H. P. Lovecraft – Part One

I finally got around, prior to Thanksgiving, to picking up a Complete Fiction Works of H. P. Lovecraft.  And I am slowly working my way through the book.  The book comes in at around 1100 pages, so after reading to page 222, I decided I had better break the review(s) up into parts.  I don’t want to review in detail each and every piece in the book, but I think that there’s a lot that can be said and it needs to be partitioned like this.

cat hpl

My cat reading HPL

So far I have read (and the rating I gave each work):

  • The Tomb – 4
  • The Call of Cthulhu – 5
  • Dagon – 3
  • The White Ship -4
  • The Doom that Came to Sarnath – 3
  • The Statement of Randolph Carter – 3
  • The Terrible Old Man – 4
  • The Tree -2
  • The Cats of Ulthar – 4
  • The Temple – 3
  • Celephais – 2
  • From Beyond – 2
  • Nyarlathotep – 3
  • The Picture in the House – 3
  • The Nameless City – 3
  • Polaris – 3
  • The Quest of Iranon – 4
  • The Moon-Bog – 3
  • The Outsider – 5
  • The Other Gods – 3
  • The Music of Erich Zann – 4
  • Hypnos – 3
  • What the Moon Brings – 1
  • Azathoth – 1
  • The Hound – 2

That equals 25 pieces from the book.  I skipped a few that I just was not interested in and did not have any desire to read whatsoever. I am not thrilled about skipping, but I just didn’t want to read some of the pieces – for whatever reason. Now, before reading any of these I was only familiar with H. P. Lovecraft in a very basic sense. I don’t really think I had read anything by him before, but this isn’t really something I would bet on. I’ve read a lot and who knows what I read in school?  Further, I haven’t read any secondary texts on HPL; so any conclusions or discoveries I came to were my own and not something I was looking for because I read it first in a critical analysis.

After reading a few of the stories, the themes that HPL works with become rather obvious.  Dreams and sleep, the dead and tombs, water and sky (derivatively, fish and birds), and sound.  You would have to be a blind nincompoop not to figure out that HPL wrote much of his work from his dreams and that he is terrified of water – particularly large bodies of water.  Knowing just this much, it should be easy to see the challenge in putting HPL’s works into a specific genre.  I don’t really think it qualifies as science fiction (under my as-yet-unwritten definition).  It probably does qualify as fantasy, but perhaps it does have elements of horror.  The reason I placed fantasy ahead of horror is because the stories are not gore and vampires and such.  The whole edge of HPL’s “horror” is the concept of the unknown. And this is usually beyond reality – therefore, fantasy.  The term “weird” has been bandied around and I suppose that works as well as anything I could come up with.  All of this is to say that none of these works fit perfectly into some genre and anyone interested in science fiction, fantasy, or “weird” tales would enjoy some of HPL.

When I got the book, I could not help myself – I opened directly to The Call of Cthulhu and read it through – and loved it, naturally. And I came to the text without any preconceived notions or biases. I just read and enjoyed. However, enough has been said about that text the world over, so I do not really want to focus on it.  I want to actually select (of those 25 works) the ones I think that strong readers should read. In other words, the must-read HPL list that those who do not wish to read the whole of 1100 pages can look for and read. The second text I read was The Tomb – after I read it all I could say was “wow”.  I do not recommend The Tomb for everybody.  It is truly twisted and horror and scary. So, if you are really more into the fantasy and less into the horror – skip The Tomb. I still have lingering creepies from it. . . .

The key texts, I feel, are Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris.  If you need to get the basics of HPL, these three works should be read because I think they contain in an obvious way the method HPL uses when dealing with his preferred concepts/topics.  Dagon is short but I think it is the genesis of the Cthulhu concept.  Like many of HPL’s works, the story is really a written narration in the first person of an adventure/experience. The story is “hastily scrawled pages” written under “appreciable mental strain.”  And this is all in the first paragraph.  Generally, this gets to be a familiar paradigm within HPL.

The second paragraph directly presents one of the main themes in HPL:  “It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific. . . ”   Immediately, we are thrown into the story that the narrator is writing.  That’s actually one of the nice things about HPL; he does not waste time with telling us how we got wherever or showing us each little step.  Paragraph four starts: “The change happened whilst I slept.”   And this phrase (or something like it) frequently appears in HPL stories.  It presents the method by which HPL’s stories access the fantasy/weird concepts.  HPL often mentions some “change” or catalyst and it is frequently connected to sleep and/or dreams.

Anyway, the story itself is not really scary or horrific – especially not in 2012.  But it was written in 1917 and we knew a little less science back then. Now we have Wikipedia and I daresay humans have cataloged the globe.  In 1917, the unknown of the ocean was probably a fascinating and terrifying thing.  Anyway, the “thing” that happens to the narrator is not exactly horrific. A sea-creature rises to the surface and, basically, hugs and howls at an altar/statue. It’s kind of funny, actually. But the horror of the story is not the point – it’s that the reader can feel/touch/empathize with the narrator’s feeling of horror.  It’s not so much that readers should judge whether or not the scene was horrific in an attempt to validate the narrator’s madness, but rather the reader can understand the ordeal that the narrator is explaining.

Polaris is another key text of HPL’s.  There are three main themes that make this story important. HPL’s narrator accesses another reality – very much akin to something PKD would have done/written.  The narrator enters into the alternate reality via sleep/dreams, as one expects.  However, this little story is neat because after reading it, one can really see how the blurring of the line of demarcation between reality and supra-reality drives the story.  And this is the “weird” part of the work, which is done really well in Polaris.  Another theme HPL uses here is that of the sky. The title is, obviously, of the star Polaris. But throughout the text are peppered names of constellations etc. that demonstrates HPL’s interest in astronomy.

The last theme in Polaris is that of a frustrated, impotent helplessness.  This occurs in several ways, one of which is the narrator unable to accomplish his tasks in his dream and experiencing shame and sorrow for his inability to function as a watchman in his social group.  The second is that of the star Polaris itself, which the narrator tells us has been struggling to convey a message, but yet is only able to know that it had a message and nothing more.  This weird anthropomorphization of the star is trippy and the fact that the star struggles to give a message is a truly weird and paradigm-shifting concept.  Ultimately, the narrator (and therefore the reader) are left questioning – which is the dream world and which is the “real” world; very much like some of the efforts of PKD.  And once again, the horror is not graphic or ghastly, but it’s in the very unknown and weirdness that the narrator’s feelings of horror are presented.  This is actually a really good story- judging it on a conceptual scheme.

The last text that I want to mention briefly is The White Ship. Finally, we are given a story in which the main character (narrator) has a name:  Basil Elton.  He is the keeper of a lighthouse like his father and grandfather before him.  Straightaway in paragraph one HPL is telling us about majestic seas.  There are “far shores” and “deep waters of the sea” in the following paragraphs.  And at this point the reader should be familiar with HPL’s method.  Weird stuff happens under, at, on, near the sea.  Anyway, when there is a full moon, the White Ship glides up near the lighthouse. And it does this for a long time, until one night Basil notices there is a bearded and robed man on the deck of the ship.  And thus begins the weird. . . .

Basil walks out to the ship from the lighthouse via a bridge of moonbeams (who didn’t think of Thor and the Rainbow Bridge at this?).  The man welcomes him and they set sail. The ship goes to a variety of different places and the robed man is Basil’s guide (Cp. Virgil in Dante).  I think this story is HPL’s attempt at world-building; that is, cartography in a fantasy realm.  The story gets a little dull, but the descriptions and imagery are worth reading. Sometimes it seems a bit overwritten, but if you actually try to picture what HPL is describing, it’s quite vivid and a worthwhile read. I would love for some enterprising fantasy author (e.g. Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson) to flesh out and develop this world. It’s interesting and has a lot of potential. I want to spend more time exploring and so forth.

Anyway, the ending is another appearance of the familiar dream theme that HPL uses.  Basil says: “…I went within the tower, I saw on the wall a calendar which still remained as when I had left it at the hour I sailed away.”  In other words, all these marvelous places the ship went and all the time Basil spent exploring was outside of time or he was dreaming – or both.  HPL’s usage of the dream/reality concept is really prevalent in the stories I read and I think by reading Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris one can really get a grip on the tools HPL uses and how to navigate his writing.

Now, you may have noticed that I chose to comment on the texts that I felt were important key works and not on the ones that I liked the best.  The Terrible Old Man, The Cats of Ulthar, and The Quest of Iranon are actually my favorites in this batch of 25 stories.  I felt they were unique and heartfelt and resonated more with me than some of the other stories.  However, I recognize this is personal preference.  I still think these are great stories – but I think students of HPL need to be familiar with the stories I talked about, readers who want a good story should read both the three I mentioned and my favorites.

3 stars (the average for these 25 works)

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