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Unspeakable rites and nameless orgies
on 2 September 2008
This is a collective review for "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Loved Dead", volumes 1 and 2 of Lovecraft's collected short stories. "The Whisperer in Darkness" comprises his own work, including some very early stories; "The Loved Dead" is made up of collaborative and ghost-written ventures (including one under Houdini's name), in which Lovecraft developed other writers' ideas and to a greater or lesser extent made them his own.
My spur to exploring Lovecraft at last, years after I first heard of him, was the discovery that Michel Houellebecq was a fan. (To be honest, he's probably a writer that it's easier to love in translation, but more of that later.) For Houellebecq the appeal, apparently, lies in Lovecraft's presentation of a hostile or indifferent universe, of immense age and size, in which humankind is a footnote and the individual human being even more insignificant. Humankind is preyed upon by huge malevolent forces, either powerful extraterrestrials or cruel gods (sometimes it is unclear which they are), that do so with as little compunction as homo sapiens preys upon the animals. Human civilisation and morality are a thin covering for the universe's hostility or indifference and an abiding motif is the portal that allows malevolent forces through that crust. In "The Whisperer in Darkness" Lovecraft generally locates that portal within his native New England; in "The Loved Dead" the locations vary more widely, from the prairies of the American West to the Pyramids of Egypt, as the presence of collaborators causes Lovecraft to diverge from his usual sources of inspiration.
There are some genuinely neck-prickling moments in here and some stories that make one uncomfortable when read late at night - "At the Mountains of Madness", for instance, which concludes "The Whisperer in Darkness", or "The Night Ocean", which concludes "The Loved Dead". There are also, however, serious weaknesses. The relative weight you give to these will depend on your personal taste, just as my marking of these volumes in terms of stars awarded reflects mine: make up your own mind.
The first weakness is repetitiveness. Perhaps unfair in that these were written as free-standing stories rather than as things to be read at a sitting; however, there does come a point at which one begins to count the moments until one of Lovecraft's pantheon of Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath and so forth rears his or her tentacled head, someone brandishes a manuscript of the accursed "Necronomicon" or talks of the nightmare city of Leng, and so on.
A more major caveat, I think, is the style, and here we return to him being easier to love in translation. Lovecraft, it's clear from the first volume, couldn't or wouldn't write dialogue; the collaborative works in "The Loved Dead" offer more attempts, but more common is the long monologue or the lavish use of free indirect speech. This does lead to a certain monotony of tone. This is exacerbated by the nature of that tone: we hear a lot about nameless rites, unspeakable orgies, indescribable horrors and so forth.
Related to this is a third weakness: the question of whether he can deliver the horror when needed, after the build-up. In some of the early works the conclusion is pretty weak - we have long creepy descriptions of mounting horror, then a quick concluding paragraph that tells us the narrator then saw the crowning horror but has been driven mad by it, or has decided to spare the world the full details - a long build-up to a damp squib ending. Perhaps this is implicit in Lovecraft's scenarios - when you build up towards the collapse of the world as humankind sees it and the unleashing of forces that will bring death and destruction to everything, rendering that in words (and, obeying normal conventions about the use of the past tense in narrative, in retrospect) is almost bound to be unconvincing. Better are the stories that keep something in reserve. In particular, "The Night Ocean" perhaps comes closest to Houellebecq's template. A painter rents a cottage by the sea and spends long hours walking along the shore; at first he enjoys it but as the summer ends and the weather turns hostile the alien nature of the ocean begins to oppress him, standing as it does for inanimate, indifferent matter that was here millions of years before him and would be unchanged by his extinction; meanwhile something unidentified is possibly preying on swimmers and at the end of the story the narrator has seen something a little like a man swimming (too well) in a stormy sea, carrying something over its shoulder. With that the story ends: a nicely-paced, genuinely chilling miniature that gets across the indifference to homo sapiens of a huge, godless universe, without any need for the usual tentacle-headed creatures and unpronounceable gods whose names are log-jams of consonants and random apostrophes.
Each volume has something to offer: some moments of genuine creepiness, some unintentional comedy and fuel for parody, and some moments where you realise where a band or song got its name. Whether these outweigh the undoubted longueurs is one for personal taste. Although I have quite a tolerance for late 19th / early 20th century pulp, I think that this is likely to be my lot with Lovecraft; but I don't doubt that, to use the time-honoured expression, people who like this sort of thing will find it the sort of thing they like. "The Loved Dead" is for completists only, containing as it does collaborations of wildly varying quality (whatever Lovecraft was paid for revising tosh like "Poetry and the Gods", it can't have been enough). Start with "The Whisperer in Darkness": Lovecraft fans will find some core material in the development of his mythology, and casual readers will get the gist of his vision and can decide whether they want to read more. Over to you...