I have been slogging my way through a giant 1000-page collection of H.P. Lovecraft's better (or at least "more significant") stories. This is the first time I've read his work in many, many years.
I realize now that I actually didn't read as many Lovecraft stories as I thought I did, and that the ones I DID read I tended to skim. Patience, experience, context, and age are allowing me to better enjoy his strengths and tolerate his weaknesses...but I still have to restrain that skimming urge.
What have I learned so far? Lovecraft was far more creative than I ever gave him credit for. While he tended to use the same techniques over and over again, his actual IDEAS -- the "hooks" in the stories -- show a lot of variety.
I'm also surprised at how GRUESOME his work was. The stereotype of Lovecraft is that his protagonists always faint before they can fully describe the final horror (he even manages to turn Harry Houdini into a shrieking wimp in "Under the Pyramids"), but for the most part this isn't the case. Stories like "The Outsider," "The Shunned House," and "Cool Air" pull no punches when it comes to the climax, and "In the Vault" is one of the few stories I've ever read that has managed to shock me.
He was extremely creative, yes, and he doesn't entirely deserve the "tease" label he's been saddled with...so why is this compendium of stories so often infuriating?
A few reasons. Lovecraft's racism is well documented, and though his eugenic beliefs were more-or-less of his time, it's still maddening to read about the evolutionary and cultural "degeneracy" that his characters keep harping about.
Something else his characters harp about is the oh-so-scary "cyclopean masonry" in virtually every story. It comes up so often -- and is presented as so disturbing -- that I wonder if Lovecraft was confused as to what it actually WAS: big hunks of rough limestone built into a wall. Disregarding the fact that there is nothing intrinsically sanity-blasting about that sort of architecture, you really have to wonder how all his characters knew what the style was CALLED. Did YOU know what "cyclopean" meant? Did more people in the 1920s know what it meant? Somehow I doubt it.
Anyway, this ties into the prevalence of Lovecraft's lasting legacy: the ubiquitous Necronomicon, the supposedly-rare arcane book of evil and forgotten knowledge...which at least one character in each of his later stories has managed to read at some point. And we're not just talking about occultists and folklorists, we're talking about ORDINARY people. In "At the Mountains of Madness," both the geologist and the BIOLOGIST in the doomed Antarctic expedition have read the book cover-to-cover. Rather than provide atmosphere and depth, the constant citing of the Necronomicon just makes it seem increasingly pedestrian; who can be intrigued by a Book Of Forbidden Knowledge that everybody has read?
My final criticism only applies to two stories so far: "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow Out of Time." While most of Lovecraft's stories contain a fair amount of movement and action ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth" in particular), those two stories appear to be flimsy excuses for Lovecraft to say "Look at this detailed biological and cultural description of these monsters I made up!" They're dull expository sandwiches: two thin slices of plot surrounding thick, fifty-page examinations of the life and times of creepy pseudo-vegetables. Somebody should have just given Lovecraft a sketchbook for his birthday.
I started reading this collection with low expectations, so despite some extremely long and dry sections I am pleasantly surprised by Lovecraft's work. I am particularly in love with "The Colour Out of Space," which I think is the perfect collection of all of Lovecraft's strengths.
But for your own sake I recommend -- as always -- that you do NOT read all of his work in a row. You may find yourself turning into a fish-monster, losing your sanity, and screaming "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!" in the night, which would be too much for even fearless Harry Houdini to bear.