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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Lovecraft Tales -- In many ways, the writing of H.P. Lovecraft is autobiography.

I don't mean that he believed in Cthulhu, or Nyarlathotep, or the Great Race that steals your body and casts your mind back to a vast, ancient, Cyclopean prison that serves as a library of all the knowledge of the cosmos, past, present and future. There are people who believe Lovecraft really believe in what he wrote about, or at least say they do, but that's not what I'm talking about. The writing of H.P. Lovecraft is autobiographical in exactly the same way it is resonant for me as genuinely reflective of the universe as I've experienced it. Lovecraft, born in the late 19th century but fascinated and in some ways trapped far earlier, felt the universe was far vaster than we knew, and far colder than we want to believe. Virtually every story of his, the most effective ones, especially, are grounded in the idea that we are all insignificant motes of dust in a momentary ray of light shining through a monstrous reality filled with old and illimitable powers playing out baroque scenarios our minds cannot comprehend without descending into gibbering madness.

Lovecraft's way of crafting words is very nearly viral, which is why he had such a profound effect on writers ranging from his own contemporaries, through to Alan Moore and others not yet born. Hell, I never use the words "illimitable," or "gibbering," but I bet both are to be found many times in Lovecraft Tales, a massive and entirely essential hardcover collection from The Library of America.

I bought the book somewhat on a whim, and under circumstances Lovecraft would have found familiar. He was an antiquarian, fascinated with the past and also in love with "weird fiction," which (and about which) he wrote quite eloquently and passionately. I was browsing a mammoth bookstore in New England (really, I was) when I spotted the dark, foreboding cover with the slightly eerie author photo. It seemed to raise genuine, half-remembered thrills and the promise of wonder. As I saw Lovecraft's name on it, I remembered reading some of his fiction in my very early teens. I remember gray paperback book covers with hints of distorted, mind-warping biology and rotting, dilapidated houses. "Lovecraft," I thought to myself. "I've read him before, but it was a long time ago." The volume promised to be a near-definitive collection (it's not complete, but it's completely fantastic and brilliantly edited by horror writer Peter Straub), and as I browsed the untold piles and shelves of books in this New England bookstore (all right, it was in Vermont, not Boston, or Arkham, but still, it was New England), I was (I really was!) gripped by the desire to, after all these decades, re-immerse myself in whatever dark wonders Lovecraft had led me into as little more than a child.

Digression: There is a small, dreary village half-hidden in a strange corner of Saratoga County. A hundred and thirty years ago, it was a bustling factory town. Then the factory left and the community was devastated, but the people never left. One consequence of my early immersion in Lovecraft is that every time I have heard his name in the past thirty years, I have thought of this small, lifeless village and its boarded-up windows and joyless residents and the sense that as I drive through (only to experience this feeling, for no other reason), eyes are watching me from hidden corners and behind bolted doors I dare not approach. I know now, after reading Lovecraft Tales, that this weird, recurrent experience stemmed from half-remembering the story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," with it's genetically questionable village full of the descendants of people who made a nightmarish deal with beings better left undealt with.

Reading the stories in this volume, every one a dark delight, made me realize just how deeply Lovecraft's shadowy vision is woven into the fabric of our modern fiction. He was inspired by Poe and other pre-20th century writers of strange tales, but, beginning to write his own fiction before he was even 10 years old, Lovecraft's ancient fascinations and sense of alienation combined with a sharp mind to allow him to generate, over the course of his writing career, a vast tapestry of madness and the unknown that self-refers again and again. The earliest tales here seem like avatars of ancient days, but as science and knowledge expanded rapidly in the early 20th century, Lovecraft's mind expanded with them. Quantum physics in general and relativity in particular lent his work more, not less, verisimilitude, even as greater life experience and exposure to the ideas of others seem to tamp down his earliest, most immature and frequently racist touches. The oldest stories in the book seem like stories that could have been told to (or by) precocious children by the fire in the late 18th century; more expansive (in length and ideas) stories near the end, particularly the masterworks The Shadow Out of Time and At The Mountains of Madness would not have been conceivable without Lovecraft's exploration of the then-burgeoning body of knowledge about Earth's true place in the great scheme of the cosmos. How strange, in fact, to experience this book as a whole and note the introduction, over its course, of the automobile becoming commonplace, or of Einstein being named and his theories hinted at as possible explanations for the existence of other dimensions and perverse, forbidden journeys made possible by the very different physics and thought-processes of the elder gods.

Lovecraft's work is prose. Essential, addictive prose that gripped my soul as a child and has excited and recharged my imagination as an adult. More than any other writer I've read, I think he inspired Alan Moore, though it should be noted that Moore was inspired by Lovecraft in the way Moore wishes he had inspired others: fired by Lovecraft's ideas, not slavishly devoted to imitating them; in love with Lovecraft's use of language, but not reproducing it whole and claiming it as his own. You couldn't imitate Lovecraft, after all. Not really. In the same way that Charles Schulz's depictions of his characters are nearly impossible to reproduce, Lovecraft's characters, settings and scenarios are all the unique product of his life experience. Others have played in his sandbox, but no one could ever hope to match the singular and unique voice he cultivated in his years as a writer. Lovecraft Tales is a true treasure of dark delights, and a book literally full from beginning to end with stories worth re-reading, pondering over, and hoping never, ever come true.


Buy Lovecraft Tales at Amazon.com.



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