H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Library Stacks”

                                                              The Library Stacks

Synopsis, from Bloom’s Literary Reference Online

In the early part of the 20th century there was no clearly defined field of horror fiction. Most of what got published was grouped loosely under the heading “weird fiction,” which often included fantasy and science fiction as well as overtly supernatural stories. Much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work fell into this category, including this short piece. One pattern that stories from this period used was to introduce a more or less ordinary character into an unusual situation that required little if any action on his part. The story then is comprised of the character’s reactions to the situation, scene, or event. Lovecraft, Blackwood, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers would describe, often by implication, a series of exotic and presumably unsettling images, after which the protagonist would frequently be driven to madness or self-destruction because of the degree of horror experienced. By contemporary standards this might seem to be an implausible reaction, but when these stories were first appearing in print it was an accepted conceit that a shock of this sort could unseat one’s sanity.

Clevinger, the protagonist of “The Library Stacks,” is a student at Lovecraft’s doom-laden Miskatonic University. He is searching for an obscure tome of occult research in the university’s library, and is sent into the library stacks by a senior librarian. The stacks initially seem to be a limited range of shelves, and Clevinger soon finds the book he seeks, but drawn onward into the stacks by a tempting range of titles by forbidden authors. The stacks stretch out farther than he remembered them being, and he soon decides that he is lost. Then the library cat crosses his path and begins leading him somewhere—to freedom, Clevinger thinks. But the cat leads him farther into the stacks, which change in quality and become cruder and made of wood rather than metal, until finally there are only books heaped in piles on the stone floor. Lovecraft uses a catalog of haunted house devices. Books open and close without apparent cause, lanterns are snuffed out by the application of force rather than by breath, brief apparitions appear and disappear before they can be identified or investigated, unusual noises seem to follow Clevinger, and he feels that his strength is being sapped on both a physical and a mental level.

Clevinger and the cat reach what looks like an altar made of books. The cat strolls behind the altar and disappears, and a massive cat-shaped being replaces him, apparently intent on sacrificing Clevinger on the altar; the sight so overwhelms Clevinger that he immediately flees, eventually emerging into the university library’s waiting room, and his mental balance is forever disturbed. He is terrified by visions of the cat-god and apprehensive that humanity are only sacrifices-in-waiting for the cats.

Analysis, from Ken Hite’s Tour de Lovecraft

“He actually analyses and reproduces faithfully the details of the persistent human illusion of—and out-reaching toward—a misty world of vari-coloured wonders, transcended natural laws, limitless possibilities, delighted discoveries, and ceaseless adventurous expectancy….”
–H.P. Lovecraft on “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood

If “The Dunwich Horror” is Lovecraft’s Machen pastiche, then “The Library Stacks” is Lovecraft’s Blackwood pastiche, complete with Blackwood’s concepts of good and evil. Its relative obscurity is a bigger puzzle than it appears, and its dismissal by critics like S.T. Joshi and Donald Burleson, the foremost representatives of Higher Lovecraftian Criticism, is unjust. “Library” is one of HPL’s four best pre-“Cthulhu” tales, up there with “The Doom That Came To Sarnath” (HPL’s Dunsany story), “The Music of Erich Zann” (HPL’s first good “Lovecraft” story) and “Rats in the Walls” (HPL’s Poe story).

Lovecraft was haunted, in his own words, by “adventurous expectancy connected with landscape and architecture…I wish I could get the idea on paper—the sense of marvel and liberation…problematically reachable…up endless flights of marble steps culminating in tiers of balustrade terraces.” This quote, particularly his concept of “adventurous expectancy,” is crucial for unlocking what Lovecraft was attempting in the dusty, worn stacks of Miskatonic University’s library. For Joshi, the tale is too simple, a form of the haunted house tale Joshi finds trite. Joshi finds “adventurous expectancy” in the outdoors, among the wind-swept peaks of the Mountains of Madness, but my sensibilities are more urban, and I find that sense in city settings – and in sufficiently obscure archives and special collections. In adventure movies it gives me the sense of history and art happening before the movie takes place – the National Archives of National Treasure, for example, and the warehouse of Indiana Jones – and in fiction it gives me the sense of a greater world beyond the confines of the story, as in the Ultimate Library of Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth.” I’ve attempted to evoke it myself throughout GURPS Byzantium, among other works.

Joshi denies the story’s success and its not-inconsiderable effect, but his criticisms are wrong-headed when they are not simply wrong. He questions its depiction of cats as incompatible with Lovecraft’s usual affectionate treatment of them, although it’s apparent enough that, as a Blackwood pastiche, “Library” is using Blackwood’s view of cats to symbolize horror, rather than Lovecraft’s own favored reptilians and fish. He questions the recitation of book titles in the library as surplus to effect, although it’s clear that they were a both a jokey call-back to Lovecraft’s earlier stories and a joke at his own expense. (How else is one to take “Howard the Pale’s Goules de la Providence”?) Joshi also questions the use of an excerpt from one of those titles, the Bishops’ Diary, with its passage that “Yew’ll trod reg’lar, but dun’t walk too slow, fer ef ye dun’t reach the church by midnight them from beyont will reach ye. At the church open up the gates to Ulthar with the runes ye’ll find on page 113 of the Arab’s edition,” saying that it serves only as “purportedly clever foreshadowing,” when it’s obvious that Clevinger is performing the role of the Fool, symbolically walking off the cliff as in the Rider-Waite deck, the spirit in search of knowledge and experience. Just that element alone, using as it does Tarot symbolism (rare in Lovecraft’s oeuvre) to the hint that what awaits Clevinger is not malicious but transformative, is one of Lovecraft’s subtler moments, and it bespeaks a worrying (if uncommon) failure of Joshi’s critical faculty that he apparently doesn’t get it.

*****

Joshi comments that the university setting of “Library” is unrealistic. Perhaps he would know, but “Library” affords us a rare longish look at the internal workings of the University library, which begins to come alive as a functioning part of a university rather than just someplace where people go in search of the oldest and most crumbling tomes. It’s still thin gruel – other tales tell us far more about the university’s workings than “Library.” But I like the hints of interdepartmental politicking and sardonic librarianship Lovecraft adds.

*****

Unlike “The Dunwich Horror,” with its use of Machen’s concepts of good and evil, “Library” and its Blackwoodisms are not too far from Lovecraft’s own. Lovecraft esteemed Blackwood’s work (though not without cavils about his “uneven work”), and this passage, from “The Wendigo,” nicely presages Lovecraft’s own approach, both in “Library” and more generally:

“savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists.”

But Lovecraft does what Blackwood could not, and that is to slave style to content and purpose. For all his virtues Blackwood could be unwontedly leisurely and perhaps rambling, as in some of the “John Silence” stories, and unnecessarily makes his characters weak reeds. Weakness in Lovecraft serves a purpose: to enhance the effect of the horror on the reader. In Blackwood weakness is too often an adjunct to the horror. In Lovecraft it is an essential part of it.

In “Library” Lovecraft removes everything except the sustained suspense of what lurks at the end of the stacks. The only eldritch tome, the copy of the Upyri Moskvy that Clevinger went to the library in search of, is a MacGuffin. There are no swarms of ethnic mongrels, no rites to Kjh’nrujd, the Eater of Typed Words. There are only the ominous, mounting signs that the library is a place Clevinger should flee from. Lovecraft even manages to describe the library in a few choice architectural details, performing the difficult task of providing setting and anchor for a story that takes place almost entirely in the gloom. A gloom, it should be said, which seems to have obscured Joshi’s usually acute vision, at least with regard to this story.

(dedicated with respect to Ken Hite, who I trust will forgive me)

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