Sunday, 21 October 2012

Early Lovecraft

On my long train journeys to and from work I've started ploughing my way through the complete H P Lovecraft on my Kindle. I read his major, established stories way back when I was a teenager, and several times since, but there are plenty of obscure pieces I have never really come across before, so I am gradually fighting my way through in chronological order.

It's fair to say it's a bit of a struggle. It's also fair to say that while Lovecraft matured into a great horror writer, in his early years his works were only a few steps away from being utter tripe: imaginative, yes; good stories, no; frightening, not in the slightest; unintentionally humorous, often. They have intriguing ideas and set-ups, but the execution is often amusingly poor. (A particular favourite in this respect is "The Statement of Randolph Carter", which manages to build up a considerable head of eerie steam before flattening you with a final sentence that has you struggling to contain snorts of laughter.) And it is absolutely staggering to imagine that nobody could see his plot twists coming from a mile away - viz. "Old Bugs" and "Memory".

I'm also not fond of the sub-Dunsany dreamscape type of stories from his earlier years: curios like "The White Ship", "The Doom that Came to Sarnath", etc. (Although I'm not a huge fan of his later works in this so-called Dream Cycle, like "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath", either.) They show a writer who was brimming with ideas but who still hadn't learned yet how to formulate them into a genuine story.

That said, there is something compelling about Lovecraft's vision even in his juvenilia. All the elements are there: the ancient mysteries, the sense of a vast body of knowledge existing somewhere that humans cannot comprehend, and above all the indifference of the universe to whether we live or die. That in itself makes it worth carrying on. It also made me fork out £21.99 on the Sixth Edition of Call of Cthulu yesterday in my FLGS, when another game I want to run is the last thing on earth I needed. 

19 comments:

  1. Improved closing sentences for "The Statement of Randolph Carter"

    "Hello. Do you have Prince Albert in a CAN?"

    "Please hold. Your friend is temporarily unavailable right now. Thank you for your PATIENCE!"

    "You fool. Your friend just LEVELED UP!"

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    1. "You fool. You can't just call Virgin Media and speak to a REAL LIVE HUMAN BEING!"

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  2. Right, have to dig out my Kindle to read "The Statement of Randolph Carter" now, and also the other story you mentioned yesterday...

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    1. The other one is "Memory".

      "It turns out it's man."

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  3. Glad it's not just me then with the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath... I found it had lots of brilliant ideas and vignettes, but no real substance to give the reader anything to grip onto.

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    1. Yeah, I don't see what the point of it is in the end, really.

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  4. There's a school of thought that Call of Cthulhu is a bad game because it doesn't emulate Lovecraft's stories very well -- these people tend to overlook The Horror Over Innsmouth, parts of The Call of Cthulhu and most of all The Dunwich Horror, the last of which almost reads like a session report -- but as you say, a lot of Lovecraft's stories aren't that great in terms of plot, character and language. It's those desperate, nihilistic ideas that do work so well, and Call of Cthulhu does those really well, so I don't really consider it a flaw that it can't emulate, say, The Evil Clergyman. If anything, it's a strength.

    It may be worth looking at Graham Walmsley's Stealing Cthulhu. I've not read it myself, but it's about looking past the gribbly monsters and going back to Lovecraft's ideas and themes and pulling gaming material from them. From what I can tell it seems to lean a little toward the "Call of Cthulhu is broken and wrong" mindset -- see also Trail of Cthulhu -- but its heart seems to be in the right place.

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    1. The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Oh dear.

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    2. Claims to Cthulhu expertness: in ruins.

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    3. I hang my (eldritch) head in shame.

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  5. I think 'The Statement of Randolph Carter' is impressive if it's the first use of the whole "bad guy on the telephone" trope. Not a good use of the trope, to be sure, but c'mon - you could trace its lineage all the way down to Liam Neeson in 'Taken'.

    (Also, never mind the last sentence, I was already gigging at "Beat it! Beat it! BEAT IT!")

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    1. Fair enough, but it's unbelievably contrived: "You stay here and don't follow me while I go alone into the dark pit where evil spirits come from. No, I'll be fine. Just hang onto the receiver so that you can hear what happens to me when the demons get me, and thus report it to the police and hence to readers of horror fiction in 80 years' time."

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  6. Lovecraft wasn't happy about his plotting either. That's why he largely changed over to reworking other peoples' ideas later in his career. (e.g. The Curse of Yig) He didn't even submit Dream-Quest for publication. It was published posthumously.

    If you're reading through his complete works, you should check out the HP Lovcraft literary podcast. They cover his complete works, including the various collaborations.

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  7. A second for the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast. A superb podcast by two great hosts who work their way through Lovecraft's entire fictional output in chronological order with various Lovecraft luminaries as guests and some superb readings too.

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    1. I dunno, I have to be honest and say I like the idea of that podcast and they have interesting things to say, but I just don't find the hosts funny and their jokes fall flat for me most of the time.

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  8. I have to agree with the most of your post.
    I have read over 70 of Lovecraft's writings or colaborations and only a few strike me as good. The Statement of Randolph Carter was good in my opinion as i liked the punchline. What truly upsets me is that his works sound like repetitions, employing the same language and a continuous backstory that, after a while, gets boring like hell.
    The Thing in the Moonlight is a great piece but one that does not make sense, The Shadow over Innsmouth was good but suffered with the ending, Dagon is a good piece and so is The Terrible Old Man, there are just a few others good enough to warrant merit.
    But his tendency to vilify and his blatant racism along with the eugenics touch just make several of his works mediocre at best.
    His characters, although scholars and students, just seem too small-minded and easily impressionable to sound real.
    How does a scientist see a tree or a town as evil?
    Lovecraft had good ideas and i like terror instead of horror, but he just couldn't quite put them in paper.
    For that i cannot despise him, writing, especially great horror writing his something difficult to do.
    It also seems that no movie adaptation so far has given his works any sort of justice or glory. I wonder when will i see one...
    But one thing is for certain, for me he just isn't one of the great horror writers.

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    1. The racism is idiotic, but you have to bear in mind that Lovecraft was a very strange man. It comes from being totally isolated and misinformed about the world, rather than any sort of malice. You'll notice there is barely a single female character in any of his stories either.

      I think you can identify a few moments when he really hits his stride, around 1921. "The Picture in the House" is great (although it has a terrible last line), and I love "Hypnos" and "The Nameless City". I'm also a huge fan of "Herbert West - Reanimator", assuming that Lovecraft had his tongue firmly in his cheek as he was writing it.

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    2. Agree with you on the racism, especially considering the eugenics craze of the time when people were measuring skulls and the sort. But it is still rather revolting to see people of my nationality characterized that way (i'm portuguese, there's plenty of us in Lovecraftian tales eheh)

      He does have his good moments, around 1919-1920 and in the beginning of the 30's.
      You can also see some glaring contrasts in his work if you see 1st person and 3rd story tales. Contrasts may not be the word...Dagon, Herbert West, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Nameless City, just to name a few examples, are not as extensive as 3rd person pieces because there is not the huge, and most of the times useless, pile of backstory shoved down our throats. Instead there is suspence, mystery and a certain aura of terror. Those are good works. I cannot tell how bored i am now that i'm reading the Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
      It's mainly a case of trying too hard to either convey a sense of terror, or to vilify an individual. The subtle suddenly ceased to be subtle.
      Agree?

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    3. I agree his first person stuff is much better, yes.

      I am listening to these podcasts that somebody recommended in the comments here: http://hppodcraft.com/

      What becomes clear is that some of Lovecraft's stories might actually be parodies and jokes, rather than genuine attempts at horror.

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