Dell Rey, 1971 edition
When my family first moved to England, we stayed in the village my dad and mom grew up in. (No, this story is not about how I met Cthulu.) I went to that village’s library only once I believe. It was about the size of a closet. The book I checked out was an H.P. Lovecraft collection. Only upon getting it home did I read the fine print and found that it was a selection of his unfinished tales, posthumously completed by various (lesser) writers. Feeling gypped, I didn’t make it past the first couple of pages. (I probably also found it boring).
I was a horror fan when I was a teenager, so it’s surprising that I never got around to Lovecraft until now, especially since I was going beyond Stephen King and reading things like Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker (when he only had Books of Blood to his name).
Lovecraft has always felt to me like the fine single malt whiskey of horror writers. There’s no detours into humor, nothing playful, no experiments in style. Just madness and horror. (Much like Glenlivet). And indeed that’s how it should be. I takes a few stories to get into his prose and his rhythms, but once inside you begin to appreciate the fine detail and the slow pace. You want to roll the paragraphs around on your tongue and savor it.
Maybe it was my associations with that early library book, but I for a long time thought that HPL was British. I guess I was confusing him with M.R. James (who I still haven’t read–these two authors are high on the list of Mark E. Smith of the Fall, so from him my Lovecraft interest was piqued).
What I didn’t expect was how so many of the tales in this collection come from an anxiety over evolution and miscegenation. Apart from Chthulu and creatures that live in another dimension (“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, “The White Ship”, “From Beyond”), the monsters that stalk these tales are often the result of some long past intermingling of man and beast. More often than not, they come to resemble our evolutionary relatives, the monkey (“The Lurking Fear,” “Arthur Jermyn”) and the fish “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “Dagon”). Both narrators in “The Lurking Fear” and “Innsmouth” fear and are repulsed by the inhabitants of the out-of-the-way villages they stay in–who are initially presented as sloping-foreheaded inbred yokels (the phrase “white trash” pops up twice here, and HPL was writing in 1920-1930 or so) until the true magnitude of their breeding is revealed.
But the true horror that Lovecraft finishes on is not death, but the realization of the narrators that they too are somehow linked to this nefarious family tree. Arthur Jermyn sets himself on fire when he realizes that his grandmother was some sort of albino ape-thing; the narrator of “Innsmouth”, after escaping the fish-people in the town, slowly comes to realize that he is part of them, and his fate comes as a degenerative or evolutionary illness. We have found the monster and he is us.
After reading these dozen tales, it’s easy to see why filmmakers have found Lovecraft so hard to adapt. The narrators are usually solitary souls, and the action is usually of the slow, creeping kind. The “monster,” if there is one, only shows up on the last page, if at all, and by this time the narrator is usually at a loss to describe the indescribable. Plus there’s no guns or boobs. However, Lovecraft would work well as radio monologues–radio being the perfect format for “the unnamable” (and I’m not talking about Rick Dees). I wonder if that’s ever been done?
For a good website about the man and his works check out the H.P. Lovecraft Archive.