Howard Phillips Lovecraft is universally acknowledged as a seminal force in the horror genre—an inspiration for thousands of authors and spinner of nightmares for many more thousands of readers. Every so often, popular culture rediscovers him, and we’re inundated with novels and movies adapted from his mythos—not to mention roleplaying games and plush toys. Horrors from beyond space, demon-spawn, malign antiquarian gods, unspeakable mutations, mad science, lost civilizations (best kept lost), and forbidden tomes of mind-twisting arcana all find their place within Lovecraft’s nightmares. There are slime, gore, and odors most foul, but the well of terror he taps is driven by an overwhelming sense of foreboding—the ponderous weight of doom, the certainty that something awful is about to happen. He’s a master of immersive stage-setting and mood-weaving.
Before picking up this book, I’d read bits and pieces of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, but had never delved into his portfolio of stories in any depth. It took a few months to traverse the serpentine path through the haunted alleyways of Arkham, past shadowed Innsmouth, across the desolate plateau of Leng, into the cursed city of R’yleh and back again, with all manner of strange interludes along the way, but it was well worth it.
Nobody’s Perfect: Lovecraft had a rough life, one that would have made a diehard pessimist of anybody, and he reflects the era and culture that raised him. He’s not politically or socially correct by modern standards, so he draws flak from all quarters, most of it overblown, in my opinion. Among many other pejoratives, he’s characterized as a racist, a misogynist, an elitist, an atheist, a depressive, and a fatalist. The literary police also find ample fodder for criticism. Lovecraft is wordy. His pacing is glacial. He’s enamored of large, unctuous words, the ones that cling to the inside of your mouth like peanut butter, and he doesn’t hesitate to repeat them over and over again. Readers so inclined could play a productive (and very brief) drinking game by cracking open a Lovecraft tale and taking a swig of their favored brew whenever any or all of the following words turn up : Eldritch, cyclopean, miasma, abomination.
Resistance is Not Futile: As much criticism as Lovecraft garners for offering what seems like a hopeless world view convinced of human insignificance, the worst thing anybody can do in the Lovecraftian universe is surrender to evil. No matter the odds, the battle is worthwhile, and it’s those who fight that good fight against darkness who keep the rest of us from being overwhelmed by it. Cowards who bow meekly before the dark lords find them immune to flattery…and hungry.
Unfortunately, Lovecraft doesn’t offer many suggestions about how to fight evil. It mostly comes down to “keep a stiff upper lip and fight fire with fire.” His most successful protagonists, like those in “The Dunwich Horror,” turn the forbidden, arcane knowledge that powers their foes against them, despite terrible peril to their own souls and the risk of insanity from meddling with concepts human minds aren’t wired to process.
The Arkham of my Rose-Tinted Youth: Despite the crushing pressure of uncaring, unseen, evil forces beyond the ken of humanity, Lovecraft still manages to find and treasure beauty in the world. Several characters spend lifetimes trying to recapture the shining lands they saw so clearly through the eyes of their innocent youth. In “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” the protagonist undertakes an odyssey across the hinterlands of heaven and hell, looking for the paradise he glimpsed once in a dream. Upon his return, he realizes, like Dorothy Gale, that what he sought was waiting for him all along in his own backyard, the moonlit New England woods and villages of his childhood. Most of Lovecraft’s settings are stage-named communities in and about Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where he spent his formative years, and his love for the rolling, forested hills and colonial towns of that region comes through loud and clear, even when nasty things are lurking in the shadows.
There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy: Lovecraft’s stories are fierce in their contention that there is an objective reality independent of what we can see, hear, and touch. It exists, whether or not we care to believe in it, and characters who dismiss its existence tend not to end well. Our universe may be vast, but it’s far from empty, and what hovers beyond the edge of perception is not a trifling matter. Some things don’t lend themselves to logical reasoning or scientific analysis, and human intellect is more limited than we like to admit. You have been warned.
Evil is Bad: Lovecraft doesn’t paint his monsters in shades of gray. They are utterly, irredeemably, all-consumingly malign. Really-most-sincerely bad. You can’t negotiate with them or work out a mutually-acceptable compromise. They have no interest in mending their ways. They corrupt everything they touch. They’re hiding in your attic or cellar right now. Once the sun sets, THEY’RE COMING OUT TO GET YOU.
Aliens are People Too: In “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of Lovecraft’s characters has an epiphany—the starfish-headed beings he thought were monsters are, in a very real sense, human. They were scientists forced to flee the malignant, unreasoning abominations slithering within the bowels of that ancient city just over the next ridge. “Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!”
So what’s the message? Yes, evil deforms, but we have to be careful about assuming too much solely on the basis of external appearances. Beauty can be strange, and truth may shine beneath an unattractive surface. We must weigh what’s happening inside the head and heart. True monstrosity, true horror, lacks both reason and compassion. It wants to consume you. Slowly and painfully. Just because.
Whistling Past the Graveyard: Here’s my biggest revelation after plowing through 1000-plus pages of eldrich horror—Lovecraft has a wicked-good (to use a Yankee turn of phrase) sense of humor.
No, really. He does. You might miss it if you’re too focused on the slime and misshapen plants and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Lovecraft’s wit comes to the fore in stories like “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” where the protagonist hobnobs with a hapless band of ghouls, soars through the air with the less-than-terrifying Night Gaunts (who have a thing for tickling), and wins a battle of wits with the diabolical Nyarlahotep (a much more frightening horror elsewhere). A darker humor is at play in a series of tales chronicling the misadventures of Herbert West, a young surgeon obsessed with finding a way to raise the dead. He succeeds, in part, and works with bloody good cheer to perfect the process, leaving a trail of botched experiments in his wake—only to be hoist on his own petard when the revivified horrors return for revenge.
There are plenty of Lovecraft compendiums available for bargain prices, but I thought this one, simple and unadorned, was fine, and it was one of the largest collections available in a single volume. 67 stories, nothing but the text, straight to my e-reader, with everything else supplied by the author’s ornate prose and my imagination. Believe me, that was more than enough.
Halcyon Classics e-book for Nook, published June, 2009. 1096 pages.
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