Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews H. P. Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia: The Satire, Symbology and Contradiction by Gavin Callaghan, from McFarland.
Gavin Callaghan’s Dark Arcadia is a capable and engaging critical treatment of the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. He brings an interesting combination of methods to this material. Recognizing Lovecraft’s professed interest in classical literature, he examines the allusions to antiquity and the possibility of satirical method in HPL’s stories. As a complementary tactic, he invokes psychoanalytic appraisals of Lovecraft’s authorial motives (strongly indulging Jungian approaches) to account for significant tropes in his output.
Although the publisher’s jacket copy praises Callaghan for “ignoring secondary accounts and various received truths,” he is clearly well-read in the existing body of Lovecraft criticism. While he brings some new ideas to the field, his most significant contradiction of “common knowledge” about HPL and his work is to consider the “cosmicism” of Lovecraft’s horror to be ornamental rather than essential. Callaghan asserts that the various instances of cosmic scenarios and phenomena in Lovecraft’s stories (actually rather outnumbered by more conventional gothic horror tropes and contexts) are simply grandiose exaggerations of the author’s familial mise-en-scène, and vehicles for his ambivalent antagonism toward the cultural decadents of his parents’ generation and his own. The “Old” and the “Elder” to which HPL attribute a veneer of deep time were, according to Callaghan, in living memory in the fact of their inspiration. The extra-dimensional hugeness of Lovecraft’s monsters simply reflects the subjective enormity of parental figures.
Callaghan also opposes the notion that there was in any sense a “mellowing” or relaxation of Lovecraft’s social and cultural conservativism in his later fiction. In the interpretive context Callaghan provides, he makes a persuasive case in this regard. Callaghan’s own value-position relative to Lovecraft’s ideological stances is not made especially clear. While he does indict HPL for his racism and misogyny, he also repeatedly implies sympathy for Lovecraft’s right-wing “acuity” (8). Callaghan notes with evident distaste, for example, the fact of “some branches of the modern Wicca movement finding allies and common cause with environmentalist, feminist, luddite, leftist, gay liberation, and other radical organizations” (207), and he refers to “the insanity of the sexual revolution” (8, 58).
The volume is divided into six loosely-interlinked essays, three longer and more general, and three shorter and of narrower scope. It opens with the long “Dark Arcadia,” in which the focus is on Lovecraft’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity, and his satirical intent directed at the decadent culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapters three and six are the other long pieces, and they address the principal psychological materials that Callaghan discerns in the HPL oeuvre: “Behind the Locked Door” is about the paternal image with classical allusion to the myth of Theseus, and “HPL and the Magna Mater” provides an analysis of the Lovecraftian feminine. The smaller essays address Lovecraft’s use of apiary imagery, his trope of the “moon-ladder,” and an interpretation of the “coda” that concludes “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Callaghan dedicates a section of his bibliography to an odd assortment of six works on occultism. His insightful remarks on Lovecraft’s antagonism for the Theosophical Society show that this reading was not wasted, but he generally hews to popular derision for modern occultists such as Aleister Crowley. (In this contempt, he probably tracks with Lovecraft, who appraised Crowley as a “queer duck.”) Callaghan’s gloss on the monumental Etidorhpa of John Uri Lloyd is quite superficial, but he deserves a point for mentioning it at all.
Callaghan gives a great deal of attention to a number of Lovecraft’s “lesser” stories and collaborations, such as “The Green Meadow,” “The Moon-Bog,” and “Medusa’s Coil,” suggesting that in those instances where the writer’s technique is less polished, his methods and motives may be more exposed. His insistence on the abiding Puritan character of Lovecraft’s orientation, as well as the polemical intent of stories that seem so focused on evocative mood, is tied together quite convincingly with a study of the psychological conditions that could inspire such polemics. The book is, on the whole, a fascinating read for anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work. [via]
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