I recently read a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories. My version was the Penguin Classics edition The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. It was my introduction to Lovecraft, whom I had long heard of and had on my reading list but hadn’t gotten around to yet, even though he made my list of the Founding Fathers and Mothers of Horror Literature. I try to vary my reading quite a bit, which includes classics and staples and game-changers in my field, but I also try to keep up with current books succeeding in my genres as well as books of all styles, topics, and quality. In spite of the fact that I love modern fiction, literary fiction, and commercial fiction, old classics hold a special place in my heart and always will.
I still remember discovering Ray Bradbury. Like Lovecraft, Bradbury is an author I got to as an adult, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he changed my life for the better. The quality and imagination and passion in his words flamed the fan of my own. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, who I’ve loved since I was a little girl, I didn’t read Bradbury until I was well out of college. I mourned the years that I’d gone without Bradbury’s stories in my life. Think of how many times I could have read them – how many more I could have gotten to by now! But in a way, reading his work for the first time as an adult made it even more special. I was able to fully appreciate every layer and detail the first time through, and I instantly saw the influence in my beloved genres.
I wish I could say I had the same experience with Lovecraft, but I can’t. There are many factors here, so let me be clear: I very much enjoyed his stories. I adored his ideas and themes. I appreciate how original he was and acknowledge that he did indeed change the field. I was relieved to see that I was right in including him in my list of Founders of Horror. There were moments of brilliance. There were passages that made me pause in awe. There were stories that still stick with me several weeks later. And there were concepts that resonated deeply with some of my own work. I admire him. I do.
But I was still disappointed. Maybe it was the buildup. His short story “The Call of Cthulhu” is practically sacred among fans, and there have been so many Cthulhu mythos/Lovecraftian inspired anthologies I really don’t believe anyone could count them. Was “Cthulhu” good? Yes. Was it amazing? Maybe. Was it anywhere close to the mastery of Bradbury or Poe? Absolutely not.
When people talk about the masters of horror, they include Lovecraft, but the truth is that as incredibly original as his stories were for his time, they often lack drive and focus, the prose ranges from good to downright shoddy, and he repeats concepts to the point that they feel like over-chewed oatmeal. Even visionaries have their flaws, I suppose. But I see so many fewer flaws in Poe and Bradbury.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare them, but I can’t quite help it. I’m hard-pressed to find weak sentences in those two, much less entire passages, like in Lovecraft. And although Bradbury and Poe often repeat themes and messages, they rarely if ever repeat entire concepts the way Lovecraft does. And in spite of the fact that Poe comes from a time even earlier than Lovecraft (and was actually one of Lovecraft’s biggest literary influences), his stories never got quite so rambley and off-topic as Lovecraft’s do. Is originality and vision alone enough to warrant Lovecraft’s induction into the horror hall of fame?
Yeah, I guess it is. For those of you who haven’t read Lovecraft, I’ll do my best to give you an idea of his work. He mostly does science fictiony horror with a touch of supernatural. His outlook on humanity is bleak, and his fears focus on either an inescapable hereditary connection that will consume him eventually, or an inescapable cosmic terror coming for Earth… eventually. His fears, then, revolve around the past resurfacing to wipe him out or the future promising to wipe us all out. Put simply: evolution and aliens – often masterfully and sometimes clumsily combined into the same stories.
The predominate mood of his stories is dread. The main tone is despair. The fear is of the slow-build type, which is sometimes executed effectively and sometimes not. (He has a horrible habit of not just foreshadowing but blatantly stating where the story is going.) Most of his stories take place in a sort of backwoods, untouched New England. Main characters tend to be racist, classist, and of the scholarly perhaps even authorial type. There’s a recurring motif of cults with ancient, evil knowledge. Think cloaks and deformed people who don’t seem quite right. Lots of chanting. And an absolutely insane number of monoliths. I didn’t go back to check, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least one mention of monoliths in every one of the 18 stories I read. Did I mention that dude is obsessed with monoliths?
I don’t think “Cthulhu” is his best story. Personally, I found “The Colour Out of Space” to be his finest. It’s by far the most unique, interesting, and subtly chilling alien horror story I’ve ever read. It makes “Cthulhu” look like hackneyed pulp in comparison, but I suppose that’s all a matter of taste. Another great story is “The Rats in the Walls,” which has all of the scientific/evolutionary/ancestry undercurrents of Lovecraft plus the chilling madness of Poe. Why don’t more people talk about these two?
Not that “The Call of Cthulhu” is bad by any means. I think the cult’s chanted phrase, which translates to, “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming,” is the most deliciously unsettling part of the story. I also liked the eerie statue, but when the actual monster appeared all of my tension and potential fear were gone. I’m not a big fan of giant alien monsters. Again, taste.
Perhaps my aversion to the repetitive concepts came because I read so many of his stories in a row. His early stories were frequently regurgitated and expanded upon in his later stories. For example, if you’ve read “Dagon” you pretty much know where “Cthulhu” is going. If you’ve read “The Festival” you don’t much need to read “Celephais,” etc. He also repeats many names of places and gods, such as Nyarlathotep and shoggoths. In fact, some characters and places are repeated so much that some people call the collected items the Cthulhu Mythos and claim that all of his works belong within one shared universe. I’m not convinced. To me they felt more like Easter eggs.
Perhaps if I’d read a smaller selection of Lovecraft before I became a writer I would have enjoyed his stories more. If I could have gotten over the mediocre prose and side-stepped the repetitive stories, I think I might have fallen in love. Although I’ve never been too into space horror, I adore evolutionary horror. Maybe a different set of circumstances could have had me revering Lovecraft as so much of the spec-fic fan world does, but as it is, I’m not in love. I came away with some new appreciation for my literary lineage, a healthy dose of respect, and an urge to crack open my old book of Poe.
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