Lovecraft’s Tales of Terror


No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.
Ex Oblivione, 1921.

Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, my teenage reading covered a lot of genres, but I gravitated to scifi and fantasy. Fantasy in those days didn’t offer the same overflowing bookshelves of cookie-cutter tales we find in today’s bookstores. But they took me out of the miseries and difficulties of my little world so easily that I made the effort to find them.

Back then, fantasy was an addendum to the scifi section. You often had to hunt for the rare titles in stores and libraries where there were ample selections in all other genres (this is before the explosion of fantasy literature in the late 60s, when J.R. R. Tolkein’s Ring trilogy exploded into popularity. generating all those thousands of spin-offs.) I can’t recall horror even having its own section.

My reading took a darker turn when I discovered the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in the mid-60s. While I have returned over the years to ERB and many other writers whose works I discovered in the 1960s, I have not until recently re-read any of Lovecraft’s works. But his fiction certainly deserves a re-read because it was seminal for a lot of modern horror fiction and film. And last week I picked up an anthology of his more famous works for that purpose.

For a young teen as I was, Lovecraft was a rude, exciting awakening. What a change from what I had been reading before! In the swords-and-adventure books of Burroughs or the gallant, embattled heroes in the Doc Savage series, or even in Howard’s violent-but-honourable Conan, there was morality, definable good and callous wrong, great deeds and immense challenges to overcome, but evil was always defeated by those of strong heart, iron will and a strong moral sense. In all of these tales, there is some sense of redemption and achievement. There is joy in conquering, in winning the heart’s desire, in love, in battle.

Not so in Lovecraft, not at least in the Lovecraft I recall. He has a lot of despair and loss, terror and anxiety, and the sort of nameless middle-of-the-night terror that makes you wonder what’s under the bed.

And he wrote in sometimes florid prose that today seems rather histrionic, even puerile at times. But although Lovecraft seldom followed any of the rules most practitioners preach today on the art of story writing, he still garnered a huge following despite any literary failings.

Like most of his contemporaries, Lovecraft’s material is devoid of the gratuitous sex and violence that would later embellish fiction of most genres. It’s unromantic – especially in comparison with Burroughs, whose heroes often risk everything for the love of a chaste maiden. Lovecraft rarely even mentions women, raising the suggestion he was also misogynist and possibly afraid of heterosexual sex.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
The Call of Cthulhu (1926)

I found Lovecraft’s strange, mysterious worlds and creatures haunting, but also disturbing, possibly because he so cannily mixed the mundane with the mysterious and made every dark shadow menacing. The only other work that disturbed me as much was William Hope Hodgson’s short novel, House on the Borderland. As Charles Baxter wrote in the New York Review of Books:

For adolescents, something about horror never goes out of style. They often feel an excited disgust upon learning how things really are, and their disgust is merely a notch away from the more thoroughgoing pleasures of horror. It is the closest they can come to the sublime.

Charles Dickens grew up listening to the tales of mystery and horror tale to him at bedtime by his nurse. Perhaps it’s part of growing up for all children. I remember sitting in the car’s front seat, sandwiched between my parents, watching the horror B flicks at the drive-in movies. I remember reading Dracula at an early age and watching in fear and fascination the 1930s’ B&W Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman films on our little TV. We love to frighten ourselves.

I wasn’t aware of Lovecraft’s overt and scathing racism until much later, when I read works outside the carefully collected – and possibly expurgated – tales in the anthologies my local library stocked. His deep abhorrence of every other race, creed and faith certainly tainted Lovecraft for me for many years. Still, one cannot deny him the genius of his efforts that inspired generations of writers and screenwriters.

I’m never sure when reading Lovecraft whether his penchant for detail, often to the point of minutiae, is telling of a man obsessed with learning or someone showing off his broad sweep of knowledge.

Reading his tale, At the Mountains of Madness recently – considered one of his three best stories – I found his detailed paleontological, geographical and geological descriptions both intriguing and annoying, because they act like hurdles that interrupt the pace of the tale. Sometimes I rush through them to get to the action, although I also admire his knowledge.

Still, some of the stories could benefit by some judicious editing to trim a bit of this excessive detail and verbosity. That tends to blunt the impact of his tales – the horror is hard to sustain in the verbiage – and make some of them more tedious tHan they deserve.

Stephen King is like that at times, although not the scholarly detail of Lovecraft; rather King fills the pages with the stuff of – often trivial – everyday life.  I have read several of King’s earlier works, but after It and its incorrect description of a spider’s anatomy, I stopped reading him.

Readers of ERB also know the jarring moment when the writer slips out of the story to explain some detail or add background to colour tun folding events. Lovecraft can be like that; the story line dissolving as the lecture ramps up. It can be tough to get back onto the rails when he goes on at length.

John Campbell, to whose passion for scifi and support of young writers we owe so much today, owes himself a debt to Lovecraft. His famous story, Who Goes There, later filmed as The Thing (in all three movie versions), derives at least in part from Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness setting and sentiment.

Lovecraft was a flawed character who faced significant challenges in his life that afflicted his personality. His personal failings and history colour our perception of him even today. Yet, he was a writer with talent, and he had more potential than was ever fully realized. He had great imagination, but he needed the alliance of firm but supportive editor at times.

He left body of work that was only fully appreciated after his death. I have found it difficult to uncover any serious scholarly examinations of it, nor have I been successful in uncovering an authoritative version of his collected works I could buy. I settled on an anthology bought from the bargain table at a local Chapters. And tonight, Lovecraft’s flaws and foibles aside, I will settle in with Cthulhu for my bedtime read.

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