The Call of Cthulhu and other Weird Tales

HP Lovecraft is celebrated as one of the essential progenitors of modern horror. His specific style of horror deals in the tension between man’s utter helplessness against the infinite, unfathomable, and malignant cosmos. The Lovecraftian mythos that he created and expanded through a number of short stories and novellas is a world full of potential for expansion and literary exploration.

And yet, reading his actual works and stories reveals him to be a writer of limited range and ability. (Also, he was racist to the point of hyperbole – but that’s another story).

Lovecraft, at his best, was a literary pioneer in thinking about the ways in which the infinitude of time and the cosmos could be plumbed as a source of deep existential horror. He knew well of man’s innate fear of the unknown, the other, and the strange. He took those motifs and manifested them in his writings as malignant cosmic entities, strange sea-peoples, vegetal aliens inhabiting the Arctic plains. These creations were made vast and ancient, impossibly different from common human experience, to drive home the thesis of man’s utter insignificance in the face of the unknown.

Insanity – the breakdown – or absence – of mind – played a large part in establishing the viscerality of the horror. Lovecraft’s characters often lose their sanity when they behold the various horrors of the cosmic menagerie. Lovecraft often uses the adjective “insane” to describe the actions, gestures and designs of his eldritch creations. Descending into insanity is perhaps the most intense emotional and mental response to encountering something with which the mind is incapable of coming to terms. It conveniently signposts the utter alienness of Lovecraft’s horrors, the impossibility of understanding or even apprehending the insane unknown without becoming a part of that insanity.

It is no accident that Azathoth, the primal deity of the Lovecraft mythos and the implied creator of the universe, is described in The Haunter in the Dark as “a blind idiot god”, “encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paw”. Here, Lovecraft implies that mindless, idiotic chaos is inherent in Creation. The Universe is malign in its very nature, and man’s attempts to apprehend it only leads to gibbering insanity.

By the way, the reference to Azathoth being lulled by a flute could be a deliberate reference to the Pythagorean notion that the cosmos was ordered by principles of music (Pythagoras apparently hated the flute).

Lovecraft was also adept at making horrors out of the notion of the other. Tales like The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dunwich Horror feature strange, shambling subhumans with malign intent as antagonists. To the protagonists of these stories (white men of standing), these others were inherently repulsive in a way that defied description. They were dark, queer, described as being regressed from some more advanced state of being. They spoke in barbarous tongues. The ab-human nature of these creatures was synonymous with their inherently inimical intentions.

Such motifs, unfortunately, are very similar to the kinds of narratives often employed to demonize peoples of other races, and Lovecraft’s use of it here to generate a feeling of horror is well in keeping with his well-known racist tendencies. (And man, he was racist as all hell – see this link) It might even be described as writing from a place of intimate familiarity – Lovecraft projecting his own racist disgust into his characters, but directed at fictional fish-races and the like. Which brings me to an uncomfortable point – to enjoy a story like A Shadow over Innsmouth is to surrender yourself into that frame of mind, and accept the notion, however fleetingly, that those who are different are degraded, inhuman, and malign by nature. The scariest thing is the story is so powerful precisely because of how easy it is to slip into that mode.

Ultimately, Lovecraft’s lasting legacy persists because of their imaginative power. He named our fears, gave them form – even if it was of the incorporeal variety. He created a pantheon of gibbering, insane gods – Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, lightly painting them with evocative brush-strokes to hint at their aspects, but nothing more, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. He did the same with books and accounts of fantasy lands and ancient races – the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,  mentioned shudderingly by the protagonists of nearly every story in the compendium. He littered his narratives with evocative locales like the nightmare plains of Leng, or Ib, or of the beings that resided on distant Yuggoth.  These features added up to a compelling mythopoeia of the unknown and the strange, spanning deep time and the furthest reaches of the cosmos. It is a febrile imaginative landscape for readers, and other authors, to spin their own narratives of cosmic terror.

That said, when it came to the craft of the stories, Lovecraft doesn’t pass muster on a multitude of levels. First, of course, is that his prose is florid, over-descriptive, and convoluted, especially when describing the horrors that he creates. It feels as if Lovecraft were pouring out his fears and hatreds in an uncontrollable torrent. As you read more of his stories, you notice, however, that he uses the same descriptors and adjectives in his prose – such as the word “insane” – to describe different manifestations of the same class of horror, story after story.

Most of his stories are variations on the same theme – a WASP, or a group of WASPs, ventures into the unknown and meets cosmic horrors beyond imagination. The difference is in the fluff – the nature and lineage of said horrors, and the ways in which they affect the world. After a while, this pattern starts to get predictable, especially after the nth variation of florid, strangely lyrical half-mad exposition on just how horrible the horror is.

Lovecraft’s dialogue is probably his worst trait, however. He barely used reported speech – most of his stories were first- or third-person recountings of events, rather than ongoing narratives. But when Lovecraft deigns to have a character speak in his stories, it comes out as a rush of verbal diarrhea, long blocks of monologue. Dialogue in a Lovecraftian story serves two purposes: to provide accounts of the horrors, and the vocalizations of characters as they are rendered mad by the horrors.

To Lovecraft, the craft of storytelling were probably superfluous. He was not so much interested in human characters in and of themselves as he was of using them as expository instruments to give shape to the terrors spawned by his febrile imagination. Lovecraft was a screamer from the darkness, the prophet of cosmic indifference. His innate sense of fear and horror, which was probably a fount for his racism, also fueled his stories, and with them, he developed  a new vocabulary for humanity’s deepest fears. Now, modern writers derive inspiration from Lovecraft’s mythos, and spin stories about cosmic terrors arguably better and with more effect than Lovecraft could (see Charles Stross’ Laundry Files for an example). For all his failings, we should give Lovecraft the credit he is due.

Some of the stories I liked better were:

The Whisperer in Darkness: Featuring starfish aliens from Yuggoth, this is one of Lovecraft’s more original efforts, with a strong science fiction ethos. The aliens themselves are also not portrayed as completely evil, but their alienness gives them horrific unfathomability.

The Dreams in the Witch-House: A frenetic, muddled but oddly horrific short story, featuring Nyarlathotep, the “mad faceless god” that “howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players”, as well as the weird hateful Brown Jenkin, a weird human-faced rat familiar of the witch Keziah Mason.

The Shadow over Innsmouth: A classic tale of horror-of-the-other. Disturbing but riveting reading.

At the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft takes a more scientific and lucid approach to the subjects of this story, the vegetal Elder Things that settled on Earth billions of years ago. There is a lot of expository info-dumping on the history and habits of the Elder Things, but it makes for interesting fluff reading. Shoggoths, the terrifying plant-slaves of the Elder Things, make an appearance here, too. Most impressive is the visual image of a vast, continent sized, billion-year-old city on the frozen high plains of Antarctica, surrounded by mountains that rise higher than Everest.

The Thing on the Doorstep: A surprisingly maligned story, probably because it is the least-Lovecraftian of the lot, featuring less cosmic horror (save for oblique references to the mythos) and more human evil. But this story is probably one of the more well-written ones for that reason, as Lovecraft focuses somewhat more on characterisation, dialogue and narrative pacing, and adroitly gives the story an unexpected and shocking moment at the end. (Actually, this is probably my favorite of the lot).

One final note: One thing I was surprised about is how little Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu, featured in the stories, save for the one (somewhat mediocre) story, The Call of Cthulhu. What made Cthulhu stand out amongst all the other horrors that Lovecraft created? My theory is that Cthulhu holds special terror for us because it is the union of cosmic horror and human evil (i.e. the cultist that worship and try to free it) and resides here on Earth, slumbering, subconsciously affecting human history and religion, giving its horror a sense of intimacy and apocalyptic tension.

I give this collection: 3.5 out of 5 Shining Polyhedrons

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