Re-Reading Lovecraft

Michael O. Varhola

Over the past 30-or-so years, I read have all of horror author H.P. Lovecraft's most famous works, and many of his most obscure ones, works at least once, and some of my favorite ones multiple times. I had, however, never read his stories in any particular order and my unorganized approach to his body of work did not help me in my desire to gain a sense for Lovecraft's development as a writer or the evolution of his mythos. Two Christmases ago, however, I received a compilation of all Lovecraft's fiction, organized chronologically in its order of original publication, and this inspired me to begin re-reading the entirety of his work, from start to finish. As I have, I have taken notes about things that I find notable and which might resonate with other readers and have posted those here.

Popular as the subjects of Lovecraft's work have begun, it never ceases to shock me how many ostensible fans don't bother to actually read him. Any number of times over the past several years, for example, I have chatted with people at conventions who have said things like "Cthulhu is cool!" and then show they have no real basis for making such assertions when they admit they have never actually read anything Lovecraft had to say about his most famous monster. And I do believe there is value in reading Lovecraft, especially for anyone interested in literature or games with horror or swords-and-sorcery themes, genres that the author strongly influenced (e.g., Robert E. Howard held Lovecraft in high regard, and Stephen King has acknowledged him as an influence). 

My observations follow, with most recent ones at the top of the list, and more will follow: 

* Was glad that S.T. Joshi's comments at the beginning of "Through the Gate of the Silver Key" indicated that the story was initially written by someone else and then heavily revised by Lovecraft because otherwise I would likely have been somewhat confused when I read it. It does not really read like HPL at all, and is very different in tone from his original works and deviates wildly from his canon. It reads, in fact, like exactly what it is: a composition by a fan who wanted to put his own imprint upon the Mythos. This story does contain some evocative imagery but I did not really enjoy reading it as part of a Lovecraft anthology and might have enjoyed it more if I could weighed it on the basis of its own merits. 

* Previously I had imagined that Lovecraft's "Dreamlands" stories were a type of story he decided to write in the midst of his more famous horror stories. Now that I have read his works chronologically, however, I realize that these stories represent an early, much less sophisticated, and much more derivative and imitative -- of Lord Dunsany and Poe -- body of work. 

* Lovecraft's works grow steadily in size as his writing progresses and his largest works were produced toward the end of his career. The first novella-length work of his was "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" which, in my opinion, is a bit on the long side. This impression might be a response to having gotten into a mode of reading through many much smaller pieces of his leading up to this one. I do, in any event, like this story quite a bit. 

* Lovecraft was a cat person! There is information about the author that supports this idea, but a reading of his stories alone, especially "Dreamlands" pieces like "The Cats of Ulthar," might by themselves lead a reader to this conclusion. 

* Lovecraft actually ghostwrote a number of stories. I was vaguely aware of one he had done on behalf of Harry Houdini himself, "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs"/"Under the Pyramids," but others include "The Mound" and "The Curse of Yig," which he wrote for one Zealia Bishop, and "The Electric Executioner," which he wrote on behalf of Adolphe de Castro. 

* Lovecraft consistently uses the archaic "shew," "shewing," et al, in place of the more standard word "show." While this is not wrong per se it is does not contribute to the value of his stories and is somewhat distracting and annoying. Presumably, this is a product of the atavism he sometimes displays both personally and in his characters. On a peripheral note that might be of interest to gamers, when I worked with the late great Gary Gygax on a number of projects I noted that he used to display a similar tendency toward archaic terminology, which I do not thing added anything useful to his otherwise great and imaginative works. A jail is a jail, and is not more or less so if the reader has to pause to figure would what "gaol" means.

* Lovecraft's earliest stories, such as "The Alchemist" and "The Tomb," are very Gothic in character -- which makes sense when one considers that Edgar Allan Poe was a big influence on him -- and his characteristic Mythos begins to appear only gradually.

* Many of Lovecraft's early protagonists are impoverished aristocrats who nonetheless eschew commercial pursuits, and it seems pretty clear to me that this is a projection of his own situation and self image. It was, indeed, important to Lovecraft that he conceive of himself as an amateur writer, rather than someone who toiled at wordcraft for a living.

* Lovecraft uses semicolons both to excess and incorrectly (e.g., instead of commas). I do not really fault him for this, as it is the sort of thing an editor should have caught and addressed, but it is a bit distracting in some of his stories, such as "Dagon," which has more than a dozen such instances, as in "The sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet. " or "I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night."

* Many of Lovecraft's characters are addicted to various substances, including alcohol and morphine, often as a product of psychological trauma they have suffered. It bears mentioning that Lovecraft himself was reportedly a teetotaller. 

* I have also launched an associated project, H.P. Lovecraft d20, that will include at least one item of game content associated with each of the author's stories that game masters and players alike might find interesting or inspirational and want to try out in their own games.