Distributed Mind

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

After many years, I have finally gotten around to reading some H. P. Lovecraft. I'm quite a Poe fan, of course, but I'm otherwise not much of a fan of horror, so perhaps this is not very surprising. But I've always been intrigued by the descriptions of Lovecraft's mix of the modern and the horrific, and over the years I've read a few things about his fiction, with an one or two stories over the years thrown in. But only in the last few weeks have I read any serious amount of his fiction.

So far the most interesting stories I have read are "The Nameless City," "The Shunned House," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

"The Nameless City" is an early story of Lovecraft and interesting for how it paints an interesting setting composed of the dissonant elements of the Arabian desert and the ruins of an ancient city contrasted with some very alien things. Lovecraft also demonstrates his aptitude for integrating real myths and literary references with invented ones. I'm always a sucker for some good verisimilitude. (Though these details sometimes do step on story - Lovecraft weakens part of the suspense of the story by referencing one of his earlier stories and referring to a city in it that existed before "mankind".) The story itself is, in plot, not very interesting.

"The Shunned House" goes a step farther with the verisimilitude - many of the details are apparently references to real people and places in Providence, R. I. (And for this I'm relying on the excellent notes of S. T. Joshi in the Penguin book The Dreams in the Witch House And Other Weird Stories.) Again, the picture painted by all of this is interesting. I think the plot again here is pretty weak, but the rest still makes it worthwhile. It is interestingly a fairly straightforward horror story, which is unusual for Lovecraft, who prefers strange interdimensional aliens masquerading as deities to vampires and ghosts. Some bonuses were the way he works part of Poe's biography into the story, and that I learned some real werewolf lore through one of his obscure references. Another downside shows up though, while reading the notes, in that turns out many of the more horrific details of the story were fairly directly inspired by actual events and legends, so Lovecraft didn't really add that much. Also, the denouement was very weak.

Finally, we have the legendary "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" which lives up to its hype. The plot here is quite good, though there are some illogical details (why not just let the stranger who only knows rumors leave, rather than try to kill him which will confirm all the rumors). But the suspense is real, even though we know the outcome - though there is a big twist at the end which is unnecessary but not entirely uninteresting (whether the story is better without it or not, I'm not sure, though I tend to wish it had not been added). Also, the story is rather grotesque (not gory - there's no gore), which I don't necessarily consider a positive feature. The worst problem with the story is that it brings out Lovecraft's base obsession with bloodlines. Lovecraft has something of a reputation as a racist and anti-semite, and I think it is more obvious in stories like this. ("The Lurking Fear" is another lower-quality example.)

One thing that tends to bother me in general about Lovecraft is his overuse of adjectives, especially non-visual ones. Things are often "blasphemous," for example, for reasons that we cannot quite understand. Rather than describe the images, Lovecraft decides to describe the effects of those images on the viewer, though he does so in a particularly ineffective way, using effects that seem unlikely to occur in reality to most people. Some stories are worse about this than others.

On the whole, though, I think this has been an interesting exercise. I'm glad I finally tried some of Lovecraft's fiction. At its best, it has the kind of noir-horror feel I had been led to expect. That I occasionally learn something from it is also a bonus. (And I want to mention again how helpful I've found the notes in the Penguin editions - makes me almost curious to read some of Joshi's writings about horror.)

I'd also like to read Supernatural Horror in Literature by Lovecraft. I'm also interested in reading some Dunsany, who was a big influence of Lovecraft. Reading about all this early horror fiction has also led me to some even earlier horror fiction, including, for example, the Hawthorne story "Young Goodman Brown" which I don't recall ever having read before. I forget sometimes how delightfully weird Hawthorne could be. We always think of Poe and forget Hawthorne and Washington Irving.

posted at 01:25:32 on 08/19/09 by ben - Category: Media


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