2/3 – The Short Horror
Let’s continue, shall we?
The short horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft receives the most accolades, the most criticism, and really the most attention of anything and everything that he wrote. And there are many reasons for that. But there’s one particularly simple, direct reason and it goes as follows: of the shit-ton that Lovecraft wrote, this type is the lion’s share. From “The Beast in the Cave” immediately following S.T. Joshi’s introduction to “The Haunter in the Dark,” which concludes the main body of the collection prior to Lovecraft’s excellent, if a bit haughty, essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and the piecemeal appendix, the vast majority of the 1098 pages are dedicated to short stories, lovingly and stubbornly published in amateur journals and primarily revolving around one central image or moment.
This moment is both the failure and redeeming factor in the early clump of Lovecraft’s fiction. Many of those early stories prepare an excellent atmosphere around a…thing. That thing may be a twist, it may be a scene, person, word, sound, or faint (more on this momentarily). It may be telegraphed from the first page. It may diffuse the tension, it may throw the brakes on the pace, or it may drop the floor out from under you (for better or for worse). But it is always creative. So many stories were overly verbose, too obviously and too fondly antique, or just too damn singular, but by the far side of Yuggoth I cannot reduce the man. And I wanted to in the middle of several of his stories. Too many characters lecture at Miskatonic University, too many of them have almost total recall of the Necronomicon, and far, far (fucking far) too many of them faint.
I get it, our minds cannot conceive, and the threat of imminent conception of said inconceivable breaks the very borders of the brainpan, but I had to take breaks early on to sack-up for the next marathon of short stories. And that is the weakness of reading one man’s entire literary life in one stretch. These things were published all out of order and relatively far apart across several different publications, to boot. It is hardly fair of me to hold recurrence against the man when that same recurrence so effectively and professionally comes into its own near the end of his career.
Here’s the thing about H.P. Lovecraft, as is abundantly clear on powering through his colossal collection of short horror fiction: he is a point of tension. Each story is familiar enough so as to both frustrate the reader and more effectively deliver the creative culminating element. The man had a knack for reference, straightforward misdirection, and inference that belies his fastidious self-relegation to pulp rags. He wrote for the love of writing and died impoverished and underappreciated. He refused what he perceived to be artificial literary elevation even as he abhorred the company he kept (and that kept him from proving a point to the company that kept him at arm’s length). He stressed the importance of the outside natural to the same species he begged to quit looking beyond nature. And this is what makes his ideas so damn scary.
Nothing he writes will make you jump. Nothing will give you active nightmares or shift your sweat production into fearful and nasty. What will truly scare you is when that moment he places in your mind in that deceptively easy pill to swallow (insert short story here) sprouts into genuine shared insight. When you really think through the implications of his own nervous “What if?” When you really sit down and try to decode what he describes as “alien geometry” the abstractions that tug at the corners of your reason will momentarily paralyze you. When you ponder unaccountable ages, uncaring super-conscious potentials, or sharing empty space with uncountable presences exactly beside our own perception, you will close down your reason and retreat, exactly as all of his characters do, into a “don’t be ridiculous” reaction. You will watch TV, turn on the radio, browse Pajiba, what have you, and all the while the much-discussed couplet of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred will wind itself into circles in the back of your mind where the ape-man still sits shuddering by his dying fire and you will wonder if you yourself would faint or just give up completely if just for one moment you felt the slimy brush of the choking masses in the air just barely more dimensional than ourselves. When you wonder what the words “Cthulhu fhtagn” really sound like, when the mouth pronouncing them utilizes neither lips nor tongue, then you will realize that anything big and old is scary and there is nothing bigger and older than the universe we live in.
Unless there is, in which case oh shit.