Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft

Any fan of horror fiction has heard of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s hard to overstate how much Lovecraft towers over modern horror writing – many authors like Stephen King sing his praises. It was this continued exposure to his name that led me to sample his writing. And you can do so for free! His fiction has passed out of copyright so people like CthulhuChick have provided his stories specifically designed for your e-reader of choice. (I love the internet.) And my first impression is that there’s a good reason for his reputation – he’s a compelling, original author that created insanely detailed worlds that, at times, are genuinely creepy. The liked the five (long) stories I read, although I felt that they all suffered from the same flaws that keep me from unequivably praising the man:
  • Pacing. My god is the man long winded. I understand that writing was different back in the day and that authors liked to give things room to breathe, but his relaxed pacing is tough going in the internet age. 
  • Words. All of the stories I read dealt with monsters or events that were so fantastic that they became sublime.  So how do you describe the indescribable? You overuse the words that are available to you - reading Lovecraft is like reading a thesaurus for “extraordinary” or “incredible.”
  • Antiquated sensibility. Lovecraft quite obviously belonged to or longed for a bygone time when the world was divided into unrefined and refined people (the latter having servants and resources to travel the world and have sitting rooms and the free time to ponder architecture). This mindset is also foreign to the (my?) modern sensibility and also generates some quite offensive language about minorities.
  • Unpronouncable names. I love the names he gives his monster menagerie but seriously, how do you say them? Can you pronounce “Cthulhu?” “Yog-sothoth”?
Regardless of the above, it’s speaks to the power of his writing that despite these significant flaws the stories are so good. My favorites were The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Mountains of Madness” and portions of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” IMO, “The Call of Cthulhu” is the place to start – it’s a short story that condenses what’s attractive about Lovecraft into a relatively taught package. On the other hand, “The Mountains of Madness”, despite its many moments of genius, suffers from its novella length and logical inconsistencies (to pick one: entire chapters are dedicated to a history of the monsters that our explorers apparently discerned in mere hours by examining wall etchings via flashlight. Brother, please.) It’s his endings that I liked the best. For example, once you get past the mind-numbing detail in the first sections of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” you get a riveting section where an explorer navigates the spooky tunnels underneath an old section of Providence RI.

Most people agree that there’s a sharp division in the horror genre – once Lovecraft came along, horror was simply different. And you can see this when you read him. Before Lovecraft, horror was mainly focused on danger to body or soul – things that would either kill you or would damn your soul to hell. Lovecraft depicts a world in which mankind is insignificant in the extreme, and the protagonists not only have a hard time grasping the cosmic nature of the beasts and plots raging around them but also the implication that these ageless monsters render us insignificant. I’m not sure what sparked this sensibility – a reaction to the World Wars or modern scientific discoveries – but the horror that defines human capabilities as insignificant in an indifferent universe is easily the most powerful aspect of his work.

Bonus video: Check out this (unembeddable) creepy video by Prins Preben inspired by Lovecraft.

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