On a Lovecraft Binge
I wasn’t quite sure what I felt like reading next, so I opened my Kindle and went browsing through my copy of The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft. I read Rats in the Wall, Shadow Out of Time, and Shadow Over Innsmouth one after the other. Since Lovecraft is a horror writer, I wasn’t really planning on reviewing any of his work. However I found Shadow Out Of Time to be a very interesting piece of SF, and figured if I was going to review it I may as well talk about the other stories I read, and by extension about Lovecraft.
Okay, before I get into any discussion on the quality of Lovecraft’s work. I should probably start with the most obvious negative in his stories. Lovecraft was a racist, and he included a lot of racist descriptions and themes in his stories. The cultist in The Call of Cthulhu, the depiction of the African-American boxer Buck Robinson in Herbert West – Reanimator, and the name of the black cat in Rats in the Wall all come to mind straight away.
Many stories also paint native peoples as superstitious savages – though, this is more bearable to modern audiences since in the context of the stories the ‘superstitious savages’ are usually right, such as in the case of Shadow out of Time.
And don’t get me started on his personal letters, or a poem written in 1912 called On the Creation of Niggers. Oh yeah, his Jewish wife also divorced him after getting sick of his anti-Semitic rants. I can understand the desire to play down Lovecraft’s views. After all, no-one wants to admit that a raging racist is one of their idols. However, the problem with dead historical figures is that we have to take them as they were; their flaws as well as their talent.
So, is Lovecraft’s racism going to be a barrier to enjoying his work? Well, that depends on who you are and how much such things effect you. Being white, I have the privilege to just shrug it off; it isn’t directed at me. Also, Lovecraft is dead and his works are in the public domain, so it’s not like buying his books is supporting racism.
It also depends on the story itself. Some have very mild themes that can simply be read as part of the characterisation (most stories are set in the 20s and 30s). There are also stories that have no racist elements at all, such as at the Mountains of Madness. Then there are stories like The Horror at Red Hook that are irredeemably racist. If you can divorce the stories from Lovecraft’s views but wish to read his work without coming across anything too offensive, I suggest reading some reviews of individual stories beforehand.
If you are willing to divorce the stories from the author, you are in for a treat. Lovecraft was a genius and a master worldbuilder. His works have also had a massive influence on today’s culture. After all, you’ve heard of Cthulhu before.
My first encounter with Lovecraft’s influence was around 2002, when I brought the game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for my Gamecube. Eternal Darkness is a horror action-adventure game by Silicon Knights, and its main draw cards are a story spanning 2000 years and 12 playable characters, as well as a sanity meter mechanic. I loved the story this game told of ancient elder gods and monsters, and the conspiracy around them. I have fond memories of inviting my friend for a sleepover after school and we’d play this game all night. Reading Rats in the Wall reminded me so much of this game. Hard to say why without revelling spoilers, but it was amazing seeing where one of my favourite games got its inspiration.
There are many other video games out there based on Lovecraft’s work and the Cthulhu Mythos, such as Alone in the Dark. Other games ranging from Scibblenauts to Call of Duty III: Black Ops also feature reference to the Mythos. There is also a role playing game called Call of Cthulhu and many popular board games such as Chez Geek, Gloom, Munchkin and Fluxx all have Cthulhu themed expansions. Dungeon and Dragons also released a chapter featuring Cthulhu in the 80s. Cthulhu references have also popped up in South Park, and in a few Metallica songs. There is even a Lovecraft Ezine (https://lovecraftzine.com/magazine/ ). No matter what your feelings are on the man, his work has had a massive impact on pop culture.
If you value characterization and dialog in stories, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There is hardly any dialog throughout Lovecraft’s entire body of work, and so far every story I’ve read has been written as a confessional with very little to differentiate each narrator.
If however you value crazy ideas and eloquent description, then you will be very pleased with Lovecraft. At the Mountains of Madness was my first Lovecraft story, and I loved the history of this ancient Antarctic city and its alien inhabitants. I also loved the description of the Great Race and their city in Shadow Out of Time. Lovecraft excelled in cosmic horror; this idea that we were insignificant and couldn’t even comprehend the beings in this universe who held the real power. These horror stories are not about the blood or the gore, but about the unknown and unknowable. Our reality is just a thin layer over a deeper, richer reality that we not only cannot comprehend, but we will go crazy if we try.
All in all, really fun stuff. And quite scary too. In fact, many people credit Lovecraft with paving the way for all modern writers of horror.
I still think Koji Suzuki’s Ring and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary are the scariest books I’ve read (Yes, I know about The Shining.) Whilst nothing Lovecraft wrote scares me as much or in the same way as those books, there is something quite unnerving about the suggestion of human helplessness, and Lovecraft’s writing really sells the idea. He is great at creating atmosphere and building tension; especially in Shadow Over Innsmouth. These aren’t your standard campfire ghost stories; but they are creepy, entertaining, and beautifully written.
So, would I recommend people go out and start reading more Lovecraft? Well, I do, but considering how his views creep into so many of his stories, I do so with caution. In the end though, whether others should find something too offensive or not isn’t really something I can make a call on. What I can say is that the Cthulhu Mythos are pretty awesome, and if cosmic horror sounds interesting to you, go check out this messed up universe of Lovecraft’s; whether it be his actual stories, or some of the many other stories and games inspired by them.
But be careful about delving too deep; you may find things that mankind was not meant to know.
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!