Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The
by H.P. Lovecraft (1919-1936)
A strange, somehow-alien figure hobbles across the craggy landscape in the stark moonlight, with weird, unearthly spires jutting around him and a massive, oppressive stone castle-church looming in the distance, a dark edifice which houses horrific secrets of an ancient, untold mythology, the facts of which would certainly drive the strongest man immediately insane.
This is the image that Lovecraft arouses in me, along with a sort of nebulous sentiment of anguish and despair. This precise scene does not occur anywhere in these stories, but it seems like it could, and it gives you a pretty good idea about what you’re in for should you pick up this book. Perhaps better than anything else, Lovecraft creates an oppressive mood of slow-mounting horror; it permeates nearly everything he wrote, a defining quality that is arguably his greatest legacy.
As well as he does that, however, I can’t shake the idea that he was a two- or three- trick pony at most. He mostly tells the same story over and over again (especially his later stuff), except from different perspectives, sort of like World War Z. It’s a story of some ancient alien race that has been secretly present on earth since before humanity and is more or less trying to take over the world. Half the stories here conform to that description. He essentially wrote variations on a theme, and it got old.
Couple this with the lack of narrative tension — yes there’s an apprehensive mood and a generally disturbing quality throughout, but no real suspense — and it provides a strangely unimpressive reading experience. I wanted to like these stories more than I did. Indeed, I liked the ideas of the stories, their premises, more than the stories themselves.
And I do believe there’s genius behind those premises, but writing them all from the same general perspective — an investigator/scholar/reporter using eyewitnesses and a written record to reconstruct events — bled them of any urgency or fascination. They were distinctly non-compelling. The formal, distractingly ornate prose didn’t help either except to give everything an off-putting, Victorian air.
(It’s strange to think that eminently readable authors like Maugham, Hesse, Huxley and Forster were writing at the same time. Even if you limit it to U.S. authors who were contemporaries of Lovecraft, you have a group that included Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and John Fante. Not sci-fi/horror writers maybe, but all of them far from Lovecraft’s irritating stiffness.)
I’m not sure if this was more a style of the times or just particular to Lovecraft, but I found myself wishing throughout the book for just a little 3rd-person omniscient narration. He got the closest to this in the last story, “The Haunter in the Dark,” which uses the reporting essentially as an envelope; not surprisingly this was one of the best stories in the collection. That it was his last story ever makes me wonder if he was moving naturally toward a more compelling narrative style, and if perhaps he would have written even better stories had he lived longer.
None of his earliest stories are very memorable except for “Herbert West — Reanimator” and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn,” though “Reanimator” is again better in theory than execution, and “Arthur Jermyn” was essentially redone much more captivatingly in the brilliant “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” “The Rats in the Walls” was the first story that I thought was really great, and it sort of signals a coming escalation in quality for the rest of the book, which picks up for good at “The Call of Cthulhu.” Four of the last five stories were terrific despite being formulaic; the poor exception was “The Whisperer in Darkness” which was as ludicrously contrived as it was tired.
But “Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “Innsmouth” and “The Haunter in the Dark”. . . definitely worth reading. If you include “The Rats in the Walls” with those four I think you can forget all the rest. If you love those and want to read more afterward, you’ll be free to while also knowing you’re not missing much if you don’t. I haven’t read At the Mountains of Madness, which many include with his best works, but the plot description makes it look like yet another variation, which I don’t feel compelled to read. I think I’ll just wait and hope that Guillermo del Toro finally gets his wish to adapt it to film. Oh, and I’d recommend reading the stories before their introductions, which sometimes contained spoilers.
To sum up: Lovecraft was very good at several things, of which the two main ones IMO were his creation of mood and his extremely imaginative, hugely influential mythology. Those are reason enough to recommend at least an acquaintance with his work, though probably not enough to overcome the boredom of delving through all the similar stories in a collection like this. There are five stories here that are definitely worth your while, just to know Lovecraft and appreciate his skill and influence. I’d only recommend the rest of the book to ardent fans.