Many years ago, when I was 25 or so, and in the same situation as a lot of young college graduates today--a liberal arts degree, and great difficulty finding a job--I had an occasional part-time job as night watchman at a lumber yard. I was a sort of subcontractor to the guy who actually held the position. When he had other plans on a night when he was supposed to work, I filled in for him.
It was a great job: I had to make the rounds of the yard once an hour, which took about fifteen minutes, and was free to sit in the office and read or write for the other forty-five. I can't imagine now what reckless impulse led me to read H.P. Lovecraft there. I was not in a very stable emotional condition, and was prone to all sorts of anxieties and obsessive fears. Moreover, I had noticed in bookstores for some time the particularly nightmarish covers that were being printed for paperback editions of Lovecraft's work at the time. I genuinely can't remember why I did it, but perhaps I had made it a sort of challenge to myself.
That probably sounds like it's a prelude to a description of the terrors I suffered as I made the rounds of the deserted lumber yard. But that's not what happened. I read a number of the stories, and experienced just enough suspense and horror to keep them in the realm of entertainment, like Poe's work, but was not deeply or lastingly affected.
I hadn't read any Lovecraft since. Over the years I've seen a lot of references to his work, and "Cthulhu" is a pretty widely-recognized word. I was amused and a bit distressed by a car I used to see in the parking lot at work which had a special extra-cost license plate which, by a simulated child's scrawl that said "Helping Schools," indicated that the owner had made a contribution to the school system. But the actual license text was "CTHULHU".
The frequency of these references, and the fact that Lovecraft was given a volume in the Library of America series, and the fact that I couldn't really remember anything of what I'd read so long ago, must have had something to do with a morbid impulse to sample his work again. I bought this cheap Kindle edition and read the first three stories in it.
Since you have the web at your fingertips, you don't need me to tell you all about Lovecraft. Suffice to say that he was the last of an old decaying New England family, that he disliked the modern world and much of the human race, and that he had a pretty morbid imagination. And, of course, some serious literary ability. He was influenced by Poe, and doesn't come off badly when compared to him.
At the Mountains of Madness
This is a first-person account of a scientific expedition to the Antarctic which has discovered, beyond a range of previously unknown and extremely high mountains, the remains of an alien civilization millions of years old. Naturally it turns out not to be entirely dead, and the narrator is trying to warn the world against any further disturbance of the horrors that wait there. He is a geologist, and Lovecraft makes him and other members of the expedition quite plausible in their scientific talk and reasoning. As measured by the degree of creeped-out-ness produced, I didn't find this story as strong as the other two. It's as much an adventure as a horror story, though one of the characters is driven at least half-mad by a glimpse of something terrible:
He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about "The black pit," "the carven rim," "the protoShoggoths," "the windowless solids with five dimensions," "the nameless cylinder," "the elder Pharos," "Yog-Sothoth," "the primal white jelly," "the color out of space," "the wings," "the eyes in darkness," "the moon-ladder," "the original, the eternal, the undying," and other bizarre conceptions; but when he is fully himself he repudiates all this and attributes it to his curious and macabre reading of earlier years. Danforth, indeed, is known to be among the few who have ever dared go completely through that worm-riddled copy of the Necronomicon kept under lock and key in the college library.
The Necronomicon, or rather "the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred," is a book of evil lore (fictitious, though some Lovecraft fans have attempted to find it) which is one of the key components of what is called "the Cthulhu mythos," a grand conception of an essentially monstrous universe, never (as far as I know) presented in detail, but persistent enough in Lovecraft's work to provide a broad picture. The mythos is not prominent in this story; we are, so to speak, at the foot of the mountain, and see only glimpses. The horrible things which come to light in the narrative are, as it turns out, not the real horror at all.
(One of many images found with Google image search; original here.)
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
This one, on the other hand, gave me cause to regret that I reached for it a couple of times during sleepless spells in the small hours. It is the story of a young man, the title character, who discovers that a 17th-century ancestor was involved in occult researches and practices which passed, as we learn more about them, from the merely sinister to the truly and deeply evil. One wonders if this story had some especial personal significance for Lovecraft, since it takes place in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft lived much of his life, and one character lives at Lovecraft's own address, though he does not much resemble the real Lovecraft.
Young Charles Dexter Ward grows curious about his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and becomes obsessed with learning what Curwen's cryptic notes signified. Curwen had arrived in Providence in the early 1700s, still youthful after an already long life in Salem, Massechusetts, and we learn, as the story goes on, what those witch-doings in Salem were really all about.
The Cthulhu mythos is more fully present here, although still not spelled out in much detail. Curwen is more or less a disciple of the cult, and also more or less a disciple of the devil, the implication being that what we consider the demonic is only a terrestrial interpretation of contact with the world of Cthulhu, which is also the real world.
Curwen's interest, like that of many magicians, at least in Western lore, is in extending his personal dominion over the world and time. In the Necronomicon he has learned the means of extending his own life far past the normal human span, and of raising the dead, which he wants to do not for any benefit to them--it seems to be a form of torture to them--but to expand his own store of knowledge. The key to the process is in this ancient text:
The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.
Sounds a bit like DNA and Jurassic Park, doesn't it? Curwen's Providence experiments, in which there is in fact quite a great deal of criminal Necromancy, are many and monstrous until they are discovered, and he put to death, in 1771. In 1919--that is, the present day--Charles Dexter Ward begins trying to understand what happened to Curwen, and as he learns more and more he attempts to duplicate Curwen's researches. With, need it be said, unpleasant results. It's an exciting as well as a disturbing story. The greater part of it takes place in the 18th century, and Lovecraft does a very convincing job of establishing that time and place.
(Of the many illustrations for this story that I found, this struck me as the most effective. It may not look like much but if you know the story it's potent. The original seems to have been part of some sort of contest in which people drew illustrations for their favorite books.)
The Colour Out of Space
This is a much shorter and simpler story than the others. (I would call it a longish short story rather than a novella; at any rate it is much shorter, at 12,000 words vs. 41,000 for At the Mountains of Madness.) A meteorite lands on an isolated farm near Arkham, a fictitious Massachusetts town which appears in a number of Lovecraft works. It is composed of a substance that resists the inquiries of science, and within that there is a globule of a color that "was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all." The globule is broken by investigators, with no apparent effect, and there is no evidence of anything inside it. The meteor shrinks, then vanishes after a series of lightning strikes. Nothing happens for a time, until
...the time of fruit and harvest. The pears and apples slowly ripened, and Nahum vowed that his orchards were prospering as never before. The fruit was growing to phenomenal size and unwonted gloss, and in such abundance that extra barrels were ordered to handle the future crop. But with the ripening came sore disappointment, for of all that gorgeous array of specious lusciousness not one single jot was fit to eat. Into the fine flavour of the pears and apples had crept a stealthy bitterness and sickishness, so that even the smallest bites induced a lasting disgust. It was the same with the melons and tomatoes....
A strange iridescence begins to appear around the well; whatever was released from the meteorite seems to have taken up residence there. It spreads, visible at night. All organic life begins to wither, disintegrate, and die, as do the minds of the family. It is a horrifying story of a creeping pestilence, and it differs from any plague humanity has known not only in its perfect destruction of all life, but of sanity. As is generally the case with Lovecraft, part of the horror resides in the complete opacity of the evil. He starts with something humanity has always known and feared, and by exaggeration brings home to us the true nature of our situation with regard to natural evil: its utter absence of consciousness and intention.
(Also from the deviantART site.)
What, besides the enjoyment, if you consider it enjoyment, of a scary story, is in this for the reader, particuarly the Christian reader? Well, Lovecraft had a philosophical agenda, and it is not a comforting one.
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.... To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities.
He is describing a literary technique here, but it apparently serves also as a philosophical statement. If Wikipedia is to be relied upon,
Lovecraft's guiding aesthetic and philosophical principle was what he termed "cosmicism" or "cosmic horror", the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally inimical to the interests of humankind. As such, his stories express a profound indifference to human beliefs and affairs.
And if Lovecraft provides us with any service beyond the very worthy one of telling a good story, it is in his effort to make concrete what this indifference and incomprehensibility mean.
We live in a culture of practical yet sentimental atheism: practical in that it approaches life as if God does not exist or does not matter, sentimental in that it averts its eyes from the stern implications of that view. A purely material and Godless cosmos has no meaning, and no amount of dressing up that fact can do away with the uneasiness which it produces. It may be slight or it may be intolerable, depending on the susceptibility of the one contemplating it, but there is no mature human consciousness which does not attempt to reject it in some measure. Few, I think, are the consciously atheist who will admit to being disturbed by it, but there is a telltale combativeness in their insistence that they are not. Most often, the response is something to the effect of "My life has meaning to me; we make our own meaning; my child...my dog...the sunset, etc. etc." There is a sad and sometimes slightly desperate quality in this. What is meaningful to me alone is not truly meaningful--that is, not intrinsically and objectively meaningful. The blowing of these pretty bubbles is not fundamentally different from what the atheist accuses the religious of doing, it's only less ambitious. Lovecraft will have none of these feeble efforts at comfort: you and anything you you ever cared about are insignificant, he says, when winged Cthulhu returns, blotting out the stars.
Lovecraft writes a kind of prose which was not fashionable in his time and is less so in ours, at least among the more sophisticated. It's ornate and, some would say, overwrought; it often seems of the 19th century, or Edwardian at the latest. But it suits his purpose. He doesn't want so much to create narrative suspense, which might be better accomplished with a tighter style, but to create a mood of dread and horror, and that he does. Yes, he does pile it on too thickly at times, and I would be surprised if there haven't been some good parodies. Thanks to technology, and the fact that much of Lovecraft's work is available online, I can tell you that the words "horrible" or "horror" occur thirty-seven times in Mountains. When he really wants to bring the point home, he likes "insane" and "blasphemous"; the latter and its variants occur ten times, as in "the blasphemous, horror-fostering abyss whence all such vapors came." And exactly as often in Charles Dexter Ward; only three in Colour, but then it's a good deal shorter than the other two.
What is being blasphemed in these horrors? Not God, for there is no God, but rather the basic human idea of order, whether religious or materialist. Behind even the apparent cosmic order there is only a nightmare of chaos without meaning. Many writers of the early 20th century and since have dealt with meaninglessness. Lovecraft made it cosmic, and concrete, and alive: a "crawling chaos," as the title of one of his stories has it.
Not everyone agrees that Lovecraft should be in the Library of America. Here is Stephen Schwarz in The New Criterion:
...certainly not an author worthy of standing beside Franklin, Hawthorne, Henry James, and others in our canon. At this rate, we may soon see editions of Zane Grey and Mickey Spillane included in the American pantheon.
Not the equal of Hawthorne, by any means, and not even in the same category as James. But worthy of note and the continuing interest which he has in fact received.
(I had no intention of writing something this long when I began this piece. My thanks and compliments to anyone who read the whole thing.)