Three stories from H.P. Lovecraft: Pickman’s Model, The Outsider and The Call of Cthulhu

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.

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The Color Out of Space

The Color Out of Space is an okay remake of the Lovecraft novelette of the same name. Apparently it is the third such remake. I saw one of them (The Curse) in the movies back in 1987 and recall that it starred Wil Wheaton and nothing else. Since this is a German remake, it takes place in Germany.

The framing story concerns John Davis, an American trying to find his missing father, who has vanished in Germany. He meets a man who knew his dad during the Second World War, and that man tells him a crazy story. I’m assuming the only reason John sticks around to the end is because he doesn’t know much German, although his knowledge of the language seems to fluctuate throughout the movie.

The man tells of a meteor crashing in a valley. Months later the crops are enormous, but bad; the trees seem to move, even though there’s no wind; and the family of farmers who live there succumb to an unknown illness. Something’s wrong with the water, and that something lives in the well.

The Color out of Space is filmed in black-and-white. The titular color of the title is violet. The filmmakers make a number of changes to the original story, which is fine since there’s no way the novelette can sustain a ninety minute movie. Whether those changes work is another matter. Lovecraft’s story is about ecological havoc, and the movie works best when it sticks to that theme.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the new ending of The Color Out of Space at all. I can’t say why, because spoilers. I’m not sure why I didn’t like this movie. It’s a serviceable remake, and maybe that’s the problem. When Lovecraft published his story in 1927, the concept of ecological devastation was groundbreaking, but there’s been about a million stories on the subject since then.

If you’re a Lovecraft fan, The Color Out of Space is worth a look; if not, I’d skip it.