HP Lovecraft: bigger, badder, weirder.

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1, published by Wordsworth Editions. 

 

I have been aware of Lovecraft’s name for a long time but had never properly got round to reading any of his stories. Then I came across his story “The Call of Cthulhu” in an anthology of classic American supernatural fiction and I was hooked. The trouble is, there are quite a lot of Lovecraft editions out there, so where to begin?

A central aspect of his work is the “Cthulhu Mythos”, and in this volume Wordsworth Editions get right down to brass tacks by collecting together the main stories that fall into this category.

Downsides to this edition? Well if you like Lovecraft, after reading this you’ll probably render the book redundant as you’ll want to get the collected work. But Wordsworth books cost far less than the price of a packet of cigarettes or even a pint in some places, so this is hardly money wasted. There’s also the fact that the earliest stories in this volume are also among Lovecraft’s earliest work, so they’re not perfect and rehash certain narrative ideas and imagery.

A lot of what I’ve read by Lovecraft so far calls to my mind other writers. These are purely personal associations. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, and I don’t even know if he read all of these writers. However, Poe is one who seems to loom large over a lot of Lovecraft’s work. He’s even mentioned in “At the Mountains of Madness”. But even simply in terms of being a writer who was unafraid to pitch things at the same high, nerve-wracking level, Lovecraft seems to have seen Poe as someone who threw down the gauntlet.  Little wonder Lovecraft’s work inhabits the same emotional landscape, and then gores even further.

MR James is someone else I like a lot, and who comes to mind when I read Lovecraft. Like James’s, many of Lovecraft’s characters have a scholarly background. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dunwich Horror” share the (M.R.) Jamesian device of scholars and other seekers of arcane knowledge go too far in their pursuits, thereby unleashing terrible forces. Like James as well, Lovecraft seems convinced that it is only the learned and well-versed who are truly capable enough to either a) solve the problem at hand (as in Dunwich) or b) at least make sense of it and to therefore warn others ( as in those ‘mad’ mountains).
H.G. Wells seems somewhere in the mix too, since the ultimate fate of the OLd Ones at the hand of their former slaves, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, has echoes of the future as foretold in “The Time Machine”. Then there’s the whole concept of malevolent forces arriving uncontrollably from outer space, a concept which exploded into the popular consciousness with “The War of the Worlds”.
I’m not at all trying to bring Lovecraft down a peg or two by highlighting what I find similar in the work of others. On the contrary. Whether he consciously borrowed from these men or not is by the by. What I’m trying to illustrate is how he took what already existed in horror/ supernatural fiction before him, and built massively built on those foundations. If Poe ramped up the horror and tension, Lovecraft proved he could go even further up the scale. In like manner, M.R. James’s gentlemen protagonists always seem to be scholars of independent means. If they are full-time academics their alma mater is barely alluded to (though the implicit assumption must be that they are Cambridge men). Lovecraft, however, went one better and created an entirely fictional educational institution, the wonderfully named
Miskatonic University, itself based on Brown University.
Also like James’s characters, Lovecraft’s are often well read and steeped in all manner of arcane lore, but the American weriter again adds a whole new extra dimension to this in his stories. This is by means of consistent reference to the secrets that many characters have learned by reading the dread book The Necronomicon by that “mad arab” Abdul Alhazred, printed in Spain in the sixteenth century, and now only found carefully guarded in a few select libraries. I love everything about this fictional book. There’s the idea f it being written by a demented oriental scholar,and the implicit pun in his name. (If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, total knowledge will drive you mad, it seems to imply.) There’s the book’s contents, which are so terrible that Lovecraft’s narrators can barely even allude to them. Then there’s the notion that the book was printed0 blasphemously so to use a key Lovecraft adverb- in a hostile place at a hostile time, Spain during the era of the inquisition. Then there’s the implication that those brave enough to dare its pages have their minds altered by its contents forever, such are the terrible secrets it tells of…
Great stuff, and just the kind of reading for a cold winter evening.
The supposed existence of The Necronomicon  gives greater weight to the whole cosmology of Lovecraft’s work, the macabre backdrop of the ‘Old Ones’ who were on Earth millions of years before mankind, and who wait patiently for a chance to re-enter our dimension to reclaim and dominate what is rightfully theirs. Such a massive fictional canvas makes ‘The War of the Worlds” in its way look like a little local skirmish.
If there’s a potential downside to all this for me, then it’s the fact that it’s on such a vast scale that it can seem overblown and silly. Yet that’s only if I cease to suspend my disbelief, and if I do that when reading this kind of stuff it’s fatal. I read these things for the thrill, and because ultimately it’s great entertainment. Besides, there’s the whole aspect of adventure and scale to his work. Take “The Call of the Cthulu”. If ther’s one short story that could claim to be epic in theme and setting that’s it.
By entering the gloriously mad fictional world of HP Lovecraft and suspending my disbelief, all I can do is cling on as best I can.
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