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 ("Celephaїs," "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)