Weirder Than You Think
(A Book Review of Tales of H. P. Lovecraft edited by Joyce Carol Oates)
Without a doubt Howard Philips Lovecraft, or more commonly known as H. P. Lovecraft, is one of the greatest writers the turbulent twentieth century ever produced. No one can refute that he is indeed the natural inheritor of the American horror tradition next to his literary hero, Edgar Allan Poe, to which Lovecraft is usually compared to. Peeking further into the life of H. P. Lovecraft, it seems — call it a trick of fate, coincidence, or a bad joke by the ghastly gods of the unknown — that more than the similar quality of the stories they churned (“bizarre, brilliant, inspired, original, yet frequently hackneyed, derivative and repetitive,” if I may quote from Joyce Carol Oates’s introduction from this particular book’s edition) both their life carve out parallel patterns, just to mention a few: both were born in New England and were fatherless at an early age; both had disastrous marriages and lived a truncated life; both tried to live off by means of their writing and sold them to magazines with little financial pay off; and though branded as literary misfits of their respective times, more importantly, both established a body of work (ironically appreciated only after their death) that became the foundation and left an indelible mark for much of today’s horror fiction. Writers old and new pay them both tribute for their timeless macabre and pitch of fascinating malevolence. Acclaimed author Stephen King once said of Lovecraft: “[He was] the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”
What’s distinctive about H. P. Lovecraft is that he is perhaps one of the early Western authors to write exclusively in the horror genre, fusing together elements of classic gothic tale steeped with mysticism, the occult, and hidden cults along with what would later be known as science fiction creating a subgenre which he calls “cosmic horror”. Besides this his stories feature a keen, psychological dread, rather than an intrepid, obvious threat. His themes often center on “what maybe” instead of “what is”, externalizing inner fears and demons into universal horror stories that share a helpless, hapless view of the fate of humanity. Ultimately, the fears in Lovecraft’s stories are all about things we can’t see, can’t find, and can’t understand. What if those things beyond our understanding are best left there? What if we push the envelope of discovery a little too far and find something that will swallow us whole, destroying our perception — of what we think of as “what is” — underneath the crushing weight of truth too hideous to comprehend?
Before delving into the individual stories included in this collection I want to, at this juncture, commend Joyce Carol Oates for her insightful introduction to this edition (this really convinced me that I should try some of her books sometime soon), from which I learned a lot, and her splendid choice of some of H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal short stories. Truth be told, this is the first time that I had read Lovecraft and I can’t recommend this edition enough if some of you Gentle Readers want to try him out. Though not arranged in the chronological manner by the time either which the stories were written or published, Oates see it fit that the reader will not be swamped — else potential readers thought that they had bitten more than they could chew — by its otherworldliness presenting each stories by increments, like a ten course meal starting off with a simple yet delectable appetizer that as your done with the first and satisfied will urge you to try the next one until you get into the heavies, the meat and potatoes.
A caveat of sorts: Lovecraft writes in a flowery prose that certainly harks back to the nineteenth century sensibility and use of language. If you’re already familiar with the short stories of Poe, then you’re in good company, you’ll trudge along just fine. Unlike Poe, who in times meanders in abstraction and philosophize before he even starts his story, Lovecraft dives on into the kernel of his tale.
Following are the stories in this edition and arranged in the order of their appearance in the book along with my comments and observations on them:
- The Outsider — the tone of the narrator and the setting which he describes just screams — Gothic! It is easily one of my favorites at the outset and works the best, in my opinion, as an introductory story if you want a sampling of Lovecraft. The unnamed narrator’s voice soothes; like a friend he invites you in his world of “vine-encumbered trees” and a castle of “infinitely old and infinitely horrible.” Seemingly, it’s a conversation starting off sensibly well till self-doubt gnaws our protagonist. The tale quickly slides into a slightly disturbing derangement. It uses a truly classic twist that the reader might never expect.
- The Music of Erich Zann — set in Bohemian Paris Lovecraft clearly evokes in here the world of impoverished students and tortured artists. It’s not as scary as such, but has a fine, feverish mood that builds to a classic Lovecraftian freakout. With excellent use of suggestive atmosphere along with the ambiguous nature of the supernatural threat (which you get a lot of if you’re a veteran reader of horror short stories), it lends the tale with a fairly nice edge of madness.
- The Rats in the Walls — the thing with Lovecraft is that he seems to create characters that’s a stand in / representative of himself (which I also noticed with some of the characters of Stephen King, especially if that character happens to be a writer). Lovecraft during his lifetime believes that he is the scion of a minor New England aristocracy, the last of a noble line, which happens to be the background he gives to this story’s protagonist, Walter Delapore. Why Lovecraft did it so is a thing you will discover for yourself as you read along. The horror of this one pretty much worked for me and its scare tactic is one used by a number of authors who had been inspired by this short story. Case in point: if you’ve read Jerusalem’s Lot by Stephen King you might know what I’m speaking of. More importantly, Lovecraft seems to be striving to place his story in the context of the contemporary world by particularly placing this one along the current events of his time. Unlike the previous two this one specifically follows a definite pattern: specific, detailed, and placed expertly in the real world — a structure he will later use in the stories to follow.
- The Shunned House — specific, detailed and placed expertly, this is a structure Lovecraft closely goes after in the fourth short story in this collection. Apparently the titular house of this tale is actually a real house (which stands up to this day) at 135 Benedict Street in Providence, Rhode Island. I thought I would be served with a clichéd haunted house tale (I partly blame the shabby title, heh) only to be surprised by a curios story told in the first person narrative of Elihu Whipple and his confrontation with a fiendish horror. Lovecraft’s level of historical detail — an almost obsessive recitation of dates and names covering two centuries and more — anchor’s the story to a convincing real world narrative. Evidently, this is one of Lovecraft’s earlier outings into the nascent science fiction realm using the technical advancement of the time to make his horrors sound plausible.
- The Call of Cthulhu — this piece alone stands out as the archetypal Lovecraftian story and initiates the reader into what fans have called as the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Look no far for all the ingredients of Lovecraft’s horror concoction is here: dreams, ancient myths, degenerate cults, and impenetrable and incomprehensible horror. The structure of the story is also typical from what we expect from him: a distant, anonymous, narrator; the accumulation of information from diverse sources; the slow build up and suggestion of dread. The long-winded crescendo that starts with the dreams of a few aesthetes, to the hideous final ritual in the swamp up to one of the characters encounter with the monster gradually raises the scope and stake of the story from the trivial to the Earth-shatteringly profound. Furthermore, the quality of Lovecraft’s narration makes it stands out among the others epitomized by the chilling expression of the cosmic horror in the opening line that makes a killing: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
- The Colour Out of Space — again Lovecraft’s strength in creating atmosphere and memorable description is very much felt here illustrated no less by a very poetic opening line: “West of Arkham, the hills rise wild and there are valleys with deep woods that no axes has ever cut.” Reading that one made the hairs on my neck stood on end, instantly inspiring images of a dark, malign landscape that looms and threaten. The opening paragraph carry this theme through, outlining the history of unsuccessful settlement in the area, establishing man’s weak grip on the Earth and the ineffable nature of the wilderness. The sudden intrusion from outer space into the lives of the modest and god fearing folk of rural New England depicts a horrible insight into man’s own smallness, breaking their minds and bodies both, and vividly portraying, in the best gothic tradition, their physical demise by an outward affliction which also works as a perfect metaphor for man’s inner dissolution. Also one of my favorites!
- The Dunwich Horror — gripping, horrible and totally bizarre, that‘s how I describe this seventh tale. Throughout Lovecraft’s story there’s a running thread of recurring motifs that give the impression that these short stories are somehow linked. Some of these elements are the Necronomicon, an ancient book of evil spells; Arkham, a fictional city located in Massachusetts; and Miskatonic University, an imaginary college near the area. As the The Dunwich Horror unfolds readers can see these Lovecraftian ideas at work and pretty much enjoy this story garbed in the traditional good vs. evil plotline along with its noticeable relevance to the “Cthulhu Mythos”. As expected from such tales, yes the good guys will have to face and defeat a hideous fiend, but don’t worry they’ll almost make it. What makes this story out of the ordinary though? I will not tell you, but this one just left me speechless, gaping at the final page.
- At the Mountain of Madness — the longest tale in this collection; by its sheer length alone I think it’s a novella. Like any men of learning of his time Lovecraft also dabbles in a bit of science, and one his constant interest is polar exploration, which in the twentieth century is one of the uncharted, harshest regions in Earth. This fascination ultimately seeps through in At the Mountain of Madness, about the expedition of William Dyer and some professors from Miskatonic University in the cold, desolate continent of Antarctica. The details of the expedition, the gadgets and mechanisms used (available technologies of the era) are thoroughly depicted. I admit that this one bored me on the few pages, but what sustained me in slogging through this glacial mass of narration is the question of why does the protagonist foil other explorers from venturing in this deadly place. Lovecraft’s real life scientific knowledge about geology evidently embellishes this tale as much as he does with his other tales with a heavy historical background. However, what makes At the Mountain of Madness stand out from the rest is its meticulous level of realistic detail in the plot and the evocative description of the frozen wasteland with the confluence of horror in the story — the devastating chasm of time and the fact that a race of beings with a thousand year history had lived, thrived, and perished long before the evolution of man. This tale, I believe, is one of the finest among stories using the theme of strange horrors unexpectedly exposed in rediscovered lost or ancient places.
- The Shadow Over Innsmouth — the single story representative of weird fiction, Lovecraft shows the very best of what he can offer in this outlandish account of Robert Olmstead about the village of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. Writing at his best, Lovecraft pools his various oddities such as the mysteries of a town shrouded in secrecy, whispers of cults, and of course ties this one in the famed “Cthulhu Mythos” to produce a sublime mounting horror where all rudiments harmonize resulting to very unsettling climax. The story also focuses on some of his favorite themes like racism, deterioration, superstition, the phantom of madness ever present over all his first person narrators and (added on this list) a perverted view of sexual aggression. So far this one has THE most disturbing ending — my flesh literally pricked at the final reveal! Favorite among favorites this one is!
- The Shadow Out of Time — foremost of the stories that Lovecraft wrote before his death, The Shadow Out of Time tells the experiences of Professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee under an alien race and their ability to take over or switch host bodies. I suppose this is one of the precursors of the alien abduction tale. The story has a tone of a febrile dream, where — like the narrator — you distrust even your own senses, where reality and insanity is separated by a thin line. Despite that, Lovecraft’s message here is crystal clear: in the absence of knowledge, chaos ensues and that even in his twilight years he’s still a force in horror fiction to reckon with.
Whether or not propped by an undercurrent of supposed “mythologies” present in such wild yarns, and though themes, symbols may run counter to what Lovecraft initially have in mind, a tale is just a tale after all, and that “myth” (in whatever guise) is the dregs it scatters about picked up by anyone who finds (whatever) meaning from it. It cannot be denied, however, that the true allure of the gothic tale is in how it stirs deep-seated fears, and by that I don’t only allude at the ones you feel inside your guts, I also mean those that can short circuit your brain fuse haywire, for as Lovecraft said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”
Book #34 for 2011
Published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
(Trade Paperback, 2007 Edition)
Started: August 22, 2011
Finished: August 30, 2011