01/11/2008. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy
pub: Gollancz. 880 page illustrated hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08156-7.
check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk
I already own excellent collections of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith edited by Stephen Jones, both with brilliant biographical essays. In this thick, black book he gives us not just another first-rate biographical essay about H.P. Lovecraft but also the best stories of the old gentleman from Providence, presented in chronological order, too, so that the eager fan can follow the development of this unique talent.
'Dagon' and 'The Statement Of Randolph Carter' are good early Lovecraft monster stories but short shorts of no particular merit. 'The Doom That Came To Sarnath' and 'The Cats Of Ulthar' are also short but interesting because they are very like the work of Clark Ashton Smith; interesting because they were written about two years earlier than that poet's first prose fiction. Smith was one of Lovecraft's many correspondents and was indubitably influenced by HPL.
'Under The Pyramids' was published as an account by Harry Houdini of an adventure he had in Egypt. Tricked by devious Arabs, he is bound, gagged and hurled on long rope down a deep hole in a pyramid. There he sees nameless, unspeakable things but is never sure if the visions are real or a dream bought on by the horror of his entombment.
Devious Arabs brings me to a point worth mentioning. Lovecraft was a racist so anyone who is sensitive about such issues had best avoid the book or get a sense of historical perspective. I recommend the latter. Certain lumps of text will have to be taken with a large pinch of salt, even so. 'The negro...was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing with abnormally long arms which I could not help but call fore-legs' for example from 'Herbert West: Reanimator.'
HPL was a sort of detached, superior, scholarly racist while pottering about in Providence with his old aunties. Then he had a stab at real life with a wife in Brooklyn and failed miserably. Lesser breeds got jobs and he didn't. This was intolerable and incomprehensible to him and came out nastily in his prose afterwards. 'The Horror At Red Hook', set in Brooklyn, features much bad mouthing of such low lifes but I have to say it's a brilliant story, too, written in 1927. HPL was getting very good by then. That same year he wrote 'Pickman's Model', about an artist whose monster pictures are a bit too realistic and 'The Colour Out Of Space' which I read again here despite having read it about four times already. I happen to think it's the best Science Fiction horror story ever written but I haven't read them all.
Lovecraft's prose might be difficult for the modern reader used to the thriller-ese style of short sentences and paragraphs nicely speckled with speech. He seldom bothered breaking up his large blocks of text with dialogue and piles up the adjectives relentlessly. However, he has a rich, varied vocabulary seldom seen nowadays and a definite style of his own. The difference between common prose and his stuff is rather like the difference between 'Day Tripper' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows' to use a musical model. Both are great but the latter is indubitably weird and unsettling when first encountered. Lovecraft's prose takes getting used to but it's worth the effort.
That said, it can be a bit of a slog and I think the old gentleman is best taken in small doses, no more than one tale a night at most. Once the stories get much beyond forty pages, as some of the later ones do, they lose some impact. Edgar Allen Poe had a theory that a great short story, especially one seeking to establish a single mood (namely fear), should be possible to read at one sitting. Poe was a big influence on Lovecraft and the theory applies to his work. Later stories get longer and lose something thereby, I think. It is also fair to say that Lovecraft works in a pretty small compass and the yarns bear a certain resemblance to each other. Most are told in the first person by a narrator who is remembering awful events and professes to be uncertain if they were true occurrences or dreadful hallucinations. For if they were true then the universe is too terrible to contemplate and reality is more than the mind of man could bear!
All the classics are here. This is a rich lump of text to be slowly savoured over a long period, a little at a time. Try to take in too much at once and you'll get mental indigestion and perhaps bad dreams.
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