Over the past few years I’ve managed to pick up an almost-complete collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction in the Wordsworth “Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural” editions. These are affordable paperback editions of classic horror, suspense and science fiction stories priced at around £2.99 each, regardless of the page count. They’re not the prettiest editions – the covers usually have some kind of generic horror-based painting or illustration, but the content is sound with very few printing errors, and, well, you can’t really argue with that price. There are four volumes of Lovecraft Wordsworth editions that contain the vast majority of his fiction writing. I was considering getting the Necronomicon collection, or even the newer Collected Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, but the size and weight of these editions probably won’t be the best idea for reading on the train or bus. The Wordsworth editions are all around 300-400 pages each and I don’t really mind if the covers or edges get scuffed. Interestingly, there are two versions of Volume II. The first printing of Volume II contains the story The Loved Dead, written by C.M. Eddy in 1919. The story was thought to have been ghost-written by Lovecraft, but it seems as though he had only very minor input (if any) in the story, and that it should rightly be considered an Eddy piece. Wordsworth quickly printed a new version, omitting this story only.
Until this year, the only Lovecraft stories I had read were some of the major tales from the famous Cthulhu Mythos (along with an anthology of Mythos writings by Lovecraft and others, printed in 1969, but I’ll be covering that in another post). I had read The Call of Cthulhu, Dagon, The Dunwich Horror, a few shorter earlier pieces, and most of At The Mountains of Madness, before abandoning it completely. I have also read a couple of graphic novel adaptions – The Shadow Out of Time and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
Lovecraft is a divisive author. His is generally regarded as being an immeasurably influential figure on modern horror and science fiction, though many critics consider his writing to be nothing other than low pulp fare. His works were usually printed in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, The Vagrant and Tales of Magic and Mystery, and he never saw a collection of his own writing in his own lifetime. His writing style is very conservative and often plain, which at times is at odds with the unspeakable and unknowable horrors he wishes to present. Some readers hold Lovecraft’s style above that of his contemporaries, but it’s often this same style which repels potential new readers also. It’s well-known that Lovecraft’s views on race are abhorrent, and many believe that the unapologetic inclusion of his racial views within his fiction is enough to ultimately separate him from similar authors and their philosophies. Reading The Call of Cthulhu as a teenager was strange and horrific and exciting, but reading it as an adult makes it all the more unpleasant, as you try to navigate around the shameful racism and bigoted attitudes towards the non-white characters.
I find it hard to keep a singular opinion of Lovecraft as a writer. I believe that the personal beliefs and attitudes of the artist can be separated from their art, and for the most part that is applicable here. I am drawn to him as a writer mainly due to his creation of the complex and horrific pantheon of Elder Gods and Old Gods, but previous attempts at reading a good deal of Lovecraft in one sitting have left me feeling frustrated and disappointed.
I’m planning to read the (almost*) complete fiction of Lovecraft from the Wordsworth Editions over the next six months or so. I consulted the Lovecraft bibliography on Wikipedia to annotate the Volumes’ contents with the year of publication. I’m hoping to read his work in a mostly chronological order, save for Volume I, which spans the years 1917 to 1931 (publication date) and contains a good starting collection for those readers who are relatively new to the Mythos.
* The major tales that are missing from the Wordsworth Editions are as follows (based on Lovecraft bibliography at Wikipedia):
Ibid (Written 1928, published 1938)
Sweet Ermengarde (written 1919-21, published 1943)
The Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (written and published 1917)
Old Bugs (written 1919, published 1959)
The first batch of story summaries and observations can be found below. Part two of the Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft will be posted soon.
Dagon (Written July 1919, published November 1919)
The narrator has been sailing on a cargo ship in the Pacific. The ship is attacked but the narrator escapes on a life raft. He sleeps, but when he wakes his finds himself adrift on a vast expanse of black slime and mud, surrounded by rotting fish and the carcasses of other mysterious sea creatures. He suspects that this strange landmass was caused by volcanic activity, and after waiting for three days, he begins to explore the area.
This is an enjoyable, stand-alone tale that could be possibly read as an early draft of The Call of Cthulhu. The unnamed narrator is presented as many future Lovecraft characters would be: a person with their mind irreparably damaged by ancient and incomprehensible evil. At the start of the tale, the narrator explains they have had to turn to morphine in order to sleep, and the conclusion suggests that he is now ready to kill himself to escape the (real or imagined?) noises plaguing him at night. It’s not clear from the text alone whether Lovecraft had intended this to be part of his extended Mythos (or Yog-Sothery) at the time of publication, as there’s no mention of the Necronomicon, nor its author, and the antagonist at the climax of the tale is left unnamed. It seems that this is generally not considered to be part of the extended Mythos, but the element of ancient sea deities within this tale would suggest that Lovecraft was beginning to experiment with the idea of intelligent, threatening, non-human beings that dwell far below the surface of the ocean.
The Nameless City (Written January 1921, published November 1921)
In the Arabian peninsula, an unnamed narrator sets out to explore the “nameless city”. The city is thought to be older than humanity, and it is stated that “Mad Abdul Alhazred” is thought to have once visited this area. Whilst its current location is in the middle of an arid desert, is it thought that originally the city was situated next to the ocean. Under cover of darkness, the narrator begins to explore the ruins of the ancient, terrible city.
Another short stand-alone tale that contains more minor references to elements within the larger mythos, especially the “mad Arab”, Abdul Alhazred. Lovecraft’s deserted, mysterious city makes for a very interesting setting, but I don’t think Lovecraft really does the city justice. There are various descriptions of the hollows and the mines that are found throughout the city, but no real sense of scope or scale, unlike the vast, yawning chasms of Dagon. Still, perhaps Lovecraft deliberately left it this way, to create a more palpable sense of disorientation surrounding the nameless place. As the narrator explores, he begins to find narrow, low-ceilinged pathways and passageways which creates a good sense of claustrophobia in the reader, in my opinion. I also liked the inclusion of the ancient wall-paintings and reliefs found in this mysterious place, but I don’t know that the descriptions of the rise and fall of this ancient civilisation is executed particularly well – I’d have liked to have read more information on this aspect of the story. The same goes for the discovery of the desiccated corpses of the ancient beings, though again this might have been to induce a sense of unknowable dread in the reader. As the story reaches its climax, the narrator sees a shining light at the end of the deepest tunnel, presumably a portal to a different realm, as outlined in the wall-paintings. Again this is a minor nod to one of the core elements of the whole mythos, the portals or doorways to inconceivable “other” realms. I thought this was done very well, but there is no definite conclusion to the story, nor do we find out for certain the fate of the narrator, other than he apparently survives to recount this tale.
The Hound (Written September 1922, published February 1924)
Two decadent and self-styled “ghouls” live together in an isolated mansion containing their private museum of morbid and macabre artefacts. They eventually turn to grave-robbing in order to steal priceless and esoteric items for their own collection. They learn of a grave located in Holland which is said to contain an ancient piece that the ghouls wish to take for themselves.
I enjoyed this story very much, even though it seems like the critical reaction to this tale is less than favourable. Many critics seem to view this as a weak imitation of Poe or, worse, a pastiche of any old ghoulish ghost story. I particularly liked Lovecraft’s description of the buried skeleton, especially at the end of the tale where the narrator strives to replace the stolen amulet:
“For crouched within that centuried coffin, embraced by a closepacked nightmare retinue of huge sinewy, sleeping bats, was the bony thing my friend and I had robbed; not clean and placid as we had seen it then, but covered with caked blood and shreds of alien flesh and hair, and leering sentiently at my with phosphorescent sockets and sharp ensanguined fangs yawning twistedly in mockery of my inevitable doom.”
I think I probably enjoyed this so much due to the fact that it’s a simple tale of ghoulish desire and mental breakdown. The language here owes much more to gothic horror authors, and it’s a far cry away from Lovecraft’s usual style of mind-bending cosmic horror. The story contains only brief allusions to elements of the mythos, but it would work just as well without them. There is no real sense of location, save for the morbid museum that the narrator and his companion keep in their isolated mansion. The continual baying of the hound is straight from Poe, but it does have a strong element of Lovecraftian paranoia and madness to it also. Given that this story was written in Lovecraft’s relatively early period, I’m hoping to read more in this style as I make my way through the other volumes in the Wordsworth editions.
The Festival (Written October 1923, published January 1925)
The narrator is visiting Kingsport, Massachusetts for the first time, at the Yuletide. The town is said to be the narrator’s ancestral home, where his ancestors would keep the yuletide festival of the title, at a time when the festival was forbidden. When he arrives the town seems deserted, but he is welcomed into an old house by a relative. His relative sits the narrator at the table, which is covered with ancient texts – one of which being the infamous Necronomicon. He is then invited to join a growing crowd of mysterious cloaked festival-goers, who enter a white church at the top of a hill, before descending into a dark crypt within.
A similar story to The Nameless City, in that it involves the descent into the earth to encounter as yet unnamed ancient beings. A good story with an interesting blurring of time and location. Clearly the tale is set in Kingsport, but it becomes apparent that the Kingsport at the start of the tale is different to that at the end. I enjoyed the description of the town very much here. Lovecraft creates an authentic sense of confusion and paranoia within the reader as the narrator explores the deserted streets of Kingsport, with its “ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks.”. The terror increases upon the appearance of the narrator’s relatives, who are somehow wrong, somehow uncanny. The suggestion that the “relative” is wearing a disguise in order to welcome the narrator is very effective, and it made me consider how the tale would progress from there. Again, there is the inclusion of the Necronomicon, much to the narrator’s surprise. The grimoire has a much larger role in this story, but there is still little exposition on the purpose or meaning of this weird book. After the townspeople and the narrator silently march to the depths of the city, Lovecraft introduces the strange, awful beings that are apparently being summoned by a shadowy, unidentified thing playing a kind of flute. The terrible beings appear from the darkness, described by Lovecraft as a kind of unholy combination of bird, rodent, insect, and human, and are mounted by the townspeople to travel along the dark river far beneath the earth. The conclusion to this tale is more definite than the others so far – the narrator leaps into the river to escape the madness, and awakens on the shores of Kingsport to tell his story. His is transferred to Arkham (the first mention of this city in this volume so far), where he consults the Necronomicon for more information on this horrific ancient festival.