Monday, March 21, 2011

Lovecraft's Byzantium

H. P. Lovecraft is a cult author of “weird fiction” from the 1920-30s. Although I had heard of the name, I didn’t become interested in Lovecraft until Matthew Sweet's interview of novelist China Mieville and journalist Suzi Feay on BBC's Nightwaves (Oct. 20, 2010).

For the last three months, I’ve been feasting on Lovecraft’s short stories. His grotesque apocalyptic visions help us understand modern American anxieties in the light of Gothic fiction and the inheritance of Edgar Alan Poe. What I also find most enlightening is the persistence of archaeology in the form of both archaeological knowledge but also the inclusion of archaeologists as characters. “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931), Lovecraft’s longest story, we read about a fantastical campaign, the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica. Partially written in the form of expedition reports, the explorers discover an unknown species, as well as the civilization of the “Old Ones” that flourished before the Pleistocene geological age.

Lovecraft’s own archaeological scholarship creeps dominantly through the narrative (Eckhardt 1987) and includes reference to late antiquity and its use of spolia. Lovecraft compares the sculptural reliefs of the Old Ones with the decadence of Constantinian art, which he partially acquired from general 1920s art-historical notions but more specifically from Oswald Spengler’s, The Decline of the West translated into English in 1926 and 1928. Along with Joseph Wood Krutch’s, The Modern Temper (1929), Spengler influenced Lovecraft’s transition from classicism to Decadence to a sort of antiquarian regionalism and finally to the science of weird fiction (Joshi 2001, 297-305). The decadence of Byzantine art that Lovecraft cites takes on a positive role in reconstructing the civilization of the Old Ones.

“Art and decoration were pursued, though of course with a certain decadence. The Old Ones seemed to realize this falling off themselves; and in many cases anticipated the policy of Constantine the Great by transplanting especially fine blocks of ancient carving from their land city, just as the emperor, in a similar age of decline, stripped Greece and Asia of their finest art to give his new Byzantine capital greater splendours than its own people could create. That the transfer of sculptured blocks had not been more extensive, was doubtless owing to the fact that the land city was not at first wholly abandoned. By the time total abandonment did occur – and it surely must have occurred before the polar Pleistocene was far advanced – the Old Ones had perhaps become satisfied with their decadent art – or had ceased to recognize the superior merit of the older carvings. At any rate, the aeon-silent ruins around us had certainly undergone no wholesale sculptural denundation; though all the best separate statues, like other moveables, had been taken away” (Lovecraft 2005, 555)

Lovecraft has witnessed a revived interest in 2010. News had it that Guilermo del Toro was directing a film version of "Mountains of Madness," produced by James Cameron and starring Tom Cruise. As of early March, unfortunately, Warner Bros. has pulled the plug on this $150 million project. See here and here.

“The Rats in the Walls” (1924) is another Lovecraft stories that involves an archaeological expedition, but I will discuss it in a future posting. I must also warn the reader that during my Spring Break, I’ve been thinking about a strand of New Wave rock from the 1980s that marries the dark vision of the Gothic tradition with a post-punk musical precision. I’ve been thinking about the archaeological layers of The Cure, for example, and trying to weave a thread of archaeological Orientalism that ties Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” The Cure’s “Fire in Cairo,” and Peter Murphy’s (of Bauhaus) Muslim conversion and migration to Turkey.


- Eckhardt, Jason C. 1987. “Behind the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft and the Antarctic in 1930,” Lovecraft Studies 6 (Spring), pp. 31-38.
- Joshi, S. T. 2001. A Dreamer and a Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in His Time, Liverpool.
- Lovecraft, H. P. 2005. Tales, ed. Peter Straub (The Library of America 155), New York.


Nauplion said...

You will want to find the memoir about Lovecraft written by my friend Willis Conover, beautifully printed.

Donovan K. Loucks said...

Some other Lovecraft stories that feature archaeological themes include "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), "The Mound" (1929-1930), "Out of the Aeons" (1933), and "The Shadow Out of Time" (1934).

Donovan K. Loucks
Webmaster, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive

Stefano Costa said...

This is a great overview of Lovecraft's connections to archaeology. Another short story settled in an archaeological background is "Under the pyramids" co-written with H. Houdini.

Also, I find very close to this "explicit" archaeology also the many descriptions of old buildings, demolished houses, and changed urban landscape in Arkham and other towns.

Anonymous said...

The most important mention of Byzantium in Lovecraft's fiction, however, is that the Necronomicon is the Greek translation of the Arab tome Al-Azif, conducted in the XI Century in Constantinople.

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States