Sweet Ermengarde: The Complete Lovecraftian #28

Some collections of Lovecraft which claim to be complete utterly ignore ‘Sweet Ermengarde’, thus expunge it from their pages. There are reasons to do so, not necessarily good reasons, but reasons all the same. I know this because of the two ‘complete‘ collections I own, and only one of them includes the tale within its pages. Also, Lovecraftian scholars commonly discount the story, as it is not linked in any way to the mythos and I suspect because it is not in anyway pompous or worthy. You see, Lovecraft, that most serious, austere and priggish of writers, which ‘scholars’ of his work admire, ‘lowered’ himself when he wrote Sweet Ermengarde, to the level of a common parodist… For this horrendous crime (being funny and enjoying himself by taking the piss, gently, out of a particular kind of story) some of his scholars denigrate this story as not being ‘Lovecraft‘. Despite the relatively clear fact that he wrote it. Though I must add here, others hail it as a comic gem alongside ‘A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson’ as I discovered while doing some research on the story that was noticeably absent from my Kindle edition of ‘The complete Lovecraft…’

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Now before we go any further, let me deal with that comparison. If you have read all these posts from the beginning, you will know my opinion of ‘A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson’  is a bit of a mixed bag. It was the only story so far to get zero tentacles (though it did get four Johnsons) and as I said at the time:

It is not what I expect from a writer of horror and delver of the dark places of the human psyche.

Which of course puts me in the same category as those Lovecraftian scholars who dismiss ‘Sweet Ermengarde: Or The heart Of A Country Girl’ to give it its full title, for not been real Lovecraft… So that’s me hoist by my own petard. Dismissing a tale because it’s outside the writer’s typical genre… I should know better.

I have never believed in sticking to a genre as a writer myself, or that any other writer should stick to a genre. This is not to say common traits don’t run as threads through my own work or that of other writers who write in different genres. I can tell a text is by Stephen King whether it’s horror, sci-fi, or contemporary fiction about escaping from a prison by crawling through the shit pipe… But no one is dismissing as unworthy ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption‘ for not being horror, just because its writer is most renowned for horror staples like ‘Carrie‘ and ‘Christine’. Nor do they degrade his play at the fantasy western ‘Lord of the Rings‘ style epic ‘The Dark Tower’ for not being ‘Misery‘. No one applies genre restrictions to Mr King. I don’t apply them to my own work, (Cider Lane and Passing Place are two completely different novels, not even vaguely in the same ballpark). So why so I or indeed we ascribe such restrictions on what is and isn’t Lovecraftian fiction. H.P. wrote ‘Sweet Ermengarde’ and just because it is not his normal work does not mean it should be dismissed by anyone. Including me… So Let us regard ‘Sweet Ermengarde’ as her suitors Squire Hardman, and handsome Jack Manly do in the tale, as a simple country girl which should be judged on her own merits, or at least those of her father’s farm and his liquid crop of good moonshine…

If you have not guessed from the names of her suitors alone, Sweet Ermengarde is not a work of subtle humour. Indeed Lovecraft does his best to throttle a joke out of every opportunity, as this early passage describing his erstwhile heroine shows:

Ermengarde confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty. She had large black eyes, a prominent Roman nose, light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies, and a beautiful but inexpensive complexion.   

Subtle is not the word… This is humour with a bludgeon, and strangely enough, it reminds me of early Prattchet, of ‘The Colour of Magic,’ ‘The Light Fantastic‘, pun-laden and aggressive in its parody, (Unlike Pratchett’s later more successful and subtle works that cast direct parody aside. Oddly enough Prattchet parodied Lovecraft in ‘The Light Fantastic’ with a great old one in an ancient dark, dank temple causing havoc for Rincewind and Twoflower…). Ermengarde also has much in common with some of P.G.Wodehouse’s shorter fiction of whom Lovecraft was a contemporary and Prattchet a fan. Though both are better writers of humour than Lovecraft on the evidence of this tale, there is enough here to draw favourable comparisons to them all the same.

The target of Lovecraft’s parody is a certain kind of novel, which follows a predictable plot, young innocent girl falls in love with a Manly boy, while she been subject to the attentions of a lecherous misser who seeks her fortune. There is much spurning, rejection and double-dealing lead to fortunes been reversed and reversed again. While the motives of all become more spurious as time goes by. Until the young girl becomes a more worldly,  far less innocent and manipulates events to best suit herself. There is innuendo, puns and a plot which holds a certain amount of delightful silliness about it. A rags to riches story, all be it a parody of one, of the type read by an entirely different crowd to the weird tales audience Lovecraft normally wrote for.

 

Is this Lovecraft’s best work, no, not by any margin. It did not find a market until some six years after his death and even then it was as a filler in a collection of his stories rather than a work in its own right. It stands out only because it is so different from his norm, and perhaps had he found a market for this kind of tale in the early 1920’s, he might have written more under the pseudonym ‘Percy Simple’. There was a market for such comic tales from which many writers made a good living. Perhaps, however, the loss to the comedic pages of magazines like ‘Punch’ etc. is our gain. Had Lovecraft focused on tales like this he may have gotten closer to his goal of making a living from his writing than he ever did, but the horror genre would have been poorer for it, and as I said, he was on this evidence no Wodehouse…

Should you read it? Well, as it’s in the public domain it can be found here, if it does not appear in your own ‘Complete Collection’. It should bring a smile to your lips if not a chill to your spine. It is not your usual Lovecraft, it hardly rates even the smallest of pseudopods, let alone its own tentacle. It is funnier than you would think though and an oddly compelling read. So no tentacles but otherwise I would not dissuade you from doing so if you want a good chuckle…

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As an aside, Sweet Ermengarde is also the name of a German Goth rock band, who have produced among other things a whole album of Lovecraft inspired goodness called EX Oblivione...

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Which I have linked here just because… well I have a fondness for Germanic Gothic Metal bands that stems from my love of Bauhaus, and its a nice link into the previous bit of Lovecraftian goodness EX Oblivione I reviewed last time… If you listen to it, listen to it loud… I am not sure if Lovecraft would approve, and Percy Simple I suspect would approve even less, but no one ever claimed you had the right to censor what you inspire in others… Any more than editors should decide what can be included in a complete set of your works…

Further Lovecraftian witterings 

This entry was posted in goodreads, humour, Lovecraft, reads, retro book reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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