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Lovecraft: which style of stories are best?

Brian G Turner

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#1
Foxbat mentioned buying up the 3 volumes of Lovecraft in another thread.

However, if it were advised, which length of the Lovecraft stories are best?

For example, lots of the shorter stories can be interesting - The Outsider still makes for a great opener - but do some of the shorter tales fail to offer much to compel?

Or how about mid-length stories, such as Haunter of the Dark, Dunwich Horror, etc? Some good strong atmospheres, but generally do they hold well?

Then there are the novellas - the Mountains of Madness, and the Kadath series - are they overlong or just right for what they tell?

General discussion starter. :)
 
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#2
Great question. I wouldn't, probably, recommend the earlier, slighter peices to a Lovecraft neophyte, but then again, stories like The Tomb and The Outsider have a away of sticking in the mind.

I would broadly classify the main body of Lovecraft's mature work into Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and the Dream Cycle. Both threads offer a different twist on Lovecraft's central device of juxtaposing elments of the familiar and the weird. While the Cthulhu tales show the weird rearing its various ugly heads in our world, the Dream Quests deal with characters from our world being transported into weird dreaming realms. Personally, I favour either depending on, oh, the phase of the moon and the disposition of the stars. But, as a rough rule of thumb, I'd say that if you are coming from a more hardboiled horror perspective, the Cthulhu tales are the ticket, while if you're more into the nebulous horror-fantastic (a la Clark Ashton Smith, and probably Lord Dunsany) the dream tales are what you'd want.

As to length - this can be a problem. While some very long tales, like At The Mountains of Madness, are among his best, if you're still easing your way into Lovecraft's purposefully archaic prose, I'd say the relatively shorter tales make more sense at first.
 

Foxbat

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#3
I've just received my books. It seems as if Volume one covers his longer works and 2 & 3 concentrate on the shorter pieces. There's an awful lot to get through but (hopefully) I'll be able to add my tuppenceworth soon (after I read my new Thomas Covenant book) :)
 

Brian G Turner

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#4
Do I take it that you bought the three omnibus set?

ie, as here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/search-handle-form/202-3412184-0912608

If so,
Volume 1 is the long heavy reading stories
Volume 2 is the very short stories
Volume 3 is the real core of Cthulhu Mythos stories

Well, all three cover Cthulhu Mythos stories - but Omnibus 3 includes the longer short stories that are perhaps the most famous - Haunter of the Dark, Color out of Space, Call of Cthulhu, Dunwich Horror, Thing on the Doorstep, etc.

As I'm in the mood for strained analogies, if the omnibus editions were like a menu, volume 2 is the starters and appetisers, volume 1 is the main course, but volume 3 are the real desserts. :)
 

Foxbat

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#5
Yes, that's it.
Now that you've so aptly described them, perhaps I should start with the Hors D'oeuvres :)
 

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#7
I've started at volume 3. The Call Of The Cthulhu was just to strong to resist. :D

I've just finished The Outsider and whilst I enjoyed it, I found it a wee bit predictable. It was well written I thought and conveyed a good sense of isolation and lonliness.

Still, as I say, it was easy to work out the end. But I presume that is a problem with short horror - it must be pretty difficult to write a surprise ending when the reader already knows that it's going to be...well....horrific. :)

I must read some more but it makes me question the use of the 'twist in the tail' which is so prevailant in the shorter story.
 

Brian G Turner

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#8
I liked the Outsider - there's something about it that seems to work on various different levels, not least on how we relate to the world, but perhaps also how Lovecraft felt in society when he was able to leave the home. :)

A couple of times when I was drunk, I read the story aloud to people who'd come around drinking. Darn embarrassing to think I was that bloody-minded. :D
 

Foxbat

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#9
I liked the Outsider - there's something about it that seems to work on various different levels, not least on how we relate to the world, but perhaps also how Lovecraft felt in society when he was able to leave the home.
I agree. Probably at some time in our lives we have all felt like the Outsider. Perhaps this is why I liked it despite its predictability?
 
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#10
I agree with that, Foxbat. I'd say that one strength of Lovecraft is, apart from the facts of genre and so on, he was able to tap into very fundamental feelings of alienation and loss, and use them to give a universal cast to many of his characters.
 
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#11
About "The Outsider": Something no one has mentioned is that this was the first tale of its kind, from the corpse's point of view, so to speak. The closest we come before that is "Frankenstein" and Ambrose Bierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcosa", in which the narrator is himself the spirit. Also, it's been speculated, as the story was written in 1921 and has an epigram from Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes", that it was written in honor of him on the centennial of his death -- if my dates are correct. Lovecraft certainly admired Keats, and found his work very evocative.
 

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#12
Yes that's my understanding too JD, and Keats certainly did die in 1921, spot on!

I remember reading "The Outsider" and thinking it a fine piece of writing although like Foxbat predictable in a way. I also think it strongly reflects HPL's own sense of alienation and loss he felt throughout his own life.

I feel some Keats upon me...:D

That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe; And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form Of witch, and daemon, and large coffin-worm, Were long be-nightmared.
 
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#13
Lovely, that. Between that, Coleridge's "The Pains of Sleep", and Baudelaire's little bit from "Rockets" (the quote heading HPL's "Hypnos"), it's a wonder some people get any sleep!

One of the things I forgot to mention -- you folks may know this -- is that the exact dating of the writing of the piece is unknown, but speculation from the existing evidence would indicate it was done in the summer of 1921; HPL's mother died 24 May of that year, and he was (perhaps excessively) devoted to her; so I would say that his feeling of being an outsider (witness his letters of the period) was running very high at that point.

As to the overall question ... that depends. As Fritz Leiber noted long ago, true horror buffs are able to take such things in doses which would quickly sicken (or at least pall on) the average reader, such as "At the Mountains of Madness". But nearly all HPL's stories were extremely well structured, even when his writing would go over the top somewhat ("The Hound", "Herbert West -- Reanimator", come to mind, though there's a contention -- again, having some support from his letters -- that these are at least fairly tongue-in-cheek). And "Call of Cthulhu"'s structure is really quite complex; at one point I believe you have something like seven layers of distance (narrators) between you and the action, and yet it doesn't feel like that; if anything, it seems to add an even greater impact to it, more a feeling of verisimilitude; whereas if the (primary) narrator, Thurston, were telling of what had happened rather than relating what he has pieced together from disjointed sources, it would probably fall flat.

I must admit that some of his later stories have less of an emotional than intellectual appeal to me at points; perhaps because I'm too wedded to a somewhat traditional type of supernatural tale; but the difference is very slight; and chiefly rests with the "revisions", which he admitted he put less time and effort into. And it would be interesting to know just how much Barlow and how much HPL contributed to the final story he was connected with: "The Night Ocean". It's a fine, very subtle piece amazingly far away from most of Barlow's work to that point, but the one he wrote on his own just before that ("A Dim-Remembered Story") is remarkably good. "N.O." may be one of the finest pieces of HPL's career as far as adumbrating the weird element rather than approaching it more directly.

I wouldn't know what to suggest from my own experience; I began with an anthology that included "The Call of Cthulhu", my next experience was Derleth's The Lurker at the Threshold (which includes some, though not much, Lovecraft prose), and then I jumped right into At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels from Arkham House, loving it all (at the uncritical age of 12; I still like Lurker, but compared to the real thing, it's not even in the same league, not to mention terribly off-base in capturing Lovecraft's vision). For most who don't mind reading horror novels to begin, I'd suggest, I suppose, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as a beginner; for short story buffs, definitely the Arkham House The Dunwich Horror and Others. (Or, if the expense is too much, the Penguin paperbacks would be a good place -- each of the three has a fairly wide selection from throughout his career, as well as varying lengths.)
 

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#14
j. d. worthington said:
Lovely, that. Between that, Coleridge's "The Pains of Sleep", and Baudelaire's little bit from "Rockets" (the quote heading HPL's "Hypnos"), it's a wonder some people get any sleep!

One of the things I forgot to mention -- you folks may know this -- is that the exact dating of the writing of the piece is unknown, but speculation from the existing evidence would indicate it was done in the summer of 1921; HPL's mother died 24 May of that year, and he was (perhaps excessively) devoted to her; so I would say that his feeling of being an outsider (witness his letters of the period) was running very high at that point.
Yes I agree upon that poem by Coleridge quite a lot actually. I've always found Pains of Sleep to be a hauntingly honest and highly personable meditation by a man suffering the effects of an addiction that paradoxically elicits a wonderfully evocative imagery with a supernatual undercurrent.

As far as HPL's devotion toward his mother is concerned I got the impression that this was not necessarily reciprocated and indeed he experienced very much a love-hate relationship which may well have been an unhealthy state for Lovecraft to be in.

j. d. worthington said:
I must admit that some of his later stories have less of an emotional than intellectual appeal to me at points; perhaps because I'm too wedded to a somewhat traditional type of supernatural tale; but the difference is very slight; and chiefly rests with the "revisions", which he admitted he put less time and effort into.
Interesting you mention that because a well known qoute from a Lovecraft letter from 1921 appears to echo your observations, which I tend to concur with.

I shall never be very merry or very sad, for I am more prone to analyse than to feel.

I'll add my chorus to the growing voices on this forum, post long and post often as I think a lot of people including myslef are getting some terrific (pardon the pun) insights into earlier authors they would otherwise never have been aware of.
 
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