Friday, 20 March 2015


I am now so incredibly old that I feel like it may have been over 20 years ago that I first heard of HP Lovecraft. I was an enthusiastically vicarious enjoyer of computer games – my parents seemed to have rather savvily realised that I was basically just as happy reading about them as actually playing them – and I think I probably read about the 1993 game Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet in some games magazine or other, and you know, the name stuck, a bit – who was this Cthulu? And why was he calling? 

Two decades later, I finally read some of his work after seeing the hipster theatre smash Pomona – which has some explicit, if arguably not very Lovecraftian nods to Lovecraft – having got home and loudly said 'I would quite like to read some Lovecraft' to my wife, who miraculously pulled out an unread copy of Penguin's 'The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Tales'.

For whatever reason, after reading that that I decided to read every single extant, finished piece of adult fiction he ever wrote, which is arguably a pretty weird thing to do given that I thought some of it was pish, but given the slenderness of his body of work I figured I might as well and that it's done now and I can move on.

I have decided to write a little blog summarising things that I have learned, and to both mark and draw a line under this episode in my life. I thank you.

That cat could write!
'The Shadow Over Innsbrook', 'The Colour Out of Space' and 'The Whisperer in Darkness' are the best horror stories, maaaaaaaybe even the best short stories that I have ever read. This despite 'The Shadow' being about, like, fishmen, 'The Colour…' not even much actually happening, and 'The Whisperer' being one of those stories where everyone is so inept at self-preservation that you're holding back a burning desire to have 'a word'. But they are magnificent, I think to a large extent works of psychogeography, reclaiming New England as a sort of liminal hinterland where supernatural and science fiction are blurred and where Lovecraft uses America's age almost virtuosically – because a decaying two-centuries-old colonial town or city isn't something we have in Britain, because we have no real sense that there were things here before us, whereas in America you absolutely know that. I guess ultimately Lovecraft's whole 'thing' is rooted in mankind's insignificance/transience and the new world – which was 100 years newer back then – is a better illustrative model for our temporal insignificance than, I dunno, Egypt. Or York. Also he could also write about trees very well. And 'The Shadow Over Innsbrook' has a really good chase scene. 

Except not about dreams!

Some of his writing is inescapably pish, and it was an occasionally slightly masochistic experience reading through multiple Penguin collections of his work as it was kind of the same deal each time - the really good stuff at the end (if he'd lived another ten years etc…) the early, pre-Cthulu Mythos stuff is a bit more like conventional horror but largely decent. And then dear me: sort of a third to halfway through depending on the book, there are these staggeringly flouncy stories about posh men having florid adventures in the sort of ridiculous fantasy lands that make Tolkien's Middle Earth look like something out of Kes. Apparently it was all written under the influence of some guy called Lord Dunsany, who was presumably a total arsehole. The only alright one is The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. which is so mental that it sort of carries it off, partly because it was written at the point where his writing was transitioning to sci-fi and just generally getting a lot better, partly because at points he appeared to be taking the piss quite heavily (there is an awful lot about heroic armies of cats).

Everyone – EVERYONE – is always like 'HP Lovecraft was a massive racist', which is at the very least one of my excuses for not bothering with his letters etc. Is his fiction writing racist? Er, I mean, kind of, I wouldn't so much say he was explicitly pro-white as explicitly anti everyone else. He talks about 'degenerate negroes' and in the occasional vision of the future, the earth is always ruled by an impossibly cruel etc Asian empire. But he doesn't have many bad guys of colour, and does have some minor good guys of colour – I'm sure he was really very racist as a person, but his work is at the very least not so racist that it's a problem (it's interesting, by the by, that we demand fairly stringent moral standards from living artists - is there a maximum we would tolerate from a dead person, provided they hadn't left a Hitler-style legacy of grief?).

I'll tell you who might be aggrieved, mind: Eskimos. Having lived in Canada back when Canadians were still nice I know that's not a very PC word, but I use it because it's amusing the Lovecraft insists on calling the Inuit peoples 'Esquimaux', an archaic French spelling. There is something funny about this, but even funnier how they crop up very occasionally as a sort of byword for pure, prehistorical evil and apocalyptic cults. He basically seems to think that they were the most evil bastards on the entire planet. I would think literally the only reason for this is that they live in the sort of desolate places that Lovecraft liked to imagine to be concealing relics of alien civilisations, but still, the notion that the worst people on the entire planet are Eskimos is a pretty chucklesome trope.

History's greatest footnote
In the form you are reading it, this is the worst point ever, though I will update it into brilliance one day, but in 'The Thing On the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories' (my copy is packed away at the moment due to house move gubbins), editor ST Joshie has made a footnote in the story 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' to say that the birthday of one of the characters in it is the same as one of Lovecraft's friends, only Lovecraft was wrong about his friend's birthday... this FURTHER links to a note about an entire paper/essay called something like '[Friend X's birthday] and why HP Lovecraft was wrong about the date'. This is delightful, in that a) why would the date of his friend's birthday be interesting enough to Lovecraft to work into a story? b) while I have no idea as to its length, how in hells is it possible that there was enough mileage in this misapprehension for somebody to write an entire essay? I'm sure there's a really boring answer to both of these things, which is why I fully intend to never find out.

Sci-fi poetry
Despite his sci-fi stuff being his best stuff, I can't really bring myself to read his sonnets cycle 'Fungi from Yuggoth' (srsly) but I'm in principle pretty happy about its existence.

Errrrrr, so there you go, probably I should have done something terribly clever and written this up in the style of a Lovecraft story but whatever. I have completed Lovecraft, this was my book report.

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