H P Lovercraft is one of those authors that many people have heard of, even more are familiar with the film adaptations (mostly very lose adaptations) of his work but that surprisingly few have actually read any of his books. Lovecraft's work can be described as horror but more often than not it also included elements of fantasy and science fiction which led to his works being considered as a new sub genre of horror know as 'cosmic horror' or alternatively 'weird fiction'. He was fascinated by the idea that the universe is made up of many aspect that are fundamentally incomprehensible to the human mind and that are often intrinsically malign. Although not hugely successful in his lifetime since his death in 1937 his works have gained in importance and following so that now is he considered as Edgar Allen Poe was in the 19th century as one of the greatest influences on the Horror genre. His fans include Stephen King.
'The Shunned House' was supposed to be Lovercraft's first published work but although it was printed in 1928 it was never bound and so only appeared in book form until 1961. At only 48 pages it is a novella but due to its mood and style it serves as a good precursor to many of Lovecraft's later more substantive works and as such is a good starting point for any new readers of his books.
The book is set in the small community of Providence, Rhode Island the place where Lovecraft was born and where he settled near the end of his life. The story centres on the strange history of an old house built in the earliest days of settlement in Providence in the sixteen hundreds. The house now stands empty after many years. Throughout its history many of its unfortunate occupants suffered unexplained ill health, bouts of insanity and early deaths. The building reeks of decay and the whole site seems to have an air of ill health about it. Our narrator a young man with an interest in science and the mysteries of the universe is told about the house by his ageing uncle a local retired physician Dr Whipple who over the years has made it his business to try and trace the history of the strange occurrences and come to some conclusion as to the causes of the perplexing events. The young man soon does some research of his own and uncovers old rumours of vampiric spirits, ancient burial grounds and demonic worship all associated with the house through the ages. On visiting the house he realises that the sense of unease and overpowering foreboding that exist in the building seems to be strongest in the damp mould-riddled cellar and that is where along with his uncle he decides to finally uncover the house's long held secret by staging an all night vigil.
"SCIENTIFIC STUDY AND REFLECTION HAD TAUGHT US THAT THE KNOWN UNIVERSE OF THREE DIMENSIONS EMBRACES THE MEREST FRACTION OF THE WHOLE COSMOS OF SUBSTANCE AND ENERGY."
Lovecraft writes in a very precise detailed style, he explains minute details of the plot and often includes such precise descriptions of locations that lend convincing realism to his tales. In this story has the narrator uncovers more and more of the troubled history of the house and becomes acquainted with the whispered rumours and beliefs that people over the years have used to explain the mysterious deaths you feel as if you are reading a work on non-fiction. Could the events related be true? Has Lovecraft used actual historical events and legend to base his story upon? You could compare his style to an early literary precursor of the techniques that the 'Blair Witch Project' makers used so effectively.
"THERE ARE HORRORS BEYOND HORRORS, AND THIS WAS ONE OF THOSE NUCLEI OF ALL DREAMABLE HIDEOUSNESS WHICH THE COSMOS SAVES TO BLAST AN ACCURSED AND UNHAPPY FEW."
What Lovecraft does best is instil as sense of foreboding and impending doom to the story. There is a creepiness about his writing style, a cynicism and bleakness that subconsciously affects the reader. This style is so distinctive that the description of a book or film as Lovecraftian is now in common use. If you read it alone by the fire on a dark winter's night you might find yourself wondering if that intermittent banging coming from upstairs is just the wind blowing through a drafty window or something much more sinister. The sense of unease that the story permeates does not rely on blood and gore or cheap literary trick such as faces as the windows or disembodied voices, it uses a device far more powerful the readers own primeval fears and vivid imagination. Just as our hero's calm logical approach to solving the mystery of the house is slowly but surely threatened by a deeper less conscious fear of the unexplainable so the reader goes through similar emotions.
The narrative although simple does throw up many thoughts and ideas including particle physics and relativity which were very current at the time it was written. The format of the story reminds of other haunted house horror stories that have been influenced by the Lovecraft style and that followed in more recent years. While reading 'The Shunned House' I was reminded partly by the plot but more so by the atmosphere it induces of the excellent 1970's TV play 'The Stone Tapes' written by Nigel Kneale. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that Kneale was also a fan.
"SOMETHING LIKE FEAR CHILLED ME AS I SAT THERE IN THE SMALL HOURS ALONE"
Overall 'The Shunned House' is an easy read and can easily be finished in one sitting, the documentary type style at the beginning which can be a little slow for some but gives way to a much more tense and extraordinary conclusion and I must admit I was gripped from beginning to end.
'The Shunned House' by H P Lovecraft is available as a free Kindle download at the time of writing this review or as a 48 page paperback priced at £5.25 with free delivery from Amazon.co.uk.
© Mauri 2012