Let’s sum up a few general things you may have heard about author H.P. Lovecraft. He wrote a run of stories published in genre magazines in the 1920s and 30s; for them he is recognized as a distinct influence on American horror, second to Edgar Allan Poe. He created the great Cthulhu, the fearsome winged, tentacled, octopus-thing whose mythos lives on in tabletop games and other fan-made fictions. He spawned numerous unsettling tales of ghastly creatures and mind-bending mysteries situated around New England locales, which transformed into places like the “legend-haunted city of Arkham.” He was a known recluse with a xenophobic streak, and died poor and obscure. And for my money, he had one of the coolest names of any author, ever.
We should also address the common criticism that Lovecraft’s stories all follow a similar formulaic structure. This is mostly true. It goes something like this: An educated white male records recent events in which he (or someone he knows) witnessed something extremely strange. More events unfold to form a story that revolves around strange heredity or cosmic visitors or travel to an unsettling location. The narrator makes it clear that insanity may overtake him because it’s difficult to reconcile his personal experiences with the known world. The recorded events dovetail into the present moment in which the person must finally deal with the almost unexplainable horror face-to-face. The final line of the story, often emphasized in italics, sums up a ghastly revelation about the perceived nature of said heredity, visitors, or location.
Reading Lovecraft can be simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating. Take “The Call of Cthulhu,” the opening tale. Packed full of broad mythology, it becomes interesting only after experiencing several other Lovecraft stories that get more hands-on. The Cthulhu story is told at arm’s reach, by a narrator who wasn’t even there to witness the monster firsthand. It’s the most popular in name, but deserves to wrap up the collection in the last slot, not open things up for a newcomer. (Besides, over the course of the collection Cthulhu is not even the most frequently mentioned of the ancient ones; that distinction goes to the mysterious Yog-Sothoth.)
That said, the popular story does have some great quips that illustrate the philosophical scaffolding on which the author built his brand of fear. He writes that “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” and are therefore weak prey to “the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and space.” His angle was that the universe is entirely indifferent to humans and it’s only a matter of time before others stumble upon our tiny planet, or rise from the deep, and consume us in ways not so much hostile as inevitable. The narrator in the Cthulhu story gets rather blunt when he tries to fathom the fathoms of unknown waters: “When I think of the extent of all that may be brooding down there I almost wish to kill myself forthwith.” Puny humans can’t handle the truth.
For the characters, taking action to understand the hugeness and strangeness of a new idea is tantalizing yet dangerous. The author excels when he crafts the struggle between a scientific world and an older one filled with fantasy and legend. He uses his creatures and cosmic rifts to propose that perhaps our weirdest myths were due to actual ancient beings who were once worshiped as gods but who modernity has largely forgotten. Most of his characters keep an agreeably open mind as they struggle with the push and pull between science and superstition. As one puts it after a disturbing encounter, “I remained awake all that night, but by dawn realised how silly I had been to let the shadow of a myth upset me. Instead of being frightened, I should have had a discoverer’s enthusiasm.” Lovecraft does not work in the realm of pure fantasy. He works in the cracks between what we know and what we do not know. Readers don’t get fooled into falling for flimsy ghost stories. They get lead along, page by page, until they too second-guess reality and wonder if maybe, just maybe, something lurks at the edges of what we can see.
This narrative alchemy is not always so carefully measured. While the repeated references to “hideous books of forbidden elder lore” offer the amusing, quaint idea that books could hold actual magical power (with the dreaded Necronomicon being the most evil), it undercuts the suspension of disbelief. Spell-and-incantation cliches only devalue what Lovecraft is trying to do with his grandiose arcs. There’s also a fine line between using folklore as a whole for the basis of wonder and inquiry, and getting a little too specific with attempts to tie in the real world. When the author toys with connecting stories to the tragedies of Salem, or makes an offhand comment that swastikas were found alongside other strange marks associated with the ancient and unspeakable gods of old, the attempts at cleverness miss the mark. They only downplay very real horrors that don’t need otherworldly explanations.
The biggest stumbling block to fully enjoying Lovecraft is his intensely hierarchical view of human cultures. Woe to any racial minorities unlucky enough to be mentioned in his stories. Unfamiliar peoples, and their religions, become the voodoo fetishists whose cults secretly worship bloodthirsty alien beings. I recommend avoiding the most painful caricature by skipping “Herbert West—Reanimator” completely. There’s also an intense focus on heredity. Is this a New England thing? (At least there’s the ongoing joy of reading names like Jabez Brown and Abraham Whipple.)
Several stories, like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” feature degenerated humans who have either adopted beastlike habits or have become beasts themselves over time. Apparently one of Lovecraft’s personal fears was some sort of impurity in the bloodlines. And this is where you have to take the bad with the good. A victim of his time, he was also a notorious loner with questionable self-esteem. It could have been that these exact asocial qualities worked in a feedback loop with his creative imagination, and enhanced a style that specifically experimented with grappling with the unknown. He writes that “the abnormal always excites aversion, distrust, and fear.” It’s easy to imagine Lovecraft typing away behind shuttered windows, afraid to go outside for days on end for fear of who or what he might run into.
It’s better when Lovecraft leaves human history behind and explores the limits of the senses or the qualities of space-time. Some stories attempt to describe things that can barely be put to page, like the actual sounds that come from “The Music of Erich Zann” or the mysterious hues from “The Colour Out of Space.” On occasion the author plainly states that something “would be useless to describe” or is “beyond the power of words to classify,” but generally he does a fine job of taking the reader places that could only be described in a book because the imagination has to fill in huge gaps to supplement the author’s speculative foray. “The Colour Out of Space” is a remarkable tale of rural decay that is among the creepiest science fiction I’ve read, and much the same goes for “The Dreams in the Witch House” for its depictions of a crystalline fourth dimension—not to mention the nightmare vision of one creature by the name of Brown Jenkin.
For all Lovecraft’s strengths, the stories in this particular collection by Fall River Press are uneven in quality, poorly ordered, and simply too large in number. With 20 stories that total 600 pages, the book does not offer the accessibility the author deserves. It should open with something representative like “The Whisperer in Darkness” that has a little bit of everything, from local charm to lobster-like aliens. It should completely excise the drudgery that is “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a novella that the author did not intend for publication and that he himself called a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.” It is a beast that should have stayed buried. What’s needed is a slimmer, all-star collection of the best of the best. Properly juxtaposed with all the fat trimmed, his standout stories could illustrate the full range of his imagination.
The repetitive themes and structures, mixed with bits of brilliance throughout, give readers the sense that Lovecraft was one of those writers who was on a journey toward a singular greatness. Amazingly, he found it. “At the Mountains of Madness” is another novella, contained in this anthology but also (breathe a sigh of relief) available as its own book with a few supplemental stories.
Here is the holy grail of all things Lovecraft.
It’s a travelogue about an expedition to the remote reaches of Antarctica, inspired by the real expeditions that occurred during the author’s lifetime. Four primary explorers plus their crew stumble upon organic pods in unexplored territory, and things get strange quickly. After a catastrophe strikes, two of the men fly a plane even further into the interior, and witness vistas of inexplicable architecture that they explore with a mix of fear and fascination. The story has everything: a recounted adventure that feels immediate, the awe of scientific discovery, a small cast of characters with a sympathetic narrator, a slow steady burn set against tangible descriptions of creeping claustrophobia and wide open landscapes, and the full range of Lovecraftian mythology. It towers above the other stories, deserving to live outside these doorstop anthologies and have much wider recognition. It’s really all the Lovecraft the casual reader needs.
Yet despite my bellyaching about page count, there’s something to be said for the full immersion. The specific paranoia the author creates in his stories shows he was well aware of “man’s eternal tendency to hate and fear and shrink from the utterly different,” and his refusal to settle for common ghouls illustrates his view that “memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.” When H.P. Lovecraft writes about something and you can’t quite picture it, yet you still feel a tingle in your spine as you read, it’s because he has touched the same place that myth and infinity touch. He has reached into the crevice and noticed something was alive.