Let Us Now Praise H.P. Lovecraft

One more recommendation for Halloween reading.  I first heard of Lovecraft in high school when Stephen King put out a collection of short stories called Nightmares and Dreamscapes.  One story in particular was especially effective, a bone-chilling number called “Crouch End.”  In it, a young couple get lost in a weird suburb of London and encounter some malevolent, mysterious beings that are clearly evil and alien, but never fully revealed, only darkly hinted at.

The best part was a scene where one of the heroes, who knew astronomy reasonably well, tried to get oriented by looking at the sky, only to get nauseatingly dizzy(along with the reader) at seeing a totally foreign arrangement of stars.  What a classy, elegant, and supremely unnerving method of showing the reader that we’re not in Kansas anymore.  

This great detail wasn’t of King’s own making, though.  He borrowed it–as well as the atmosphere, theme, and even names in the story–from H.P. Lovecraft, whom King has often said was one of his major influences.

Lovecraft is popular, just not enough so.  He deserves a far wider reading than he gets.  He writes with the same breathless straining for evocative, psychological superlatives that we identify with Poe, but updates Poe’s interest in realistic fantasy to his early 20th century Progressive era: stories usually involve dispassionate researchers scrutinizing documents and offering detached observations to the reader. 

A sample of Lovecraft, from his novella “The Shadow Out Of Time“:

There was a hideous fall through incalculable leagues of viscous, sentient darkness, and a babel of noises utterly alien to all that we know of the Earth and its organic life.  Dormant, rudimentary senses seemed to start into vitality within me, telling of pits and voids peopled by floating horrors and leading to sunless crags and oceans and teeming cities of windowless, basalt towers upon which no light ever shone.

Dude.  Sweet.  As I’ve long labored to persuade students to consider, the best horror isn’t in overt stories of gory killings, but from poignantly manipulating fear in our minds with tantalizing glimpses of horrific ideas (Lovecraft, like Poe, rarely dwells much on the easy aspects of physical revulsion; the infinite dimensions of personal imagination are so much more fun!), given to us in prose whose luxuriously Gothic style matches the mood of the narrative.

But for Lovecraft, no mere vampires or werewolves would ever do.  Oh, no; his best stories had to be about heinously blasphemous things, the very sight of which would melt our minds into permanent insanity.  Yeah!

Though Lovecraft is perhaps best remembered in pop culture as the inventor of the Necronomicon (I’ve long wanted to write a parody called the Mormonomicon–Google has two hits on the term, so I’m not the first to think of it), perhaps his most typical creation is Cthulhu (depicted in both pictures in this post), a mighty and ancient demon god from deep space which exists on earth only to ravage humanity with its blind destructive force.  Rock on! 

Even this has penetrated the mainstream mindset a little.  I love this joke at McSweeneys titled, mocking a Lovecraft story, “The Calls of Cthulhu,” as well as a button I saw a friend wearing in college: “Why settle for the lesser evil?  Vote Cthulhu for President.”

Just this evening I read, “The Haunter of the Dark.”  It is easily one of my new favorite scary stories, just perfect in every way.  A more superbly crafted tale of creeping, lurking terror (so scary that it can never be fully seen or described…convenient for the author!) will be hard to find.  Give it a whirl and see what you’ve been missing.  If you want something short, I might also recommend “The Outsider,” which is only so-so, but a real treat for language lovers and a decent introduction to Lovecraft.

I recall writing a story when I was ten or eleven about a monster I couldn’t describe, but which had been sealed away in an underground prison (by whom?) in the desert around us in Las Vegas several thousand years ago.  A Joshua tree had been planted over it to keep the monster locked in.  One night, lightning strikes the tree and splits it, releasing the monster (whatever it was).  The rest of the story consisted of vignettes where random people each meet a strange, sudden demise (clearly implied to be a result of the monster being loose, but I never explained exactly how it was involved).  I never finished the story, but always loved the idea. 

This sounds exactly like something Lovecraft would have written.  I wonder if there’s something primordial in the collective human consciousness that invloves such incomprehensible legends.  Actually, that sounds like something Lovecraft would have written!

His stories are available online in some places.  Try this Project Gutenberg link.  (Special thanks to Australia and their generous copyright laws for making this link possible!)

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