Friday, May 01, 2009

Review: Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H. P. Lovecraft (edited by S. T. Joshi)

Yes, I have been aware of the hints in that accursed book of the incipient horrors of the sleeping Old Ones, and sure, I too have received witness of His recent presidential campaign (infesting the dreams of sensitives is a less effective campaign tool than phone banking and booking TV spots, turns out), but somehow, for all these years on the internet, I've never managed to pick up any of the source material before now. Now that I've read a collection of Lovecraft short stories and novellas, I can finally get in on the jokes, which, of course, should put an end to their humor once and for all.

As a writer, Lovecraft occupies an interesting transitional space between the nineteenth century horror (he reeks of Poe and Shelley, especially in his earlier stories), and pulp. The usual vibe is that of a dime novel doctored up with a satisfying facsimile of Romantic prose stylings, horror conventions, and histrionics. Throw in some genuine bits of underlying cleverness, a continuity that spans pretty much all the stories, goofy but oddly compelling alien names, and some quality local scenery, and I get the appeal. And Lovecraft does deserve credit for the new directions in which he took the horror genre, replacing the gothic supernatural environment with a malevolent, impersonal science fictional universe, advocating rational inquiry, but leaving the horrors of the cosmos still beyond human explanation, but still looking for it the spooky old places and populating it with scary beings. It makes for a really odd mix: stylistically, thematically, like some kind of nerd horror. I couldn't really let go of the image of a prissy boy Howard writing stern letters to the pulps over their editorial standards; I pictured him tearing through unconventional texts like the young Victor Frankenstein (or his young creature), letting their presumed truth lead to his own bizarre interpretations; I pictured a young traveler defensively clutching his valise to his chest on a train as he follows through with his various New England correspondences.

I loved Lovecraft's old New England--I recognize a lot of the places--but it's an unlikely place to expect to find eldritch beings, having been populated (by people Lovecraft would recognize) for only a couple hundred years. The old places the author knew were the backwoods of the Northeast, and the old people were isolated Puritan farmers mucking about on dilapidated homesteads on the distant outskirts of small towns. Lovecraft frequently tried to work in some metaphysics involving ancestral human memory though, and was completely disinclined to entertain any Christian mythology to develop those ideas of ancient evil (although I suppose The Festival and Nyaralthotep come a little closer than some of them). How well any of these themes work within the limitations of the setting depends on the story, and I think the fact that even early America isn't so very old is what pushed Lovecraft to populate stories with his memorable aliens.

In addition to the contention between setting and theme, Lovecraft also often suffers from deciding badly what to tell and what to show. It's as though he absorbed the lesson that horror is sometimes better hinted at, but it took a lot of practice to get the hang of applying it. I rolled my eyes at all of the unseen and unnameable. When he does decide to describe more, the stories are invariably better. The Colour out of Space* creates the best presence out of the collection, doesn't shy so much from describing the extraterrestrial decay infecting the countryside, logs in the most details of the adversary, and for that matter, captures the Massachusetts countryside best (it's the Quabbin reservoir!), and is easily the scariest and most intriguing entry of the bunch.

The earlier stories don't find their balance as well, and probably the author thought so too, compelled as he was to revamp some of his first takes. The Call of Cthulhu is obviously Dagon rewritten, The Shadow over Innsmouth is Arthur Jermayne with fish instead of apes. Cool Air uses the same ideas in Herbert West: Reanimator to tell a story that doesn't suck so much the second time around. As far as the compilation goes, I don't think it was a good idea to present Lovecraft's work chronologically to new readers. There are a couple decent Poe pastiches early on (The Outsider and The Hound), and the very short pieces present nothing particularly objectionable, but when the editor tells me in interminable footnotes that Lovecraft found this or that story overwritten, I kept thinking, "how could anyone possibly tell?" Lovecraft sure likes to pile on the macabre adjectives, and to a character, every one of his good skeptics is on the verge of suicide in superlative despair. His scientific minds, again like Frankenstein's, were cursed with a curiousity that was unable to bear the revealed evil when it goes too far. (Didn't any of these scientists find some of the less-malevolent aliens just plain intesting? Fuck it, but I would have thought long and hard about putting my brain in a can for a chance to see Pluto.)

When Lovecraft does find a place for all of his diverse influences, he can get a good story out of it, and he does have a fair knack for unsettling dreamlike imagery and for digging deeply into local scenery. It's worth reading, but I'd probably recommend going after the four or five stories in the canon and leaving it at that.

* Although let me say that this business of "no known color" annoyed the hell out of me. Color is that set of electromagnetic radiation that people see, the stuff that is known by definition. Something colorful in some other part of the spectrum doesn't mean it's not colorful in the visible, and people ain't going to see it anywhere else. I'll cut Ambrose Bierce some more slack, but The Damned Thing, which Lovecraft is borrowing from here, and which I've improbably read, was also annoying.


twif said...

i forgive lovecraft many sins (such as his poetry. avoid that), because i do so much enjoy reading his stories. yes, you can definately see improvement from his earlier work. but it's the pinnicale of pulp and great fun to revisit.

Keifus said...

I think "pinnacle of pulp" is a great compliment (and accurate).

twif said...

plus, lovecraft's work lead to neil gaiman re-writing "a study in scarlet" as "a study in emerald". sherlock holmes in a world ruled by the great old ones. that's just cool.

Cindy said...

I wish I had a name like Lovecraft.


You've pointed me in a new direction here - I've never gotten into this, so it should be fun.

Keifus said...

That sounds like a great take, love Neil Gaiman. Does he remember to flee through non-Euclidian space?

Art: I'd never gotten into his writing either, but if you insist on being online, then I think it's your moral imperative...