Review: “Tales Of H.P. Lovecraft,” selected & edited by Joyce Carol Oates

So, H.P. Lovecraft is one of those writers I have been meaning to try out but never seemed to get around to picking up. Well, I finally picked up a collection (****). The only one they had at my library, but it seems like a fairly decent introduction to his bibliography–all the stories I’ve heard of by name are in here, and the editor seems to be an expert in the field. Anyway, what finally gave me the required kick in the pants to pick this up is that I realized I was in the near future going to be reading (and thus reviewing) not one but two Lovecraft-inspired works: Alan Moore’s Neonomicon graphic novel and the Lovecraft tribute anthology Book Of Cthulhu II (I have tried and failed to find Book Of Cthulhu I, sadly to say). I realized that if I was going to be spending any time with these, I really ought to pick up the original source material and give it a look first.

The collection opens with The Outsider, a very short first-person tale about a man trapped from time immemorial in a dark and derelict castle striving to reach the light. We then transition to the equally short The Music Of Erich Zanntelling of a young French student who becomes obsessed with the weird music emanating from the rooms above him in his lodging house. The Rats In The Walls tells of a man returning to his long-abandoned family estate and determining to rebuild it in the face of local superstition and myth about the devilish and pagan practices of his ancestors on the site. The Shunned House details a young man’s investigation into a deserted Providence manor with an ill reputation. The Call Of Cthulhu is related as papers left behind by a Boston lawyer detailing his investigations (following and building on those of his deceased uncle) into a sinister cult. The Colour Out Of Space tells of a meteorite that struck an area of rural New England and the horror it visited on the nearby family farm. In The Dunwich Horror a degenerate New England family attempts to summon the Great Old Ones back into the world, and the surrounding countryside pays the price. In At The Mountains Of Madness an expedition to the Antarctic uncovers an unprecedented collection of preserved specimens from the beginning of life on Earth, as well as a ruined city that used to be populated by colonists from the stars. But they’re all dead now….right? The Shadow Over InnsmouthThe Shadow Out Of Time tells of an economics professor who suffers a strange case of amnesia that lasts for years. But is it really so simple as amnesia? Or has his body been taken over by something from another time or place?

I’m really not much of a horror aficionado, with Stephen King and Dean Koontz being my only consistent links to the genre–I would even debate the inclusion of most of Koontz’s work in that category, personally. I did find myself very much impressed with Lovecraft’s descriptive flair when it came to the settings of these tales though. I found The Rats In The Walls a very captivating story for some reason, possibly my personal fascination with what comes before recorded history and the exploration of those themes. I likewise very much enjoyed At The Mountains Of Madness, probably for the same reasons. A hardcore horror fan may not be all that impressed–I didn’t think this stuff was that scary, at least, though reading The Shadow Over Innsmouth right before a nap did trigger a doozy of a strange dream–but as literature Lovecraft’s prose is excellent and evocatively rendered.

Most of Lovecraft’s horror surrounds the unknown, the idea that humanity understands not even a fraction of the true nature of the world and the cosmos, and that to know what is truly out there is to go mad. His most famous body of work is the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, a number of stories all centering around a cult or variety of cults heralding the return of the Great Old Ones. In ages past, long before humanity walked the earth, the Great Old Ones came from the stars and built their kingdoms here. They walk the earth no longer, but wait beneath the waves, not dead but sleeping. Theirs is an existence without morality, founded on slaughter and orgy and excess, and one day they shall return and reclaim our world. Not all of Lovecraft’s stories are wrapped up in this mythos, but from what I can see they would not be inconsistent with it. Lovecraft’s world is more than large enough to accommodate the Great Old Ones on top of all his other horrors.

Lovecraft was a staunch atheist, and it has been suggested that his Cthulhu mythos is actually an anti-mythology, i.e. he wrote it as a tongue-in-cheek critique of religion. Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) postulates an eternal being that created all that exists, who may or may not (depending on your theology) keep watching and tweaking the world to his own ends. Lovecraft has undying Great Old Ones from the stars who accidentally introduce terrestrial life to the planet before their age ends and they sleep, someday rising again to reclaim the Earth. Identical? No. Offensive? Not really, so far as I’m concerned. But its easy to see where some English scholars draw their conclusions.

Content: This is not kid-friendly material, which would be obvious if you know anything of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s renown as the godfather of the modern Horror genre, after all. Mild language, including a cat named “Nigger-Man.” Some violence, occasionally quite evocatively rendered. Little to no sexual content, aside from the implication that in the years before one of the stories begins a young woman was forced by her father to allow one of the Great Old Ones to impregnate her and that the inhabitants of a certain town are mating with primordial fish creatures to allow them to live forever underwater. Some would consider certain elements of the stories “magic,” though I suspect Lovecraft himself would disagree.

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