Kaveny reviews H. P. Lovecraft

The Transition of H.P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness.

Illustrations by Jude Palencar, introduction by Barbara Hambly.
381 pp.( Trade Paperback). $10.00. Delray New York 1996.
ISBN 0-345-38422-9.
Reviewed by Philip Kaveny.

This review is forthcoming in a SF journal, used here by permission of the author.

Barbara Hambly’s (a major author in her right) introduction is a value added feature to this handsomely, or should I say horrifyingly (B&W) illustrated collection of 29 H.P Lovecraft stories.

Barbara confesses: “I wish I could write like H.P Lovecraft.

That’s not a fashionable thing to say
when writers are encouraged to strive for a
“transparent”style-short, sleek, clear, without massive
blocks of descriptive text-and many have taken over the
screenwriter dictum of ” no paragraph over three lines

Barbara is on to something important here. I believe that Lovecraft is a writer’s writer. I also believe he is a critic’s writer. Lovecraft Criticism, and debates about his literary merit have a created a cottage industry and a field of study for many of us, including myself. However, most of all he is a reader’s writer. Barbara points out… “Used bookstore owners tell me they can’t keep Lovecraft on the shelves.” To which, I would add; smart book dealers double the standard used paperback prices, and even the cover prices if Titles by H.P. Lovecraft go out of print, and still they cannot keep Lovecraft on their shelves. Thus leaving, an empty space between rows of half price copies of Kafka and Melville. However, in general there is no problem finding a nice used assortment of almost everything written by Stephen King.

Fred Pohl could have hit on the reason, and could have been talking about Lovecraft when he said …”you have to write really good, good enough to beat your readers out of their beer money.” Lovecraft (1890-1937) did that in the twenties and thirties when beer was a nickel, and he still does it almost sixty years later, when one could pay $3:00 for a bottle of Old Milwaukee at the bar of Woodfield Hyatt Regency in Chicago where I attended World Fantasy Convention this Halloween weekend..

Lovecraft’s memory was honored there, and also, cashed in upon. Some of his letters, memorabilia, and editions of his books were being offered for sale for thousands of dollars. Of course, were Lovecraft alive he would not have showed up World Fantasy Convention since he did not own a decent suit in his life. He surely would not have been able to pop for the one hundred dollars for a convention membership, and another hundred a night (plus tax) for the special convention rate hotel room. And for a guy who, according to letters he wrote to Robert Bloch, when Bloch was a teenager could barely afford a quarter pound of liver sausage during his better days, plane fare from Providence, RI to Chicago would be out of the question.

A weekend later at Windycon a regional science fiction convention held at the same hotel; I drummed my courage and asked Julius Schwartz, one of the Guests at both conventions, a few questions about HPL. Julius, who is legendary in his own right and was Lovecraft’s agent in the 30’s– getting him the staggering sum of $350.00 for At the Mountains of Madness at a time when Lovecraft was getting a couple of cents a word for everything else he wrote. Julius reflected for a while, and then he seemed to literally conjure up an image for me of a very tall, very poor, very human, H.P. Lovecraft Julius also noted that, of all those who paid tribute toLovecraft the weekend before as the creator of the “Dark Fantasy” genre, he was the only one left alive who actually met and knew H.P. Lovecraft. But, maybe that is not the only way to get to know H.P. Lovecraft.

Maybe we can get to know Lovecraft by reading or re-reading these 29 stories which are a sample of his work across the span of his lifetime. In doing this I suspect we will all get to know him a bit differently. Reader Response theory tells us that to some extent, what we get from a story will be a result of what we take to it, and how the text relates to our world view. Some critics refer to that as our horizon of expectations. I have read all of these 29 stories over the years and I don’t intend to summarize them, because, with Lovecraft, as with J.R.R. Tolkien, the Tale is in the telling.

I was pleasantly surprised as I worked through the stories. Lovecraft is characterized a stylist who was a master of the expository core dump, as exemplified, in some of the detail of At the Mountains of Madness. Yet, that same technique allows him to present us with a core sample from an Alien Universe. It may well be that his struggles with language to describe the horror of his protagonist, represent a literary expressions of some the philosophical problems of knowledge representation whether or not that world is real or fictional.

But it does not stop there. Many of Lovecrafts images come to us quickly as we think of such films as Alien. We forget it was Lovecraft’s writing that gave Giger the visuals images to realize forty years later. Some parts of Lovecraft’s work as in the first few lines of, “He,” are prosaic as a fog horn, and lyrical as a wolf’s bay. As we read through “The Horror of Red Hook,” we wonder, if Lovecraft thought that New York was bad in the 20’s? What would he think of sex, drugs, and the unholy rituals of rock and roll. Worse than that, what would he think about nose piercing if he lived and wrote 70 years later in the 90’s. Even after I had my laugh and I have finished thumbing my nose at him, I wonder about some of the images, and characters his stories have left me.

I wonder, about the Celtic detective Malone in that same story. I want to see Harrison Ford play him in the movie version of, “The Horror of Red Hook.” I wonder? Malone was published in Dublin Review, when he was a “Dublin University Man.” Maybe he knew James Joyce they were about the same age. Then I remember it is a story and Lovecraft made it up . He made up Malone. He made up Dublin University; just like he made up Miskatonic University and the rest of it. Or did he.

A couple of days ago I re- read “The Shunned House,” from this collection, in a single sitting at four A.M. as I took a little break from a book I am working on as a prelude to a Doctorate on “The Internet as an Agent of Change.” I was working alone in my building, as I got the section where Lovecraft’s narrator started reflecting on the theory of relativity, as a plausible explanation for something like vampires from another dimension who might appear to us though periodic rifts in the fabric of time and space. Suddenly, I felt like one of his characters. I noticed my office was rather close to an open garbage dumpster and it seemed to be getting really cold quite quickly. So I locked the door. Then I thought, what good would that do?

Time and space have only permitted me to touch on a handful of stories in this collection. I would suggest that the collection is worth the price for “At the Mountains of Madness” alone. Some have suggested that all of the stories in this collection are not his best. I suggest that is a matter of reader response. I suggest that if past practice holds true one will not see this collection turning up as used paperback and there will continue to be an empty space the used paperback section between Kafka & Melville, though one can certainly find elements of both their work in H.P. Lovecraft, maybe I will write a book on that, rather than the Internet. My only suggestion for improvement is a hard bound edition more suitable for libraries. Because, if the trend continues this trade paperback will read shreds.

Philip Kaveny