Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tales, by H.P. Lovecraft

Book review from The Movie Snob

Tales, by H.P. Lovecraft (The Library of America 2005). I have long been curious about the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who lived from 1890 to 1937 and was apparently a successful writer of "weird tales." I became aware of his work in my youth thanks to the game Dungeons & Dragons. One of the several handbooks involved in that game was called Deities and Demigods, and it presented mythological figures not only from standard sources such as Greek, Norse, and even Egyptian mythology, but also from modern authors such as Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber. But the one that most captured my attention was the "Cthulhu Mythos," based on Lovecraft's work. The gist seemed to be that there was a pantheon of immensely powerful, hideous, and evil beings that existed somewhere--on Earth? deep underground? in another dimension?--in a sort of hibernational state. Obscure and degraded human cults retained a vestigial knowledge of these ancient terrors, worshipped them, and tried to revive them to wreak their havoc on poor humanity. Cthulhu himself was some sort of immense octopus-headed dragonlike creature, and even to gaze upon him or the other abominations was to court full-blown insanity. Pretty impressive stuff.

But the 800 pages of tales collected here generally left me cold. It's pretty much the same thing over and over again. An intelligent man (women are virtually nonexistent in these stories) dabbles in forbidden lore or gets sucked into learning the black arts, and his lust for knowledge threatens to unleash a cataclysm of evil on the whole human race. Or an explorer discovers traces of an incredibly ancient and alien civilization that existed on earth long before the dawn of man. Lovecraft is amazingly inarticulate when he tries to describe the horrible things these poor guys encounter. For example: "The Thing cannot be described--there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order." Well, okay--so Cthulhu is scary, then? And he uses the adjective "Cyclopean" in almost every single story. (Was Lovecraft's middle name Polyphemus? I wondered.) And to put the icing on the cake, he comes off as racist, especially in the earlier stories, and sure enough the "chronology" in the back of the book reveals that as a teenager he once wrote a poem decrying abolition, based on the works of some white supremacist. I really cannot recommend this book; only a single story, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," struck me as even slightly above average.


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