reaching for the kind of hyper-ornate writing style that he would perfect in later stories, I think this writing is bad for reasons other than meter, verb and cadence. I think part of the problem here is that while Lovecraft is trying to inspire awe, the awe he evokes is closer to wonder than it is to horror.

These crumbling courtyards and glittering moonbeams are majestic and peaceful in a way that reminds me of the scene at the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Journey when they talk about travelling back to ancient Greece and finding it much like the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. People often compare this phase of Lovecraft’s output to the writing of Lord Dunsany and I think that’s because Dunsany absolutely owns that sense of glittery awe-inspiring majesty. Step back from the sentence-by-sentence level of the story and what you have here is a description of some ruins covered in clinging vines and a river that stinks because it is filled with rotting vegetation. That might be a strong visual, but it’s not one that inspires awe. What awe the story does inspire comes from the revelation that — in immortal the words of Troy McClure – Oh My God! I was wrong… it was Earth all along!  You finally made a monkey out of meeeeeee…

The big difference between the writing here and the writing in Lovecraft’s more mature stories is that the later Lovecraft is much better at using his words not only to evoke horror but also to recognise that this style of over-adorned and over-aught language has a certain amount of weight and that rather than trying to use that weight to evoke feelings of glittering majesty, you can use it to weigh the reader down like lead weights dumped on them while they try to keep their head above water. At his best, Lovecraft buries you with his prose. The problem with this story is that he is using that prose style to try and lift you up and that just does not work.

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