Thoughts on Lovecraft

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of the Horror and the Macabre

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are well-known, but not frequently read. I personally had only read a few before I went through the Bloodcurdling Tales short story collection last month. Given that, I’m more interested in discussing the stories than giving them a formal review.

So, in brief: This is a collection of classic horror stories that often manage to be atmospheric and creepy. They seem clichéd, though, with flowery prose and predictable last-paragraph twists. As with many classics, the aspects that made it influential can be found everywhere now, and the flaws (as well as the things that simply didn’t age well) have been left behind in those new works. You can still see what made these stories so great, but they aren’t the must-reads they once were.

Grade: C+

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are my thoughts on these stories. Basic familiarity with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos is assumed, but this should be pretty easy to follow even for those (many) people who haven’t read them.

One of the most interesting things about Lovecraft’s writing is the way it heralds the beginning of a scientific age. Theories like evolution and relativity were fundamentally changing the way people saw the world around them, and there seemed to be little limit to what science would accomplish in the future. This influenced all elements of society, including horror. Not too long ago, a study found that reports of werewolf sightings nearly disappeared once people heard about evolution. These were real-world sightings, by people who honestly feared werewolves and saw them in dark shadows. Once it was pointed out that those would be a scientific impossibility, people’s unconscious fears shifted to the more evolutionary plausible apeman hybrids like Bigfoot. Even today, fundamentalists who disbelieve in evolution would have a hard time believing in the werewolves that terrified their great-grandparents.

Lovecraft’s stories reflect the changing times with protagonists who fervently believe in science, but find themselves facing horrors they can’t explain. They rigorously prove that the threats must exist, but their scientific grounding doesn’t offer a relief from the horror. Some of these threats seem hokey and unbelievable today, such as aliens who transplant our brains, but there is still a freshness to the visions of creatures creeping through non-Euclidean geometries or cults based around ancient visits from aliens.

There is another element to Lovecraft’s worldview that is harder to deal with: His racism. Discussion about this usually focuses on how it reflected his times, and then people decide either to ignore it or stop reading his works. I think the choice not to read these is perfectly acceptable, especially given what I said earlier about his innovations now being found in more modern stories. But if you are going to read them, I think that it requires a more subtle approach than simply ignoring the awkward parts. These aren’t just stories with some racism tacked on; The racism informs Lovecraft’s writing as much as the science does.

One unfortunately response to the theory of evolution was to take moral lessons from it, and many people concluded that certain races were inherently superior to others. This is the attitude found in Lovecraft’s stories, with the narrators mentioning that other peoples are “low” or “degraded”. By all accounts, Lovecraft honestly believed that. But rather than comfortably concluding that the white man was at the top of the food chain, he apparently realized that there could be other races out there even stronger. The threat of Cthulhu seems to be that other creatures could be superior to us, and abuse that superiority in the same way that people abuse each other. Notice that Lovecraft even refers to these aliens as “the Great Race” at times.

The truly scary thing about this approach is just how amoral it is. Most horror involves an element of good-against-evil. If someone is fighting demons, vampires, or simply mass-murderers, there is a clear understanding that the villains are in the wrong. Even when there’s no explicit intervention from God or holy relics, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that the reader is identifying with the right side. Here, though, the enemy is simply a part of a cold, uncaring universe, and there’s no more “right” or “wrong” than there would be in a person eliminating an anthill. To me, at least, this is a much more horrific notion than a battle between God and the Devil.

Lovecraft’s racism is inexcusable, of course, and the science behind it was just an excuse to believe the things people wanted to believe. But it is very interesting that he was uncomfortable with the conclusions that most people came to, and took them to extremes that were no good for his own race. While I found the horror to be hit-or-miss and often couldn’t identify with Lovecraft’s worldview, this turned out to be a very interesting psychological study of the man.

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