Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review - H.P. Lovecraft's Tales of H.P. Lovecraft

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft
Published by: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1935
Format: Paperback, 346 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

The world is stranger than it seems. No one knows this better than those who have been to Miskatonic University. But then, if you've been to this Ivy League school you've probably been there to catch a glimpse of their extensive collection of occult books and are therefore used to the strange. Perhaps you are even hoping to see the famous Necronomicon, capable of summoning the Old Ones. If that is the case, stories of ancient creatures plaguing the dreams of artists and poets are probably your bread and butter. Meteorite's bringing luminosity and madness to a small valley might seem plebeian. But at least you are forewarned. At least you know of the dangers that can be had on a street that can never be found again where you listened to the most haunting of music played on a viol. You know that sounds within the walls might bring a sleepless night or they might bring death to those you care for. You know that there are aliens and creatures beyond man's knowing and that sometimes this knowledge brings madness. Perhaps you yourself are mad. Maybe you were a professor at Miskatonic University who was called to a strange happening and your eyes were opened to the depravities that are possible when man and beast unite. Or maybe you went on an expedition, nothing more simple or academic than that. Then something went wrong. Someone went missing. Your worldview was forever changed and you were left with one purpose, to conceal the discovery of this horror from the rest of the world forever. Here's hoping you succeed and don't get in league with evil. But evil is so persuasive...

While most readers would probably place Lovecraft in the horror or fantasy sections of their bookshelves, he was distinctly influenced by the Gothic and in my mind that is where he belongs. Such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert W. Chambers helped lay the groundwork for Lovecraft and all three of these men straddled genres. If you keeping going backwards in classification you'll see that Gothic is the only way to encapsulate all of them, because horror eventually arose out of the Gothic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet Lovecraft has almost defied classification, he has become a byword for cosmic horror and knowledge beyond the ken of man, knowledge that often leads to insanity. His greatest creation, Cthulhu, is known by those who don't even know who Lovecraft or Arkham or Miskatonic University is. His imagery has become a part of popular culture and his influence is still felt. For me his influence is felt even closer to home in that my family owns Stanton and Lee Publishers which started as an imprint of Arkham House, which was founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish Lovecraft's work in beautiful hardcover editions. Therefore it's kind of embarrassing to admit that while familiar with Lovecraft's work I had actually never read it until now. What struck me most about this collection of his short stories is you can instantly see why his writing is classic. It's not just looking beyond his work and seeing how much influence he has had on other writers from August Derleth to Terry Pratchett to Bruce Campbell to the Duffer Brothers, but it's how his work was so original. His work feels so modern, so fresh, so out of it's time. His legacy might be great, but it's endured because he was a gifted writer who saw the world differently, much like the afflicted artists who people his stories.

As for this collection hand-picked by Joyce Carol Oates after all the copyright issues were settled... without having read any of Lovecraft's stories not included here, I'd say it's a very solid collection that should have left "At the Mountains of Madness" out. Now I know those who are fans of Lovecraft are wondering why I would omit his most famous work. Well it's because a novella has no business being included in a collection of short stories, it creates an imbalance in the book's flow. Also, his writing style works better on a smaller scale. I'm not talking worldbuilding, I'm talking length. He has a way of packing such a punch with his shorter stories that having the time to search miles and miles of Antarctica AND see giant penguins who actually have nothing to do with the plot makes the punch lose it's impact. It's true, shorter is sweeter. As a reader I'm not a fan of short story collections. One really badly picked or placed piece can throw off my entire opinion of the book, IE "At the Mountains of Madness." Though in fairness to this collection I didn't hold the novella inclusion against it, that's Joyce Carol Oates's fault. But I did have issues with Lovecraft's writing, and not just with the occasional out-of-touch reference that is the product of his time that he expressed through his continued use of inbreeding as a plot point, but through his repetitive use of certain words, phrases, stylistic elements, and plot twists. That's the problem with a writer who has certain ticks when stories that weren't meant to be presented together are, you see where he repeats. You think perhaps you should start a drinking game for every time he uses the word "cyclopean" but then worry that you will die of blood alcohol poisoning. But I think that if you were to just space out the reading of his work you wouldn't find this as annoying as someone who reads right through.

Yet this repetition isn't all bad. Yes, it can be irksome, but it also helps his stories to have an inter-connectivity. It's interesting to me, reading these stories almost a hundred years after they were written that he is obviously setting all these stories within the same universe of his creation. He's worldbuilding on a level that, as time goes on, is becoming more and more popular. How many tie-ins, prequels, sequels, what-have-yous are now out there in the world? Characters from Miskatonic University reappear or are referenced in other stories. Events that have happened in an earlier story with say a University expedition have consequences in a story that was written later about a different expedition. This more than anything else is why people have latched onto his work. He has created his own universe and while his longest story is nowhere near a sizable book if you put them all together you have one heck of a story. I think this is why so many authors are drawn to writing stories within his world. It's not just that it's iconic, it's that it's so specific, so well built that to write within these confines gives you a freedom and the hope that a little of his genius will rub off on you. While I'm not going to debate the difference between true literature and fanfic here, because that is too thorny an issue, there has to be something said to the freedom of writing in someone else's voice. Even Neil Gaiman has gone all out fanboy with his Sherlock Holmes pastiche set in Lovecraft's universe, "A Study in Emerald" which should be noted isn't the only time Sherlock has fought with Cthulhu in various other authors work. But it is very interesting to muse on the fact that Conan Doyle and Lovecraft are contemporaries... makes you think, doesn't it?

Though, for me there were two stories that really struck home, "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Shunned House." Both stories deal with houses that have weird effects on the residents. Needless to say these homes have death within their walls yet hint at "the other." Be it cannibalism, paganism, werewolves, these stories work because not only are they suspenseful, but they are also left open ended enough that you have to draw your own conclusions. With the mysterious, sometimes having everything tied up neatly in a bow is dissatisfying. The hints, the surmises you reach, they can scare you more then knowing exactly what was going on. These two stories need to be read in one sitting, the pages turned as fast as your eyes can take in the words. These stories go for the tropes of traditional Gothic stories, and yet, Lovecraft knows how to tweak the narrative just enough to make the genre all his own. That is why I think so many people shy from calling him a Gothic writer, he has made the genre his bitch. While "The Shunned House" is slightly predictable, following genre conventions, I defy anyone to see that ending coming in "The Rats in the Walls!" A story about a man restoring his ancestral home, you expect a bit of ghosts and ghouls, you don't expect him to become a cannibal and eat his son's best friend after dreaming that he was a pig now do you? Right there is the essence of Lovecraft. Serving up the unexpected in a very macabre way. He's fused his own weird notions of aliens and outer space with what people expect from the Gothic and created what is and will always be Lovecraftian.


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