Latest Entries »

 

3/3 – The Long Horror

The short stuff forms the crux and basis of everything Lovecraftian, but it is his longer work that gets name-dropped the hardest (outside of “The Call of Cthulhu,” which I’m betting 300% of Cthulhu Mythos “fans” have never actually read).  At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth get a lot of mention and a lot of praise.  Unfortunately, the majority of the people doing the naming and praising have no idea what in the R’lyeh they’re talking about.  Let me explain.

All of these works are absolutely worthy of praise, but listening (or reading, rather) the way the supposed Lovecraft community discusses these works does a disservice to their brilliance.  They are masterful works of imagination and do an absolute credit to the argument for intelligent pace.  What they are not is terribly active.  Cthulhu is not flying around brain-raping the world into submission.  People are not seeing things that are knocking them off of their rockers and into some loquacious fit of fainting.  Rather, people are seeing half-hints and indirect, indefinite, and impossible glimpses.  The “Innsmouth look” is not an outright frog-man, it is the promise of degeneration.  The most maddening thing about At the Mountains of Madness is not the only appearance of an actual shoggoth in all of Lovecraft’s oeuvre.  Rather, it is Lovecraft’s stubborn refusal to elucidate exactly what it was which blasted Danforth’s sanity so completely.

Lovecraft’s novellas are long-form articles of inference.  Dyer and Danforth make unbelievable discoveries beneath the Antarctic ice, but what they infer is world-shaking.  Professor Peaslee’s confirmation of his historically unsettling and upsetting experience isn’t half so fundamentally bothersome as the simple, cool breeze floating up from the buried secrets underneath already shocking buried secrets.  The Yithians of The Shadow Out of Time were alien, no doubt, but empathetic in a sense.  Whatever they so feared remains unrevealed and Peaslee and the reader neither one want or need to know what lies beneath.  The narrator in The Shadow Over Innsmouth is less effectively terrifying in his flight from a disgusting cult than he is in his hints and explanations of his inhuman life and acceptance beneath the sea.

All three of these stories are frustrating, and all three are better for it.  In each of them, next to nothing at all actually happens, given their length.  They are simple sequences of action.  Their purpose, their real meat and influence, is that which has already happened.  They are the dark side of discovery.  They are curious men finally submitting to limitation, and the pain and loss that must accompany the human intellect and thirst for knowledge giving up and cowering before something too tall to measure or too deep to dig up.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, to me, is the strongest of Lovecraft’s horror novellas.  It is also the leanest (not referencing length).  It is absolutely and inextricably tied to the remainder of Lovecraft’s fiction, but it is more immediate.  It is a more active story.  In almost each of the other stories we experience half-explained inferences and shy madness in the first-person.  In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, we watch the actual supplanting of identity by the inescapable weight and accuracy of those inferences.  In other stories the results of an old mistake are revealed and its repetition by the modern world is staved off by secrecy or disbelief or the barest thread of inarticulate survival.  Charles Dexter Ward makes that old mistake, and one Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett stands by and experiences the loss secondarily, sharing in our blindness and ignorance and so making him a more directly empathetic, and thus powerful, figure with whom to identify.

If Randolph Carter goes on my favorite journey, then Dr. Willett is my favorite man.  He is Lovecraft’s one genuinely good character.  He is reason wrapped both in truly scientific understanding and pure will.  Where Ward’s discoveries and consequences chill, Dr. Willett’s own actions belie an underappreciated aspect of Lovecraft’s own personality: optimism.  Dr. Willett is not himself a particularly optimistic man, but he is the most proactive, and so most human, of all of Lovecraft’s characters.  Lovecraft was a strict materialist, but he understood better than most of his age the terrible possibilities and probabilities of an infinite universe.  In the bounds of infinity, everything is possible if not likely, and he rightly recognized that this was an alternately sobering and exasperating realization.  Dr. Willett is both sobered and exasperated, but he is engaged.  He does not shut down, he does not flee.

I really have no idea how to conclude any discussion of the entire fiction of this man.  In reading H.P. Lovecraft we should neither misunderstand the horror and gravity, nor should we ignore the creative virility of his more agile imaginings.  Human beings are small.  Everything is scary to the small.  Don’t believe when other people name-drop the man.  There are weirder things which more horribly threaten one’s sanity than Cthulhu, because Cthulhu ultimately has a name and a nature.  Cthulhu is a priest, and what he believes is much, much more devastating.

 

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.

1/3 – The Fantastic

Alright team, here we go.  Barnes & Noble, bottom shelf, huge tome of a book with purple cosmic geometry for a cover design.  Great big letters: H.P. Lovecraft.  This is what I had been waiting for.  I had long wanted exactly this: something in which I could easily approach the entire library of a man who has influenced so complete a volume of everything I love and find myself interested in.  Did it disappoint?

1098 pages of stories, long and short, essays, introductions, notes, drafts.  Anything that big is bound to disappoint in part (*harhar*), but the man didn’t effectively originate (or at least concretize) an entirely unique and novel genre without producing an overall phenomenal output.  Collected, introduced, and presented by “leading Lovecraft scholar” S.T. Joshi, the ancillary and supplemental material is, in all honesty, legitimately revealing and helpful.  What Joshi and Barnes & Noble seem to have missed is a great many typos which I am sure remain from the original, and supposedly edited and enhanced, texts as they first appeared.  But these are comparably few and mighty far between and only very occasionally distracted from my consistently swelling appreciation of the man and his work.

The relationship I had with this solid brick of pages (made all the more dramatic by the startling lightness of my spankin’ new Christmas Nookcolor) began on rocky footing.  Lovecraft was young and while a glimmer of weird promise hovered around the early entries, I am not accustomed to reading anything written by someone younger than myself and I may have resented the fact that it was still lightyears ahead of anything I may have written at that same age.  Nonetheless, it was exciting to watch the rapidity with which young H.P. increased his overall output and the quality thereof.

The first element of Lovecraft’s oeuvre to come into its own is the same element which receives the least attention.  We’ll get to the Cthulhu Mythos soon, and they are fantastic, but they are not totally separate or absolutely superior to Lovecraft’s more fantastic (or “phantastic,” as he renders it) Dream Cycle.

Lovecraft’s own strength was in his desperate lack of definition, allowing for an easy inter-compatibility and cohesive cooperation amongst his stories of all styles.  The largely indeterminate Dream Cycle actually laid the viscous and amorphous background which is the world behind the world of Lovecraft’s whole fiction, however it is expressed.  Alternately material, fey, and something like dream, this in-between or backside-world is peppered with names, places, references, and phrases which the reader comes to consider pillars of the whole shared world which Lovecraft created throughout his career.  As silly as names of people and places like Sarnath, Ulthar, Oog-Narthai, Atal, Kuranes, Leng, etc. initially appear, by the conclusion of Randolph Carter’s personal storyline I considered them essential and creative archetypes of a world perpendicular to our own.

The way that characters and elements weave in and out of one another’s individually delineated story-worlds is something a little too chronological, but still exciting and exhausting to behold.  Lovecraft’s verbiage is also clearly most at home here as well.  It is a common complaint against the professional amateur that his language is overwrought and despite Joshi’s protestations, I can’t completely discount that complaint.  As the pages turn he reigns it in, subtly and effectively so, but in his more fantastic turns Lovecraft comfortably allows his pen to flower and flow in whatever direction it so desires.  He’s writing a dream, whatever the composition, and dreams don’t have to submit to scholastic criteria.

Explicitly influenced by Lord Dunsany (who I hope to tackle later in the CBR), we still find here the very heart of H.P. Lovecraft (Randolph Carter, despite being one of my favorite characters ever, is essentially Lovecraft’s own proxy) and the seeds of eternal Pajiba favorites like Neil Gaiman and Steven Moffat.

This cycle also builds on itself more believably and less distractingly than the horror vein.  As we’ll explore more later, it becomes tiresomely curious how so many Miskatonic professors could be exposed to the very most secret and ancient histories of the world and the nameless and painful true character of the universe.  In Dreamland I took no such issue.

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” “Celephaïs,” “The Other Gods,” “The Strange High House in the Mist,” and, what I consider to be Lovecraft’s very crown jewel, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” among many others, compose a collection that I cannot recommend highly enough.  That final novella alone is among the most dreamily and beautifully constructed literary culminations that I have ever experienced.  It is everything that the stories that built up to it promised to be.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it was the turning point in what had until then been a sometimes exhausting trudge through a format I was largely unfamiliar with (the short story).

I won’t assign stars, or thumbs up, or numbers, or any sort of rating.  But I will give my recommendation and I will give my appreciation.  This third of my overall review of H.P. Lovecraft’s complete fiction garners my enthusiastic praise.  Read these stories.  Read about the world that underpins Randolph Carter and read his own journey through the heart and germ of decadent imagination itself.  Just don’t trust anyone named Nyarlathotep along the way.  That guy is crawling chaos and he’ll walk you right up to the monotonous piping of flutes around the daemon-sultan throne of the blind idiot god Azathoth at the center of Chaos itself.  Bastard.

And one day, people will read it. Welcome, ‘Jibans & Co., to my first and only blog (not counting the one I had to keep for a semester of Spanish).

I’m jazzed to Cannonball with all of you, and if you don’t know what the Cannonball Read is and you’ve somehow stumbled over here, well, check it out at http://cannonballread3.wordpress.com/ or follow it sporadically at Pajiba itself.

I’m especially thrilled about the title, which I think means I’m a real-life blogger now, and it should all make sense in my successive combo of three reviews.

Coming Soon: Three-part review of the entire fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Until then, Cthulhu fhtagn.