The Big Idea: Kenneth Hite
Now that my travels have ended (yay!), it’s time to get back on the stick with the Big Idea features — we’ve got quite a few coming up in the next couple of months, and this week I’ll hit you with at least a double shot. To begin, I’m really excited to bring this next book to your attention, by Kenneth Hite. Ken and I go back a long ways — he was at the college newspaper when I was — and Ken’s always had a great combination of wit, knowledge and geekery. All of that comes to fruition with Tour de Lovecraft, an immensely readable trip through the works of everyone’s favorite dark fantasist, H.P. Lovecraft, which combines a deep love of the work with a clear-eyed view of quality of the same. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll find lots to enjoy, and to argue with.
Here Ken talks about Lovecraft, literary criticism and how a “medium-sized” idea from elsewhere inspired the Big Idea here. Hey, Big Ideas are all over the place.
The Big Idea for the Tour de Lovecraft came from a Medium-Sized Idea for a different book entirely, the game Trail of Cthulhu, which I was writing for Pelgrane Press. I decided to re-read all of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories for that project, to get myself into the proper mood and to make sure I didn’t forget anything really creepy. But re-reading all of Lovecraft at age 42 wasn’t the same as reading it all for the first time at age 14. I found myself, almost against my will, performing the Dread Sin of literary criticism as I read.
For whatever reason, we’re all supposed to hate literary criticism: “We murder to dissect,” and the rest of that Romantic noise. It’s even worse here in the SFnal ghetto, hiding out from the grim searchlights of mainstream academia while simultaneously complaining that they don’t point the big beams at us enough. But literary criticism is what any reader does, whether they know it or not, and surely us sons and daughters of Heinlein should know that our job is to know what things we do and to do those things well. It’s not like literary criticism is foreign to our tribe. To name just a few: Thomas Disch, John Clute, Ursula K. LeGuin, David Hartwell, Alexei Panshin, Joanna Russ, and a guy named H.P. Lovecraft have done it with distinction and brilliance.
To read critical essays by any of those writers, whether or not you agree with their conclusions or even their taste, is to get better at reading. The fact that most literary criticism reads like Basque political manifestos is no more relevant to the art of literary criticism than the fact that most science fiction reads like adolescent stereo instructions is to the art of SF. To turn Ted Sturgeon (himself an occasional literary critic) on his head, ten percent of it is still probably worth your time. (While I’m name-checking, here, let me throw some love at the mainstream critic Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism came out the same year as Songs For Swinging Lovers, and holds up just as well as Old Blue Eyes does. Frye also, for what it’s worth, seemed to “get” SF.) My goal with the Tour de Lovecraft, which I posted in raw form in my LiveJournal as I went along, was initially just to kill time and share some of the new found Lovecraft love I was feeling. But pretty soon I was trying to hit that ten percent, to breathe some life into Lovecraft by dissecting him.
Or rather, by dissecting his stories. Dissecting Lovecraft – his psychology, his biography, his philosophy, his politics – may have its value, but it doesn’t seem to get us any great distance down the road to the stories themselves. And besides, we’ve pretty much been doing that and only that since Sprague de Camp’s biography rose in 1976 and drove a generation of sensitive scholars mad. Maybe it’s time to let the Old Gentleman rest for a while and try to dissect Cthulhu – or at least “The Call of Cthulhu” — instead.
Tour de Lovecraft is available from the Atomic Overmind site in both softcover and pdf form. Visit Ken Hite’s LiveJournal here. Hite is also the Ennie Award-winning author of the Trail of Cthulhu role playing game, available through Pelgrane Press.