* Prices may differ from that shown
I bought all 3 omnibuses from this printing way back in the late 90s. Over the years I have replaced them each at least once as they have been instrumental in the development of my deep admiration for American horror author H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft defined the genre known as cosmic horror. In this genre it is the very nature of the universe that is terrifying, and it is only by the limitation of our own minds and senses that we are able to survive.
The otherworldly antagonists in Lovecraft's stories aren't the usual humanity-obsessed devils, vamps and spectres but utterly alien cosmic beings that consider humanity as we would a nest of woodlice. Humanity is inconsequential in the freezing vastness of the cosmos and is ill-equipped to deal with the horrors that populate the weird spaces of the universe.
As a result of this one of the recurring themes in Lovecraft's work is the idea of insanity. Many of the narrator characters the stories are told from are either in an insane asylum, heavily sedated or on the verge of suicide.
'At the Mountains of Madness' is the first story. It is quite long but sets the reader up for the pace of Lovecraft's storytelling which, admittedly, becomes predictable if you read a lot of his work.
An academic expedition to the Antarctic reveals some unknown horrors beneath the ice which are sanity-blasting in their implications regarding the history of our planet.
If this sounds familiar it may be because the story influenced John Carpenter when he directed horror classic 'The Thing'. Lovecraft's influence can be found in many modern popular works including stories by Stephen King, Ghostbusters and the stories of Conan (written by a friend of Lovecraft's).
Other horror themes are explored, such as body-horror or possession in 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.' and some slight twists on old horror tropes like witches in 'Dreams in the Witch-House'.
Some of the other stories include a representation of Lovecraft embarking on several dreamlike adventures in strange lands. These are very popular with some readers and have evoked comparisons to classical Greek literature, but as I am not a fan of these I found these a little self-indulgent. Lovecraft was known for having vivid and terrible dreams throughout his life, and the imagery can be quite florid, however I'd dispute them having any sort of connection with the horror genre.
Reading Lovecraft can be difficult. He died in 1937 so his writing often uses words and phrases that have fallen out of use - 'cyclopean' being a favourite of his. When I first began reading Lovecraft I required a dictionary, but in the long run he has been a massive positive influence on my own vocabulary.
Given the era he lived in there are quite a few blatantly racist remarks and words that modern readers will be uncomfortable with. Many of his other works deal with themes of interbreeding and genetic degradation and it is no stretch to see what Lovecraft was alluding to.
Despite the dark motives powering him I would recommend Lovecraft alongside any other author. It is only in recent years that he has begun to receive credit for the huge influence he has been on contemporary authors and other creative types.
HP Lovecraft (1890-1937) is probably the most influential horror writer of the first half of the 20th century, although he wasn't well known during his lifetime. This is the first time I've sat down to read his work in large doses. This anthology contains three novellas and four shorter stories.
Lovecraft is best known for creating the Cthulhu Mythos, an elaborate cosmology which has been expanded since his death by other writers, game developers etc. The gist is that the universe is full of profoundly weird, unbelievably ancient, apocalyptically scary entities which need to be avoided at all costs. Lovecraft's work is pretty dark, with man but a tiny, insignificant speck in a cosmos teeming with vile creatures, and anyone who manages to catch a glimpse of the hidden realities that underpin our world is likely to end up incurably insane.
I'd always assumed that Lovecraft would be imaginative but stodgy. I actually enjoyed his writing more than I expected to. His style is perhaps a bit too verbose (and his vocabulary doesn't seem that great), but his prose is no clunkier than that of other pulp writers from the 20s and 30s. He rarely describes his creatures in any detail. Instead we are told that entities are vague, too hideous to comprehend, or (particularly convenient) 'indescribable'. But this works in the stories' favour, as everyone will imagine something slightly different.
Lovecraft's also famous for throwing in unexplained references to other fictional things, most famously the made-up book The Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I rather like these references. They spark the imagination in the same way as Star Wars did when I was a kid - there's a whole universe of stories out there, of which we're only seeing a few. This is probably why Lovecraft's fictions have lent themselves so well to roleplaying games.
Criticisms are that he isn't very good at describing characters' feelings, and there's hardly any dialogue in his stories. He also stays away from female characters generally, unless they're witches; and some of his racial politics are supremely dodgy.
'At The Mountains of Madness' is the first novella here. An Antarctic expedition gets more than it bargained for when it uncovers unspeakably vast new mountain ranges; a gigantic, prehistoric city built by man's precursors on earth; and some... other things. The sense of scale in the story is quite unsettling, even if the descriptions are typically vague. The discoveries made by the scientists do have a touch of the uncanny about them, as they come to realise (inevitably) that mankind ain't so important after all.
Some of the creepy stuff at the beginning of the story is reminiscent of John Carpenter's film of The Thing. This is an impressive story, making good use of the idea that shocking things may yet await discovery in our world. It's also pleasantly open-ended. The main weakness is that the alien noise heard by the scientists is more silly than scary.
'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' is also very good - probably the best of the longer stories. A young man, Ward, investigates the activities of his ancestor, a warlock named Joseph Curwen. Things gradually turn nasty as it seems that Curwen isn't as dead as he should be. There are two parts to this story - there's a description of the life of Curwen, the hideous necromancer; and then there's the slow degradation of Ward himself as he delves deeper and deeper into things that man was not meant to know.
Both parts are really creepy. The descriptions of exactly what happens are kept deliberately ambiguous, and are all the more effective for it. Lovecraft is fond of powerfully unpleasant smells, of loud banging noises, or things that set dogs howling. The story is set in New England, Lovecraft's usual territory, and has the recent past intruding in horrible fashion on the present. There's a real nastiness to it, as well. All Ward wants is knowledge, but the cost is incredibly high. Perhaps the main set-piece is a little disappointing, as someone explores an underground laboratory complex, but overall the story is excellent.
'Dreams in the Witch House' is a shorter story (about 50 pages) and similar to Charles Dexter Ward. It's probably the scariest of all the stories here. A young mathematician is haunted in his dreams by a 17th century witch and her hideous familiar, a rat-like creature called Brown Jenkin. A potent combination of his mathematics and her magic seems to be on the verge of bringing about some kind of apocalyptic catastrophe on a cosmic scale...
The apocalyptic stuff doesn't really work. But the idea of a man being sucked into something huge by forces beyond his comprehension (again!) is well handled, but it feels a bit extraneous to the rather creepy rest of the story. What's effective is the small-scale spine-tingling stuff, like coming to realise that your hideous dreams are really happening, or the sound of scratching behind the walls of your bedroom. The loathsome Brown Jenkin is an impressively horrible creation that's really stuck with me. Sadly, I have yet to dream of him.
The other stories aren't so impressive. They're a sequence of stories about Randolph Carter, probably a version of the author himself, and his adventures in a dream-world. The first, 'The Statement of Randolph Carter', an early work, is a short and predictable horror tale. But then we're launched into 'The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath', the final novella. Carter moves through a magical landscape in search of some Elder Gods, who he hopes will grant his wish to be allowed to visit a dream city that he thinks looks quite nice...
This is imaginative, I'll give it that. But really, I have no stake in the actions of ghouls, moonbeasts, night-gaunts and so on; by setting the story in Carter's dreams, Lovecraft doesn't give us any reason to care. This is perhaps the disadvantage of his vagueness about describing things: he goes on and on about 'the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep', but we've only his word for it that this is a bad thing. Ultimately this isn't a satisfying story, and it certainly isn't scary.
'The Silver Key' is a kind of sequel, as the ageing Carter tries to return to the dreamlands of his youth. It's a bit inconsequential, but has a nice open ending. Unfortunately, there's another sequel, 'Through the Gates of the Silver Key'. This was co-written by someone called E Hoffmann Price, a correspondent of Lovecraft's, and has the feel of fan fiction about it. It's pretentious and rather clumsy, and it's hard to remember much about it.
For the most part, I was impressed with Lovecraft, and have gone on to read a lot more. He combines silliness and the uncanny, and for all his faults, is worth a go. He occasionally made my spine tingle, which is all one needs in a horror author. This edition, with an introduction by Lovecraft's friend and colleague August Derleth, is available on amazon for less than £5.
I am a coward when it comes to anything spooky or suspenseful; even the adverts for horror films leave me quivering in my chair, my heart pounding and my hands clasped firmly over my eyes. I have an overactive imagination unfettered by my normally extremely sensible, cynical and logical brain and my parents and husband have many amusing and embarrassing stories concerning this aspect of my personality (nope, not sharing them today!). So the decision to read and subsequently review a collection of stories by Lovecraft; an author famous for his chilling, supernatural and futuristic stories, seems a strange one. For some strange reason, I often feel the need to regularly indulge and feed my imagination with spooky and creepy stories (although ONLY in the daylight-I learned my lesson there!) and Lovecraft is the one author who never fails to provide me with just the right mix of creepy, spine-chilling and down right disturbing thrills.
***OK, so who is Lovecraft?***
There is no shortage of information on H.P. Lovecraft on the internet; Wikipedia has an enormous article covering his life and his books, describing him as the most influential horror writer of the 20th century. His subjects range from ancient alien unknown forces to eldritch horrors lurking on the Eastern seaboard of the USA and humans meddling with what they most certainly shouldnt. His stories are bizarre, strange tales of the type that would be considered ludicrous were it not for his superior skill in building up tension and his ingenious talent of being able to stimulate those deep personal primitive fears. Many times I have considered his stories and thought WHAT? How was I ever convinced by that?. But thats just the thing, in that moment, reading those pages, nothing has ever seemed quite so real or downright terrifying. For those who expect gore and long descriptions of faces being melted off or spines being ripped out and turned into Christmas decorations, look somewhere else. These stories play on your deepest, darkest fears, in such a subtle way that you almost dont realise that you are being unsettled until you put the book down and are left with this unshakable, disturbing feeling that some things are just not right in the world.
A confession: unable to sleep one night I picked up another Lovecraft book and read a few pages, intending merely to finish the chapter. Two hours later I was in such a state of disturbed terror in the darkened room that I felt I couldnt move, felt I couldnt sleep with the book in the house and was seconds from throwing it out the window just to settle my nerves. Never before or since has a book had such a profound influence on me, so it was with trepidation that I started this one, especially as the reviews on the back of the book say things like:
Go thou to H.P Lovecraft and shudder
Horror against which there is neither defence nor refuge
These tales of horror are in the true gothic tradition full of hinted terrors and unholy stenches
You get just seven of Lovecrafts finest stories in this 552 page book, indicating that they are all closer to novelettes than mere short stories. They are all deliciously wordy slow-burners, but enough of the praise .lets get to the stories.
*At the Mountains of Madness*
Written as if by the sole (sane) survivor of a polar expedition, it reveals the previously hidden fate of the rest of his team in the weird artic wilderness surrounding the poles. Starting with the technical and scientific details of the trip it is most unprepossessing, Lovecraft slowly dropping in those extra details that build the tension, the veiled references to an insane colleague, the outright warnings against visiting those regions and the palpable terror of the author. What did they find in those strange snow-covered mountains and what lurks in those secret underground caverns? What did Danforth see that turned his brain to jelly? These questions pull you through the pages of descriptive detail that are characteristic of Lovecraft, whilst his skill as a story teller prevents you from sniggering with incredulity as you reach the penultimate pages where all is revealed.
*The Case of Charles Dexter Ward*
Beginning at the end, with the eponymous hero behaving strangely, incarcerated in the local asylum and ultimately disappearing under strange circumstances, we follow the events that led him there through the perspective of a later historian/psychologist, examining his case through the evidence left behind. The story is revealed in pieces, in part through purported examinations of the documentation left behind and in part through the previous investigations of his father and the family physician, trying to find out why Charles had gone a bit crazy. The revelation that Charles Ward was led to his doom by his investigations into his family history is an interesting approach and worth bearing in mind for all of you genealogists!
*The Dreams in the Witch House*
A student interested in the mysterious disappearance of a witch in the frankly creepy town of Arkham, moves into her old house to investigate the phenomena which so many have reported. What is that pattering sound and why is he having the most terrible dreams? Why has his health declined so quickly and what is lurking behind that panel in the attic? Whilst we are shrieking Get out, you fool, get out!, he continues his investigations but where will it all end? This is the scariest of all the stories in this volume and although overwhelmed with literary, scientific and arcane little titbits, this does not attract from that real sense of total creeping horror that this story imparts. A real malign presence is there throughout the story, almost leaching out to touch the reader as you turn the pages, this is not one I will be reading again in a hurry.
*The Statement of Randolph Carter*
This short little story (merely seven pages long), is a strange and disturbing piece. Written, as it suggests, in the form of a formal statement it describes the events surrounding the disappearance of Carters friend Warren, who went on an expedition with Carter into one of the tombs in a swamp ridden graveyard. Only Warren entered the tomb, keeping in touch with Carter by means of a transmitter so we know only what Carter knows of Warrens disappearance. And what he saw and heard is enough to send the chills up and down your spine, despite the brevity of this story.
*The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath*
Another Randolph Carter story, this time following his dream into a strange unknown land inhabited by Zoogs and Atal, talking cats and Dholes. As the title suggests he is searching for the Older Ones who live on Unknown Kadath and on his travels he passes weird alien, fantastical landscapes and people with all the strange dream like qualities that make this story so bizarre. I have to say I skimmed a great deal of this, as not being a great fan of fantasy stories I found it unappealing and uninteresting, which greatly disappointed me. There was no creeping horror, no tension and I found it hard to get into it at all.
*The Silver Key*
Yet another Randolph Carter story, this time dealing with the loss of his talent for dreaming. On discovery of a strange silver key in the attic his dreams return, with an intensity that blends reality with fantasy not to the extent of the previous story instead he takes the path back into his past. This is a much more readable story in my opinion and whilst lacking the Lovecraft horror, it is a gentle, thought-provoking and unsettling story instead.
*Through the Gates of the Silver Key*
After rehashing some of the end of the last story, we get to see the consequences of his discovery of the silver key, get more information on his life and strange incidents that occurred in it and the battle of his heirs to get their hands on his estate after his strange disappearance. There is a little more of the strange alien lands that we visited in the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, finishing up with an interesting and unexpected conclusion.
I have to say that the first four stories promised and delivered everything that I have come to expect from Lovecraft, a thoroughly disturbing and unsettling experience. However, the last three stories I found could not really be described as horror in even the loosest sense of the word and were more akin to the sci-fi/fantasy stories that my husband is so enamoured of. These were certainly much less to my taste and it is unlikely that I will read them again, even though I will return regularly to the first four. If you want the full benefit of the Lovecraft scare it is better to seek out another collection of stories, but if you are interested in seeing the wider scope of Lovecrafts talents, then this collection is for you.
This book is part of a three volume series:
Part 2- Dagon and Other Macabre Tales
Part 3- The Haunter of the Dark
***Price and ISBN***
RRP is £6.99.
Amazon have it for £5.49 and Marketplace offers start at £2.59