“Night-Gaunts” (2017) by Joyce Carol Oates

When I was 6 or 7 I used to be tormented constantly with a peculiar type of recurrent nightmare in which a monstrous race of entities (called by my “Night-Gaunts”—I don’t know where I got hold of the name) used to snatch me up by the stomach (bad digestion?) and carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needlelike pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let drop—and as I gained momentum in my Icarus-like plunge I would start awake in such panic that I hated to think of sleeping again. The “night-gaunts” were black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all. Undoubtedly I derived the image from the jumbled memory of Doré’s drawings (largely the illustrations to Paradise Lost) which fascinated me in waking hours. They had no voices, and their only form of real torture was their habit of tickling my stomach (digestion again0 before snatching me up and swooping away with me. I sometimes had the vague notion that they lived in the black burrows honeycombing the pinnacle of some incredibly high mountain somewhere. they seemed to come in flocks of 25 or 50, and would sometimes fling me one to the other. Night after night I dreamed the same horror with only minor variants—but I never struck those hideous mountain peaks before waking. If I had…well, the point is that these things decreased rapidly as I grew older. Each year I believed less and less of the supernatural, and when I was 8 I began to be interested in science and cast off my last shred of religious and other superstitious belief. I do not recall many “night-gaunt” dreams after I was 8—or any after I was 10 or 11. But Yuggoth, what an impression they made on me! 34 years later I chose them as the theme of one of my Fungi….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Virgil Finlay, 24 Oct 1936, Selected Letters 5.335

A common refrain these days is to separate the art from the artist. To distinguish between an appreciation for a creator’s works from an appreciation or an agreement with the author themselves. One could, hypothetically, pick up a book by a mass murderer and enjoy it without knowing anything about the author, or admire a painting at a gallery without any awareness that the artist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan…but this implies a level of ignorance about the creator; the person approaches their work without context, without any expectation or prejudice.

It becomes more difficult to separate the art from the artist when you know more about the creator in question, when the events of their lives and their other works inform various details and themes throughout their ouevre. Such is the case with Howard Phillips Lovecraft—and perhaps more than that.

Even while he was alive, Lovecraft crossed the thin threshold between reality and legend. Frank Belknap Long immortalized him as “Howard” in “The Space-Eaters” (1928), Edith Miniter added “H. Theobald, Jr.” to  The Village Green (192?), and Robert Bloch secured permission from Lovecraft before inserting him into “The Shambler From the Stars” (1935)—and killing such fictional alter ego. Friends like Samuel Loveman and Elizabeth Toldridge wrote poetic tributes, and even his future wife Sonia H. Greene would get into the action with “Four O’Clock” (1949).

After Lovecraft’s death, memoirs, biographies, and letters were published; authors and artists who had never met or corresponded with Lovecraft now continued to se his name, his likeness, his legend in the development of new works. “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg“Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins, “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper…these barely scratch the surface of works that use either a fictional Lovecraft, or a character based on Lovecraft, inspired by his name, his likeness, the events of his life.

As understanding of Lovecraft’s life has deepened and spread, so that the portrait of his life has become more complete, so too have the warts become more apparent. Lovecraft was generally kind, well-mannered, generous to a fault within his limited means, and gave tremendous encouragement to many writers, some of whom like Robert Bloch would go on to be amazingly influential themselves. Lovecraft was also, by his own admission, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic. Cultural syntax on these traits has shifted: readers and creators no longer want to passively acknowledge them, some of them want to actively engage with the massive underlying issues of prejudice through Lovecraft…so, contemporary works like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin, and Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee continue to engage with Lovecraft’s legend and legacy, though in a different way than previous generations.

Somewhere in between the iconic fictional Lovecrafts of the early generations of Mythos authors and the strawmen and monsters of the current generation lies Joyce Carol Oates’ character of Horace Phineas Love, Jr. from her novella “Night-Gaunts.”

H. P. Love, Jr. is, despite many similarities, patently not H. P. Lovecraft. Love is a semiotic ghost, a deliberately distorted vision of Lovecraft’s childhood, reimagined and remixed. Much of their lives have parallel: the father that died of syphilis, the grandfather’s library, the intelligent child that became a weird fiction author as an adult. Yet a great deal of it is not right, too. Lovecraft didn’t have the Scots nurses; or lost the family home; and certainly never found a copy of the Necronomicon in his grandfather’s library. Very likely, Lovecraft didn’t have congenital syphilis either, a point that has constituted an entire thread of Lovecraft scholarship from the time Winfield Townley Scott revealed the cause of Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s death down throuh Victoria Nelson’s “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies”—even though Lovecraft didn’t test positive for the disease during his final illness (see “The Shadow of Syphilis” in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).

Which kind of begs the question: if H. P. Love, Jr. is modelled on H. P. Lovecraft but also very deliberately not Lovecraft…why? What is the point? What story is Oates telling us when she writes snippets like:

A young girl-urchin, scarcely ten, opens her soiled dress—bares her white, scrawny chest—tiny breasts, with small pinpoint-nipples—twelve-year-old Horace is astonished—he has never seen anything like this except in certain of the illustrations in his grandfather’s liberary and then never of children so young. It is horrible to see, it is hideous, the aghast boy feels no sex-desire but only pity and sorrow, and fear.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense 315

If this was a way for Oates to address a fictional Lovecraft-clone’s apparent asexuality or lack of sexual desire, it’s a damn weird way of doing it. In truth, “Night-Gaunts” gives no direct answers to what it is about. In broad strokes, it is a kind of ghost story, but it is a ghost story that gets a bit lost up its own internal anatomy pursuing the alternative life of very-definitely-not-H. P. Lovecraft in a way that nevertheless seems to reflect very strongly on certain interpretations of the life and characters of H. P. Lovecraft.

A clue might be the image of the birthmark which H. P. Love, Jr. and his syphilitic father H. P. Love, Jr. share; this would appear to be an homage or reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story “The Birth-Mark.” If one keeps the moral of that tale in mind, “Night-Gaunts” might be read as a message and a meditation on Lovecraft—how the focus on the mundane facts of a biography ignores the immortal essence of the legend, in a very “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” way—and that Horace Phineas Love, Jr. is, in effect both an interpretation of the legendary Lovecraft and a kind of commentary on the same.

If this is the case, it might not be entirely successful. “Night-Gaunts” reminds a great deal of Fred Chappell’s novel Dagon (1987), where the writing is good, but the themes, plot, and characterization never seem to really come together. In weird fiction, the atmosphere and telling of the story count for more than actual plot, but for “Night-Gaunts” there is a sort of postmodern purposelessness to it all: the events of Lovecraft’s life nearly define the contours of the story (except when they don’t; H. P. Love, Jr. never marries), but the internal journey of H. P. Love, Jr. is necessarily incomplete, tasks unfinished, questions unanswered.

Not every question needs an answer—the reader can decide for themselves whether or not the night-gaunts are real—or what writhing form was glimpsed in the master bedroom—but it feels like there should have been, at least, some metafictional flicker of awareness. Something to clue Love or the reader in to what their true connection to Lovecraft was. Absent that, “Night-Gaunts” feels a bit like a love letter to a dead boyfriend…an effort not to  communicate to anyone that might read it, but to work out in prose some thoughts and ideas about that semiotic echo of Lovecraft in popular culture, the recluse so many readers have dreamed Lovecraft as rather than the flesh-and-blood man who lived and died.

“Night-Gaunts” (2017) was first published in the Yale Review, and collected in Joyce Carol Oates’ Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on ““Night-Gaunts” (2017) by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. This story perplexed me for some time. I remember when I first read it, and I wondered if it was an alternate version of Lovecraft, back before the Multiverse was so popularized, Yog-Sothoth was the Key and the Gate before it was cool. I read, and reread Oates’ prose, trying to wonder where she put it in this entirety, and looking back now I think it is all about the Night-Gaunts and where they came from, and what they meant: and as you put it, all about that semiotic ghost that Love himself realizes that he is at the end of the story, or that the librarian does.

    And I still don’t have the answer because, in a Lovecraftian universe, past superstitions long shed, and rationality discarded like the pleasant fable it is, there generally isn’t one.

    Like

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