Having never before read any H.P. Lovecraft, I held a deeply geeky shame. This was an author that was supposed to have helped define modern horror, helped define weird fiction and the truly-out-there sci-fi. The “Cthulhu Mythos” was something that I referenced frequently and yet ignorantly. All this time it was as if I had been brandishing a phony R’lyeh passport, muttering incoherently in the Elder Gods’ many-tentacled-tongue without the proper authority.
And since Great Cthulhu was the fulcrum here, the pivotal point of contention, I was certain to identify the Lovecraft collection at my local library that actually held that particular short story1.
Working through this collection, I could see why Lovecraft became so well-known as a father-figure in modern sci-fi and horror. He had all but mastered his pacing and had certain discovered the right balance between describing the horror to you and leaving it just out of reach where your imagination could still inflate it to cosmic proportions. Simultaneously splendid and wicked. That said, I found myself gritting my teeth in fright only twice: (1) something about “The Statement of Randolph Carter” unnerved me2 and (2) then there was “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” which was just indescribably unrelenting.
Lovecraft did seem to have an odd relationship with his vocabulary though. Reading his prose, I got the impression that Lovecraft latched onto a handful of peculiarly “advanced” words and significant mythological/literary images and then milked them for every atom of their worth. It is a shame that he died as young as he did; it would have been interesting to see what may have happened had he had another 20-30 years to develop his werk. As is, while his prose was far from high literature, he did manage some curiously well-executed pieces with respect to pacing and imagery.
However, what I was not prepared for was some of the — how shall I put this? — ideological artifacts of his era. I posed the question to some friends:
Was Lovecraft a racist? Or was he just exploiting the overt physical differences between European-descended and African-descended peoples for the sake of otherness?
Take “Herbert West — Reanimator”, for example: there is a piece that is simply peppered with what we “21st century Americans” would consider racists perspectives! Meanwhile (I had a friend point out) many of these perceptions and opinions were quite commonplace for the early-20th century period. As my friend remarked: “He lived in a United States that was toying with the idea of eugenics, phrenology still hadn’t been fully dismissed, and decades before desegregation.” Fair enough — but I still was not fully prepared to encounter some of the expressions kicked around in the text. I found myself cringing each time Lovecraft went off on some tangent about “Negroids” or savages or “the Levantine”. What seemed worse (to me) was the suggestion in the “Explanatory Notes” that Lovecraft was “not really racist”; it was as though “see the potion worked on the dead Negro, too” was defense enough.
That said though, I tried not to let those “ideological artifacts” interfere too much with my enjoyment of the stories. Taken at face value, there is some interesting and entertaining material in there and certainly Lovecraft gives horror and sci-fi some worthwhile milestones in the genres’ developments.
- My shame was doubled for having imagined it to be a full-fledged novel for so many years now. [↩]
- It was like a “For Grown-Ups Edition” of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. [↩]