Re-reading HP Lovecraft - oh, dear!

Brian G Turner

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I still remember when I got the Little Brown HP Lovecraft Omnibuses for Christmas, and the pleasure I had reading through them after. Mind, the story quality was variable across each volume, but when the stories were good they were brilliant.

The Color out of Space was a clear favorite for its unresolved ending and seeming prescience about nuclear radiation.

A couple time when I had a few people round for drinks I even read out The Outsider. Luckily they seemed too drunk to care. :)

So a couple of weeks back I saw the third omnibus with the best stories on offer as an ebook on Amazon. So I bought it, and decided to revisit the joys of HP Lovecraft.

Oh, dear. I managed to finish The Outsider, but ended up stopping partway through The Rats in the Walls.

The writing was just so... terrible! Every sentence contained unnecessary words that basically told the reader to feel foreboding, instead of just letting the events stand by themselves. Even what should have been the most prosaic sentences were dripping with unnecessary adverbs and adjectives to, you know, remind us we're reading horror.

Simply put, he lays it on far, far too thick.

But, I will still treasure those memories of enjoying reading his works and even trying to imitate his style. I'll even probably try re-reading The Color out of Space again.

However, sometimes books with good memories are perhaps left to themselves as you move onto new stories. :)
 

Randy M.

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Brian, I felt that way rereading "The Shadow Out of Time" -- so much of his writing was trying to sell his premise. But in rereading "The Colour Out of Space," "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Rats in the Walls" I still found them good to great.
 

Extollager

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I'm not saying I'll never read HPL again. But this essay


was certainly a partial summing-up for me after about a half century of reading him. I felt that I had, at last, succeeded in putting into words much of the appeal for me of reading HPL. Does this discussion resonate with other readers? That a key reason we like Lovecraft is that -- bizarre as it might seem at first -- his world is comfortable, like The Wind in the Willows? Or is it just me?
 

BAYLOR

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I know this not consider one of hiss best stories but, I do like Imprisoned With The Pharaohs .:cool:
 

Toby Frost

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Yes, Lovecraft's wordy style really does work against him. He wasn't self-taught, but the weirdness of his style does remind me a bit of people like Robert Tressall, who are clearly influenced by a few other authors. Quite a lot of the time, Lovecraft reads like someone writing a parody. However, I think there are half a dozen stories where he rises above the waffle and his ideas hit home. For me (as with Agatha Christie mysteries, weirdly enough) it's where he introduces some new element to the formula, such as the government involvement and action scenes in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or the paranoia of The Whisperer in Darkness that his stories work best.

I do think that I'm done with Lovecraft, and I suspect that I've read all the best bits (in one collection). He might be one of those authors who is better remembered than read, if that makes any sense.

I remember that article @Extollager , and I thought it made a very good point. It occurs to me that the great doom in Lovecraft's setting isn't really connected to reality, and is therefore hard to fear. What I mean is that in, say, Salem's Lot, the effects of vampirism on the town are quite like the effects of poverty and crime. The ghosts in The Shining are trying to incite a domestic murder. The reality-warping effect of Cthulhu is much harder to imagine. Stephen King once said that it's easy to be scared of an atom bomb, but to get something like Azathoth the Crawling Chaos required a much stronger imagination.
 

BAYLOR

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From Beyond
Yes, Lovecraft's wordy style really does work against him. He wasn't self-taught, but the weirdness of his style does remind me a bit of people like Robert Tressall, who are clearly influenced by a few other authors. Quite a lot of the time, Lovecraft reads like someone writing a parody. However, I think there are half a dozen stories where he rises above the waffle and his ideas hit home. For me (as with Agatha Christie mysteries, weirdly enough) it's where he introduces some new element to the formula, such as the government involvement and action scenes in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or the paranoia of The Whisperer in Darkness that his stories work best.

I do think that I'm done with Lovecraft, and I suspect that I've read all the best bits (in one collection). He might be one of those authors who is better remembered than read, if that makes any sense.

I remember that article @Extollager , and I thought it made a very good point. It occurs to me that the great doom in Lovecraft's setting isn't really connected to reality, and is therefore hard to fear. What I mean is that in, say, Salem's Lot, the effects of vampirism on the town are quite like the effects of poverty and crime. The ghosts in The Shining are trying to incite a domestic murder. The reality-warping effect of Cthulhu is much harder to imagine. Stephen King once said that it's easy to be scared of an atom bomb, but to get something like Azathoth the Crawling Chaos required a much stronger imagination.

Lovecraft style in the visual medium can pretty effective . There have bee a number of films baed of his world that were quite Chilling

Rod Serling's night Gallery did a very good adaptation of Pickman's Model.
Reanimator
From Beyond
Dagon
The Color of Space


Things that might have been influenced by Lovecraft

Quatermasss
X From the Unknown
Image of the Fendahl
Alien
The Thing
Reanimator
In the Mouth of Madness

Slither
 
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Extollager

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Yes, Lovecraft's wordy style really does work against him. He wasn't self-taught, but the weirdness of his style does remind me a bit of people like Robert Tressall, who are clearly influenced by a few other authors. Quite a lot of the time, Lovecraft reads like someone writing a parody. However, I think there are half a dozen stories where he rises above the waffle and his ideas hit home. For me (as with Agatha Christie mysteries, weirdly enough) it's where he introduces some new element to the formula, such as the government involvement and action scenes in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or the paranoia of The Whisperer in Darkness that his stories work best.

I do think that I'm done with Lovecraft, and I suspect that I've read all the best bits (in one collection). He might be one of those authors who is better remembered than read, if that makes any sense.

I remember that article @Extollager , and I thought it made a very good point. It occurs to me that the great doom in Lovecraft's setting isn't really connected to reality, and is therefore hard to fear. What I mean is that in, say, Salem's Lot, the effects of vampirism on the town are quite like the effects of poverty and crime. The ghosts in The Shining are trying to incite a domestic murder. The reality-warping effect of Cthulhu is much harder to imagine. Stephen King once said that it's easy to be scared of an atom bomb, but to get something like Azathoth the Crawling Chaos required a much stronger imagination.
Then take Hodgson's "Voice in the Night." That one can get under your skin a bit. It taps into two all too believable fears. First, the fear of wasting illness and specifically cancer -- the grey nodules can be cut off but they come back, etc. Second, the way that illness and, especially, disfigurement may make one feel shame; one remains as much a human being as ever, but knows that people will react to one's unhappy situation or to how one looks. I always associate that story with an ambiguous incident that occurred about 40 years ago now. I was living in Klamath Falls and walking back from town, and, a block ahead, I saw a small and thin woman, who in that white-predominant town appeared from the distance to be Asian. And I had the sense that her face might be damaged. She took a different direction rather than that our paths should intersect. Afterwards I wondered if she had perhaps been injured in some war episode overseas. Whatever the facts may have been, and now I only remember my memory of it, not the experience itself, this fleeting near-encounter is associated in my mind with the pathos of the situation of the victims in Hodgson's story, which seems to me to do something really worth doing. It might seem to be, superficially, just another pulp horror story, but I don't see it as nothing but a few minutes' easy entertainment.
 

BAYLOR

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Then take Hodgson's "Voice in the Night." That one can get under your skin a bit. It taps into two all too believable fears. First, the fear of wasting illness and specifically cancer -- the grey nodules can be cut off but they come back, etc. Second, the way that illness and, especially, disfigurement may make one feel shame; one remains as much a human being as ever, but knows that people will react to one's unhappy situation or to how one looks. I always associate that story with an ambiguous incident that occurred about 40 years ago now. I was living in Klamath Falls and walking back from town, and, a block ahead, I saw a small and thin woman, who in that white-predominant town appeared from the distance to be Asian. And I had the sense that her face might be damaged. She took a different direction rather than that our paths should intersect. Afterwards I wondered if she had perhaps been injured in some war episode overseas. Whatever the facts may have been, and now I only remember my memory of it, not the experience itself, this fleeting near-encounter is associated in my mind with the pathos of the situation of the victims in Hodgson's story, which seems to me to do something really worth doing. It might seem to be, superficially, just another pulp horror story, but I don't see it as nothing but a few minutes' easy entertainment.
Ive read this several times, It never loses it power.

This story is the basis for the 1963 Japanese horror movie Mantango A .K .A Attack of the Mushroom People . It differs quite bit from the story in that have group of people marrow on the Fungus infested Island and they're not alone The story is told by the survivor of that group who escaped the Island while fellow cremate succumbed. The lone survivor now confined to sanatorium, because they think he crazy and interestingly as he he has as he telling the story of what befell him and his friend on the Island , you never see face at least .unit the last pivotal scene . It's a very creepy piece of film making and well with watching.
 
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Toby Frost

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It taps into two all too believable fears.

Hmm, I wonder if that's why I like the Lovecraft stories that I do: they're smaller-scale, and often deal in the fear of being watched, chased or murdered, which are all fairly "mundane" fears. There is a type of epicness that can be frightening, in an awe-inspiring way, but I don't think Lovecraft is actually especially good at it. Maybe it's better done visually: the crashed spaceship in Alien or the sheet-ghost thing in the dream sequence in the BBC's version of "Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" do it well. Stephen King discusses different sorts of horror in Danse Macabre, which I'd definitely recommend.

That's a good story. I particularly like the way that the man rows away at the end. Someone should make an anthology of "Awful supernatural things that happened at sea". It strikes me that the language is far, far clearer than Lovecraft's, and it's 20 years earlier (likewise Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard's writing). Interesting that "What's up?" and "Shut up" existed as phrases so long ago. It's also interesting how many mentions the dying man makes of God and Heaven, which somewhat weakens the horror.

So, if we're all agreed that Lovecraft's tendency towards waffle and purple prose doesn't help him, what does he do well? First, I think he's got a good imagination for horrible fates and monsters: chestbusting rats, inbred fishmen, alien abduction etc. Second, he might have been the first person to really go to town on the "cosmic horror" element. In contrast to Hodgson's story, there is no God or Heaven in Lovecraft's work. Third, is he one of the first authors to consciously link his own stories into a single setting? Do characters from, say, Dickens or Austen ever mention each other? I suppose Hardy's stories are all set in the same fictional Wessex, but I can't think of much else off the top of my head.
 
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Randy M.

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So, if we're all agreed that Lovecraft's tendency towards waffle and purple prose doesn't help him, what does he do well? First, I think he's got a good imagination for horrible fates and monsters: chestbusting rats, inbred fishmen, alien abduction etc. Second, he might have been the first person to really go to town on the "cosmic horror" element. In contrast to Hodgson's story, there is no God or Heaven in Lovecraft's work. Third, is he one of the first authors to consciously link his own stories into a single setting? Do characters from, say, Dickens or Austen ever mention each other? I suppose Hardy's stories are all set in the same fictional Wessex, but I can't think of much else off the top of my head.

About that last, Faulkner's Yoknapawtapha County, and roughly at about the same time as HPL. (We could stretch a point to include Agatha Christie's St. Mary's Mead. :) )

I also wouldn't hold up Hodgson as an example for prose writing, though that particular story is quite direct and powerful.

I'm not sure that I still find HPL's prose all that bad most of the time. Awkward sometimes -- and I think you're wrong, Toby, I think he was largely self-taught, as was Clark Ashton Smith, and so trying to attain the level of his idols (Poe, Dunsany, Doyle to a lesser extent). But while "At the Mountains of Madness" still works pretty well for me (although I think everyone should read Victor LaValle's view of it expressed in his introduction to The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft) I agree that something like "The Colour Out of Space" holds a more visceral impact because you're seeing this cosmic horror as it plays out on a family.

Extollager, I think I may have read that article before. With luck, I'll get to read it again later today. While your point looks valid, is it a point made from rereading as opposed to initial reads? I'm not so sure that on an initial reading one finds HPL's stories "comfortable".
 

Le Panda du Mal

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To me, this seems to be expecting things from Lovecraft he deliberately didn't want to provide. He wrote stories in which humanity suddenly found itself face to face with creatures (and therefore a universe) that saw humanity as insignificant, ridiculous, "a negligible and temporary race".

To insist on inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery is a way and means to emphasise just how insignificant humanity is in these scenarios. That there are things we simply don't have the facilities to understand. That there are things besides which we are as mayflies, and how many of us expect mayflies to be able to give accurate descriptions of humanity?

To try and describe them fully - and to describe the narrators as believing they can describe them fully - would undercut his themes and stories.



As for the idea that insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery is something that raises questions of artistic good faith in the first place - that it is somehow morally wrong for an author to not sketch out what the narrator sees in full, but to give hints and give their emotional response in full - I am really quite baffled. It's one thing to not like a style of art, but to go around accusing it of lacking good faith? Seems a bit much.

I'm responding to Big Peat's good defense of Lovecraft from another thread, where I had quoted Chinua Achebe's criticism of Joseph Conrad and said it applied to Lovecraft. I should say I am very much a fan of Lovecraft and I do think he gets it right from time to time. But there are times where he saturates his narrative with words like "blasphemous," "hideous," "monstrous," "nameless", etc to the point that they are not only unnecessary but don't actually convey any information or evoke any particular feeling. In Lovecraft's style of horror, and that of his models like Machen and Blackwood, suggestion is supposed to be paramount- the reader's dread-filled imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks to a large extent, based on the hints and glimpses provided in the story. If this is done right there is no need to shout "blasphemous!" in the reader's face. I'll go further and argue that if a thing can be apprehended by the five senses, it can be described; if the description would somehow weaken the effect, then don't show it directly to the viewer and then call it indescribable. Have someone else see it, and describe their reaction, a la Danforth's freak-out at the end of At the Mountains of Madness.
 

BAYLOR

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He never quite figured out character development.
 
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Extollager

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Toby asked, "Third, is he one of the first authors to consciously link his own stories into a single setting?" This reminds me of how Rider Haggard brought together his Allan Quatermain stories and his Ayesha/She stories. One might wish that Doyle had brought together Holmes and Professor Challenger.
 

BAYLOR

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Toby asked, "Third, is he one of the first authors to consciously link his own stories into a single setting?" This reminds me of how Rider Haggard brought together his Allan Quatermain stories and his Ayesha/She stories. One might wish that Doyle had brought together Holmes and Professor Challenger.

Holmes and Challenger? The conversation between those two characters would been joy to behold . That would have been crossover for the ages.:)
 

Le Panda du Mal

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I think one of the most important things Lovecraft did was not only using a shared universe for his stories, but sharing that universe with other authors. Some authors might get touchy about their "intellectual property" but Lovecraft was happy to see other writers use his creatures.
 

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