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The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre

August 30, 2017

 

Rating: A

Length: 406 pages, slightly larger than standard paperback page size, slightly smaller than standard font size

 

Look, it's Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  I call him one of the old masters for a reason, which is that he's a fucking great author.  He didn't invent the cosmic horror genre, but he is absolutely the author who's best know for popularizing it.  I own five collections of his works, including the complete collection, despite being able to find all of it for free online.  Not including that complete collection, though, this one is my favorite bundle.  It's got a handful of notable stories missing (At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and Herbert West - Reanimator), but it's one of the rare ones to include The Colour Out of Space, which counts for more in my eyes than any individual one of the missing ones.

 

Now, I could go through and write a bit about each individual story, but I'm not going to do that.  I'd rather talk in broad strokes about Lovecraft in general and this collection in particular.

 

To start things off, as you likely know (if only because I mentioned it just a couple of paragraphs earlier), Lovecraft is pretty much The Man when it comes to cosmic horror fiction.  I find this to be a rather difficult genre to pull off well, since one of the defining elements of it is the insignificance of humans in relation to these fantastic beings from the depths of space.  In other words, by definition, not only is it a genre that lends itself very strongly towards event-driven plots, but it does so in such a way that the protagonist is bound to spend most (if not all) of their time being ineffective at resisting the source of the horror.  As a reader, you're likely to be going into it with some predisposition against getting attached to the protagonist(s) for that very reason.  Now, what makes Lovecraft's work special compared to others, in my opinion, is that he's incredibly good at finding ways of dealing with that problem effectively.

 

Sometimes, as with The Rats in the Walls (a sentimental favorite of mine, since it was the first Lovecraft story that I read), it's because he puts a lot of effort into developing the protagonist in a way that doesn't feel forced, getting around the reader's inherent reluctance to care about this character by making them feel alive and interesting in their own right.  This seems like an obvious thing to do, but the actual execution is very tricky, since again, the reader is likely going into the story with an understanding that the protagonist isn't going to accomplish much, if anything.  Keeping in mind that, in his time, Lovecraft didn't even have to worry about that hurdle since the genre of cosmic horror was fairly new and unknown, it makes it even more impressive that he was able to pull it off so well.

 

Well, at least in general.  Despite tending to be considered one of his classic works, The Whisperer in Darkness always fell flat for me because the protagonist was impossible for me to take seriously.  Hey, nobody's perfect, right?

 

More frequently, though, the thing that makes Lovecraft's stories interesting is the setting itself.  I'm not speaking strictly about the typical Cthulhu Mythos setting, with Miskatonic University and the Necronomicon written by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and all that, though having a major subset of his stories all based in that setting does help to develop it further than the rest, obviously.  Regardless of which particular setting he was using, though, Lovecraft had a masterful ability to weave it together in a way that tends to draw the reader in and leave them wanting more.

 

If I had to give one single point for why Lovecraft was a phenomenal author, it'd be that he had a way of painting a picture of a whole and complete world while still keeping the reader hungry for more because he only revealed the barest slivers of what was going on.  And yet, with some rare exceptions, those slivers that he revealed tended to feel natural and sensible within the overall setting.  I think this is actually one of the strengths of using an event-driven plot for most of his stories, since it allowed him to progress the plot without being weighed down by needing to justify why characters were doing what they were doing.  We don't need to know how the tribal islanders learned to deal with the Deep Ones.  It's certainly something that the reader can think about, yes, but the core story of The Shadow Over Innsmouth adopts this as a simple element of the world in such a natural way that there's nothing encouraging the reader to question it.  In that way, it's very much the opposite of how magic is dealt with in a lot of works (Harry Potter comes to mind as a prime example), where there's some attempt at having rules for what magic can or can't do, but it's so underdeveloped that very few scenes are able to build legitimate tension because there's no reason to suspect that the protagonist(s) can't find some way out of the situation by throwing more magic at it.

 

Sidebar: If you want something to be taken as a fact of your world by the reader, the most important step is to treat it as a fact of your world within your story.  I think a lot of authors get so caught up in providing explanations or justifications for every little difference between their world's setting and the real world that they miss how easy it is for people to just accept something as being the way that it is just because.  I doubt most people sit around questioning how electricity works until they're given a lecture on electron flow in conductive materials.  They just know that plugging something into a socket makes it work and that putting their body parts into the same socket is a bad idea.  It's certainly good to have those explanations in your mind and to work them into the story in an organic way, where possible, but don't drown your reader in exposition JUST to show why a certain species of aliens has pupils like goats do.

 

Getting back to the matter at hand, I'd say that it's a common misconception that Lovecraft's stories are scary.  That was certainly part of his general intent as an author, but even putting aside his dalliances with genres other than horror, most of his stories are unlikely to be inherently scary to a modern reader.  Whether that's because of having seen similar stories from imitators, a reliance on some element of science that's no longer valid, or just differences in values between eras (particularly with respect to racial/ancestral purity), it's a fact that his writing isn't as scary as it would've been in his time.  That having been said, great writing is timeless, and the depth of his settings alone is more than enough to fill the pleasure void left by modern readers not being likely to be shocked at a Tomato In The Mirror.  If anything, the fact that his stories are still so enjoyable despite having lost most of their scariness is further testament to his abilities as an author.

 

Now, having said so much about why Lovecraft was awesome, why does this particular collection stand out?  As I've mentioned already, one of its strong points is the inclusion of The Colour Out of Space.  I really don't understand why this story doesn't get praised more, especially considering how much praise is thrown towards The Whisperer in Darkness or The Dunwich Horror (the latter is good, don't get me wrong, but I think The Colour Out of Space was better).  I tend to recommend that story to people more often than any other one simply because it seems to get ignored so much.

 

Other than that, it's also hard to overlook the quantity in this collection.  Sixteen stories is a pretty big chunk, compared to my other collections having eleven, ten, or a whopping four.  I'm all for quality over quantity, but with how good Lovecraft's works are on the whole, quantity has to count for something, here.

 

As mentioned at the start, there are four notable works missing from this collection, which is the reason why it doesn't get an A+ from me.  That having been said, those four are probably his longest, so I'd tend to suggest trying shorter works like the ones found in this collection to make sure that Lovecraft suits your literary tastes before diving into those.  Yes, for all that I praise Lovecraft, I do understand that there will always be some haters.

 

The bottom line, though, is that he's almost universally considered as one of the best authors of the 20th century for good reason.  While it's a bit late to support him with your money now, seeing as he's been dead since 1937, it's never too late to read his works.  Short of the complete collection (which is a hefty amount more expensive), this remains the overall best collection of his works that I've managed to find.  Highly recommended.

 

Rating: A

Length: 406 pages, slightly larger than standard paperback page size, slightly smaller than standard font size

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