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M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft

Wednesday 9/27/23

In his writings one sees what a good feel M.R. James had for people. He's often talked about as this bachelor who only cared for his antiquarian studies, but the voices of his peasant folk, humble workers, bar maids, and children always ring true. Not just the voice--he knows their ins and outs, and not as classes as such either, but as the individuals they are in each story. I'm thinking about the tavern maid in "Martin's Close," for example, who tries to "prick" Squire Martin, and the frightened boy in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," who sees the linen apparition outside of Parkins' window and is doubtful as to the Colonel's advice when the latter tries to comfort him.


Lovecraft and Poe are writers who sound better in theory as writers one would like to like than one actually likes them when reading them. Poe was a pioneer, but it's not especially satisfying to spend two hours reading his work. You might appreciate a particular advance he made--or started--in the the field of detective fiction, or his willingness to be as lurid as he damn pleases in the plot of a horror story, but as an actual reading experience there's only so much there. He sticks close to the surface and jolts, with gratuity. You won't get richness or insight into human nature, which is what a story like "The Tell-Tale Heart" could be, but it's so outsized, extreme, as to be almost satirical despite itself, for that is not Poe's intention. I don't think he mulled intention much.


Lovecraft doesn't have a feel for people. You are being spoken to, lectured at, harangued but without anger, paradoxically. I can understand why one would have contempt for people in their general simplicity and stupidity, but when one writes, there can be no contempt. You must be writing from a place of concern and empathy for all, and what is, again, perhaps paradoxically, a love for the human race. I am not talking about writing "nice" works. I am talking about the place from which one writes.


People don't talk much in Lovecraft's fiction. Conversation--human exchanges that were not carried out in long letters--seems to have been past his ken. He writes like someone reading. For hours. Specialist books. He's very enthusiastic about these books and these long days of reading in the gray of November, but there's no warmth in his prose. One is not beckoned and involved. There's always distance.


I read the work of all three and will, I think, always do so. But James stands apart from the other two in what he provides as a reading experience.




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