First Lines: Tales of H.P. Lovecraft

In my CD collection there are quite a few bands who have delved deep into Lovecraft’s work to find inspiration for their art: Iron Maiden (look at the covers of Life after Death and No Prayer for the Dying), Metallica (“The Call of Ktulu”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”), The Vision Bleak (they’re pretty much all Lovecraft, all the time), Rage (“In a Nameless Time”), Orphanage (“At the Mountains of Madness”), etc. One of the funniest horror movies (“Evil Dead”) leans heavily on that dreaded volume, that blasphemous tome of arcane lore and unspeakable rites, the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon. So, realistically, it was only a matter of time before I actually read H.P. Lovecraft.

Although most of his fiction is freely available on the internet — long live the finite amount of time copyright lasts — I never came across an inviting volume. Call me old fashioned, but reading long form prose is something I think should involve books. Picking up Tales of H.P. Lovecraft was more or less a classic example of judging a book by it’s cover: the two cover blurbs are by Stephen King (The twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.) and Neil Gaiman (If horror and fantasy are cities, then H.P. Lovecraft is the kind of long street that runs from the outskirts of the first city to the end of the other). The page 69 test doesn’t really work for collections (in this case, it falls near the end of The Call of Cthulhu). The first line of the introduction didn’t really grab me either: In writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, the gothic tale may compensate a conventional, restrictive life; in others, notably Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the gothic tale would seem to be a for of psychic autobiography. But then I noticed the quote which preceded the introduction:

Book read
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft: Major works selected and introduced by Joyce Carol Oates
Furst line
The most merciful thing in the world … is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

Incidentally, these are the first lines of The Call of Cthulhu, and they did win me over. And as it turns out, the idea behind this quote — that there is unimaginable horror and dread lurking just around the corner — is pretty representative of this book. Lovecraft’s brand of horror and fantasy, or better yet, weird fiction leans heavily on mood and atmosphere, rather than action or plot. And therein lies what would be my only point of criticism: the sparse action that takes place happens at an, at best, glacial pace. You get the sense that dread Cthulhu might actually rise from his dead dreams in sunken R’lyeh before the story concludes. But then again, in most cases there isn’t a whole lot to conclude: in The Music of Erich Zann, Zann’s music keeps some unimaginable horror at bay; in The Colour out of Space, a strangely colored meteorite slowly corrupts it’s surroundings; madness lurks in a mysterious, undiscovered mountain range in Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness; and in The Shadow out of Time, a scientists realizes that a dreadful shadow from a nameless time lies upon this very planet.

Lovecraft is hailed as one of the great (classic) horror writers. And despite the excruciating slow pace and abundant use of adjectives — blasted, dreadful, gibbous, blasphemous and curious adjectives — I tend to agree.

Finally a link I’ve been saving for this post: LOLthulhu. Also, Neil Gaimans I Cthulhu — or — What’s A Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing In A Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47° 9′ S, Longitude 126° 43′ W)?