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Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe by Donald R Burleson.

Donald Burleson writes a very distinctive sort of Lovecraft criticism. He takes a post-structuralist approach (with nods to Derrida and de Man), and reads all of the stories as allegories about the indeterminacy of language and the subversion of conceptual categories. In Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe he studies a representative assortment of thirteen stories, arranging them chronologically. On the whole, I found this a very satisfying exercise.

Some of my favorite analyses were those for “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” and “The Color Out of Space,” the last two of which ranked among HPL’s favorites of his own stories. “The Cats of Ulthar” got a full treatment from Burleson, but I was left with the feeling that he had still only scratched the surface, even despite his droll final remark regarding feline lawlessness (48).

I would have liked it better if the attention to Indo-European roots made up a slightly lower proportion of the total text. I don’t think that Burleson’s method on this count is worthless, but after a few chapters, it starts to seem almost mechanical, in the way that he analyzes the story titles and key place and character names for their Indo-European roots and then takes the polyvalence of those roots as traces of textual strain and self-contradiction. Fortunately, there are many other facets to these studies.

The jacket copy proposes that the book is concerned with “establishing Lovecraft as an important figure in American literature,” but Burleson’s preface immediately acknowledges prior serious literary criticism regarding Lovecraft’s work, and the focus throughout this study is on the texts, not the author. When Burleson discusses “The Outsider,” he does not compare the protagonist to the author, but to the reader. He deprecates his own chronological arrangement of the analyzed stories as an arbitrary convenience (15-6), and never suggests a progression or development among them.

Burleson’s work here is an excellent antidote to reductionist readings of Lovecraft, whether psychological, philosophical, ideological, or genealogical. Neither Lovecraft’s unusual personal character, his atheism and “cosmicism,” his racism, nor his inspirations from other writers can be credited with the quality that Burleson ultimately codes as unreadability, a self-deepening mystery that rewards those willing to explore the stories and their shadows, a transgressive concealment that is rooted in the very nature of language. [via]