Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nerd Book Club: The Strange, Strange World of H.P. Lovecraft

About a year ago now, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a book club that is basically populated by a bunch of genre nerds. I'm not saying that all they read is sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction - not all of them, at least - but the club has a definite slant in that direction. And so I affectionately refer to it as Nerd Book Club. We meet once at the beginning of the month to eat at an unnamed family restaurant, talk about the book (and other related and not-so-related things), and frustrate the waitstaff. It allows me to hang out with gentlemen I might not otherwise see on a regular basis, and it gets me to read things I wouldn't normally read.

February's book was my choice, and I chose to go to something well outside my comfort zone: H.P. Lovecraft. Before selecting this book, what I knew about Lovecraft came from playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG and the Arkham Horror board games, but I had always been vaguely interested in discovering more about the man's work, seeing as how it influenced many modern fantasy and horror writers, as well as some of my friends. So I checked The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories out of the library and ploughed my way through three hundred pages of psychological horror. And what were my thoughts? Conflicting.

(Ooooh, spooky waterfall!)

Let's get this out of the way: I did not love this collection. I found many of the stories, particularly the ones in the first half of the book (which were also the earliest-written stories) poorly-executed and only half-thought-through. Lovecraft is widely-praised for his ability to create a new kind of horror, one of slowly-creeping insanity often due to the realization that the main character and/or mankind in general is an insignificant speck in the face of the unknown and unknowable universe. That being said: he was often a lot better in the idea phase than in the execution.

The biggest issue that I have with this collection is that many of the stories are very, very dated. Many of the stories are peppered liberally with what seem like cliches, except at the time, they weren't cliches: they were new and fresh ideas. I don't know why I can't get over early genre cliches the same way I can get over early film cliches - I watch classic silent and early sound movies and really enjoy them - but that's a big stumbling block for me. It also doesn't help that he re-works ideas from his earlier stories into (usually) much better and longer later stories; the repetition of themes and ideas in this collection sometimes gave me the feeling that he lacked depth and imagination.

(Another thing that doesn't help is his not-so-subtle xenophobia that borders on racism. It's not there in all the stories, but when it is there, hoooo BOY it is not pleasant. And this isn't just the Mark Twain, "a product of his times," uncomfortable-yet-important kind of writing. This is a man who is clearly afraid of and distrustful of other cultures and who incorporates those fears and dislikes into his stories. It's the kind of subtext that can kill the sense of paranoia and terror that he's trying to craft.)

That being said, however, there are some really good stories in this collection as well. Some of the earlier stories, such as "The Rats in the Walls" and "Herbert West -- Reanimator" are absolute gems, excellent studies in tone, genre, and creepiness. "The Rats in the Walls," in particular, was a standout: when you start a story by saying that you wish you had never learned about to the house of your ancestors, and now it is being BLOWN UP, that is a pretty damn great hook. The fact that he completely delivered on that promise made for a really great story, one that kept me going through the rest of the collection, hoping for a story that might even exceed it.

And a number of the later stories are very good too; although longer and sometimes overstuffed with flowery descriptions, I think Lovecraft became a more skilled writer over time, and his descriptions of the places and the eerie feelings that slowly begin to overwhelm his narrators are more effective towards the end of the book. My two favourite stories are from the end of the book. The first, "Shadow Over Innsmouth," featured terrific descriptions of slowly mounting unease and a narrator that was actually active and dynamic (well, active and dynamic by Lovecraft's standards), and it had a great ending that actually raised the hairs on my arms. The second and the best of the collection, was "The Color out of Space," is a very languidly paced but vividly described tale of a mysterious meteor that crashes on a patch of farmland and releases an indescribable "color" that slowly begins infecting the land...then the animals...then the people. Even now, weeks after reading the story, I can recall Lovecraft's unsettling descriptions of the images and events of the story and get subtly creeped out.

So overall, I would say that The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories was worth reading. Although the colleciton is definitely uneven, the ideas he put forth in some of his poorer stories are still powerful upon reflection. There were also a handful of truly excellent stories that I would love to re-read again in the future, and it was a decent introduction to a writer whose influence stretches beyond his time and genre, even if many readers (including a younger me) don't realize it.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I've been discovering Lovecraft's stories as well. He was a marvel in the area of description and mood, but like you said, sometimes, as good as it is, the writing comes off a bit ham-fisted. I've found this to be the same case with Rudyard Kipling's supernatural stories. I think it might be a product of how we, as a modern audience, have developed in our reading habits. The general style of writing is not the same as it was then, so it takes a little more patience to follow something in an older style.