Monday, June 1, 2020

Universe | H. P. Lovecraft

I have been spending my evenings dipping into the new Library of America edition of H. P. Lovecraft: Tales.  Here is the inimitable Lovecraft on New York City:
“a tangle of material and spiritual putrescence from which the blasphemies of a hundred dialects assail the sky . . . I saw the squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, and the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.”
I am willing to bet you do not know what a “crotala" is. I had to go the 20-plus volume Oxford Unabridged Dictionary to find out. A “crotale” is “A type of castanet used mainly in Latin-American music.” And far be it from me to quibble with Lovecraft, but the plural of crotale would appear to be crotalum, and not crotala, as he has it. But why, I must ask, is a crotale “obscene”? And how about that “unhallowed ocean of bitumen”? A ocean of bitumen is scary enough, but an “unhallowed” ocean of bitumen? That is really, really frightening. 

Of course it was just not New York that Lovecraft could not stomach:
"I hated the mocking moon, the hypocritical plain, the festering mountain . . . Everything seemed to me tainted with a loathsome contagion, and inspired by a noxious alliance with distorted hidden powers."
My feelings exactly. In particular the hypocritical plain, just pretending to be flat and even, has always annoyed me. And in fact, it was not just the Earth that Lovecraft was revolted by. He also loathed:
“unknown spheres and powers . . . the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim.”
I had hoped that this new edition would shed some light on that much-reviled occult text the Necronomicon, which Lovecraft used as source material, but it now appears its author, the unspeakably vile Abdul Alhazred, was devoured by a flesh-eating demon in broad daylight in the copper-ware market of Damascus and is thus no longer available for interviews. I might add that Abdul Alhazred was not, repeat not, a follower of the Greek neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (410 - 485 A.D.), despite what some woefully misinformed people may have claimed. For a thorough demolition of this absurd assertion see Fragments of the Lost Writings of Proclus.


  1. Lovecraft is correct, the word is crotala. The singular of the word is crotalon/krotalon. Since it is a Greek word, HPL follows greek grammar rules: singular form ending in -on [neutral gender] has a corresponding plural form ending in -a. Similar examples: cymbala and mausolea, being also words that Lovecraft used.

    He disliked a lot of things but he had particular loathing for NY. Most of his bitterness/hatred saturated correspondence dates from his brief stay there in the early 1920s. I think your excerpt is from the 'Horror at Red Hook', a pretty solid story if you ask me but one that attracts a lot of negative attention these days due to his rather impolite treatment of various races and ethnicities therein.

  2. OK, I will defer to Greek grammar experts on the plural of crotale, the OUD notwithstanding. But that raises the question, why does a castanet used in Latin American music have a Greek name?

  3. I never knew castanets were called crotales, the original crotalon was a type of drum and it was used for soundtrack purposes in Ancient Greek Drama. I think it might have come to denote a broader spectrum of percussion instruments in later years.

    I don't think castanets would have freaked HPL out so badly, but one never knows.

  4. Not long ago there was an article proposing that all Lovecraft’s works be banned from public libraries (I cannot find the link now). He remains highly controversial, while at the same time is undergoing a huge resurgence in popularity. In the last three or four years alone there have been dozens of knock-offs of his work, some of them downright bizarre. See for example. Lovecraft Country: A Novel. I must admit I view him as little more than a literary curiosity.

  5. Xylokopos: When in Bukhara did you visit the Tower of Silence?

  6. I did not, there simply wasn't enough time. I wish I had, though.

    I did, however, stay in Uzbekistan long enough to discover that there is craft beer and a Harry Potter themed coffee shop in Samarkand these days.

  7. Uzbekistan is #34 on the New York Times list of Fifty-Two Places to Go in 2019. This would have been unthinkable ten years ago.