The H.P Lovecraft Omnibus (part 3)

Two more Lovecraft tales!

The Colour Out of Space continues the themes and style of The Whisperer in Darkness, and takes them to a purer extreme – which is odd, because chronologically it sits a year after The Call of Cthulhu and a year before The Dunwich Horror. However, Lovecraft himself considered this story to be his best; perhaps, after a time of attempting to continue in the old way, he intentionally re-oriented himself along the lines of his most successful story. Certainly, it has more in common with later pieces like Whisperer and At the Mountains of Madness than it does with The Dunwich Horror, for all that they are given similar settings.

As usual, Colour takes place in the wild places of New England, at a site where a new reservoir is to be built. An engineer with the water company visits the area and discovers a strange, desolate patch of land; later, he inquires as to its origin. The bulk of the tale is therefore taken from the account of an old local man, Ammi Pierce, although it is mostly told through the voice of the anonymous traveller, who remains refreshingly sober about things, all things considered. The story that is told is that of the arrival of a strange meteorite on the farm of Ammi’s neighbour and friend, Nahum Gardner; it takes its name from strange bubble-like formations in the rock that display an impossible and incomparable colour.

In some ways, Colour is both the antithesis of the Cthulhu Mythos and its apotheosis.  Throughout the Mythos, Lovecraft attempts to summon up the unfathomable, the indescribable, the incomprehensible, the truly alien – but again and again, he lets slip enough hooks that we are able to get a grip on the stories. Far from being unknowable, the actors of the Cthulhu mythos are well-known. Entire books can be written on their origins, purposes and interrelations. They are shrouded in rumour and folklore in the stories, and out of the stories they have developed a life of their own. The Colour out of Space seems both a rejection of that baroque superstructure of the myth, and a fulfilment of its basic premise: the threat of the truly alien.

There’s no doubt that this is a science fiction story, plain and simple. Myth and folklore and magic play peripheral roles if they occur at all – though it is science fiction dressed up as something else. Lovecraft plays with the expectations of a Dunwich-like story – some reawakened horror from before the dawn of time as spoken horribly of in generations of dark legend and rural superstition – but what actually plays out is pure SF. Ridiculous SF, it is true, which doesn’t stand up to modern scrutiny, but it has that core of plain, straightforward scientific thinking, a certain coldness and matter-of-factness that most of his stories lack. That coldness actually accentuates the horror of the story, rather than detracting from it. In that respect, I think it is probably the most successful of his stories, thematically. Indeed, it’s one of the most successful SF stories of all time, in one respect: the sheer, limitless, inscrutable alienness of it all. Lovecraft disliked pure SF on the grounds that the aliens were always humans with masks – he tries his best in many of his tales, but this is the only one where he truly succeeds in avoiding that, and as such it has been an inspiration for many writers since – most directly, Stephen King, never embarrassed about his deep debt to Lovecraft throughout his career, has admitted that Tommyknockers was based on this story (though it seems that narcotics may have played quite a role in the interpretation process…). More generally, Lovecraft combines the alien with themes of disease, madness, brainwashing, mutation, and the fear of contagion into an extremely heady mix which has helped inspire much later horror and SF (The Thing, for instance, while ostensibly based upon At the Mountains of Madness, seems to me to get a lot of its animating force from Colour).

All that said, it’s not a perfect story. It’s not frightening – the ‘horror’ of the genre name is not a relic in this case, as it horrifies rather than terrifies. It’s a little detached – which is essential to the tone, but which stops it from hitting home as hard as it might. It’s also, frankly, not as well written as The Whisperer in Darkness, in terms of prose style.

——-

The Haunter of the Dark, alas, is a step back to something more stereotypically ‘Lovecraftian’. In fact, much of it feels nine-tenths of the way to parody. There are, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, by this stage of his career, Lovecraft was moving beyond the basic premises of his mythos, and trying to use them as the basis for more conventionally horrifying stories; this has the upside that his stories were now being given genuine pay-offs instead of ‘ah! the horror!’ moments… but it also has the downside that the mythic basis has to be dumped on us very quickly, in case we’re not au fait with it. And by now, Lovecraft feels almost bored with these infodumps. In consequence, the “horrible forbidden manuscripts telling of horrific ancient rites” section of the story is physically painful.

Secondly, this story WASN’T entirely serious. It was written in response to a story by a young fan, Robert Bloch, in which a character based on Lovecraft met a horrible fate, and in turn sets out to give a nasty ending to the admirer, in the form of a “Robert Blake”. Blake is also clearly a vehicle for Lovecraft’s own gentle self-mockery, and there are subtle references not only to Bloch’s works but also to Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.

However: it isn’t just a parody, and it isn’t entirely familiar, either. The conceit of the story is ingenious, and the ending is both exciting and unnerving. It is also, alas, rather confusing, since Lovecraft is experimenting here with leaving conclusions unsaid – what happens can be worked out if you’ve been reading carefully, but the practised Lovecraft reader used to hysterical revelations may not have been paying enough attention up to that point. Lovecraft is also taking the opportunity to experiment with narrative structure, interweaving the reports of Blake’s diaries with second-hand anecdote and reconstructed narration told as though by an omniscient narrator. At times, the junctions are too visible, but in other places, the mix works well to build up tension.

Overall, as the last story written under Lovecraft’s own name, there is a fitting note of retrospective about this tale; yet Lovecraft was not yet expecting to die, and there are signs of further experimentation and possible new directions [the danger of the Haunter, for instance, is far more sophisticated and promising than the danger of being eaten, from stories like ‘Pickman’.

Adrenaline: 3-3. ‘Colour’ never hits a peak of being truly exciting – but it builds the tension up pretty steadily throughout, and kept me reading easily. ‘Haunter’ doesn’t built up tension well, but the ending really picks it up.

Emotion: 3-2. There’s not enough engagement with the characters to be exceptional here, but there IS horror and revulsion. However, in ‘Haunter’ that revulsion is a bit too familiar, and the characters are TOO forgettable, to the point of nonexistence.

Thought: 2-2. The antagonist of ‘Colour’ is so alien that we can’t think too much about it. The images and ideas are compelling, but they are intentionally uncognitive. That of ‘Haunter’ is perhaps too unalien, and although it has some interesting possibilities, they are only hinted at.

Beauty: 3-2. Some imagery in ‘Colour’ is beautiful, but it lacks any expanse of beautiful prose. The prose overall doesn’t hit the heights of Whisperer, but it’s also more reliable, more sensible. In ‘Haunter’, it is all entirely forgettable, and parts are irritating.

Craft: 4-3. The combination of lower-risk prose style, more sober narrator, and the very simple plot outline make ‘Colour’ perhaps the most respectable, unobjectionable Lovecraft story I’ve read so far. It isn’t perfect, at it feels a bit archaic at times, but overall it’s very well done. ‘Haunter’ is lazy and slipshod, only elevated by its ending.

Endearingness: 4-2. Not sure why, but I really liked ‘Colour’. It’s memorable and effective, and not hard work. There’s not enough to it to really demand repeat readings, and nothing to love about it either, but it’s a story I know I’ll want to re-read in the future. I can’t think why I would re-read ‘Haunter’ – the ending is memorable, but not worth waiting for unless you’re a Lovecraft, Bloch or Cosmic Horror aficionado.

Originality: 3. ‘Colour’ is historically inventive, but too simple and straightforward to be too unique by today’s standards. ‘Haunter’ is far too predictable, with but has a bit of ingenuity in the final nature of the beast, and in the narrative structure.

Overall: Good; Bad, but with redeeming features.

Reaction: Lovecraft Omnibus 3 (part 2)

“The Dunwich Horror” is another long short story often considered to be one of the core tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; I disagree. In terms of concrete Mythos connexions, it has only the name “Yog-Sothoth”, the ubiquitous “Necronomicon”, and the idea of “Old Ones”. Yet these “Old Ones” can’t easily be assimilated to either obvious category: the “Great Old Ones” of “the Call of Cthulhu” and elsewhere, or the “Elder Things” of “At the Mountains of Madness”. They are said here to be kin to Cthulhu, but they are greatly unlike him, and even Cthulhu is said not to be able to see them. On the other hand, they seem distinctly more powerful and alien than the Elder Things. It is possible, given that they are mentioned has having placed their seal both upon the R’lyeh and on the Elder city of Antarctica (an impressive reference to Mountains, as the latter was written several years later), that the Elder Thing / Great Old One distinction had not been fully made at this time. Alternatively, the city mentioned could be a reference to the ‘second city’ of Mountains.

In any case, Dunwich feels different in tone both from the earlier Lovecraft and from the later, more science-based tales. It is clear that it owes much of its legacy to the dark fairy tale, and in particular it is considered heavily influenced by Arthur Machen – it has been called anything from an ‘homage’ to a ‘retelling’ of Machen’s The Great God Pan, a story which is explicitly referenced in the text itself. In that light, I think Dunwich can be seen as an experiment, telling Cthulhu stories in the tone of Machen; some parts of that experiment were expanded upon later, while others have become less relevant. I don’t think it wise to spend too much time trying to find a way to fit Dunwich into a single coherent mythology with the other stories.

The story itself continues the racist themes of “The Call of Cthulhu”; indeed, race is the entire issue here. Out in the “degenerate” and “inbred” rural parts of New England, a child is born with strange qualities, including precocious intelligence and unnatural growth – a child who may in fact be the very opposite of “inbred”. Yes, it’s another story about miscegenation, the greatest horror Lovecraft could imagine. However, this is less of an obstacle than in “The Call of Cthulhu”, because here the problem is not literal miscegenation between races, but a metaphorical miscegenation, which the squeemish reader may attempt to read without inquiring into its symbolic purpose – although there remain distasteful comments on the ‘decayed’ families of the area, they feel more the work of a patronising urbanite than of a committed white supremacist.

In terms of its positive qualities: I think the prose was fairly firm throughout, although obviously still overly purple. Some passages were actually quite well written. Although the main horror is too obvious, there is a bit of a red herring along the way, and if you’re a patient reader the slow build-up could be seen as tense. The whippoorwills are… really rather creepy. The later sequences are impressively, chillingly, callous, and the monster revealed near the end is actually quite disgusting/horrifying (the description strongly suggests a shoggoth in its appearance, although the context makes this impossible – another experiment, I think). Unfortunately, while the ‘chase’ scenes do have a degree of tension and ickiness, the hyperbolic writing and the laughably wooden hero bring too much of a “hunting of the snark” feel to proceedings, and make clear why Lovecraft has been such a temptation for parody and comic retellings. There are times when the story feels like a parody itself – which is a pity, as it does have some effective elements, which bode well for the later stories.

In particular, the monsters are a lot more horrible than Cthulhu, and the threat they pose feels more immediate, even though, for most of the story, they are rather less described than their more famous cousin. Indeed, although the description of the villain at the end works well, the general tendency to explain things, while theoretically making the threat greater, in fact makes everything less frightening.

One final note: it is often thought that Yog-Sothoth is the father of a character in this story, but that wasn’t the impression I got. When a character calls out both “Father!” and “Yog-Sothoth!”, I don’t see that the two must be addressing the same person, given that the characters has reasons to shout out to both their father AND to Yog-Sothoth. That, however, may be my preconceptions about the Mythos talking.

Next up: “The Whisperer in Darkness”, one of the three stories in this collection for which I have high hopes. Unfortunately, I know the ending…

———————-


“Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end” – I can’t tell you what a relief these opening words to “The Whisperer in Darkness” were. They promised a tale more toned-down, more subtle, less prone to mad hysteria, than Lovecraft’s usual fare – and the promise was indeed borne out.

The Whisperer in Darkness was written in 1930 – shortly after his “Fungi from Yuggoth” poem-cycle, to which it makes considerable reference. Like “The Dunwich Horror”, the story is in debt to Arthur Machen, this time his The Novel of the Black Seal – but unlike  “The Dunwich Horror”, this time Lovecraft truly makes the story his own. Gone are all the remnants of the “Little People” of Machen (referenced explicitly in the text); gone are the dark fairy-tale sensibilities; the cabals of miscegenated cultists are replaced by a variety of human ‘allies’, which include even urbane Bostonians. The patronising attitude toward the rural population remains, but now it has become more of a ‘noble savage’ attitude, with the older and less educated farmers being more accepting of the terrible theories of Akeley than the intellectuals are. What we have, in short, is a definite movement away from the old and the occult toward the new and scientific: “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a genuine science fiction horror story.

It feels as though Lovecraft was aware of this shift in direction; there is an atmosphere of challenge and change throughout the book. The protagonists – the narrator, Albert Wilmarth, and his correspondant, Henry Akeley – are not the naive and uninformed inhabitants of Lovecraft’s usual stories – both, in their way, are experts in folklore, who take for granted knowledge of the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos: Akeley even says to Wilmarth, and by extension to the reader, “I suppose you know all about the fearful myths antedating the coming of man to the earth – the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles – which are hinted at in the Necronomicon.” It is plain that these are not the sort of men who go mad simply by reading that horrible book – indeed, both protagonists display a commendable degree of sanity and levelheadedness throughout, barring a few moments of hysterical vocabulary, and the prose, while rich and ornate, is decidely more spartan than in many of his tales – some parts (particularly a long car-ride that seems autobiographical in its sincerity) actually rise to the level of admirable writing. Moreover, just as this overt and nonchalent mention of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth seems to be a promise to the reader, “oh, it’s not just more of that stuff”, so too Lovecraft doesn’t hide the Mythos elements away until the end. Normally, the Mythos elements ARE the horror, revealed gradually and then in a moment of revelation that is meant to disturb and sicken the reader; here, Lovecraft throws the mythos at us from the firing gun, neutered in the dispassionate summaries of Wilmarth, as if proving that he can write a story that doesn’t rely on such things for its effect.

The key difference is that Whisperer is not a horror story simply because of its mythos – it is a horror story that just happens to use the mythos as its background. By not loading too much expectation on the mythos elements, the story frees them to act as a disturbing atmospheric note – in which function they are far more effective. Instead, Lovecraft builds up a chilling story in two acts – the first act tense and exciting, the second skin-crawling. Maybe it hits a sore note with me, but I found the final two ideas (the cylinders and the final scene) both itchingly repellent, in a good way.

That said, the story has flaws. Biggest of these is the slow start, with far too much folklore thrust at us with too little passion. The prose, while good in places and generally adequate, is still prone to painful lapses like a man startling at a car backfire – Wilmarth cannot say, for instance, that two things are simply “one and the same” without making it “one and the same order of incarnated nightmare”. There are too many adjectives, and too many of them (usually things like ‘horrible’, ‘hellish’ and the like) have no apparent purpose or motivation. The structure of the story, which is full of foreshadowing, which ends on a flashback, and which has a total shift in tone halfway through just as the excitement is reaching its climax, is ingenious, but may disrupt the flow for some and cause disengagement. There are several points where characters in a modern horror story would have acted differently, and as a result a few more plot twists would be required – but this perhaps we can put down to the naivity of Lovecraft, who did not have the same advantage of learning from a century of horror films as modern readers. As a result, some elements may be predictable to those familiar with the genre – in particular, some foreshadowings are probably more obvious now than they were at the time. I choose to consider that these flaws, both in foreshadowing and in the believability of the actions of the characters, are fairly superficial and could easily be rectified.

Overall, “The Whisperer in Darkness” was a very effective story – at least for a reader not well-versed in horror. From this, one can see why Lovecraft has had such influence over horror writers since. By itself, it probably doesn’t make this book worthwhile… but it certainly helps.

Adrenaline: 3/4. Dunwich is reasonably effective in grabbing the attention, particular toward the end; Whisperer is positively exciting, at least in parts – I could feel my pulse and I read into the night to finish it, despite having intended read only the first half.

Emotion: 2/3. Both stories provoke a certain visceral reaction; the more sober Whisperer, with its smaller and more personal scale, more empathetic and convincing characters, and lesser degree of silliness, is more affecting. Neither, however, are all that emotional, as the characters are all somewhat cold and distant; the prevailing emotion is a horrified revulsion, although Whisperer also succeeded in provoking a small degree of concern for one of the characters.

Thought: 2/2. Both are rather too didactic concerning their mythos to actually provoke much thought, although both are good enough stories to have one thinking ahead throughout. Whisperer is the better of the two, as its innovative conceit (the cylinders) is actually quite interesting – but not really explored.

Beauty: 2/4. Dunwich is dragged down by moments of excessive prose and by silliness, but does have some really effective imagery (in particular, the fireflies and the whippoorwills). Whisperer may be given the benefit of the doubt here – I do like purple prose, and I think that this story shows how Lovecraft was often only a few notches beyond beauty. Dialled down, he hits the mark here – but not consistently. The images are also, while often horrible, nonetheless elegant and memorable.

Craft: 3/3. Both stories are constructed well and innovatively. Both have better prose than “The Call of Cthulhu”. Both are not so silly. Whisperer in particular is more sturdy in construction – but still, he’s not quite there. At times, the restraint of the prose slips, and at times there are small plot holes (well, maybe not holes, exactly – but distinct weak points that could develop into holes), and at times the control of tone and tension is lacking.

Endearingness: 2/3. Neither is entirely hateful. Whisperer is more appealing, but still – is it appealling enough, given its length? I will continue to think well of it, but I don’t think it’ll be near the top of the pile for casual rereading, as it’s too slow and heavy for what it delivers.

Originality: 2/4. Dunwich is not entirely quotidian, as it takes the story in unexpected directions, even if the core is fairly familiar. Whisperer, on the other hand, is actively unusual, in its plot structure, its antagonists, its conclusion, and the conceit of the cylinders. Unlike Dunwich, it feels like the beginning of a genre, not the end of one.

“The Dunwich Horror” Overall: Bad but with redeeming features

“The Whisperer in Darkness” Overall: Good!

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