Read Recently — January 2016 — Horror on top of horror

The Whisperer In Darkness: collected stories volume one by H. P. Lovecraft; selected and introduced by M. J. Elliott

So, when discussing the work of H(oward). P(hillips). Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) you inevitably find yourself discussing Lovecraft the man, so let’s get that out of the way up front. The reason for this is that Lovecraft, like many great writers, put a lot of himself into his work. The problem with that was that the part of himself that Lovecraft put into his work wasn’t the warm, friendly guy who was kind to kittens and good to his friends; it was the hateful, racist, bigot. Make no mistake: Lovecraft was a racist bigot. Had he not put his racism into so much of his writing people might have cared less than they do now, but Lovecraft was a horror writer before there was genre horror; fear of the other was his stock in trade. We can try to explain his . . . issues . . . but we cannot, and should not, try to excuse them. And thus, the would-be first-time Lovecraft reader should be aware that you’re liable to get bigotry all over you. On the other hand, when it comes to racism, this particular collection is lower on the racist tropes than most.

A second, lesser, problem with Lovecraft is his antiquarian fixation: he loved the past and not, as with reasonable people, the Victorian period with its wonderful clockwork and steam-powered devices. Rather, he loved the Georgian period (that is, the 18th century) and wrote in a deliberately out-of-date style. His work emphasises description over dialogue, to the extent that many stories feature no dialogue as such at all. He also never uses a two-syllable word when there is a five-syllable word available to do the job. There are jokes that centre around his use of the words “squamous” and “rugose”. Most of them are over-playing it, but he earned them.

So the real question, it seems, is why would you want to read Lovecraft at all? You don’t have to, of course. It isn’t mandatory. Of course, if you don’t, you can just skip this whole thing. Still, one reason to do so is that, despite his oddities of style and the racism (which was, sadly, not so odd in the pulps of the time), Lovecraft was madly popular and influenced a vast number of writers both current with him (such as Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard) and following (Robert Bloch, who wrote the story that Hitchcock’s Psycho was based on, was as a young man a correspondent of Lovecraft; Ray Bradbury, a notoriously-atmospheric writer was heavily influenced by Lovecraft; and Stephen King, who basically made genre horror as we now know it possible, admits he owes a huge debt to Lovecraft)–basically, if you’re into horror, dark fantasy, and a wide amount of modern fantasy, much of it has its roots in Lovecraft Country, whether pro or con. The influence also carries over to modern board- and role-playing -games, as well as movies and video-games (both directly, as in taken straight from Lovecraft’s own stories, and indirectly, such as the popular PS4 game Bloodborne, which creates its own world with Lovecraftian touches).

If influences aren’t enough, well, put all that aside and consider that, racism and stylistic quirks aside, Lovecraft had one hell of an imagination and a disdain for the standard tropes of the horror story at the time. This means that you rarely find the same old stuff in his stories and often find something new . . . or at least, something that was new in 1937 or earlier. If it seems cliched, it is often the case that people have been copying Lovecraft for almost a century now.

One other thing: this book is organized like a bit of a tour of the early “Cthulhu Mythos”. The Cthulhu Mythos was the term invented by the late August Derleth to describe all of Lovecraft’s work that sort of fit into a science-fictional mythology that Lovecraft had created. The problem was that Lovecraft wasn’t trying to create a coherent mythology or even folklore; he just made it up as he went along. In some of the stories in this collection, for example, he uses the name “The Old Ones” (especially that they were a race named in the book The Necronomicon) for at least two distinct and different peoples.

The first story is “Dagon”. The narrator was on a ship that was captured by the Germans at the start of WWI. It’s so early in the war, in fact, that he manages to grab a lifeboat and escape; alas, he doesn’t grab a navigator and so drifts without any idea where he’s going. Then a storm throws up what he thinks is a chunk of the bottom of the sea. Once the ground dries out a bit, he tries wandering across it and finds a titanic monolith, carved with strange figures of sea creatures. And then, something comes out of the sea to worship it, something he can never forget, and which may be following him, even now . . .

It was fairly standard for a Lovecraftian narrator to go insane at the climax of the story. Or at least that’s how it’s interpreted; given the nature of the univers they live in, I’d say that far too many of the characters actually go sane . . . which might be a bit much for a person to deal with. “Dagon”‘s narrator is probably crazy, though.

Second is “The Nameless City”, in which a new narrator travels across the Arabian desert to find a place long forgotten except in hints in the Necronomicon. He finds tunnels, again with strange carvings, telling of the history of the city, though the people who carved them seem to have, for reasons of their own, represented themselves with images of beast-people (the narrator not getting the point is a trope in Lovecraftian stories. Of course, if you don’t know you’re in a horror story, why would you expect the trope?). This one surprised me by going somewhere I didn’t expect at the end.

“The Hound” has a pair of thrill-seekers descending to grave robbery; from the coffin of a long-dead wizard they take an amulet, perhaps of a crouching winged hound. Soon they are being followed by swarms of bats and the distant howling of a hound . . . this one’s basically a fun bit of pulp horror with no surprises from start to finish. Basically pure atmosphere.

“The Festival” sees our narrator returning to his ancestral home in “snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples” to attend the Yule festival (“older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind”) as his ancestors promised one of them (or their descendants) would. But for all that the people who greet him there seem friendly enough, there is something wrong about them. And as they head down into a series of caves . . .

“The Call of Cthulhu” finds our narrator having put together a story he would rather not know. When his aged uncle, a professor and antiquarian, dies unexpectedly, seemingly of a heart attack, the narrator has to start sorting through his papers. Assembling pieces of different stories he learns about a cult that reaches all around the world, and the fantastic creature they worship, known by the difficult-to-pronounce name of “Cthulhu”. Of course, it’s all myths and trickery, right?

“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is one of Lovecraft’s longer pieces, and was adapted into a film in the 1960s, starring Vincent Price. It is usually billed as one of the Poe-inspired series, under the title The Haunted Palace (Lovecraft, a big fan of Poe, would have been tickled to have his work mistaken for Poe’s). It begins at the end, with Charles Ward, having recently undergone a psychotic break and been committed to an asylum, making a mysterious escape. The story then leaps back to tell us of how Ward came to be in this fix. It involves an antiquarian boyhood, and then the discovery of a mysterious, previously unknown ancestor . . . whose painting shows an uncanny similarity to Ward’s own appearance.

“The Dunwich Horror” takes us to the run-down New England town of Dunwich, where the Whately family have been rusticating for a long time. Reduced only to an old man long suspected of being a wizard and his mysteriously pregnant daughter when the story starts, they are soon joined by her strange son, Wilbur, who grows mysteriously quickly (by the time he’s four he looks to be ten and speaks like one much older. Also, dogs hate him). The Whately family goes through cows awfully quickly, too, constantly buying more to replace their sickly herd. But the titular horror doesn’t actually begin until Wilbur heads to the Library at Miskatonic University in Arkham, MA, to look at their copy of the Necronomicon (nothing good ever comes of reading the Necronomicon). Things quickly get worse from there . . .

It’s worth noting that some people have argued that “The Dunwich Horror” is Lovecraft satirizing the Passion story. Certainly, this is one of the more cheerful of Lovecraft’s stories, in that the ending could be described as happy. For some. Certainly not for monster Jesus, though.

“The Whisperer In Darkness” has its narrator, Arkham Literature Prof/amateur folklorist Albert Wilmarth get into a long correspondence with Vermont native Henry Akely over the issue of what, exactly, is going on in the Vermont hills. People are seeing strange tracks and odd things that might be bodies are washing down from the hills during floods of the rivers, and Akely is becoming increasingly besieged in his remote home by what may, in fact, be creatures from beyond space, and their terrestrial allies.

This one is in some ways one of my least favourite “Cthulhu Mythos” stories because towards the end the narrator gets into a discussion that massively increases what, in the Call of Cthulhu table-top role-playing game would be his “Mythos knowledge” . . . and we don’t. I mean, there are lines like, “I learned whence Cthulhu first came . . . I was told the essence (though not the source) of the Hounds of Tindalos. . . . It was shocking to have the foulest nightmares of secret myth cleared up in concrete terms” and we don’t get that clearing up, just lines that are not even hints. This story is basically the essence of what Lovecraft does when he does things badly (leaving out, again, the racism, which is a different error and one that we will probably see more of in later books).

The final story, “At The Mountains of Madness” is another long story and, thankfully, a good one. The narrator is trying to prevent further explorations of Antarctica (or at least, a certain area of Antarctica) by explaining certain things that he and another survivor of his own expedition to the southernmost continent have hitherto kept secret from everyone. It has to do with the titular mountains and what they found behind them when they went searching for survivors of part of their expedition who went missing. I’m being particularly vague because this is (for Lovecraft) a wonderful story and I don’t want to spoil anything about it.

Really, though, that last story contains the problem with recommending this book: a wonderful story (for Lovecraft) is not necessarily going to match your idea of a wonderful story. Approach with caution: Lovecraft is not for everyone. If you are curious, though, this volume is a good one to try out.

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