Monday, 22 December 2014

Categorising Lovecraft

I've finally finished reading HP Lovecraft's entire bibliography (as a solo author). I'd read many of his stories over the years but in 2012 I took it upon myself to read all of his fiction, in chronological order - thinking it would be good for my long commutes. It turns out there's only so much Lovecraft you can read back to back before it all begins to blend together and you get an incipient migraine, so in the end it's taken over 2 years - but I've finally done it. I may write something vaguely useful about this at a future date, but for now, here is provisional categorisation of all his fiction into five categories:

Terrible and also make you feel dirty
The Street
The Horror at Red Hook

Merely terrible
Old Bugs
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
The Transition of Juan Romero
The Statement of Randolph Carter
The Tree
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermlyn and His Family (may belong in the "Terrible and also make you feel dirty" category - can't remember and can't be bothered reading the stupid thing again to find out)
The Moon Bog
Herbert West - Reanimator
The Thing on the Doorstep

Mediocre (from insipid to alright-ish)
The Tomb
Dagon
A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson
The Doom that Came to Sarnath
Celephais
From Beyond
The Quest of Iranon
The Other Gods
Sweet Ermengarde (assuming it is meant to be funny)
The Hound
The Lurking Fear
The Shunned House
He (I can't remember this one at all - it's a complete blank to me, although I know I read it)
The Strange High House in the Mist
The Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Descendant
The Very Old Folk
The Dreams in the Witch House

Worth reading
Polaris
Memory
The White Ship
The Cats of Ulthar
The Terrible Old Man
The Temple
The Picture in the House
The Nameless City
Ex Oblivione
The Outsider
What the Moon Brings
Azathoth
The Rats in the Walls
The Unnamable (I can't quite make up my mind whether this is good or merely terrible)
In the Vault
Cool Air
The Call of Cthulhu
Pickman's Model 
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
Ibid

Very good
Nyarlathotep
The Music of Erich Zann
Hypnos
The Festival
The Colour Out of Space
The Dunwich Horror
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow Out of Time
The Haunter of the Dark

34 comments:

  1. The Dream Quest, merely mediocre?!?

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    1. As you might be able to tell, Lovecraft's outright fantasy works usually leave me cold. I just don't find them engaging. It's like listening to somebody tell you about their dreams. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath does have a good ending, but reading the rest of it was a real chore.

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    2. I like the Dream Quest because there's a glimmer of humour in it. The sequence with the ghouls, ghasts and the City of the Gugs particularly. In fact, when it comes right down to it, I just really like the Gugs.

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    3. The funny thing to me about Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is it's essentially an 18th. century picaresque with a coat of eldrich Lovecraftian paint. It reads like Baron Munchausen with an injection of cats and tentacles.

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    4. I'd say Dream Quest is about the worst thing ever written, so you've hyped it up IMO!

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    5. The worst thing ever written is a bit harsh.... But yeah, I've never got what all the fuss was about with that story.

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    6. The guys who do the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast didn't think much of it either. (You might want to delve into their back catalog now that you've read all the stories--they go chronologically through each story and often are able to offer some fun insights. It's all very light, too.)

      My understanding is that Dream Quest never made it past first draft phase and was published posthumously (much to the chagrin of Lovecraft's ghost, I'm sure). I wonder how it would have turned out if HPL had had a chance to return to this and polish it up...

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    7. I hadn't heard that before; it would explain it, perhaps. I've had three run ups on it and not managed to finish it.

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  2. I'd put "Arthur Jermlyn" in the "Terrible and make you feel dirty." category. It throws ol' H.P.'s miscegenation issues into sharp relief, for one thing, considering what the main character did to himself when he figured out his ancestry.

    I agree with your top pics and "worth reading", as far as subjective rankings of a body of literature go.

    When Lovecraft is on point he's masterful at setting a powerful scene and injecting it with a very non-gothic sense of horror. All told, though, philosophically I prefer Howard, Smith, or Wade-Wellman over Lovecraft's drawing room nihilism most of the time.

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    1. Yeah, going back and looking at the wikipedia entry for it you're definitely right. The main thing that stood out in my mind at the time of reading was just how ridiculous an over-reaction Arthur Jermlyn has to his discovery. One of those "That escalated quickly!" moments. (And like with most of Lovecraft's plot twists you can see it coming a mile off, blasting a trumpet and yelling down a loud hailer, "I'm the plot twist".)

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    2. Yeah. Talk about your bananas flambe.

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    3. Arthur Jermlyn is probably my least-favorite Lovecraft story for all these reasons. God, what a waste.

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  3. Im glad to have read most of Lovecraft but the stories I can reread are: At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time. I also still enjoy The Rats in the Walls and particularly The Dreams in the Witch House, thinking of them as definitive shorts.

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  4. Another vote to promote Dreams in the witch house -- though the ending is a little weak it was the first HPL story that really grabbed me. It has a clever conceit for one thing. I also liked the fantasies a bit more than you did, but whenever I re-read anything by him my opinion of HPL seems to decrease. I feel the same way about Howard -- very good on a first read but not worth re-reading most of the time. :(

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  5. He was definitely really hitting his stride as an author when he died.

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  6. IMO a couple of Lovecraft's revisions (which I gather you didn't read) are among his best work (e.g., "The Mound"). However, "Medusa's Coil" is probably his most obnoxiously racist story - particularly the preposterous final line.

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    1. I didn't count collaborations, and I gather those two were written with other people. I'll see if I can track them down, but it's hard to top The Horror at Red Hook for sheer xenophobia.

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    2. Also my favourite preposterous last Lovecraft line is hands-down The Statement of Randolph Carter.

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    3. I'm quite fond of The Mound as well. It's very much in the vein of Abraham Merrit's lost world stories... with a darker touch.
      I'd also be another who'd promote Dreams In The Witch House. Also, The Thing On The Doorstep always worked well for me so I'd move that one up a notch as well.

      I wonder if someone has done this with Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' stories...

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  7. Good timing, I am reading the "Necronomicon" collection of his works right now. Read "The Rats in the Walls" last night. His stories are fun, his old-timey racism not so much.

    So, as per TheShadowKnows' comment, I will be prepared for the obnoxious racism when I read "The Medusa's Coil."

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  8. That's a impressive list, especially as your very right about back to back Lovecraft. But I don't see The Alchemist there... is that just an oversight or is it excluded for some reason?

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    1. I didn't know about it. I just looked it up on wikipedia.

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  9. Here's Lovecraft's own rankings of his stories:

    Pretty Good:
    The Colour out of Space

    Not Bad:
    The Music of Erich Zann

    Bad:
    All the rest.

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  10. Interesting post, and I think the proportions in each category are pretty much spot on. My only real disagreement would be on The Call of Cthulhu, which I much prefer to The Dunwich Horror. I'd have the former in the top slot. In fact, I think it's better, on the whole, than At the Mountains of Madness, which has real narrative problems (the entire history of the Old Ones inferred from carving) and outright silliness (giant penguins).

    One thing that stands out about Lovecraft's outright fantasy is how inferior it is to his main model (Dunsany), both in imagination and - especially - in the quality of the prose.

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    1. Fair enough, although I always thought The Call of Cthulhu has a bit of a weak ending - is he really that easy to escape from?

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  11. Why do people peddle the 'racist' cliche about Lovecraft when his stories are discussed? Actually I know why, in this case it is so a couple of fags can feel they have earned some easy moral credit and there is nothing easier these days than to sponge up 'right on' thinking to puke it up when it is irrelevant.

    What a meaningless word 'racist' if it covers both race motivated homicide and Lovecraft's immature loathing of brown races. I doubt H.P. and some introverted pals ran around his neighborhood with sharpened pencils stabbing black dudes in the butt.

    Also, would Lovecraft have been a better writer if he was not race sensitive? Is it better for writers and artists to be dishonest and public-crafty and instead to sponge up and puke out the thoughts of their 'right on' mediocre teachers of these enlightened days? No and no.

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    1. Why do you peddle all these attention-seeking comments all over the internet? Actually I know why - it's because there's nothing easier these days than going online and posting juvenile comments on some forum or blog post to gain a reaction, rather than saying anything relevant.

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    2. That's a very stupid response to a legitimate point.

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    3. If you want your points to be taken seriously, you should try expressing yourself in a less childish manner.

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    4. 1. The accusation of 'racism' is an extremely potent slur.

      2. This is because topically it is used to describe malicious and violent actions – for example incompetent and highly aggressive police actions in the States.

      3. In common parlance 'racism' as a slur is expected to also describe common generalistions which everyone makes daily about all kinds of groups and communities of people. These generalisations are morally neutral thoughts based on observation and experience, and while they may be slapdash or silly or insightful they are merely thoughts, however ingrained

      4. It is stupid to blur under a single umbrella word, wicked and vicious *actions* which may be politically pernicious, violent or lethal, with *thoughts* which everyone is entitled to hold without censure, particularly as everyone abides by generalisations from their own perspective (unless they adopt those they are handed down in university).

      5. Lovecraft is entitled, as any writer or artist is, to have his work discussed without tagging or ascribing to him cheap inaccurate emotive bomb-words.

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    5. He's not entitled to anything, as he's dead.

      I don't believe in getting offended by things people say or write, especially not when it was nearly 100 years ago, but in a handful of Lovecraft's stories the racism - by which I mean hatred of particular races of people - is so crucial an element of the plot that it has to be discussed as an intrinsic part of the work. The best example of this is The Street, which is basically a racist's wank-fest rather than a genuine work of fiction. The other one that occurs to me is the Horror at Red Hook. And that's why I put those two in a separate category. (They're also appaling on their own merits - shite, basically - which I'm sure is no coincidence.)

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    6. Kent, you are right on one point, but mostly wrong, and terrible in expressing your point without it coming across as an angry mess.

      Writers should be free to express themselves. However, Lovecraft was clearly a man of his time, in addition to having some significant racist views that are complete rubbish and cancerous. Not all racism is overt and murderous, the subtle forms also corrode.

      "[A] couple of fags can feel they have earned some easy moral credit..." The fact that you wrote something like that tells me a lot about you and your petty anger. I'm sad that I know of places where your thinking would be perfectly acceptable.

      Despite everything I just wrote, I still enjoy Lovecraft's work, just as I still love seeing idiot, racist relatives over the holidays.

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  12. Based on my experience, your understanding of what the word racism necessarily connotes (i.e., malicious and violent actions like "highly aggressive" policing) is idiosyncratic. Without quibbling too much, I think most people understand it to mean something along the lines of a belief that one race is superior to another. As such, you can have a racist murder, a racist hiring decision, a racist book, or a racist thought. Just as you can have a scientific murder (one with a scientific motivation), a scientific book, or a scientific thought. Or a political murder, or thought, etc. It is not at all stupid that an adjective may describe both actions and beliefs, whether the word is morally neutral or not.

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  13. you all stoopid
    LOL

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