I first read Lovecraft when I was eight years old, where I learned exciting new words like gibbous, eldritch and tentacles. This morning, upon rereading The Call of Cthulhu, I discovered another new word: vigintillion. As in, it happened a vigintillion years ago. I’m always learning!
Lovecraft has made an indelible mark on popular culture. He is also a controversial figure. If you don’t know why and are interested, Googling Lovecraft WFA is a good place to start. Deconstructing Lovecraft has become a popular pastime nowadays. Victor LaValle wrote a short novel called The Ballad of Black Tom, based on the Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook. Matt Ruff wrote a novel called Lovecraft Country. Both books are worth reading.
There’s no question that Lovecraft was a groundbreaking science fiction writer. The names of his entities are jaw-breakers (Nyarlathotep! Cthulhu!), but he avoids science fiction jargon like vidscreen and medbot and most of his stories take place on Earth. Some of his best works – The Color out of Space and At the Mountains of Madness come to mind – are grounded in the real world.
On the flip side, Lovecraft’s writing style is overly ornate and wordy. His stories contain almost no dialogue. I never found his horror fiction scary because I never connected with his characters, who have nothing going on below the waist and are seemingly always teetering on the brink of madness. At his worst, Lovecraft is prone to hyperbole; his unimaginable horrors are pretty imaginable.
I reread the three stories for the assignment this morning. Pickman’s Model was my favorite of the trio. This is a story with a creepy vibe and an interesting setting. I like the fact that Lovecraft mentions artists of that time period; Pickman’s final painting is straight out of Goya. The final twist isn’t much of a twist, but it’s decently done.
Pickman’s Model also illustrates one of the themes that runs through Lovecraft’s work: fear of the other. Lovecraft is very specific about who the other is; besides monsters with incomprehensible names, he seems to believe that human evil has its origins in poor genetics based along racial lines. This is a staple of the eugenics movement. Although most people think Nazi Germany when they hear eugenics, it is worth noting that a number of states in this country used to have forced sterilization programs.
The Outsider encapsulates and internalizes Fear of the Other. This is the short story one is most likely to encounter in horror anthologies that don’t specialize in Lovecraft. It is short, and although overly wordy, has a nice twist ending that may seem commonplace to readers of today. I learned another new word in this story: nepenthe!
The Call of Cthulhu is a mess. Bloated and overlong, it reads like it’s been cut and pasted together. Cthulhu is powerful enough to destroy worlds but is foiled when a steam yacht rams him. I had difficulty reading this all the way through. It is ironic that Cthulhu is the monster most people remember Lovecraft for, when he wrote much better stories.
A final note: Lovecraft corresponded with many people during the course of his life, so his personal views are no secret. Although he was not the only speculative fiction author of those times to hold problematic views, Lovecraft’s attitudes informed his fiction. I wasn’t sure if I should include this in my review. Over the years I have read and enjoyed many of Lovecraft’s stories and when I learned of his personal beliefs it made me stop and reassess his works, which I believe is a good thing. I think we as writers can learn things from Lovecraft, but at this point I do have difficulty separating the writer from the person. For better or worse, this review reflects that.