Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft Review (1/2) - Only the R'lyeh Good Ones

I have often mentioned just how much impact the American weird horror writer H.P. Lovecraft has had on the horror genre. The man popularised the cosmic horror genre, focused on the psychological aspects of horror, and created an entire pantheon of ancient, nightmarish beings. Lovecraftian horror was among the earliest forms of horror to emphasise the utter insignificance of mankind; a trend further continue by the habits of 21st Century Western civilisation.

However, I've never directly reviewed any of Lovecraft's work. There have been reviews of works inspired by and based on, on this blog, but never anything written by those tiny racist hands of his. So I decided to rectify this by reviewing some of his most notable works, starting with my favourites before moving on to the works I hated and the ones which I felt were a bit of a mess.

Lovecraft's works can be split into three categories: The Cthulhu Mythos, The Dream Cycle, and Miscellaneous Works. I'll tell you now, none of the Dream Cycle works will be on the first part of this list. 

The Good:

The Horror in the Museum (1932)

This is going to be one of the most obscure stories on this list. Lovecraft was like the nerd in school who'll do your homework for you, and as such did a lot of ghostwriting. The Horror in the Museum was one of five stories Lovecraft worked on for Hazel Heald, but there's enough Lovecraft here for it to just be classed as one of his works. I first stumbled upon The Horror in the Museum in a battered anthology I picked up for a quid from an old book store - which stank of dried semen and closed down a few weeks later - and it's been a firm favourite since.

In the loosest possible sense, THITM is like The Monster Squad of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos - a shared universe featuring all manner of horrific alien entities. Set in Roger's Waxworks Museum THITM features appearances from the likes of Cthulhu, Chaugnar Faugn, and Tsathoggua, if only in waxwork form. Lovecraft also ties his fantastical mythology into our own history, with appearances by effigies of Doctor Crippen, Lady Jane Grey, Gilles de Rais, and Marquis de Sade - real world monsters which Lovecraft's own creations sit comfortably amongst.

It's a sort of best of Lovecraft, featuring common elements of his work; a mad man, talk of expeditions to ancient places, Old Ones, primordial imagery, off-screen deaths, incredulous authorities, etc. All set to a tightly wound narrative, which relies on pared-down writing and a more simple form of horror - dark sharps, weird noises, and paranoia. The protagonist is challenged to spend the night in the museum and promptly proceeds to piss himself like that time I had a dream I was on a tour through a toilet factory.

The Dunwich Horror (1929)

An excellent 'Monster-of-the-week' tale somewhere between The X-Files and John Carpenter's The Thing. In the secluded, decrepit village of Dunwich (is there any other kind in Lovecraft?) live the Whateley family; a creepy shut-in family comparable to the redneck freaks from (the original) The Hills Have Eyes. Lovecraft fully exploits the inbred, creepy rural family trope: the granddad's into black magic, the mother has apparently been mating with Yog-Sothoth, and the entire family are horribly deformed.

It also transpires that the son, Wilbur, and the granddad have been raising a colossal invisible monster in the barn. A monster who feeds on cattle and is apparently related to Yog-Sothoth. Wilbur breaks into Miskatonic University in nearby Arkham to steal a copy of the Necronomicon to use in profane rituals to allow him to summon the Old Ones.

He's killed, but this sets into motion the final portion of the story in which the invisible monster escapes and rampages throughout Dunwich. This is one of few examples in Lovecraft's writing where the good guys are not utterly curb stomped. The Dunwich Horror works as a standalone story but is also a integral part of the Mythos - first introducing the idea of the Old Ones breeding with humans. Not that I'm sure how a giant space spaghetti/Black Metal logo managed to breed with a human woman.

The Outsider (1926)

The first of many Lovecraft stories which Stuart Gordon ripped off used as inspiration (see Castle Freak, 1995), The Outsider is an excellent little Gothic horror piece. Whereas Castle Freak was about an Italian duchess' disfigured son hobbling about with his knob out and biting off a prostitute's tits, The Outsider is more of a psychological fair with a sympathetic lead. It's far from Lovecraft's best, but as a standalone story it shows a different side to the writer's abilities. 

The story's unnamed protagonist has lived in the solitary darkness of his castle for a long time and decides he finally wants human contact: this being set in a time before 'other people are dicks' became the prevalent philosophy. An effective story in which Lovecraft deals with loneliness and the abhuman in a mature Edgar Allan Poe-esque fashion. Going by Castle Freak, I suspect Stuart Gordon misunderstood the story. Fortunately, he understood we all wanted more Barbara Crampton.

The Music of Erich Zann (1922)

As much as I appreciate the works of Lovecraft, he had the propensity to overwrite, overemote, and overemphasise in his writing. Not unlike my granddad when he's telling one of his stories about how he found £5 on the bus. The Music of Erich Zann demonstrates Lovecraft's attempt to bring a little subtlety to his work. Even though you can imagine Lovecraft straining not to write the words "ancient," "horrible," "abominable," "antediluvian," and "Eldritch".

In a (presumably) French city, a roughing it student lodges in a strange semi-abandoned apartment building in a strange part of town. There he meets an Elderly German man who plays his violin constantly, creating unusual melodies no one has heard before. As it turns out, Erich Zann's apartment looks out onto an abyss in which unknown creatures are waiting. The music keeps the creatures at bay until one day it doesn't. Nothing is explained or expounded upon, and it's all left vague and nondescript, but in a way that's part of the appeal. They call that method of writing the American Education System style.

From Beyond (1934)

Another Lovecraft story which Stuart Gordon has made his own, only in this case there is a more substantial resemblance between the page and film. For a writer whose work features more unspeakable ancient horrors than the House Targaryen family tree, this story is considerably future-focused. It features an insane scientist, and sci-fi elements such as resonance wave machines, alternate realities, and aliens. The crazy scientist is one Crawford Tillinghast, a man obsessed with stimulating his pineal gland. Sounds like my Friday night.

Utilising the resonance wave machine, Tillinghast is able to perceive realities and dimensions beyond our own. As with The Shadow Out of Time, this is one of the few instances that Lovecraft explores the alien worlds themselves. Tillinghast, in his madness, sends his servants into the alien world, whereupon they're devoured by the aliens in a standout moment. Servants in a Lovecraft story have a shorter life expectancy than a baby girl in China.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931)

Coming from a decrepit port city, with an even worse port city nearby, I always got a kick out of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Like Grimsby, Innsmouth is a town ripe with decay, dilapidation, and crumbling infrastructure. The Thatcher Years were not kind. And there's the concept of 'the Innsmouth look': the grey skin, the weird walk, the fish-eyes, all physically deformities which tie into the idea of the inhuman and the inbreeding which occurs in extremely secluded communities.

Small town horror is something Lovecraft was particularly adept at, and TSOI is the best example of this - resulting in one of his most influential stories. Touches of The Shadow Over Innsmouth can be found in the likes of The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion, and Magic: The Gathering.

For a Lovecraft story, TSOI is remarkably well-paced, with three chapters of effective build-up before the famous chase sequence in Chapter Four. After pissing off the locals in the previous chapter, the protagonist is hunted down following a night in a mouldy old hotel. The rest of the story is one of the best literary pursuit sequences since Bram Stoker's The Burial of the Rats (1914). And this is followed by a horrifying twist ending; an ending that's like being on The Jeremy Kyle Show and finding out that the disgusting freak is your baby's dad. 

As a central mythos story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth ties in with several of his other stories. Most notably Dagon (1919), a short story in which a shipwrecked sailor washes up on a strange mash-like island filled with putrefied fish carcasses. Upon exploring the island, he discovers a white stone monolith and encounters the fish-god himself- Dagon. Elements of TSOI also carry over to The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), in which the narrator's friend marries into a family from Innsmouth. Oh, don't these people ever learn. If you get invited to dinner by the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you probably should check what's on the menu before going.

The Festival (1925)

Another dose of Lovecraft's brand of rural horror. This one is set in Kingsport, a town so out of date that it makes Innsmouth seem positively cosmopolitan. There's some great scenic imagery at play here, and in many ways Kingsport is the antithesis of Innsmouth - an ancient town kept pristine and museum-like by time, instead of ravaged and neglected. Unfortunately, there's a ton of purple prose and exposition here, especially compared to the more action-orientated Shadow Over Innsmouth.

The Festival sees an unnamed narrator travel to his ancestral hometown of Kingsport to take part in a ritual which occurs once every century. He discovers the town is ancient, mostly abandoned, and occupied by the puppets from Spitting Image. Kingsport's townsfolk are a shade creepier than the fish-men from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, partly as you never do discover exactly what they are under their human skin disguises. Probably Old Man Withers.

The Call of Cthulhu (1928)

This was the first Lovecraft story I read, back in 2005 after hearing about a video game called Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth which was due for release. Turns out the game was based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Shadow Out of Time, but nevertheless my Lovecraft appreciation was kickstarted. It was fortunate that I didn't start with any of Lovecraft's Dream Cycle works.

The Call of Cthulhu is surely Lovecraft's most famous work. As in my case, TCOC is often the entry point into Lovecraft. It throws together most of Lovecraft's most common elements: excitable investigators who talk like middle-aged English professors trying to pick up a Philosophy PHD student, dodgy immigrants, ancestral horror, and slimy monsters rising from the depths in a manner akin to yo momma whenever she gets out of the both. And it works: everyone knows who Cthulhu is. He's in memes, South Park, there are Cthulhu plushies, and so on.

Opening with one of the most effective lines in all of Lovecraft's work - “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” - the story builds up naturally as the narrator pieces together the mystery from his grand-uncle's notes. Lovecraft creates a sense of tension through vague references to Cthulhu and the sunken city of R'lyeh, and through a series of vignettes such as the raid on the cultists' ritual and the battle on the rogue ship the Alert. Despite the piecemeal story telling, the narrative is sweeping and covers a lot of ground.

Throughout the story Cthulhu remains a menacing presence and when he finally appears at the end, all several hundred feet of him, in his alien city, the payoff is worth it. Even though the story ends on a massive cop-out: Cthulhu may be a colossal, world-devouring space-octopus, but he has the same weakness as Kirsty MacColl.

Honourable Mentions:

  • In the Vault (1925) - An Undertaker is stuck in a vault and has to pile up coffins to escape, but a corpse bites his feet or something. Creepy and somewhat pulpy. 
  • The Dreams in the Witch House (1933) - A creepy house, a human-featured rat, child sacrifice, strangulation, The Dreams in the Witch House has a lot going for it but bogs itself down in mythologising. 
  • The Terrible Old Man (1921) - Lovecraft's Don't Breathe. 
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941)/ The Thing on the Doorstep (1937) - The spirits of old deceased generations come back to wreck havoc on the current generation. Someone come up with a Brexit joke for me.

To be concluded in Part 2, with the Bad, and the Ugly.

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