infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z


The Dunwich Horror and Others

by HP Lovecraft

(Arkham House; 433 pages; $27.95.)

Dagon and Other Macabre Takes

by HP Lovecraft

(Arkham House, 1986; 448 pages.)

A double review by William P Simmons

There is no arguing the vast literary influence that Lovecraft exerted over the themes, conventions, and styles of supernatural and science fiction literature. Combining symbols of archetypal supernatural terror (embodiments of mythic, religious, and cross-cultural societal significance) with materialistic concerns, a cynical intellect, and themes invested with philosophical speculation as well as with surface thrills, he (and his readers) sought both escape from, and a better understanding of, the natural world by refuting its scientifically held laws. This was accomplished with the emotional and intellectual tool of fiction, with which Lovecraft imagined that which he couldn't believe in, created what his soul longed for.

Lovecraft's unique themes, distinct approach, and revisement of convention remain influential today. His cosmic motifs and themes, which favored overt cosmicism over the traditional static horrors of the supernaturally-based Gothic tradition, were brought to forceful and convincing life by his nihilistic, uncompromisingly bleak vision of an ignorant species fumbling around in an unknowable cosmos. A universe void of empathy, unconcerned with a humanity when we were lucky, easily able to destory human life when we were noticed. The world, the cosmos according to Lovecraft, lacked the conservative moral postering of "good" vs. "evil" once so often displayed in such representations of the horror genre as the proper Gothic or the Victorian ghost story. There is no moral significance in Lovecraft, and rather than hampering the emotional effects of his frightful visions, this lack of moral postering makes them undeniably more disturbing.

The first in a three-book series from Arkham House, the small press company responsible more than any other for the prestige that Lovecraft enjoys today, The Dunwich Horror and Others brings together the complete weird tales of the Old Gent of Providence, a man whose imagination was as vast as his kindness to his proteges. For the first time these texts are the way the author wanted them, corrected by S. T. Joshi, whose diligent work is based on research of Lovecraft's manuscripts, revisions, and the appearance of earlier tales found in their original publication. This, then, is the ultimate Lovecraft experience, and I envy any among you who are approaching this unique, philosophically profound author for the first time.

While significant textual revisions may not be detected in too many instances, most of the changes appearing to be in minor details, even the preservation of a thought, an image, or a stylistic approach is appreciated by readers who want to see, to think, to feel as Lovecraft intended when compsing these flights from the mundane. Including some of his best work in the field, and chosen by August Dereleth for that very reason, this volume includes "The Colour out of Space," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Outsider," and "The Whisperer in Darkness" besides the influential title story which, despite many critcs' arguments to the contrary, I find to be much more than a formula piece written for the audience of Weird Tales. Far from a simple piece of pulp escapism, "The Dunwich Horror" is a synthetic mingling of many of Lovecraft's thematic interests, and as such, offers a unique, chilling look at the author's culminating philosophical scope while highlighting such themes as human-alien breeding, the interconnectedness of other realms and our own, the problems of perception, and, of course, his developing Cthulhu Mythos.

Changing the face of fantastic fiction in the Twentieth century by replacing a tired emphasis on physical death and moralistic terror by emphasizing instead the terrors and awe possible only when confronting the sublime unkown, Lovecraft brought fantasy to an unsurpassed level of maturity, particularly by his insistance on employing the devices of modern scientific thought and mechanicalism as means to help achieve his horrid effects -- using them, in fact, as components of his dark aesthetic -- rather than depending on the supernatural to refute materialistic culture and thought (such as his contemporary Machen).

Whereas much dark and fantastic fiction of the time did little than shock with effect while reaffirming a pre-planned framework of conservative religious and moral values, Lovecraft avoided such completely. His work suggests instead awesome alien powers, unknown vistas of space and time, and broken scientific myths whose cold sense of a bleak, black existence becomes a new mythology.

Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, another volume of this series, publishes in chronological order more of Lovecraft's scientifically charged stories, including "Supernatural Fiction in Literature". This essay is a land-mark discourse on the historical origins, aesthetic conventions, and psychological/artistic importance and effects of the supernatural in fiction. Included are such efforts as "The Tomb," "Dagon," "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn," "From Beyond," and others which illustrate Lovecraft's maturing themes and growing fixations as he developed as a thinker and artist. Imbuing the weird tale with stark visions of cosmic alienation, a bulk of his work focuses on 'the outsider' both metaphorically and literally. This makes Lovecraft an early precursor to the intellectual existentalists whose philosophies would characterize modern literature for over a decade after the second great war.

Several of Lovecraft's motiffs may be followed in these volumes, from the terror and dangers of cultural degeneracy through inbreeding to the horror of mating with alien creatures; from science as a gateway to magic and thought as a gateway to dreams; from his emphasis of isolated, wise if withdrawn outsiders -- professors, professional men, and loners -- alienated from their society and the normally held laws of space and time. When confronted by Ancient Ones and their own fears and inadequacies, mankind is depicted as an insignificant insect in the black cosmic waters of infinity, unable to comprehend let alone defy alien gods and beings from other realities. Going even further, Lovecraft suggests that we are unable to even properly perceive or interpret true reality.

Depending on his usual authoratative style to make eldrich wonders appear not only believable but sinisterly probable, the stories reprinted here are marvels of aesthetic construction and culmulative emotional effect. At his best, Lovecraft examined the insignificance of an insignificant human species defenseless against the amoral, unknowable powers of an existence which we had very little knowledge of. There is no God in Lovecraft's universe, nor is there purpose to our sufferings, struggles, and petty triumphs.

Of even further interest in these volumes is the evolution of Lovecraft's different "phases" of creativity, wherein he preferred different subject matter and choices of approach to the terrible and awesome, and his wide choice of interests. The dedicated reader can notice without difficulty in several of these stories related subjects and ideas that constitute varying phases in his developing thoughts and approach. First, there are traditional supernatural stories written in the Gothic tradition and inspired by Poe, including "The Tomb," "The Picture in the House," "In the Vault," and "Pickman's Model." These all belong to an older horror aesthetic. Besides these are pieces of whimsey and mythology, employing classical Roman/Egyptian/Eastern sources and inspiration: "The Tree" and "Celephais," "Hypnos," etc. Also included are "The White Ship," "The Cats of Ulthar," and "The strange High House in the Mist," some of his Dunsany inspired Dream Tales, alongside more personal fantasies like "The Outsider" and the inventive terrors of "The Music of Erich Zann." The New York stories ("The Terrible Old Man," "The Horror at Red Hook," and "He") are joined by such horrific science fiction spectacles like "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" and From Beyond" and such pulpish work-for-hire fare as "Herbert West: Re-Animator" are overshadowed by such mythos pieces as "The Haunter of the Dark," "The Call of the Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Shadow Out of Time."

Lovecraft's primary literary themes (as well as the beliefs informing them) crafted/discovered poetic borderlands between the past and the future. The present is often the center of his attention, albeit a present formed by the eldritch malignity of the past (often pasts outside of human conceptions of time or space), emphasizing issues which are themselves timeless, belonging to entities or celestial forces outside of man's finite understanding or ability to comprehend.

An aesthetic feeling of vastness exists in his universe, complemented by reinforced suggestions of our frailness when compared to the hugeness of the universe and our inability to even properly conceive of "truth." The original stories in these collections, artifacts on which Lovecraft's lasting worth is based, are more than entertainment, more than chilling stories of escape; these stories are, at their best, ways of looking deeper into the reality of the imagination, the psyche, and the power of the written word to better understand our own thoughts. Perhaps by doing so, we may confront those demons that come from within but are best faced as symbols in literature. Lovecraft used fiction to face several of his own insecurities, and his work is available in these carefully published, attractive hard-covers for us to do the same.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:


Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
sf@infinityplus.co.uk

support this site - buy books through these links:
amazon.com (US) | amazon.co.uk (UK)