Welcome all, to a Lovecraft focused series of reviews here on Geek Chocolate! We’re starting a regular run, reviewing stories from his collection and I’m thrilled to be doing it. Before the first review drops, here’s an introductory piece about why we should celebrate his work with a series like this, even with his criticisms.
I adore the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The scope of his imagination brought unique concepts to the science fiction/horror genre that have kept his works in print for what will soon be a hundred years. That imagination and the addictive nature of his writing style has Lovecraft still on our shelves, still attracting curious minds into fandom.
It took me in at eighteen, I needed something to occupy myself with on the bus journey from the outskirts to the city centre and a friend suggested Lovecraft due to the story lengths and the acclaim he’d found online.
The spine is crumpled, the pages are a little discoloured and there may even be some sin of a dog-eared page or two, but I still cherish my copy of Penguin Modern Classics: The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories. Finishing a story would have me either sitting in wide eyed contemplation or rushing onto the next one to get another fix of weird fiction. Stories therein are far from the staples of the genre you’d find on screen, or spooky things out to kill the protagonist because that’s how it deals with a past trauma, a few string laden jump scares, and some gore to flesh it out.
I was, and still am hooked, like so many others because there’s still a sense of exclusivity with Lovecraft outwith other popular writers associated with horror or geek culture.
There is a Lovecraftian influence to a degree in popular culture, evident in board games, comics, video games, presidential bumper stickers and even cuddly toys, but the inability to properly put his work on the screen keeps Lovecraft under the cusp of mainstream. Directors have difficulty transcribing his bizarre concepts into film and studios haven’t really bitten in terms of funding.
Guillermo Del Toro came closest having fought for an At the Mountains of Madness film to be made a few years ago, but that fell through and he ended up working on Pacific Rim and The Hobbit instead.
Without breaking onto TV or film, unlike Stephen King or George R.R. Martin, the best way to discover Lovecraft’s work is to read it. That gives out a feeling of being ‘in the club’, but to others it’s not a club they’d like any part of.
In studying journalism I would meet English students fairly regularly and would inevitably get into small talk about our favourite authors. I’d always mention Lovecraft and it’s in these conversations where you’d have to confront the two major criticisms of Lovecraft – he’s a racist and he can’t write.
In embarking on a weekly series on Lovecraft, this seems like a great a time as any to discuss those criticisms because Lovecraft is unquestionably bigoted.
It was characteristically common of many white Americans in the early 20th century which may contextualize his xenophobia but not excuse it.
Reading the, thankfully occasional but not occasional enough, lines of bigotry against immigrants and minorities does take me out of the stories that contain them, often with a sigh and genuine disappointment. Many of these lines could be removed and have no bearing on the narrative of the stories in which they appear, but sadly it’s something to get past if you want to enjoy Lovecraft.
The greatest thing about this pulp magazine horror is that it isn’t literature to live your life by. Lots of people inform or educate their world views through literature that they choose. Teenagers can find expressions of their angst in Catcher in The Rye, people can envision idyllic romance from Norwegian Wood or derive political ideology from Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Fountainhead. Lovecraft’s work is of horror and science fiction, to be enjoyed as exactly that- short stories to frighten and astonish. That’s why I, and so many others, can enjoy his stories in spite of the dreadful opinions he held.
As for his writing, though addictive, it isn’t without flaws. His story structures in terms of first or second person narratives can break flow or be disruptive, his characters never really develop beyond being scared, dialogue isn’t always written well and the biggest criticism is of his jumbled use of adjectives. He can describe certain things with unnecessary or outdated adjectives that re-appear over and over like ‘gibbous’, or ‘eldritch’, then can ironically overly describe impending horrors as ‘indescribable’, or ‘unfathomable’.
A great part of Lovecraft however, is that you can follow his progress as a writer and see many of these flaws improve or transform into techniques of his writing. His adjective use in particular goes from flaw to deliberate vagueness, when what is indescribable becomes described in a manner that deliberately distances the reader from a clear picture of the subject. Keeping the great horror ideas of making the reader imagine most of the picture in their head whilst being detailed at the same time, specifically in the odd descriptions of aliens or monsters in The Dunwich Horror and At the Mountains of Madness.
A Master of the Weird
Even with these criticisms, Lovecraft should be considered as one of the most important figures of the genre because he was able to take horror completely away from humankind. Gothic tales like Dracula are about punishing the sins of humans with abomination, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about the primal evil that exists in man, Lovecraft makes the point that it is the irrelevance of mankind that is scary.
His writing is based around the idea that in a universe too old and too vast to understand, we are lucky to be ignorant of the unknown; his stories are of people pulling at the thread of a cosmic mystery and unraveling terror upon themselves. That’s what’s so great!
He challenged the idea that we’re some special entity when the size of the universe makes us miniscule. It’s a classic sci-fi notion that we’re going to have a lot of fun exploring. I hope you’ll follow on with us week to week as Geek Chocolate delves into H.P. Lovecraft’s catalogue of weird tales.