Reaction: H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3 (part 1)

The H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3: The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales is frankly misnamed. It’s true that it does contain that story… but as it also contains “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Colour out of Space”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Whisperer in Darkness”, and “The Shadow out of Time”, amongst others, that’s rather selling the collection short. In fact, almost all of Lovecraft’s most famous work is here – the only major omissions being “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (both in the first volume of the omnibus, along with the novel, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), and “Herbert West – Re-animator” (to be found in the second). As such, this collection virtually is Lovecraft.

My intention is to read all the stories and review them; but, as I’m not used to reading short story collections, and as there is a particular tone to Lovecraft that I fear would make them repetitive if read in one sitting, I’m going to be reading them in bits and pieces, as counterpoint to some other books I want to get through.

The first in the collection is a short piece, The Outsider, written many years before most of his classic tales, which over the years has become the most re-printed of all his stories, and the one to lend its name to his first published collection.

That it is early is evident from the content, which does not touch on the later ‘Mythos’ at all, and feels like an older ‘macabre’ tale that could easily have been written by somebody else – except, of course, for the fact that it uses the word ‘infinity’ three times in the first three pages, followed fast by the phrase ‘I cannot even hint what it was like’. Oh, and it includes this uniquely Lovecraftian pair of clauses:

“…a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause – I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity…”

Yes, Lovecraft’s flaws are all on full display in this story about a man who lives alone in strange castle in the woods: the curious juxtaposition of verbosity and speechlessness, the unstoppable tide of adjectives, the obvious plot twists and an ending sign-posted so far in advance and so blatently that I was confused by the thought that the realisation of the final line had not occurred before – so unsubtle was the hinting that I had assumed the reader was expected to have leapt to the conclusion already.

That said, it is not without some merit. The first half of the tale – the mysterious, confusing half – is unremarkable but engaging, and it is not until the revelatory second half that both plot and prose descend into the wearisome. An attentive reader will begin to see why Lovecraft has been so popular and influential from this story; but it is not the best introduction to him in either quality or style. If it was once among the most successful of his works, it is no doubt because it is more accessible, more familiar, more universal than his later work.

The third story (I’m skipping the second because I read it more recently) is Pickman’s Model, in which one man recounts to another his experiences regarding a third man, the eponymous Pickman, a painter of ‘weird art’ in Boston. Unusually, the story is told not only in the first person (including a long second-hand monologue from Pickman), but by an impassioned and colloquial narrator. This doe not really work. Although the Pickman monologue is well-written, the surrounding narration by ‘Thurber’ feels too personal to fade into the background, yet too unrealistic to accept close scrutiny. Thurber’s language feels alienating and cliche to this reader, though perhaps it was accurate at the time, while his behaviour is, despite his repeated and transparant “I’m a reliable narrator, and I’m a sensible man” appeals, hysterical and exaggerated. The horrific details of the story are too distanced from the reader – one man’s vague account of the artwork of another man – and one wishes that Lovecraft could have gone into more detail, to hammer the point home, though most likely the sensibilities of his day would have prohibited publication if he had done so. In any case, the content does not seem as horrific as some artwork freely accessible these days on the internet…

The prose, meanwhile, still has the hyperbolic, laughable excess of Outsider; and yet it is not without quality. What Lovecraft captures in his writing style is an elementary, poetic beauty of rhythm and weight, that would have made him once upon a time a wonderful bard or epic poet: it is hard not to declaim his prose. Unfortunately, that dramatic rhythm, so near to the instinctive mode of a child’s recitation, brings him close to self-parody, close to the shores of disbelief; his eclectic lexicon and hysterical tone push him over that brink. Nonetheless, the writing is eminently easy on the tongue, and the tone is more measured here than in that earlier story.

What Pickman has that Outsider does not is a genuine Lovecraftian chord; indeed, in the monologues by Thurber and Pickman regarding the history that lies forgotten underneath the quaint American life, we have one of the most explicit expositions of what I think is the essential invention of Lovecraft: the bringing of psychology into cosmology. Lovecraftian minds are thin raft of sanity on the surface of a sea of madness and brutality; but, more than that, the world they inhabit has exactly that duality. The hidden, the forgotten, the subterranean; the ancient, the ancestral; these things are a source of fear and incomprehensibility – and though our science may attempt to exclude them from our lives, they still remain, and our ignorance cannot remain forever.

The same themes are addressed – more explicitly but less, in my view, persuasively – in the title story of Lovecraft’s career: “The Call of Cthulhu”. Longer than the previous stories, and more complex, Call is a story told in three distinct account: the narrator’s great-uncle’s notes regarding a bizarre sculpture created by a local artist, and that artist’s ensuing mental health issues (in this the story suffers by being placed next to Pickman, in that much of the same ground is covered, albeit in a different direction); the same uncle’s notes regarding the account by a police inspector of a raid on a cult meeting in Louisiana, and regarding the archaeology convention at which that account was given; and the account of a Norwegian sailor of his experiences in the South Pacific. The three accounts are pieced together by a single, unobtrusive narrator, who, in Lovecraftian style, has been forever damaged by what he has discovered.

Call is a story of mixed success. On the one hand, the writing here is better than in either of the two previous stories; it retains its portentous and dramatic roll, but it is more muted, more syncopated, and more natural in feel, while the verbosity is somewhat toned down. Unfortunately, Lovecraft is at times reminiscent of a man with an underlying phobia – perfectly calm and coherent at one moment, but the next, confronted with the object of his fear, reduced to a gibbering hysteria. (This is one reason why so many writers have been tempted to portray Lovecraft as a character in his own mythology). Thus, while the opening sections are well-written, the prose gradually deteriorates into parody as we come closer to the underlying horror. That said, as the story is longer, the tolerable parts are more extensive; it should also be said that there is considerably more mystery about the direction of the tale than there is in either Pickman or Outsider – or there would be, if we didn’t already know about Cthulhu.

Cthulhu himself, meanwhile, is a major flaw. The closer he comes to being portrayed, the less frightening he becomes, and at the end he seems more pathetic than terrifying. The decision to give him such a baroque and over-complicated, over-specified, appearance (tentacles, wings, paws) moves him from an interstellar terror-god into the villain of some Japanese B-movie – oh no, not another weird sea giant smashing its way through Tokyo! The saturation of Cthulhu in our culture, meanwhile, makes it impossible for me to imagine the statuettes depicting him without thinking of the thousands of comic or ironic depictions of him (Ursula Vernon’s, for instance; or the Plush Cthulhu; or the Hello Cthulhu webcomic that I’ve only just remembered about; insert your own false idol here), which rather detracts from the horror. It might be thought unfair to criticise Lovecraft for the damage done by a century of imitation – but underlyingly it IS his problem. It is the fact that Cthulhu is so implausibly, comprehensibly, manipulably ordinary that makes him susceptible to this sort of subversion. The human mind is very resilient; if it draws breath for a moment, it can rationalise and address any physical enemy, however objectively dangerous; it is only the unknown that can produce lingering fear. Cthulhu has none of the unknown about him: we know his name, we know his character, we know where he lives (exact co-ordinates are given); we know what he looks like; we know that there’s no way he can creep up on us; the only thing we don’t know is why exactly, beyond being quite large and weird-looking, he’s meant to be dangerous. It is unusual for Lovecraft to be TOO explicit about the nature of nameless horrors, but here is severely harms the drama of the ending. Instead, the horror must be described, not imbued – and so we face the sad arrangement of Lovecraftian tropes – the indescribable, the horrific, the terrible, the things undeniably older than the stars – all acting as excuses for his inability to make us feel. He knows that what he describes will not convince a rational man, so he has his narrators say ‘I’m a rational man and I was totally, but inexplicably convinced!’ all the time.

This is a shame, because he is not without talent, and his central idea is one that crawls its way into the spine and itches there; but so often he has to resort to cheap and predictable gimmickry.

The worst thing about this story, however, is the appalling racism. The ‘enemy’ are comprised entirely of ‘negroes’, ‘mulattos’, ‘mestizos’, ‘mongrels’, ‘mixed-bloods’, all inevitably mentally subnormal; a team of policemen completely overlook the pedestrian problem of some corpses while they scream and shudder with the horror of seeing these ‘mixed-bloods’ (who are given no obvious mental or physical defects other than evilness and inferior blood), while a noble Nordic character feels that ‘destroying’ them is a duty. At one point, the fact that somebody dies is considered suspicious merely because it occured in an area where there were known to be ‘negroes’; at another, the mixed-race villains of Louisiana are referred to simply as ‘creatures’. I try to overlook these things as artifacts of their time – but here it goes beyond casual racism into the heart of the plot. It almost seems as though Cthulhu’s coterie of half-castes is meant to be the real horror here, more disturbing to several characters than the whole interstellar dragon-cephalopod business – unsurprisingly, given Lovecraft’s own phobia for ‘degraded’ races (he reportedly was once physically overcome by the horrifying thought that a black man’s skin had touched his plate in a restaurant; regarding Jews, his wife said that he ‘almost seemed to lose his mind’ around them, and he himself admitted to thinking that he ‘could easily a slaughter a score or two’ of them). The racism is therefore both despicable and frankly amusingly ridiculous.

————-

Scores:

Adrenaline: 2/2/3. The first two tales are both fairly dull – the first lightened by some early suspense, the second by some late action. “The Call of Cthulhu” is rather better, which effective, if rather slow, suspense and some actual action-scenes later on.

Emotion: 1/2/1. Outsider has no emotive impact on me at all. Cthulhu might have done if the most appealing character, the Norwegian, hadn’t been relegated to the end, and overshadowed both by Cthulhu and by the decaying prose. Pickman managed to evince a degree of… horror, I suppose, from me. Not fear – but a sort of crawling horror that Cthulhu hints at but did not, to me, deliver. That said, even in Pickman it is minimal, being too constrained by space and by predictability.

Thought: 2/2/2. All three do engage a little – the first as a simple mystery tale, the second through the grimly appealing imagery, and the third through a combination of the two, let down by the stupidity of the racism.

Beauty: 2/3/2. The first two, to my mind, had a degree of beauty in their imagery, and the second two in their prose. Pickman is the more aesthetically pleasing of the three – the prose not quite so good on average as in Cthulhu, but helped by simpler, more striking images.

Craft: 2/2/3. All three are flawed, and all three have redeeming features. Cthulhu is the strongest, however – the prose is better, despite some later slips, the plot is less predictable, and there is a more interesting and sophisticated narrative structure.

Endearingness: 1/3/2. Can’t see any reason to re-read “The Outsider”. “The Call of Cthulhu” is a little more endearing – you can’t help but love the Mythos a little – but badly damaged by racism and latent sillyness. “Pickman’s Model” is not immune to the last, but is the more appealing of the three to me.

Originality: 2/2/4. The first two do have elements of originality – if nothing else, they’re abnormally weird. I might be over-selling Cthulhu here, but I think that due to the large-scale exposition of (a part of) the Mythos, combined with the strange narrative structure and an ending that is just weird, in a weirdly-less-wierd-than-expected way, if you can understand that, it can fairly be considered notable on this measure.

“The Outsider” Overall: 2/7. Just Plain Bad.

“Pickman’s Model” Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features

“The Call of Cthulhu” Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features

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2 thoughts on “Reaction: H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3 (part 1)

  1. Gulliver says:

    Sadly, the racism isn’t the worst part (in my opinion), more an artefact or something of that era.

    The Dunwich Horror is a somewhat better story – it is long enough to develop further than an interesting idea, but not *quite* long enough to have to add a great deal of “fluffy” characterisation, or padding. It has mystery enough to sustain the reader (unlike several stories which can be summarised as “I was [reading tomes of great/searching for an artefact of/invited to a party or] evil and THE HORROR!!!”.

    One other story that I did almost enjoy (whose name I have cunningly forgotten) was “uniquely” framed as a written record (a journal, presumably), until it ended with “THE HORROR!!! TO THE WINDOW…!!!”.

    I cannot say I was not warned; the sales man at Waterstones actually said that eh couldn’t write, and that he was incredibly racist. “Okay”, I thought, “how bad can it be? … THE HORROR!!!”.

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    Good to see you’re around.
    As it happens, I’ve just been reading The Dunwich Horror. Mixed reactions. In some ways it’s better. It IS creepier. On the other hand, it’s quite predictable, and toward the end the hero is just laughably autoparodic.

    However, I’m not just reading this collection out of masochism. I’m looking forward to the three big late stories in this collection: The Whisperer in Darkness, The Shadow over Innsmouth, and The Shadow out of Time. Whisperer and Time I’ve heard about, and both seem to have really brilliant ideas in them. I also seem to remember the other famous late story, At the Mountains of Madness, being rather better.

    I think I prefer the more cold, scientific spin he put on things later on, rather than the early woolly fairy-tale magic stuff.

    Anyway, “The Whisperer In Darkness” is coming next. High hopes. I expect to be disappointed, but…

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