Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Eldritch, Stygian, Cyclopean Horrors of H. P. Lovecraft

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.

7 comments:

GeoX said...

Yeah, "The Colour Out of Space" freaked me the hell out. If you don't like "Shadow Out of Time" and "At the Mountains," there's no need to worry--I'm pretty sure those are the only ones really like that; there probably would have been more if he hadn't died first.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I wonder what he would have done if he'd lived longer. Since the stores in this compendium are arranged by publication date (as opposed the dates they were written), I'm not getting a sense of where his writing was going.

I loved the slow, progressive build up of "The Colour Out of Space." It also didn't fall prey to another of Lovecraft's weaknesses that I forgot to mention in the blog: penultimate moments in which the narrator doesn't realize what's going on, but the reader had already figured it out thirty pages ago. I mean, did anybody read "The Whisperer in the Dark" without knowing that the narrator was being deceived and set up during the second half?

Gary said...

I have not (yet) read Lovecraft, but I sure do remember the Night Gallery presentation of "Cool Air." I was only 12 or 13 at the time, but I recall the major plot and outcome vividly from that one screening.

Reminds me of an Alfred Hitchcock anthology short story regarding a waterlogged ghost who haunts a man's apartment (and ruined his watercolors!). Situation is resolved through refrigeration (the ghost is literally "put on ice").

Must read Lovecraft. Will read Lovecraft.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Gary, most (if not all) of his work is available for free online, if you have an e-reader.

I suggest "The Colour Out of Space," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "Cool Air," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Shunned House." I think all of those stories have been made into multiple movies, most of them really bad. :)

Gary said...

Thank you. Here's a good link to text that copies cleanly to Word:
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600031h.html#34

The titles are amazing, and remind me of the adventurous ones from the "Hardy Boys" books, when I was a kid.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Thanks!

And you're right, his titles were full-on pulp. Fortunately the stories live up to the titles, in most cases!

Gary said...

I have begun my Lovecraft read with "The Colour Out of Space." I like the slow build-up (although the narrator's statement that he quit his job the next day does give some hint of impending horror.

I want to find out what happens, so I'll finish reading, of course. But that build-up of suspense (and the scientific terms, with references to more than a century ago) and slightly archaic language makes me want to savor the journey.

I thought he meant "blasted" heath as in "damned." Then I understood (queue up the "Jaws" theme here) what he actually meant - literally "blasted!"

Don't you just hate it when your heath gets blasted??