Brenton's Reviews > The Fiction: Complete and Unabridged

The Fiction by H.P. Lovecraft
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Mar 10, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy-and-adventure, horror, speculative-fiction
Read in February, 2009

Sorry for this absolutely huge review, I couldn't help myself.

I've known of Lovecraft for quite some time, but somehow had never gotten around to reading more than two short stories of his until several months ago, when I figured it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I found out that he wrote nearly all short stories, and had finished just under 70 by the time of his death, so I figured I'd read them all to get a complete overview of his output. I started looking around and found that to do so I'd have to check out a variety of overlapping collections of his tales to do this, and bemoaned the fact that a cult author as widely cited as Lovecraft had not been collected into a complete volume.

Then, in December, I walked into Barnes and Noble and here it was, the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft, with an introduction and notes on each story. The volume is over 1000 pages long and includes every piece of fiction that Lovecraft wrote and published in his own name, as well as a handful of unfinished fragments and some of his early tales he wrote as a child. These stories are all unabridged and corrected against the original documents (though, being a first printing, I did find numerous missing letters and even a whole word or two). The book even closes with his highly regarded essay on supernatural literature. An all around sturdy, wonderful volume, my one minor quibble is the fact that Lovecraft ghostwrote or rewrote a few dozen stories for other authors in his lifetime, and I wish that some of those had been included as well, or that they were put into their own volume or something, because I've read a few and one of them ended up being the most evocative bit of story that I've read from the man. But aside from that, this collection is complete.

Now, on to the fiction itself. Lovecraft is regarded as one of the best authors of supernatural horror and weird fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, and is credited with turning the concept of horror in literature at that time on its head, casting the gaze of the reader out into the endless cold beyond our atmosphere while his precursors and many of his contemporaries dealt with far more terrestrial and comparatively homely methods of inspiring dread and fright.

I found this cosmological horror to be fascinating more than terrifying. To be sure, this work is all at least seventy years old now, and emulation has dulled the impact of Lovecraft's machinations, but that in no way lessens the vitality of the mythos that the man put together: Man is but a mote of dust in the universe, and what we worship as gods are not divine in any way other than the mere fact that, in the grand scheme of things, they are larger motes of dust than we, and are just as impartial to our lives as we are to the dust mites in our pillows.

All of the stories within being placed chronologically, it is apparent that Lovecraft improved upon both his writing abilities and his cosmological mythos, which is not to say that some of his early stories, in their simplicity, don't hit home just as powerfully. The tales gradually grow longer as one reads through the book, with Lovecraft's three novellas appearing in the middle and end of the book. It was these tales that I found to be the most enjoyable, the most thorough in their ability to draw me in and engage me in the alternate universe that Lovecraft structured. It is also these three short novels that one can use to divide Lovecraft's entire collection of fiction into three categories of theme: men stumbling through the realm of dreams, men meddling in necromancy and dark arts, and men confronting the godless, Darwinian truths of the universe, hints of which lie hidden in obscure corners of the earth.

The first of these novels, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath", acts as a lynchpin for the portion of Lovecraft's tales that take place in or otherwise have to do with the world of dream that we glimpse in our sleep, a selection of stories also known as Lovecraft's Dream Cycle. The Dream-Quest unfolds like a classic questing tale in which the protagonist, Randolph Carter, traverses a variety of realms and escapes one fantastic danger only to confront another. Although Lovecraft himself apparently dismissed this work as mere practice unfit for publishing, I found it to be richly picturesque; throughout my reading of the tale I wanted nothing more than to become ten times better a painter than I am so that I could put the amazing images the story gave me onto canvas. Many of Lovecraft's shorter stories from the first half of his career belong in the Dream Cycle and bring additional depth and definition to the dream realms traversed in The Dream-Quest, some of these shorter stories being "The White Ship", "The Doom That Came To Sarnath", "Celephaïs", and "The Silver Key". It should be noted that many of these stories appear to deal with gods or deities in the realms beyond the physical, something that Lovecraft sought to undue or amend in his later fiction.

The second novella, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", is by far the most fascinating of Lovecraft's necromancy stories, containing both a rich false history of antique New England locales and characters and a frighteningly evocative pastiche of one man's experiments in the complex necromantic arts. It is this tale that gives Lovecraft's infamous Necronomicon the bulk of its infamy. Unlike "The Dream-Quest", it reads like a historical journal, being the written account of one of Marinus Willet, a family doctor, as he records certain events that he found himself confronting, events that he at first did not understand, and which suggested truths that he could not fully accept. The dark arts and supernatural happenings involved are rarely written of in any sort of objective, descriptive manner, being instead always slightly obscured by both the character's purely scientific assessment of events and his lack of direct dealings with the acts themselves. Thus what the reader receives are impressions, glimpses, hints of horrifying deeds and soul-wrenching beings, which are never fully described or explained by the story's end; all the reader knows and, indeed, all Willett knows is that some vague yet monstrous evil has been done away with. There are many stories which fit into this "necromancy cycle" after a fashion, but they all share a lot with the Cthulhu Mythos cycle as well, as Lovecraft attempted to weave a cohesive universe behind all of his fiction, with the Necronomicon acting as somewhat of a common thread through all of it.

The final novella is often regarded as Lovecraft's best and most devastating tale, and is one of the primary stories of the third category of his work, the Cthulhu Mythos. "At The Mountains Of Madness" follows a scientific expedition to Antarctica that meets disaster and uncovers evidence of a fully sentient, advanced, societal race of beings that inhabited earth before and during the genesis of the scientifically accepted chain of evolutionary life on Earth. It is this, more than any of the other Cthulhu tales, that references and amends the mythology of all of Lovecraft's previous work, Dream Cycle and necromancy cycle included, recasting everything not as supernatural but as part of a vast, multi-faceted, and purely natural universe in which the "gods" of humanity's religions are merely ancient and powerful creatures from far reaches of our universe, mischaracterized and largely indifferent to us. And again, this novella most of all was most like the sort of sci-fi thrillers we read today, with very competent writing depicting the harsh Antarctic wild and the piece-by-piece revelation of ancient knowledge and terror by human scientists who are only following their instincts and their desire to discover and understand. I found myself surprised by the ultimately sympathetic view the story gives to the Elder Things, the aliens that came before all known earth life, since nearly all other instances of alien encounters in Lovecraft's world casts them as amoral animals to be feared and avoided, at best. Other notable stories in the Cthulhu Mythos cycle are "The Dunwich Horror", "The Whisperer in Darkness", "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Shadow Out Of Time", and, of course, "The Call of Cthulhu". Note that many of the earlier Cthulhu Mythos tales put a supernatural/deity spin on the alien beings encountered, prior to Lovecraft's "retcon" in this novella.

Finally, at the end of the book, we readers are treated to Lovecraft's well-regarded treatise on weird fiction, "Supernatural Horror in Literature". Lovecraft describes his understanding of horror and the place that fear has in humans, and then proceeds to trace the evolution of horror in writing from ancient times right up to his contemporaries in the pulp magazines of the Twenties and Thirties, from elements of classical mythology cycles through old folklore, Gothic literature, and the weird fiction of the early 20th Century. I don't know how the essay holds up to modern examinations of the subject, but I'll certainly use it as a reference in my own survey of the genre.

There is not much more I'll say about the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. It may take some getting used to because of the dated writing style, but when you get into the proper frame of mind Lovecraft was quite competent when it came to helping the reader suspend disbelief. I found myself annoyed from time to time by Lovecraft writing a competent story that evoked true creepiness but ruining it at the very end with an unneeded final revelation or exclamation that shoved the tale firmly into the realm of pulp-rag camp. "The Statement of Randolph Carter" is the clearest example of this, with everything going well until the last sentence. Readers should also note that there is no question that Lovecraft was a racist; a significant handful of these stories contain insulting stereotypes of immigrants and minorities, especially people of African or Asian descent. I hope that readers can look past these "intrusions of Lovecraft's personal character" because, frankly, they were never the point of his fiction. He wrote to partake in exciting storytelling. He wrote to make what I think is an important point no matter what you may believe about mankind's ultimate destiny: that it is a huge, unknown universe and that we are very, very small and very, very finite in our knowledge. And, above all, he wrote to cultivate a robust and healthy emotion within his readers, what he believed to be the oldest and most primal of mankind's emotions: fear.
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message 1: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary If you're looking for a collection of Lovecraft's revisions, Arkham House has already published them in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions. q.v. their catalog entry: http://tr.im/nGx5


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