Published: (this edition) 2011 by Signature
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”
Lovecraft is one writer where everyone knows the mythos, but not everyone has read the tales that first spawned these tentacley tropes. I really wanted to get back to the original stories so I recently bought the complete works of Lovecraft. I didn’t tackle the anthology in order; rather I just dipped in here and there as the mood took me. Although most of the novellas and shorts contained within this collection are weighty and distinct enough to warrant separate reviews, in this post I’ll just discuss some of the tales that really stood out for me.
I started with At The Mountains of Madness because… well I’d like to say I chose it because it’s often considered to be his greatest work. In actual fact I picked it because it’s set in Antarctica and I have an obsessive personality. The story narrates the experiences of a group of scientists arriving on the continent to do research. Expecting to study geology they unearth instead a strange specimen and embark upon a much stranger exploration than the one they had planned. Strange, really, how the ultimate selling point of this story for me also became my major quibble with it.
Make no mistake, Lovecraft deserves his reputation as the master not only of unspeakable horror but, more chillingly, unspoken horror. Lovecraft leaves so much undescribed for the reader to fill in the blanks with their own nightmares and it’s a technique that works brilliantly. I also loved the sort of eldritch history lesson this novella provides as the scientists begin to piece together their findings and learn about the rise and fall of an alien civilisation. Antarctica is the perfect setting for this type of horror: a real place but probably as close to an alien, unknown environment as our planet can offer. But – and this is where my nerd outweighs my geek -I couldn’t help nit-picking the details of the exploration party, like sailing straight into McMurdo without apparently encountering pack-ice. I know those details shouldn’t matter to me but somehow they did, probably a little too much. So as the scientists travel further into the unknown my enjoyment as a reader increased a lot. I think because the fantasy civilisation-building is so deliciously slow paced and dripping with detail, the gaps and inadequacies in the portrayal of human behaviour just seemed more apparent. Overall, though, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric read and a good place to start in the Lovecraft bibliography.
Meanwhile, Herbert West – Reanimator weighs in at the sillier end of the spectrum. Lovecraft was commissioned write this one as a serialised pastiche of Frankenstein and it was clearly a project that bored him. It makes for highly amusing reading, though, as each chapter recaps the last in ever more rushed tones while taking the antics of protagonist to ever more ghoulish extremes!
The Call of Cthulhu is probably Lovecraft’s most famous work, and finally reading this novella that has spawned a million quotes and clichés was an interesting experience. Some of its most famous lines have now been reused so often and taken so far out of context that it’s almost a shock to the system to return Lovecraft’s original text. It’s worth trying to forget all those metal songs and unfeasibly cute plushies and role-playing games it inspired, however, and trying to read afresh since this story of a man gradually piecing together the evidence of a sinister cult and the beings they worship still packs a punch!
Lovecraft’s tales all develop their sinister (and frequently overlapping) worlds in impressive detail: I loved the sense conveyed in The Rats in the Walls of the protagonist’s gradual descent into the horrors of his family history. But, as Lovecraft’s work is most of all about atmosphere, I’ve actually come to admire his shorter works most of all. “The Picture in the House” and “Cool Air” both explore different, horrific, attempts to achieve immortality and are well worth a read. But I think my favourite of all, Lovecraft’s shorts, is “The Colour Out of Space”: the chilling tale of a strange contagion which is going to stay with me for a long time to come.
Yes it’s easy to make fun of his repetitions and idiosyncrasies: the “indescribable” horrors and the fact that nothing eerie takes place unless there is a gibbous moon. But, it’s an affectionate kind of criticism because Lovecraft’s powers of invention are just hideously wonderful, and let’s face it, the horror that isn’t described does work more powerfully on the imagination – just as horror movies are usually scarier when you don’t see the monster. Lovecraft was shockingly racist by the way, and that’s not something you can escape in his fiction, but he was only a product of his time. As with every anthology, some of the stories collected here are weaker than others but this collection deserves a place in every horror fan’s library, and however well you think you know Lovecraft, and however much you think his tropes have been appropriated and re-appropriated to death, the original tales have lost none of their power and are worth returning to again and again.