Reading H.P. Lovecraft requires, ironically, going beneath the surface.
The stories of H.P. Lovecraft have a dedicated following in the Fantasy and Science Fiction community, and are canonical in Horror, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft’s corpus enjoys a certain unity, which some might call repetition, unparalleled except in more recent authors who aren’t afraid to cite Lovecraft as an influence, or even hail him as a genius. The works of Stephen King and Clive Barker, for instance, have so many crossovers that readers often conclude each work is part of a larger whole, an entire fictional universe. Just like Stephen King’s fictional analogue of the state of Maine, Lovecraft’s work takes place in a New England of his own creation, with its own universities, towns, and publications.
These repetitions and allusions build up to a world that is haunting and creepy, but not because of what you might expect. We have to take a look at Lovecraft’s style of narration and the psychology of those narrators to really figure out why Lovecraft’s stories are indeed weird, enduring, and influential. Lovecraft’s stories get under your skin but not for anything on their surface. I have been reading At The Mountains of Madness for the past few days, and while I’m reading I don’t sit there thinking “oh God, I’m terrified,” or even “that’s sick!”
But I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that lurking in the corner is something whose terrible presence so chills me that I cannot sleep. To keep typing this blog post is so deeply against my nature that it may result in a complete nervous breakdown, terrifying my very soul and giving rise to the persistent thought that I should stop typing, delete my WordPress account, and drift into anonymity…but it’s a warning you all must have before you make the same regretful choices I have made. Oh, how I wish I had never opened the 2014 publication of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger with an introduction by Alan Moore, and published by W.W. Norton. Oh, the regret…
Vague and tell-y passages like the ones I’m trying to imitate make up the bulk of Lovecraft’s stories, interspersed with piles of exposition worthy of geological monographs. Lovecraft had wanted to become a scientist, but became a fiction writer, and this is evident from his lengthy descriptive passages. My impression is that more than half the words in At The Mountains of Madness are devoted to pure description of creatures, buildings, geology, and simple details of the journey undertaken by the narrator. We’re all taught not to infodump, and notwithstanding that Lovecraft wrote in a very different era and for a different audience, it convinces me I am actually reading a letter or report. Most of Lovecraft’s stories are epistolary, and as such, everything is filtered through a narrator, and it’s on this narrator that the truly creepy nature of the story always lies.
Sometimes, as in “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour Out of Space,” the narrator is two or three degrees removed from the horrors depicted, but the interpretation of the story always relies on that narrator, and it’s there that we find the inherent psychological nature of true horror. Lovecraft is often credited with bizarre monsters, improbable histories, and terrifying events, but read a little deeper and you’ll find that his narrator’s interpretation of things is way more scary.
When I first listened to “The Call of Cthulhu,” I kept thinking “So what? So you found some artifacts, you read some stories, you talked to the widow of a shipwrecked sailor who saw some weird stuff? Big deal.” (First of all, reading “The Call of Cthulhu” is very different from listening to it, and I suggest you read the text if you haven’t) Those are all valid questions, and particularly in At The Mountains of Madness, I am still waiting to get the real punch of the horrible things hinted at. We’re always told by the narrator that things are completely horrifying, and often just too terrible to mention, but is that what’s inspiring all this creepiness? I wasn’t joking that although I’m not particularly spooked reading the novella, I do wake up thinking about it, and feeling creeped out.
Ask yourself this question: are Cthulhu, the Great Old Ones, Nyarlathotep, and Dagon real? If they were, that would be pretty scary, but you’re reading a book, and if you’re like me, you don’t often forget that you’re reading a book. So why is the person recounting it telling you how scary it is? What if the narrator thinks it’s all real, within the world of the story, but it’s not real within the world of the story. Then we’re dealing with something altogether different. What if all that crap from the Necronomicon is just a delusion, even possibly a shared delusion, that drives people insane, and to suicide?
Consider “Dagon,” a very short story that follows the typical Lovecraft path: a WWI sailor’s ship is torpedoed and he’s captured by Germans, but manages to escape. He falls asleep at sea and wakes up on a bizarre island where he uncovers strange carvings and sees, eventually, some monsters. Pretty scary huh? Not really, because I haven’t told it to you within the narrator’s frame: it’s a suicide note. The guy is so freaked out, and so unable to live within normal society after this experience, that he is poisoning himself with morphine, and plans to end it all, but doesn’t want to do that without letting people know why.
Do not think from my slavery to morphine that I am a weakling or a degenerate. When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death.
Putting aside all the monster crap, the passages where he describes his suicidal thoughts are scary, and add a layer of creepiness that adds to the “weird tale” at the core of the story. “The Call of Cthulhu,” similarly, seems to be the ravings of a man who still thinks himself sane, but analogous to the loss of sanity in those he interviews and studies, he is ready to go over the precipice at any time. He very well may have hallucinated the whole thing to prop up his sanity. Stephen King goes so far in his epistolary story “Jerusalem’s Lot” as to say the author of most of the letters was just a crazy old man…except what’s that scratching sound I keep hearing in the middle of the night? This is a classic campfire ghost story technique, and I really enjoy reading it in the hands of a master like King or Lovecraft.
As an added note, King’s stories make a lot more sense to me now that I’ve read Lovecraft and gotten a handle on the sort of mythos that King has erected. I read IT before reading any Lovecraft, and I never expected the cosmic, outer space level of weirdness in that book. I was also put off a little by how much tell there was in it, and how much the events just didn’t seem scary. When I realized that although it seems like a third-person omniscient narrator, the events are, both in the story and in the telling, filtered through the voice of King’s oft-present first person storyteller, a sort of Old Mainer chronicler. He even uses “I” in the beginning of many of his stories that seem to be third person.
With Lovecraft I get the feeling that I’m reading a letter from a deranged old academic, whereas with King I feel like someone’s telling me a story on a long drive or over several nights at a campfire. The point is there is a storyteller there and we have to think about “show versus tell” in the horror storyteller tradition. (Incidentally this is something that I think a lot of kids are missing today; I don’t see my kids using the superstitions, ghost stories, and games that my brothers and I did, and I think today’s kids are missing something pretty important, or at least fun).
I’m glad I’ve gotten over my feeling of “what’s the big deal about Lovecraft?” into really enjoying his stories. His influence is pervasive throughout speculative fiction, and even into the works of horror aficionados like certain heavy-metal bands. My first exposure to anything “Lovecraftian” was “The Thing That Should Not Be” by Metallica, when I was in seventh grade and lived, ate, breathed, and slept Master of Puppets. This song always stood out because of its uncommon structure within Metallica’s songs, with an ascending riff that calms for quieter verses. There’s also no chorus, although there are multiple parts and solos, as in everything Metallica did during the eighties.
The weirdest part was the lyrics: Metallica’s subject matter was always on an abstract, speculative level (they didn’t do love songs!), but it was almost always about things I recognized, like the Four Horsemen, or Satan (though not often), or nuclear war, or conventional war, or war, or getting blown up in a war. “The Thing That Should Not Be” was not about any of those things. My only clue was the cover of Iron Maiden’s Live After Death, which has a headstone with a quotation attributed to Lovecraft: “That is not dead/Which can eternal lie./Yet with strange aeons/Even death may die,” almost directly quoted by Metallica. I had no idea who Lovecraft was, although I remember the name being familiar, and the sense that he had something to do with Poe. Lovecraft’s mythos is one of those things that always seems familiar even when it isn’t: when I finally got my hands on a copy of Ride the Lightning, I somehow recognized “Call of Ktulu,” although I had never read or heard of it. Apparently at age thirteen, the madness had already seeped into my brain…