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Lovecraft and Friends (if any)

Dec 11, 2022

About a year ago I read a great big annotated collection of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. The stories were OK-ish, but the annotations on their own were good value for the money.

But to return to Lovecraft. For years I had been reading Lovecraft fans wax loquacious on how most people misinterpret his work and his genre of horror, how there is more to his stories than just scary monsters, how they're explorations of the human psyche, and all that guff.

So I was expecting some high-quality horror fiction. (I have a great fondness for horror stories, but so very few of them are well-written.) But as I said, they did not come up to my expectations.

Let me organise my thoughts musings on Lovecraft and his work. As I said, it's been a while since I last read them, so my post is expected to be rather disorganised and exhibiting a tendency to ramble (which is a personal fault of mine that comes to the surface whenever I go for a lengthier than usual post).

Now the beginning of a Lovecraft story is mostly always fire. One of the essential ingredients of a horror story is the backgrounding and the suspense. This is something Lovecraft does very well, though he goes a long way about it. The grand Gothic opening, the deceptively normal starting point, then a horror following after the other, but not very quickly, taking their time, like a stage actor who knows the effect his entrance will make and is no hurry so as to spoil it.

The thing about the beginnings is that there are potentially so many directions the story can go, which for a horror story is its chiefest asset regarding readability when the reader reads it for the first time. But it is the same heightedness of expectations that can be the horror story's downfall.

To come to the middle. Lovecraft is a leisurely writer, and what is more writes in a very precise and quasi-scientific style. So the story just meanders on, much words, not so much action, with only the promise of revelation the solitary star in the desert sky bidding the weary traveller on as he wanders in the dunes.

To come to the horror itself, and for me the biggest disappointment. Now I have read some of Lovecraft's contemporaries and I have an idea or understanding of the science-fiction scene during Lovecraft's time, so I wasn't expecting much radical in the monster department. But I was certainly expecting better from someone considered a master in the genre of horror literature.

Lovecraft's monsters turn out be Scooby-Doo stuff, if we're lucky enough to get a description. The eponymous creature in 'The Nameless Thing' is never satisfactorily described, satisfactory even in the sense of appreciating the horror it evokes. The Nameless Thing, like so many of other Lovecraft monsters, is just 'so terrible I can't describe it to you.'. Which is interesting in a way, but very deflating and comes off like 'It was very scary. Trust me bro.'.

How many more can I remember? There is the weird thing that comes out at night and destroys houses and kills people (can't remember story title). If I recall correctly, it was covered in eyes, in places where no eye ought to be. Now that was interesting, the stomach-twisting feeling the narrator gets when he beholds something that in an instant totally upends his ideas of what biologically ought to be, but we get little beyond that. (The monster ends up getting desummonned in a cartoonish ritual.)

Then there is the flying thing with eyes on its legs. I think it's from the same story as the last-mentioned creature. Why it has legs on its eyes is never revealed or speculated on. Is it some weird mutation? Does it serve some evolutionary purpose? From a meta point of view, does it represent something? None of this is explored. It is enough that the monster confounds the human understanding and experience, that is reason enough for the existence of Lovecraft's monsters.

And the flying thing summons the all-eyes-on-me monster. Why? What does the flying thing gain from this? And why does the Many-Eyed One kill humans? For sport? For sustenance? One would suppose that so otherworldly a being would satisfy its appetite rather differently from a terrestrial predator. And why does it come out only at night? Does the solar star bother it? The monster is described as being dangerous to the entire world, which is why the protagonists take pains to immediately desummon it, but just how do we expect such a cartoonish creature to be threatening on a global scale?

There are the fish-people (of Innsmouth, I believe). They were interesting, as was their mythology.

There was the star-monster that possessed humans (one of z Lovecraft's early tales). That was also interesting, but also very juvenile in realisation.

Now coming to Cthulhu. The first description of his appearance is fantastic. The narrator describes a soapstone sculpture of Cthulhu and you can really sense the revulsion and horror as he looks at the octopus-faced abomination. I think Lovecraft describes it as 'sitting sadly', which is only a slight touch, but it produces so great and tantalising an effect.

Cthulhu, in the flesh, however, is a tad disappointing. True, the circumstances whereunder we meet him excuse the rather hurried description of the narrator's feelings and observations, but we don't a true sense of the immense horror such a being would evoke. In a scene (that seemed rather modern to me) the narrator plunges a ship straight into Cthulhu, who is reduced into pieces as the narrator makes it safely through. However, the narrator sees the pieces rearranging themselves as he turns back to look.

Then there is At the Mountains of Madness. How I wish I loved it more than I do! The novella is in some ways a masterclass. Lovecraft's painstaking attention to the science invoked throughout, the very detailed description of the expedition, the descriptions of the Antarctic waste, and then the terrible mountains themselves, as well as the extremely suspenseful hike, with who knows what could be waiting in the depths, as well as the little mysteries related to the tragic death of some of the expedition members.

But the monsters! While there is some horror regarding their extremely old age, extraterrestrial origins and weird appearance, that is soon dissipated as we learn that these monsters behaved just like humans (and fought rather comical wars against other beings).

These monsters were supposed to be the central horror pivot of the story but Lovecraft shifts that role to another nameless formless beast that strikes terror even into the hearts (if the scientist-monsters possess such an organ) of the plant-beings mentioned earlier. You can see how Lovecraft loves his 'nameless thing that strikes terror'. Even after the mystery of the plant-beings is solved he still has to put in how they're scared of this other thing that is never described. Or met. I think the creature that chases the two protagonists is a different one altogether.

Then there is Azathoth and the hoofed black being in 'The Dreams of the Witch-House'. That is a fascinating title, by the way, and very evocative, but the story doesn't live up to its wistful-sounding billing, being more gory (child sacrifice!).

The black being is interesting. We only catch glimpses of it. Lovecraft is economical in his description of it, which is very effective. The little black man evokes a horror which few of Lovecraft's grander creatures come close to giving.

Azathoth is great. The image of the idiot-god lulled into an endless sleep by maniacal piping is an awesome and enduring one. There is also the hint of Biblical apocalypse here: once the piping ends Azathoth will awaken and wreak his wrath upon the world, the piping becoming a curious inversion of the horn that will blow to signal Judgement Day.

To come to Lovecraftian horror. Throughout the stories we get a sense of what is supposed to be central to Lovecraft: the realisation that man is not alone but shares existence with incomprehensible horrors. 'Incomprehensible' is the right word; so often does Lovecraft fob us off with half-arsed descriptions.

Then there is a related tenet of the Lovecraft doctrine: the correlation of several things leading to a maddening realisation. This is something Lovecraft does tolerably well; though the reader always gets it ahead of the protagonist it is always fun reading on and waiting for when the true terror hits the protagonist. Though Lovecraft doesn't do a good job of hiding his hand; very early in the story we know what's up and Lovecraft's ponderous storytelling can become wearying.

Lovecraft's greatest weakness is his one-dimensional characters. Even 'one-dimensional' is generous, they're simply cardboard outlines. Even in a horror story the reader needs to feel some degree of connection to the characters, but Lovecraft offers very little that way. At the most, they are studious, given to melancholy or morbidness, and the only emotion they show is of fear. There is nothing human in Lovecraft's world, there are malevolent monsters and there are unemotional automans.

But there is one story. The Silver Key features Randolph Carter, a recurring character who seems to be a self-insert for Lovecraft. In this story, Carter gets nostalgic for his childhood and through some weird shenanigans travels back in time to his childhood (or fancies that he does?). So far this is the only story where Lovecraft shows any warmth of feeling, and it is a touching little story in its way, the rest of his stories are cold and aloof, much like I would imagine Lovecraft himself to be.

Yet for all of my complaints, and my disappointment with his works, my mind still keeps returning to his world. Say what you will of Lovecraft, but he creates a very vivid and haunting mythos. And I have been a great fan of Poe since my childhood; there is more than an echo of Poe about Lovecraft who himself looked up to that melancholy genius.

Going through Wikipedia to refresh my memory, and I conclude that his works are more fun to read about than to read themselves.

Now coming on to the great question: what is Lovecraft on about? Is this all that Lovecraftian horror is? I was promised some exquisitely existential horror, all I got (well, mostly) was scary tentacle thing. What am I missing? I can see how and why Lovecraft had such an influence on the genre, and spawned his own brand of horror as well, but Lovecraft himself didn't turn out to be this paragon standing tall above all others; his significance seems to lie mostly in what he initiated rather than perfected.

So is Lovecraft's reputation just the result of the PR of his super-fans? Is there more to Lovecraft than I've seen or am I missing something?
The Outsider has a very memorable twist half-way through. I still consider it as a very good story, despite the usual issues with Lovecraft's "style".
That said, some weeks ago I re-read Rats in the Walls, and was very disappointed.
I did translate 10+ stories of his, for the new Greek printed edition of his collected works, and filled them with accompanying notes ^^
I'd say it was his best story. It was also the centerpiece of the first ever printed collection of his works.
Others of note include Dagon and Call of Cthulhu (but I don't like the latter's ending/battle).
Maybe also try The Transition of Juan Romero.
I quite liked At the Mountains of Madness, though I thought his insistence that the alien travellers were, psychologically speaking, “men” just contradicted the basic premise to his whole oeuvre that alien entities are terrifyingly incomprehensible.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is pretty bad though. It’s one of those early-ish mysteries where the solution is so absurdly obvious it removes all tension.

Although I haven’t read much of him, I thought that Algernon Blackwood managed a more interesting sense of awe and the numinous (though one wouldn’t really call it horror). And of course both of them pale before Lord Dunsany, but that’s going into quite different genres now.
I quite liked At the Mountains of Madness, though I thought his insistence that the alien travellers were, psychologically speaking, “men” just contradicted the basic premise to his whole oeuvre that alien entities are terrifyingly incomprehensible.
Mountains of Madness could have been a great book, but it sits uneasily between being a sci-fi thriller and a cosmic horror story. It could have been the first, say in the vein of the works of Jules Verne, but for Lovecraft's emphasis on the horror aspect. And it could have been a great horror story but for the horror aspect deflating by the revelation that the initial monsters were not so different from humans (so Lovecraft ends up introducing two new horrors, one of which is only alluded to but never met or encountered, in true Lovecraftian fashion).
Although I haven’t read much of him, I thought that Algernon Blackwood managed a more interesting sense of awe and the numinous (though one wouldn’t really call it horror). And of course both of them pale before Lord Dunsany, but that’s going into quite different genres now.
I've read Blackwood's The Willows. The horror came from the claustrophobic atmosphere of menace from the forest the two protagonists camp in, but rather anticlimatically there is no satisfying revelation of how or why the creepy stuff happens. (There is not a great deal of happening though, mostly just vibes.)

The most interesting horror story I read was William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderlands. It's one of the books that couldn't been one of the all-time greats but for some unfortunate flaws. Hodgson has this much going for him over Lovecraft that his protagonist is much more moored to the human condition than Lovecraft's, and in The House on the Borderlands there is a very personal and human element which I found very touching and which acts as the motivating factor for much of the protagonist's actions. Unfortunately the story devolves into utter confusion. There are all sorts of odd things happening, most of them incongruous with one another, that Hodgson never comes close to even addressing. But I still found the story profoundly stirring, and the personalist theme made an impact on me.

Thinking of The House on the Borderlands I am reminded of a very brief episode which in turn reminds me of George MacDonald's The Shadows (and even one of C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories), where a similar (and also brief) incident occurs. The reason I'm bringing up The Shadows is that, although it's not a true horror story, more of a fairy tale, there are some aspects of it that are related to the horror genre. It is a very good short story, very atmospheric and very effective.
Dunsany was a better writer than Lovecraft, but the themes there are closer to folklore. I like a number of his stories. There's a famous quote by Borges - although it gets diminished by the fact he used the core of the statement to juxtapose other writers too: "Lovecraft was unwittingly parodying Poe".
I haven't read the Willows - I know it's regarded as his best - but read some other works by Blackwood, which I did not like. Including the Man whom the Trees Loved and Wendigo.

There's also Arthur Machen, again a more capable writer than Lovecraft, but different in scope.
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I've read Machen's The Terror. He is evidently a very good storyteller, unlike Lovecraft, though the story was anticlimactic: the terror is caused by a non-paranormal phenomenon
My favorite story of his is the White Powder (it is an episode in the Three Impostors). Also known as "The Recluse of Bayswater".
Black Seal, White People are good too. Inmost Light has a very memorable scene early on.
I first read the White People (and also some stories by Dunsany) on the fifth floor of the university's library.

Dunsany has many excellent stories. For example:


As he crawled from the tombs of the fallen a worm met with an angel.

And together they looked upon the kings and kingdoms, and youths and maidens and the cities of men. They saw the old men heavy in their chairs and heard the children singing in the fields. They saw far wars and warriors and walled towns, wisdom and wickedness, and the pomp of kings, and the people of all the lands that the sunlight knew.

And the worm spake to the angel saying: "Behold my food."

"Be dakeon para Thina poluphloisboio Thalassaes," murmured the angel, for they walked by the sea, "and can you destroy that too?"

And the worm paled in his anger to a greyness ill to behold, for for three thousand years he had tried to destroy that line and still its melody was ringing in his head.

(the phrase is from the beginning of the Iliad and can be translated as: "he walked silently, next to the noisy and tumultuous sea").
Dunsany is consistently wonderful (as Lovecraft recognised too), though he’s generally more effective in his short stories than his novels or plays. But even the later Jorkens stories, which are about as mundane as Dunsany gets, are still worthwhile. Dunsany is better at evoking a mood of dreamlike wonder than anyone else I’ve read, and even his shortest works - stories of barely a paragraph, like the one you quote - are extraordinarily evocative. He’s one of those authors where the “early influence on Tolkien” label is more a curse than a blessing, because although there is (some) influence he’s really a very different author and should be read on his own terms. But naturally that goes for everyone.

“The Relenting of Sarnidac said:
“O gods, rob not the earth of the dim hush that hangs round all Your temples, bereave not all the world of old romance, take not the glamour from the moonlight nor tear the wonder out of the white mists in every land; for, O ye gods of the childhood of the world, when You have left the earth you shall have taken the mystery from the sea and all its glory from antiquity, and You shall have wrenched out hope from the dim future. There shall be no strange cities at night time half understood, nor songs in the twilight, and the whole of the wonder shall have died with last year’s flowers in little gardens or hill-slopes leaning south; for with the gods must go the enchantment of the plains and all the magic of dark woods, and something shall be lacking from the quiet of early dawn. For it would scarce befit the gods to leave the earth and not take with Them that which They had given it. Out beyond the still blue spaces Ye will need the holiness of sunset for Yourselves and little sacred memories and the thrill that is in stories told by firesides long ago. One strain of music, one song, one line of poetry and one kiss, and a memory of one pool with rushes, and each one the best, shall the gods take to whom the best belongs, when the gods go.”

Also of course Dunsany is relevant to the current topic because in his very first work he was, it seems, the first person to devise a fictional pantheon, in the sense of a set of gods that no real people actually believe in. His pantheon is a lot more interesting than most later fantasy pantheons, too.
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He has written some "fantasy", including the Nuth story (which has a type of forest goblin), but imo he was certainly far better a writer than Tolkien. Similar to when (eg) Goethe wrote fantasy, like the Elf King.
Afaik Dunsany was very popular in his day.

His themes vary a lot. Going from stories about a window that allows you to look into another world, to reciting the pythagorian theorem so as to keep away a ghost ^^
I think he also wrote that hashish-travelling series (or just two stories). Not that it was imo among his best.

I agree that the shorter pieces tend to be his most powerful:


Charon leaned forward and rowed. All things were one with his weariness.

It was not with him a matter of years or of centuries, but of wide floods of time, and an old heaviness and a pain in the arms that had become for him part of the scheme that the gods had made and was of a piece with Eternity.

If the gods had even sent him a contrary wind it would have divided all time in his memory into two equal slabs.

So grey were all things always where he was that if any radiance lingered a moment among the dead, on the face of such a queen perhaps as Cleopatra, his eyes could not have perceived it.

It was strange that the dead nowadays were coming in such numbers. They were coming in thousands where they used to come in fifties. It was neither Charon's duty nor his wont to ponder in his grey soul why these things might be. Charon leaned forward and rowed.

Then no one came for a while. It was not usual for the gods to send no one down from Earth for such a space. But the gods knew best.

Then one man came alone. And the little shade sat shivering on a lonely bench and the great boat pushed off. Only one passenger: the gods knew best. And great and weary Charon rowed on and on beside the little, silent, shivering ghost.

And the sound of the river was like a mighty sigh that Grief in the beginning had sighed among her sisters, and that could not die like the echoes of human sorrow failing on earthly hills, but was as old as time and the pain in Charon's arms.

Then the boat from the slow, grey river loomed up to the coast of Dis and the little, silent shade still shivering stepped ashore, and Charon turned the boat to go wearily back to the world. Then the little shadow spoke, that had been a man.

"I am the last," he said.

No one had ever made Charon smile before, no one before had ever made him weep.
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Well, pretty much everything Dunsany wrote was fantasy to a greater or lesser extent. But it was “fantasy” in the old sense of the word, which is fiction that finds mystery and magic within the world rather than in an alternative imagined world. In that respect he’s like Borges, or indeed H.G. Wells in many of his short stories. But where Wells and Borges imagine the magical mixed with the mundane in the here and now, in the “magical realism” vein, Dunsany more usually imagines the magical in the exotic or remote. That puts him more in line with early British fantasy writers such as Morris. For them, magic is found in the real world, but a subtly reimagined version of the real world, and usually in remote places or times long past. (There’s often an awkward orientalist element to it all.) Tolkien sort of does that too, by setting his legendarium in the distant past, but it’s a completely fictional distant past that doesn’t really have any connection to real history or geography, so that paves the way for the modern fantasy standard of an entirely imagined world that simply has no connection at all to the real world.
It wasn't the "high fantasy" associated with Tolkien etc. Because it is imo indeed a highly distinct type of literature, and closer to romanticism.

To bring Lovecraft back: the Music of Erich Zahn is also worth a look.
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