I first read some of H P Lovecraft’s short stories back in my mid teens. Me and friends even played some Call Of Cthulhu role playing game, investigating weird phenomena while trying to hold onto our sanity points. Ever since those days the intergalactic horror fiction of Lovecraft has had a special place in my heart. I recently decided to reread some of his stuff and picked up the new edition of The Call Of Cthulhu And Other Weird Stories, edited by S T Joshi. This edition was first published in 1999.
The Call Of Cthulhu And Other Weird Stories, and the author Howard Phillips Lovecraft
This is an excellent collection, including eighteen stories from quick two or three page vignettes to extensive multi-chapter stories and novella. It also includes the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which was the only actual book of Lovecraft’s fiction to be published in his lifetime (by William L Crawford’s Visionary Press). The vast majority of his stuff was published in Weird Tales and other similar pulp magazines.
This particular collection has many of the classics, including the title story, The Call Of Cthulhu, the aforementioned The Shadow Over Innsmouth, plus other well known stories such as Herbet West – Reanimator, Dagon, Nyarlathotep and The Colour Out Of Space (which turned out to be my favourite yarn in this book).
Stephen King describes Lovecraft in a quote on the cover of this book as, “The twentieth century horror story’s dark and baroque prince”. It’s a great description. Some of the stories are extremely predicatable and obvious. Sometimes that makes the story boring, but often with Lovecraft’s work you know what’s going to happen but you want to read it anyway. There’s a distinct formula to his stuff. As an atheist, Lovecraft wanted to write horror that didn’t depend on religio-mythical fodder, so his monsters were creatures from beyond space and time, hideous things older than mankind that travelled across the vast tracts of space to cause us horror. In a letter to Robert E. Howard Lovecraft said, “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.”
While there was a lot of scope within Lovecraft’s chosen field, the stories usually followed the basic idea of:
Someone discovers something weird;
Horrible things happen to people;
Person tries to discover more;
Person does discover more and wishes he hadn’t;
Person is driven insane or dies. Or both.
The stories that really work are the ones that affect innocent people. When you have a story where people are deliberately calling up the Old Ones or trying to discover their secrets you tend to have less sympathy for the characters. When you have people affected by these horrors without any fault on their part the story’s always more disturbing.
Written in the 1920s and 30s, the language is something you have to get used to. Lovecraft deliberately writes with a prosaic and detailed verbosity, demonstrating his mastery of the thesaurus at every turn. This usually works and marks his style well, though sometimes it comes across as too heavy handed. A good example of language, at its descriptive best, is this, from The Shadow Over Innsmouth:
The sight of such endless avenues of fishy-eyed vacancy and death, and the thought of such linked infinities of black, brooding compartments given over to cobwebs and memories and the conqueror worm, start up vestigial fears and aversions that not even the stoutest philosophy can disperse
You get lost in Lovecraft’s language as much as in his stories and when it works it works really well.
This particular volume is edited and with an introduction and notes by S T Joshi. I don’t know who S T Joshi is (or even if they’re a man or woman) but they obviously have a massive knowledge of all Lovecraft’s work and the Cthulhu Mythos. Often this is good, but sometimes it’s downright annoying. There are considerable footnotes throughout all the stories that have you skipping to the back pages time after time. Often the footnotes are really interesting additions to the stories, notes pointing out references to other stories and other writers, developments of ideas and where Lovecraft might have got them. But equally often they’re notes describing whether or not a particular church or newspaper is real or made up, or Joshi’s thoughts on what Lovecraft might mean by a certain phrase. It’s a shame there wasn’t someone on hand to edit Joshi’s notes. However, on the whole, they add a great deal of depth to the collection and you get to learn a lot about Lovecraft’s life and writing process along the way. Along with the introduction at the start and the small intros to each story in the back page notes, this becomes a brilliant book packed with stuff.
Lovecraft only lived to 47 years old, born on August 20, 1890 and dying on March 15, 1937. He lived with illness and poverty for all of his short life, and was was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine in 1936. He also suffered from malnutrition and lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937 in Providence, Rhode Island.
Lovecraft’s own story is tragic on many levels, not least of which the lack of recognition he received in his own lifetime for writing that stories that have become entrenched as massively influential on hundreds of writers since, myself included. If you love to read or write dark fiction of any kind, you should read some H P Lovecraft. A good way to get a handle on the way that Lovecraft formulated his ideas is found in the opening paragraph of The Call Of Cthulhu:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
I’m looking forward to that piecing together, but I’m also enjoying the exploration of potential horror stories to be found in the meantime.
I’ll finish up this post with this. When I see this particular tree I think of Lovecraft. It’s at the end of the lane where I live and I often pass it when out walking the dog. This tree is known to myself and my wife as the Lovecraft Cthulhu Screaming Tree.
That’s the kind of influence Lovecraft has had – I’ve named a tree after him.