Thoughts on Lovecraft

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.

Untitled-2The 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.

Have you read Lovecraft? Did you love him, hate him, or something in between?

Share this:
This entry was posted in Authors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • The Notorious B.E.N.

    Ah Lovecraft. I had much the same opinion – seminal, highly influential, but on his own not all that spectacular. As an outsider to horror in general, I’d say Lovecraft is important for you because Poe was a major influence for both of you, and from that Lovecraft managed to capture something in people’s imaginations that made him… monolithic.

    As for Call of Cthulhu, I wasn’t as bowled-over as I thought I’d be either, but it does hit on a lot of his major themes and styles – one of which is that the reader doesn’t actually “see” the monster, but hears about it second (or third) hand. Interesting side note : I heard that the story itself was originally rejected for publication, though this sounds too apocryphal to be true.

    Oh and by the way, Ia Ia Cthulhu fhtagn.

    • I totally agree. I’m very happy I read him. I think it’s important to know the history of one’s genre(s) and to learn from both what others have done well and what they’ve done poorly. You’re right about Cthulhu hitting on all of Lovecraft’s themes, and that might be part of why I was so unimpressed. It was all over the place. I’m conflicted over whether or not an author should even try to do that with a novel, much less a single short story. But I do believe that’s why it gets assigned first to lit students everywhere — all of the Lovecraft themes and motifs right there for discussion.

      And actually it’s true; my Penguin edition has lots of biographical notes, and that story was first rejected by Weird Tales. A couple years later it was resubmitted and accepted, though.

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    I’ve never read any Lovecraft — but now I’m curious since he writes of New England and also because, like you I like to vary my reading, too. I absolutely love Bradbury — and did start reading him while in h.s. and Poe in college. You make me want to re-read some of the Bradbury I loved (was it here on your blog that I previously said “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is one of my all time favorite books?).

    • I think it was! Yes, I’ve been hankering for Bradbury lately too. I’d love to hunt down some of his spooky-type stories I haven’t read yet. If you do decide to visit Lovecraft, I’d love to hear what you think of him! I think “The Rats in the Walls” would probably be a good one to start with.

  • Steven Richards

    I admit the only Lovecraft I read was a bit I read in school because it was assigned. On the other hand when they exposed me to Poe and Bradbury in school, I went to the library immediately and gorged myself. 🙂
    Regina, who for some reason is posting as Steve. Honey have you been using my computer again?

    • Yeah, that’s actually a great way to gauge effect, isn’t it? I read Poe and Bradbury and immediately wanted to get my hands on more. I read Lovecraft and feel like I’ve had enough to get what the fuss is about.

  • Impressive article. You spent a lot of time analyzing Lovecraft, and your conclusions are very insightful. I guess every person has their favorite genre, style, and artist who paints word-pictures they can relate to as no other. The connection between artist and admirer is as special as it is inexplicable.

    • Thank you, Lexa! “The connection between artist and admirer is as special as it is inexplicable.” <– Couldn't agree more, and beautifully said! That's why I tried to allow for taste and the fact that in difference circumstances, that connection might have been forged for me. I really do understand why some readers love him so, even if I didn't feel that same bond.

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Love him, but with a healthy dose of annoyance at his sloppiness, pretty much as you summed him up here. Even before I was a writer, I saw it, and itched to edit. But…still: There’s something about the mood and world he creates, that’s entirely original.
    Honestly, as a kid, reading this stuff, I was as even more creeped out than
    when I read Poe. Lovecraft’s ambiance is unique, and it gets under your skin,
    and then lives there.
    Nice post, Annie.

    • Yeah, sloppiness feels like a good word to me. I kept wondering if he had a good editor, but maybe he really just didn’t. Even so, I agree that there’s something magical there. His pervasive sense of dread can be wonderfully effective, and he does have a distinct signature style. Very unique, and very under-skin-worthy indeed. 😉

  • Donovan K. Loucks

    You’re absolutely correct that reading too many Lovecraft stories in a row can feel repetitive. In addition, Lovecraft’s tropes have been copied so frequently that, if you first read a lot of fiction written after him, his work then seems very cliched. Like you, Lovecraft considered “The Colour Out of Space” to be his best story. Finally, of the 18 stories in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, only six mention “monolith”. Okay, yeah, that’s kind of excessive… 🙂

    • Hi Donovan! You have a great point about reading works influenced by him before reading his actual work. Someone much-copied does suffer from a lack of *apparent* originality, even if they were the first. And I had no idea Lovecraft thought “The Color Out of Space” was his best story. How cool! You may be right that there are only monoliths in 6 of the 18 stories. Out of curiosity I did an Amazon search through the book, and it pulled up 14 instances of the word, though. o__0 Dude liked his monoliths. Haha. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • jclementwall

    I was eager to get down into your comment threads to see if any die-hard Lovecraft fans took you to task. I’m a little disappointed. And I’m not going to either, because I have to say I’ve never read a Lovecraft story.

    Your post makes me want to grab my Poe collection, though.

    • I, too, thought I would be bludgeoned to death by Lovecraft fans, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. =)~ Actually, several retweeted the post link, so hopefully they found it to be a balanced review. There’s quite a bit of praise and acknowledgment in there, to be fair!

  • I had never heard of Lovecraft! Shows you how narrow my world is. Yikes.

  • Russell Linton

    Here’s the deal with Lovecraft – he’s like Tolkien in a way. I wouldn’t say either are writers on the level of Poe or Bradbury, but both managed to put together something that stuck. For Lovecraft, it stuck with a gooey, viscous tenacity.

    Anytime you write something which clings to the collective consciousness for a century or so and inspires a writhing mass of derivative work, well, you’ve accomplished something worth being called classic, whether your prose is spotless or not. It’s one of those triumphs of idea over form I think.

    Much credit could be given to his successors that really developed the whole shared world idea and refined it allowing others to have a framework to build on. Bradbury and Poe are AMAZING and will always be worth a read but Lovecraft’s work seems to offer a platform of ideas people have an insatiable desire to build upon. Elder Gods that exist in some nebulous vault of time in a hidden history right here on Earth? Irresistable.

    • Glad you agree! You have a good point that his world mythos wasn’t just his. His use of it might seem random and coincidental, but that doesn’t mean the one fans created is. I don’t personally have a problem overlooking mediocre to poor prose if the concept, characters, or story are interesting enough; it’s how I’m able to enjoy so much of the ultra-popular commercial fiction so many writers bemoan as the dregs. And like you said, Lovecraft’s ideas are his strong suit, no doubt.

      • kellynium

        Your opinions of “Cthulhu” and “Colour” exactly match Lovecraft’s own. He considered “Colour” certainly his best fictional effort and thought “Cthulhu” mediocre (he called it “cumbrous”). The fame of “Cthulhu” is based considerably on August Derleth’s (Lovecraft’s posthumous publisher) promotion of the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Lovecraft never used the term “Cthulhu Mythos” and Derleth, in his own writings, expanded on Lovecraft’s ideas in ways that Lovecraft himself surely would never have done. I also personally agree with your assessment of these two stories. In fact, to me, “Colour” is as good as any weird tale, written by anybody, that I have ever read. If I had to pick my single favorite horror/weird tale — either short or long — I’d pick “Colour”. Otherwise Lovecraft is a mixed bag. He wrote some very good, some pretty good (I’d put “Cthulhu” in that class), and some pretty bad tales. However, lots of even his lesser tales (e.g. “From Beyond”) represent worthy if only partially successful efforts to elucidate fascinating premises, and even his trash (e.g. the serial “Herbert West — Reanimator”) has its hackneyed spooky charms. In fact I think, along with Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, that Lovecraft wrote “West” with tongue firmly in cheek: he told friends at the time he was writing it that he was making the best of a cheap hack job he probably should never have taken on. At its best Mr Lovecraft’s prose is marvellous, compellingly incantatory, in a manner perfectly suited for horror. I love him warts and all. He sometimes touched on greatness. I don’t think there is any denying that. Poe wrote some junk. If Bradbury did, I haven’t read it, but probably he did. Nobody is always great. I’m grateful for all that Lovecraft left us, apart from occasional racist rants, which you’ll find amongst his letters. Those are quite unfortunate to say the least. But he was a complex man who had his “complexes”. His better fiction is genuinely great and sure to be enduring.

        • I think you’ve said it all perfectly, and I agree whole-heartedly that Lovecraft — even at his weakest — has his charms and does indeed belong in the list of founders and greats. I think the ongoing “mythos” created by others is fascinating, and I can’t help but wonder what Lovecraft would think of it all. I imagine he’d be delighted, but you never know.
          Yes, his racism is ‘unfortunate’ to say the least, but I do believe that art stands beyond the artist. All humans have flaws great and small, and if we discounted every artist based on their personal problems we’d have no great art left.

          • kellynium

            August Derleth came to think he “owned” Lovecraft. Nowadays S.T. Joshi seems to think he’s taken over that “ownership” and Joshi is highly critical of both Derleth and of Lovecraft’s original biographer L. Sprague DeCamp. In truth I think Derleth served Lovecraft very well indeed in promoting his work for decades after Lovecraft died. I think Lovecraft would have had mixed feelings about some particulars of how Derleth and others developed the “Mythos” which Lovecraft never really meant to create, but overall, I’m sure he’d feel pleased and honored that others took inspiration from him. I also think DeCamp’s biography of Lovecraft was just great. One of DeCamp’s premises — which Joshi execrates — is that Lovecraft went overboard with his “art for art’s sake” attitude to the point of denying himself true success in his lifetime. Joshi argues that DeCamp was a simpleton hack writer who could not understand the attitude of the true artist Lovecraft. Well, the truth is, Lovecraft was professionally self-injurious and did go overboard in his rejection of “commercialism”. Had he lived longer he might well have starved for lack of simply pursuing publishing prospects which were offered to him on silver platters. DeCamp in fact did understand and does note that, while one can’t help thinking Lovecraft should have taken a more balanced attitude toward feeding himself while still maintaining artistic integrity, the man’s rejection of commercialism was part and parcel of his nature and his genius. DeCamp’s biography is indeed good and it is balanced, and incidentally, DeCamp was surely a better prose stylist than is Joshi. On the other hand Joshi is in the main an excellent researcher and interpreter of Lovecraft; he’s simply wrong in thinking he or anybody else ever “owned” Lovecraft. It is also worth noting that Lovecraft was a very charming and warm-hearted man toward his many friends, and toward all persons he met, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. His wife Sonia, and many of his friends, were Jewish. His racist rants were neurotic outbursts from a complex man who lived in the era of eugenics. You can find similar things written by such contemporaries as G.B. Shaw and Teddy Roosevelt. That doesn’t exonerate Lovecraft for his occasional expression of idiotic and hateful ideas, but shows he had a sickness which was also a sickness of his times, and as you say, if we dismissed all neurotics we’d probably have to dismiss all artists! Annie, your blog is fun, and I have just ordered “The Spirit of Poe”. “Usher” was Lovecraft’s favorite Poe story. He called Poe “the master” and personally visited a couple of Poe’s residences.

          • Fascinating! You certainly know your Lovecraft context; did you do a thesis on him or something? I read some of these things in the notes in my Penguin edition, but I like reading your thoughts on the actual scholars, too. Thanks for sharing!

            And thank you so much! “The Call of the House of Usher” was my first professionally published story and (obviously) my own homage to Poe. (Lovecraft and I have that in common.) I really hope you enjoy it!

          • kellynium

            No I never made a formal study of Lovecraft. I came across your blog because I was googling three of my favorite writers, Poe and Lovecraft and Bradbury. I picked up on Lovecraft in my teens (I’m fifty-seven now) and have been reading his stuff, and about him, on and off ever since. His highly individualistic life of the mind, begun in childhood reading antique books in his grandfather’s library, and particularly his dispassionate cosmic outlook which matched closely with my own views, quite captured me and have held my interest continually. In reading his personal correspondence, I came to feel as if I knew him, from an objective distance of course, but as well as I’ve ever known anyone. I live in New England so many of the places he habituated and wrote about form my own immediate environment and his perspectives on places, and ideas generally, have become part of my own outlook in much the same way as we tend to assimilate our personal friends’ outlooks. I guess we assimilate ideas from all of our favorite writers but with HPL, because I’ve read so much of him including much that was personal, it seems almost personal. I accept his failings with his strengths. He was an odd bird, but brilliant and talented and also very nice indeed most of the time, except when he lapsed into eugenics cuckoo-land. His wife and also his friend Sam Loveman dumped him in large part on that account. If I’d really known him I’d probably have done the same, but I didn’t really, so I can’t really dump him, and have decided to go on liking him from our cosmic distance in space and time. I look forward to reading your Poe piece. Thanks for writing this nice blog. I’m picking over it now.

          • This is really touching to me. I mentioned in my post that I could imagine reading Lovecraft at a different point in my life and feeling that overwhelming connection that I missed as an adult, and I think that’s what you found. I’m so glad you did, because one of the greatest joys as a reader is feeling that!

            And I’m so glad you found my blog and are enjoying it. Thank you so much!

          • kellynium

            I noticed what you said about imagining how Lovecraft might have captured you had you encountered him in youth, and yes, that’s what happened with me at the impressionable age of thirteen or so. I know HPL is not the all-time greatest writer but he’s become a kind of lifelong friend for me — more so, in a personal way, than is the case with any other writer — while I suspect that, if I first read him in my maturity as you have done, such a firm feeling of connection likely wouldn’t have developed for me either. It’s nice to hear you’ve felt such connection with other artists. That is one of the joys in life. HPL, and Laurel and Hardy and a few others I never really met, I yet count amongst my dearest “friends”!

          • Absolutely! I do feel that way about Bradbury and Poe — a sort of unexplainable kinship that’s different than anything else. Lovely!