Friday, January 10, 2014

An Eldritch Education: My Year With Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Note: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.

At the start of 2013, I knew next to nothing about H.P. Lovecraft. That's a lamentable state of affairs for a guy who claims to love speculative fiction and horror, a state I remedied over the span of 365 days. During last year, I read every one of his short stories as determined by the Penguin annotated editions of his works, which are the only scholarly editions as far as I know. (A number of Lovecraft's well-known tales were actually ghostwritten, and I've yet to dip my toes into the murky pool of his poetry.) It proved a delightfully spooky time, and following you'll find what I learned about Lovecraft's works in particular and storytelling in general.

First, strangeness is scary. Critics like to point out that Lovecraft's unique combination of horror and science fiction is a defining aspect of his fiction. Actually, they would probably call it the defining aspect, but if I had to highlight a single characteristic, I'd chose something else entirely -- the terrifying otherness in his best stories. Forget the standard boogeyman of bygone years. Lovecraft populated tales with creatures that defied easy description (as his narrators are so fond of telling us), and he used that strangeness to scare readers silly. Consider the great reveal in "The Call of Cthulhu" where the titular monstrosity wakens from a sleep of eons and heaves itself out of an undersea temple in pursuit of a clutch of doomed sailors:
Poor Johansen's handwriting almost gave out when he wrote of this. Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described -- there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own.
In another writer, such oblique descriptions might prove irritating, but Lovecraft knew how to drop just enough evocative detail to send gooseflesh rippling up one's spine, whether chronicling the rise of an Egyptian demigod who rules over a universe that spins without rhyme or reason ("Nyarlathotep"), describing a once-pastoral landscaping blasted by a cosmic blight ("The Colour Out of Space"), or recording the ravings of a man driven insane by the sight of a sentient, ambulatory gelatin ("At the Mountains of Madness").

What's more, as I read on I discovered that focus foments effective fright. Lovecraft's output varied in quality, as does that of every author. But he really got himself in trouble with longer works. As word counts swelled, he seemed to unspool ever more rope for the proverbial hangman. The occasionally brilliant "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" loses itself in tedious travelogue. Ditto for "Under the Pyramids," "The Shadow Out of Time," and the infuriatingly aimless "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Sometimes, though, Lovecraft would pare a story down to its essentials, and these proved successful more often than not. Brisk pacing makes the touch of "Cool Air" a chilling experience in every way. A pithy fable about cruelty to animals crescendos into gruesome vengeance by "The Cats of Ulthar." A drug-addicted sailor abruptly interrupts his recounting of a strange episode at sea by flinging himself out a window to escape the terrifying servants of "Dagon." An account of a controversial artist's disappearance briskly moves toward the shocking identification of "Pickman's Model." Could it be that space constraints forced Lovecraft to focus on frightening subject matter with a laser-like intensity?

He wrote about more than horror, though. It may surprise some to learn that fantasy composes a fair portion of Lovecraft's oeuvre, I doubt it would shock them to discover they aren't his most celebrated tales. But who needs to excel at everything? Sure, Lovecraft might have really wanted to pen gripping pastiches of Lord Dunsany, yet most of them ended up far too wordy ("The Quest of Iranon," "Polaris") or shirked the hard work of proper worldbuilding ("CelephaŃ—s," "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath"). The most effective examples couldn't help but slip a little terror into their imaginative landscapes ("The White Ship," "The Doom that Came to Sarnath"), demonstrating once again their author's true forte. Of course, Lovecraft's very success in horror freed him to experiment in a genre with which he didn't excel. It only takes a handful of sterling stories to cement readers' appreciation.

And speaking of appreciation, my year with Lovecraft taught me that ideologies don't matter -- until they do. When friends and family would ask me about the guy who wrote the book I was always carrying, I jokingly explained that he was the exact opposite of me. I don't share his progressivism, atheism, or nihilism, yet those traits didn't dampen my enjoyment even when they took center stage. However, I couldn't stomach one ideological obsession -- his racism. Today we tend to use that term to encompass everything from ethnocentrism to religious prejudice, but Lovecraft was a true racist in the classical sense. He believed in the biological superiority and inferiority of races, going so far as to suggest that little separated Africans from apes ("Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family") and that various European and Middle Eastern immigrants naturally tended toward the worst sorts of barbarism ("The Horror at Red Hook"). Those are the two most evident examples from his canon, but you can find countless subtler digs at those without "pure" Anglo-Saxon blood flowing through their veins. It made for incredibly uncomfortable reading. Why did those racist sections effect me so strongly? Perhaps because they obviously stemmed from visceral disgust rather than intellectual argumentation. Maybe it was due to the fact that history has shown the terrible human toll that such beliefs inevitably take. Whatever the reason, I now understand why so many people have a tough time stomaching Lovecraft.



That's what I learned during my eldritch education, dear readers. Why not browse through my index of stories and acquaint yourself with Lovecraft's work? Or better yet, pick up The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, or The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories and read the tales yourself.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Michelle Souliere)

12 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Well, by the end of his rather short life, Lovecraft showed some signs of getting over his various sorts of chauvinism...an anti-Semite early on, his wife was Jewish, and he had no problem with Robert Bloch as his chief acolyte at the beginning of the latter's career.

There are a number of reasons HPL can be tough sledding, and logorrhea is certainly one. It is notable that Bloch went on to become the Hammett/Hemingway/Heinlein figure in "newsstand" horror, helping to introduce a lean colloquial style into the fiction as he found his own voice. He and Fritz Leiber also took up most of what was good about HPL and did better work with it. Not as widely appreciated (except when watered down in the work of such acolytes as Stephen King), but still there, and still influential.

Loren Eaton said...

Just from reading the stories, it seems as though Lovecraft reserved most of his animus for people with African descent of "degenerate" backwoods New Englanders who'd squandered their racial inheritance. His wordiness was irritating, but the racism was what got to me.

Daniel said...

Loren - I followed the whole series, it's been great! Thanks for the work you put into it.

I'd like to read the best of the stories - would you consider making a "short list" of the best and/or required (story-arc-wise) stories? I know I could go back through and determine that based on your reviews, but, well, I'm lazy.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, mind you, I'm not arguing that the racism of HPL wasn't ennervating...though, sadly, in context it wasn't exceptional. His buddy Robert Howard, after all, manages to be both racist and sexist to an insane degree, and even his work wasn't exceptional thus.

Loren Eaton said...

Daniel,

Thanks! I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it.

As far as a list of the "better" stories, here are all of the four or five shoggoth tales:

"Dagon"
"Nyarlathotep"
"Herbert West -- Reanimator"
"The Rats in the Walls"
"He"
"Cool Air"
"The Call of Cthulhu"
"The Haunter of the Dark"
"The Music of Erich Zann"
"Pickman's Model"
"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"
"The Dunwich Horror"
"The Thing on the Doorstep"
"The Door that Came to Sarnath"
"The Terrible Old Man"
"The Cats of Ulthar"
"The Lurking Fear"
"The Shunned House"
"In the Vault"
"Through the Gates of the Silver Key"
"The Dreams in the Witch House"

It's a bit long, I know. If I had to pick three to give you a good taste of Lovecraft, I'd probably go for "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Music of Erich Zahn," and "The Dunwich Horror."

You can find the a lot of these stories online, but the text is ... variable. The annotated editions linked above will give you the best versions, and you can probably get them from a local library. Happy reading!

Loren Eaton said...

Todd,

Agreed. Disturbing? Yes. Uncommon? Sadly, no.

rckjones said...

Loren, I've thoroughly enjoyed following your Lovecraft series over the last year! Thanks for posting the wrap-up. I was really curious about what the end result of such an experience would be. Do you still have your sanity mostly intact? :-)

You should attempt the Fungi of Yuggoth (his sonnet cycle) if and when you recover from the story-marathon. It's probably one of my favorite HPL works, period... but then again, I do enjoy poetry.

Thanks especially for the discussion of racism. I'm really glad you noted it, and the ways in which it's uncomfortable even for racism of its period. I think you're on to something by pointing out that HPL doesn't even attempt an explanation more than pointing a finger and saying, "Ew."

Loren Eaton said...

ia! ia!

Ahem. Sorry. That just happens to me sometimes.

I really enjoyed listening to Norm Sherman read from "The Fungi of Yoggoth." Those little sonnets distill the weirdness so nicely. But then I saw that all of Lovecraft's poetry far outnumbers his short stories. Maybe I'll save that one for another year!

Daniel said...

Loren -

Thanks for the list of four/five Shaggoth stories, that helps a lot.

I thought you'd be interested in a little free independent PC game that was released today called "The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home," which uses text from Lovecraft's stories as part of a minimalist and evocative exploratory (horror?) experience. Here's the website, and here is a review of the game by one of my favorite game review sites that pays attention to indie games.

The game is 20 minutes long and well worth the time.

Loren Eaton said...

Daniel,

Hey, someone else reads Rock Paper Shotgun! I check out their site time and again, although I haven't played any current-gen title for ages. Thanks for the recommendation. I just got a new computer, and I think it'll be able to run this just fine. I'll give it a spin and let you know what I think.

Guilie Castillo said...

I know very little of Lovecraft, read a few of his stories for some English class way back when, didn't care for him enough to read more. Yep, the racism made me disconnect. And the wordiness. Jeez. But you've piqued my interest. I may just snag a collection or two ;) Thanks, Loren!

Loren Eaton said...

Try the three I suggested to Daniel. They're really quite good.