1/07/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Prion/Carlton Books. 624 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-85375-763-1.
check out websites: www.prionbooks.co.uk and www.carltonbooks.co.uk
H.P. Lovecraft died more than seventy years ago and in his life-time he was barely known outside of his own circle of friends. He hardly sold any of his fiction and despite genteel birth, when he died he was practically a pauper and yet Lovecraft is widely considered to be the father of modern horror fiction and one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. The list of writers who have openly declared their debt to him is extensive and impressive, including the likes of Stephen King, Alan Moore, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard and Ray Bradbury. He influence in horror film-making is hardly any less, with Guillermo del Toro probably the most notable Lovecraft fan in modern Hollywood.
Of course, one problem for people coming to Lovecraft for the first time is that while almost everything he wrote practically fizzes and crackles with ideas, not everything he wrote is easy to read. In fact, one of the things Lovecraft is best known for is his deliberately creaky, sometimes clunky writing style. For a writer of horror fiction, some of what Lovecraft wrote wasn't particularly scary or even suspenseful. So while it's all worth reading at some point, there are definitely some stories that are better than others.
That's where a book like 'The Best Of H.P. Lovecraft' comes in. Whether for yourself or as a gift, this really is one of the best single-volume Lovecraft anthologies out there. All ten of the stories included really are among his best:-
'Herbert West - Reanimator'
'The Rats In The Walls'
'The Call Of Cthulhu'
'The Dunwich Horror'
'The Whisperer In The Darkness'
'At The Mountains Of Madness'
'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'
'The Shadow Out Of Time'
'The Haunter Of The Dark'
'The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward'
Critics and fans might argue about some of the ones left out, but none of the stories included are at all second-rate. About the only obvious gap is the lack of anything from the 'Dream Cycle' stories, the longest of which is Lovecraft's only true novel, 'The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath'. What the anthology does do is focus on the more popular 'Cthulhu Mythos' stories. Only 'Herbert West - Reanimator' stands out as an essentially non-Mythos tale, though to be fair the Mythos elements in 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' are fairly slight.
One reason the Mythos stories are so popular is their internal consistency. This isn't to say they're easy to fact-check against each other - far from it in fact! - but all share the same basic sense that the universe is a very big place, that humans are microscopically insignificant and that the vast and powerful alien beings that once ruled the Earth will soon be coming back. Of the stories presented here, 'The Call Of Cthulhu' is perhaps the best-known of the Mythos fiction, but 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'The Haunter Of The Dark' are equally important, if not more so.
Lovecraft was an accomplished amateur astronomer and much of what he wrote reflects his interests in astronomy, geology and palaeontology. The novella-length 'At The Mountains Of Madness' exemplifies this, describing an excursion to the South Pole that comes across traces of an ancient civilisation, the Elder Things and the synthetic horror that wiped them out. Aliens feature strongly in two other tales included here as well, the time-travelling Great Race of Yith in 'The Shadow Out Of Time' and the sinister Fungi from Yuggoth in 'The Whisperer in the Darkness'.
'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' and 'The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward' are somewhat different tales, but along with 'The Dunwich Horror' they delve into that part of the United States sometimes called Lovecraft Country, a pastiche of New England comparable to Thomas Hardy's Wessex. Mingled with his obvious love for the antiquities of the region were his fears about miscegenation and the degradation of ancient stock - as towns and buildings decay, so to do the people who live in them.
The brief introduction sets the scene well enough, though it lacks the depth of literary criticism characteristic of those anthologies edited by S. T. Joshi. In short then, 'The Best Of H.P. Lovecraft' is a near-perfect compilation of Lovecraft stories nicely printed and presented in an attractive binding. Highly recommended.
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