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The Lovecraft Update / A Primer for Prospective Readers

It's been awhile since I've written about H.P. Lovecraft.  If anybody's been reading the blog long enough, you know I've been reading his works (slightly abridged on account of horrifying racism) to Lulabelle since before she was born.  At this point, I've gone through enough of his resume that I can safely call myself a "fan."

So, with today being Friday the 13th, I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about one of America's most influential horror writers.  Consider this a primer for anybody who's been thinking about getting into his stuff and isn't sure what to expect.

First of all, we have to talk about the racism.  Again.  I wrote about this at greater length many months ago, so I don't want to rehash it too much, but you pretty much can't talk about Lovecraft without acknowledging it.

His writing isn't always imbued with bigotry, but a significant amount of it is informed by narrow-mindedness.  It's the worst kind of racism, too: willful denseness and senseless hatred, uninformed by historical context.  You can say things like, "That's just what people were like at the time" all you want, but that's not what this is.  We're not talking about Steinbeck dropping an N-bomb when writing dialogue for uneducated farmhands working with transients in the Dust Bowl.  That's a matter of realistically capturing social attitudes.

We're talking about a privileged New England white boy having his narrator arbitrarily take an aside to say to the reader, "Gee, yellow people sure ruin this country, don't they?"  He had an ax to grind, and it shows.  Every aside, every diatribe, every dig and stab at "the inferior peoples" is an interruption to the flow of his stories.

Hell, if you look at it from a purely pragmatic point of view, then it wouldn't even have to be racism.  It could be anything.  It could even be anti-racism.  Wouldn't a story be just as shitty if you're building up an atmosphere of terror and then the narrator stopped to say, "Too bad the white men couldn't get along with their black neighbors, because now they're defenseless?"

Anyway.  I mention it because it actually is possible to find merit in his works even as you are appalled by his outdated attitudes.  And knowing that you're about to step in it gives you a chance to prepare.

The second thing you should know is that his style is, more often than not, academic.  Lovecraft's specialty is in building up his fantastical Old Ones universe and introducing it to the reader by way of long descriptions of letters, historical evidence, or a character's account of an archaeological discovery.  The big flaw is that these usually take place in the context of something that's actually gripping, which can feel a little frustrating if you're expecting a straightforward narrative.

Probably the best example is "At the Mountains of Madness," which is actually one of his best stories.  Some explorers find these terrifying new mountains and a bunch of their people go missing.  When a rescue party goes to find them, Lovecraft throws in about three paragraphs explaining that they've all been killed.  Then, immediately after that, he goes on for maybe ten pages describing the strange history of the Old Ones that they learn about through carvings on the walls in some ancient catacombs.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it will be off-putting to people who go in expecting an actual plot.  As it turns out, Lovecraft didn't really tell stories too much.  He told histories.  They're incredibly fascinating at times, but they're not really plot or character driven.

And the last thing I will touch on, lest I start coming across as more of a scholar than I am, is that many of his "greatest hits" are actually not worth reading.  In true hipster fashion, I found that many of his lesser known works are much more interesting.  The reason for this is generally a combination of the two factors above.

One of his worst stories, in my opinion, is also the single best known: "The Call of Cthulhu."  The problem with TCoC is that nothing actually happens in it.  A guy hears about Cthulhu and contemplates three strange events / pieces of evidence, says that blacks and Asians are inferior, and then goes to bed.  There's nothing terrifying in it.

Similarly, I was bored to death by "Reanimator," which takes the idea of raising the dead and turns it into an episodic series of flash fiction, each of which summarizes the previous installment for far too long before finally moving on to new content.

The worst, I'd say, is "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath."  It's a novella in which a dude wanders around a fantasy universe on an epic quest.  I see what Lovecraft was going for; he wanted to achieve a strange, dreamlike quality that pulled in all the elements of his mythos.  The problem is that he did this by omitting any semblance of narrative, removing section / chapter markers, and reducing major, earth-shattering events into brief moments.  The result is a long and at times impenetrable word purge that is only occasionally fascinating.

But enough about the complaints.  If you're still interested in Lovecraft after all of this, I'd tell you to go for it.  He did write some amazing stuff.  At his best, he was every bit as terrifying a writer as his reputation allows.  And even at his worst, he was always building on an intriguing fantasy that exists in our own world.  Ultimately, his mythos worked even in spite of his faults.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the stories I consider his best.  Read any of them as you settle in for a spooooooooky Friday the 13th evening.

Pickman's Model

The Dunwich Horror (Warning: Extreme racism)

The Rats in the Walls (Warning: Gratuitously racist cat name)

The Shunned House

The Colour out of Space

At the Mountains of Madness

And finally, probably my favorite so far:

The Whisperer in the Darkness