Reading Lovecraft

7 posts / 0 new
Last post
Aladdar
Aladdar's picture
Reading Lovecraft

So getting involved in this game got me interested in reading some of Lovecraft's work. I found his complete collection on Kindle for 49 cents so I picked it up.

Where do I get started, should I just read them through in order? I've heard some of it is good and some of it is, well, not so good. Or are there simply a group of stories I should focus on?

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

I think you could probably move through that entire collection in a couple of days, honestly. At the time Lovecraft was writing, it was far easier to publish short stories in periodicals than it was to produce actual books, so most of his material is extremely short. The only work I can recall that even approaches real story length was In The Mountains of Madness.

He did do several stories that were meant to be episodic. As I recall, the stories involving Doctor Herbert West were originally published separately from one another, but when put together form a single storyline. I found myself really impressed with the fantastical story spun out over 2 or 3 short stories of the travels to the Dreamlands that begun with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, mostly because of how visual the writing becomes.

On the subject of writing, a reader has to understand that while Lovecraft is credited with the construction of entire genres of horror as we know it, the ideas of horror in his day were much less graphic than today's standards. As a result, his work is exceptional, but people whose imaginations don't run away with them might wonder what all the fuss is about after reading some of his work. To put it into a more modern sense, I had a conversation with my girlfriend the other day where I described to her growing up on old episodes of Doctor Who. The set designer on that show never put in a full day's work in his life, so someone watching from scratch now might be turned off, but for someone who is imaginative and is able to look past the deficiencies might find that the writing was superb. In much the same way, Lovecraft's writings aren't as violent or graphic as we, the generation that grew up with Freddy Krueger all around us, might be used to, but for someone who has a very graphic imagination and can well picture the descent into madness that's often described, the work can be excellent and feel a lot like old Twilight Zone episodes.

There have been a number of movies based on his work to date. Most are... not what I would call great. Herbert West: Reanimator is considered a cult classic, but I wouldn't label it as a great movie. In the Mouth of Madness had the right feel, I think, but while it was obviously influenced by Lovecraft, it's not truly one of his stories. Nic Cage is currently working on a version of The Color Out of Space. We'll see how that goes. The only movie based directly on his work that I've seen that I'd label as being good from a perspective of story and cinematography was a 1-hour episode of Masters of Horror produced by Showtime titled Dreams in the Witch House, and based on the story of the same name. It's been years since I saw it, but I felt it did an exceptional job of showcasing the use of non-Euclidian geometry, which is a running theme in Lovecraft's work.

As a final point, Lovecraft is remembered as being the prime producer of his brand of horror for his day, but he was hardly the only one doing so. A lot of pulp authors at the time were doing similar work, and in fact his work influenced others to write stories that eventually came to be jumbled up into what we call the Cthulu Mythos (but which Lovecraft himself refereed to as "Yog-Sothothery"). If you find you like Lovecraft's general tone, but might be happier with less use of twenty-dollar words, then you might check out some of Robert E. Howard's similar work. In many ways, I find it to be superior to Lovecraft's work.

https://www.amazon.com/Horror-Stories-Robert-Howard/dp/0345490207/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=horror+stories+of+robert+e+howard&qid=1569613872&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Aladdar
Aladdar's picture

The full book has over 1600 pages apparently, so I doubt I'll get through in a few days, but I'll take a look to do some reading.

I do often find that these older authors are harder to read now. I'm currently trying to read through CS Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet for the first time, and while I can see how it might have been great in it's day, with what we know about Cosmology today, it's difficult at times to take it seriously.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

I think that when we look at speculative fiction of any sort, we can constructively differentiate between all kinds of binaries in terms of authors. One of the points of differentiation that I think is especially useful is between authors who are important because of how good they are at writing, and authors who are important because they're the first to write a certain kind of story.

Lovecraft is basically one of the latter. He was the first person to write the kind of story he wrote. But he was objectively a pretty terrible fiction writer. Often incoherent. Almost always purple-prosed. And that's without getting into the overt racism, which . . . like, even for a white dude writing in his day, he was pretty goddamn racist.

This isn't a novel observation. Lots of important sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers aren't actually any good at writing. This is especially true if you look back into the era of pulp magazines. Weird Tales was basically an amateur operation. You sent in the manuscript for a story. If the editor thought it was interesting and it didn't need a lot of copyediting attention, they paid you for it and published it.

Most of the authors for genre magazines weren't professional writers. They weren't men of letters. Far from it; they were engineers, machinists, and other technicians who did this stuff as a hobby, and a lot of what they wrote was awful unless you were specifically and extensively interested in speculation about things like interstellar travel. See https://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/ for a sample. I am (infrequently) involved in the transcription project here.

Anyway. Lovecraft wasn't a very good writer, except in the sense that he did things nobody else had ever really done. Other people have since picked up the "Lovecraftian horror" genre and done much better things with it, both as straight horror/weird fiction (Thomas Ligotti, for example) and in its more pop cultural manifestations (the game you've been playing, but also see Charles Stross's fantastic Laundry Files series). There also is a wonderful sub-genre that consists of nothing but fiction that mashes up the Harlem Renaissance with Lovecraftian horror—Lovecraft was notoriously racist. For that, see Matt Rush and Victor LaValle.

I think it would be fair to call him the Ezra Pound of horror/weird. He was hugely influential, and probably is as important for of his involvement in bringing the likes of Robert Bloch (author of Psycho) to public notice as for the works he published himself. Like Pound, he also was problematically racist, although in Lovecraft's case it was all about brown people, rather than Pound's brand of Fascist anti-Semitism.

Anyway. Lovecraft had three general periods in his creative life. There's considerable overlap of theme and content between them.

1) Macabre - "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" is representative, as are "Old Bugs," "Polaris" and "The White Ship," as well as "The Music of Erich Zann."

2) Dreamlands - The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, "The Silver Key," "Nyarlathotep" (poem), At the Mountains of Madness, and "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" are among the representative works. Many have connections to the Cthulu mythos.

3) Cthulu mythos - "Dagon," "Azathoth," "The Call of Cthulu," "The Color out of Space," "The Dunwich Horror," The Shadow Over Innsmouth, etc. Also includes a full-length novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

NB: All other italicized titles are novellas.

If you look at his work chronologically, you're going to notice that the Cthulu Mythos built up gradually for Lovecraft over a period of around 17-18 years. He started out writing macabre stories that emulated Edgar Allen Poe and Lord Dunsany, and steadily got weirder and weirder. Developing themes had a lot to do with the idea that mankind and its concerns are insignificant in the face of a vast, indifferent universe that it ruled by powerful beings that may as well be gods, and which are at best indifferent to humanity.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Talanall
Talanall's picture

I find Lewis is only tolerable to read if you're prepared to endure Christian allegory. He wrote absolutely nothing but material that was intimately concerned with his faith and his desire to proselytize to anyone who could be induced to sit still for it.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

Talanall wrote:

I find Lewis is only tolerable to read if you're prepared to endure Christian allegory. He wrote absolutely nothing but material that was intimately concerned with his faith and his desire to proselytize to anyone who could be induced to sit still for it.

On this, we agree. I stopped trying to read Elliot years ago because I could never divorce his work from his faith. I don't mind religion in fiction. I don't mind Christianity in fiction. But If I wanted a Sunday School lesson, I'd have gone to church.

On the subject of Lovecraft, I don't specifically disagree with you, at least not in toto. The purple-prosing you mention was what I was trying to get across when I said "twenty dollar words." Lovecraft was a proponent of using poly-syllabic vocabulary whenever possible, and often looked down on writers who didn't, and I agree with you that it did, at times, become a distraction to the image he was trying to paint.

Still, I'm an unapologetic fan of his work in what you've labeled his Dreamlands period. Whatever was happening in his life at the time, it gave him a very unique way of describing environments that I really like. I once told someone it was like an author penning all of the visual borderline-psychedelic stuff from the Doctor Strange movie, but as a retelling of Stand By Me, and doing a good job of it.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

In a traditional publisher/author relationship, the editor's bill of responsibilities includes a duty to rein in any euphuistic tendencies that someone like Lovecraft might exhibit. At the time that Lovecraft was writing, "serious" writers and critics looked down genre fiction because magazines like Weird Tales didn't really have anything like that. Instead, WT had a guy named Farnsworth Wright, who pretty much didn't care about purple prose. He was a really idiosyncratic editor in general, and ran the magazine as his private fiefdom for about 18 years. To his credit, the magazine's readership didn't care about purple prose, either, and under Wright the publication was commercially successful. He was himself a fan of weird fiction, knew what the readers wanted, and saw to it that they got it. This general model also is indicative of what happened in other pulp magazines of significance during the same general period, including Amazing Stories.

So when I say that Lovecraft is not a very good writer, or that Wright was an inconsistent editor who didn't care about the quality of the writing he published, I'm making a specific point about how pulps worked as business entities (they cut costs whenever possible, often by preferring to publish inexperienced or amateur writers under the direction of editors who tended to do as little actual editing as possible), and about what the readership of a pulp would have cared about. Hint: also not the editorial quality of the publication, except insofar as they cared that a title like Detective Story Magazine delivered what the title said it did.

There definitely were exceptions to this rule, because pulps weren't all specialized, and some of the generalist publications had extremely large circulations, and commensurately were able to pay for top-notch editorial staff and famous mainstream literary authors. I'm pretty sure Sinclair Lewis won a Nobel Prize for literature, and he started out in the pulps. But most pulps weren't interested in the "literary merit" of what they published.

Anyway. Lovecraft used big words, certainly. But he used the same big words over and over. I think that if you run a word count, "hideous" is probably the one he leans on most heavily. But I think my favorite Lovecraftism is when he says something is "unutterable," "indescribable," or "unmentionable," when he's deep in the throes of uttering everything he can come up with to describe that thing. Which he does. A lot.

Professional editors are supposed to keep you from doing stuff like that, and Lovecraft was writing for publications that basically didn't care about it. That's probably why he was able to get published at all; if he'd run into editors who cared, it wouldn't have gone well for him because he was such a crank about the whole thing. And he wasn't nice about it, either. He had trouble getting published even in Weird Tales because Wright had been published there prior to becoming editor, and Lovecraft had been outspoken in his criticism of the now-editor's work. Wright published a lot of his rejected stuff later. Posthumously.

For a period from about 1914 to 1917 or so, Lovecraft was a senior officer in the administration of the United Amateur Press Association, and he used it as a soapbox to advocate a weirdly Anglophilic reactionary stance against things like colloquialism in the contemporary usages of American English. I won't get into a lot of detail, except to say that he liked archaic British forms because he felt that uppity black folks were ruining American English with their damnable jazz slang.

So . . . yeah. His purple prose is arguably a feature because it's part of what makes him memorable. I guess. It's also an artifact of some really bizarre political and social opinions that he held, and it legitimately caused him difficulties.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold