Image: Bruce Timm’s rendition of Lovecraft, c/o Dark Forces Book Group
I was having a conversation with a friend and colleague today about a number of things, among them Tim Powers and H. P. Lovecraft. Feel free to check out more about both of these authors if you’re interested via Wikipedia. Whoever is reading this blog probably knows who Lovecraft is and may or may not know who Tim Powers is (he’s an award-winning fantasy author who focuses on secret histories).
I was reflecting on a quote from Lovecraft, and something occurred to me – the fact that along one axis at least, Powers and Lovecraft are mirror images of each other. The Lovecraft quote is this:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. This quote is the first line from Lovecraft’s most famous tale, The Call of Cthulhu. What Lovecraft seems to be alluding to here, as well as in other works, is that if one were to understand the totality of existence, one would fall into madness and despair, and that our inability to fully comprehend is our salvation as a species. As long as we are in the dark, we are ok. When the truth is revealed to us, it shatters us.
I compared this to Tim Powers. What Tim Powers is good at is writing fantasy that takes place in the lives of known, historical figures and events. He takes the supernatural and intersperses it into history almost seamlessly, so that you come away from the story thinking “For all I know, that’s how it went.” He does this by doing a tremendous amount of research both on the ‘official’ history of people like Romantic poets or famous pirates or Cold Warriors and then finds the spaces between what is recorded them and inserts the fantastic.
What Tim Powers does, in other words, is he skillfully correlates the contents of his mind. Because he is able to do this, he is able to put together truly amazing stories that do not have to shatter our accepted history, but only embellish it, like a virtuoso soloist in a jazz ensemble. The soloist isn’t breaking the music, s/he’s making it even more beautiful and evocative.
Where Lovecraft saw horror and insanity, Powers sees beauty and stories worth telling, and both of them take their jumping-off place, in part, from correlation. Lovecraft looks at the immensity of experience and thinks “Behind all this is some kind of seething, infinite darkness which means us ill.” Powers looks at the same immensity and complexity and interconnectedness and thinks “I bet I can tell a story about Lord Byron the vampire hunter, or the Cold War fought by means of genies, or Texas Hold ’em players fighting for control of a Tarot-throne in Las Vegas.”
In the final analysis, while Lovecraft has had a far greater impact on our culture than Powers, I prefer Powers’ view. It is another kind of genius. Rather than fear, Powers tends to offer wonder. Both writers are awe-ful in their own way, however, and very much worth reading.
I only mentioned Ken Hite in this post because he is the author of many superb books on the Lovecraft Mythos, the most recent of which is Cthulhu 101. Look for it wherever games or comics are sold.