Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, by H.P. Lovecraft

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre

This is a compilation of sixteen Lovecraft short stories.

Lovecraft is one of the great horror story writers of all time.

When I was a child, I remember reading a decent amount of horror fiction and science fiction, including one Lovecraft story (The Dunwich Horror, which is also in this collection). I wasn’t a huge fan, but I liked that stuff a fair amount.

For whatever reason, though, I drifted away from that and stopped reading material like that by the time I reached adulthood. Nor did I really get into movies or TV of those genres. Again, as a child I’d watched and enjoyed The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and a few shows like that, but then I got away from that sort of material.

Recently I read this book and two compilations put out by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame–the top science fiction short stories, and the top science fiction novellas–and genuinely enjoyed them all. Not so much that I’m likely now to become a horror or science fiction buff and seek out such material regularly, but it was kind of a pleasant surprise to return to that stuff after having little or experience of it for so long, and to find that I mostly like it.

By the way, I take it the border between horror and science fiction is fuzzy. There are various elements that make a story more likely to be categorized as one or the other, but it’s not like there’s a solid line between the genres. Lovecraft’s work is a good example of why. It tends to have more elements that are associated with horror stories, but there are also plenty of aliens and time travel and things that are more in the science fiction realm.

His stories tend to be at an intersection between the two. The common theme of the stories is that beings from other planets and other dimensions (science fiction) turn out to be the kernel of truth in various superstitions and legends about ghosts and monsters and witches and such (horror).

For me, Lovecraft may actually be better in small doses. When I read this many of his stories back-to-back, among other things it makes me aware of just how much repetition there is in his stories.

I would say that’s the one thing I found least satisfying about reading this book. There’s just too much similarity from one story to the next, like he has a very limited number of ideas for storylines, and types of characters. The style, some of the specifics of his otherworldly ontology, and some of the descriptive phrases stay the same in story after story.

At least two words pop up constantly that I’ve rarely if ever seen outside of his stories–“eldritch” and “cyclopean.” Maybe I’ve seen “eldritch” somewhere and forgot, but it didn’t look even vaguely familiar to me, and he uses it frequently. (It means spooky or eerie.) “Cyclopean” he uses even more constantly–in some stories it appears once or so a page for several pages in a row, to the point that it becomes almost comical. Could he not have invested in a thesaurus?

That word looks more familiar because of course I assume it comes from Cyclops, but in context I couldn’t figure it out because it wasn’t being used to refer to anything that I’d associate with being one-eyed. (I looked it up, and it just means large. Which is odd. Yeah, Cyclops was a giant I guess, but isn’t his one-eyedness a lot more what makes him noteworthy than his giantness? Wouldn’t you think a word based on his name would refer to his most defining attribute?)

Routinely, Lovecraft avoids having to describe something by claiming it’s indescribable. So he’ll talk about a character’s reaction to something, and he’ll tell you that that reaction is one of shock and horror because what he’s perceiving is too far outside human experience for there to be language to describe it, but he won’t (for that reason) tell you in any but the most vague and general terms just what it is the person is reacting to.

One instance of this that comes up in multiple stories is art objects and architecture and such that follow the principles of some sort of non-Euclidean geometry. Humans can perceive such items, and can see that they’re somehow different from any three-dimensional, conventional physical objects they’ve experienced, but they’re incapable of saying anything more specific about them, because the human mind and human language don’t contain the relevant capacities or concepts to cover them.

This is intriguing in a way, and a copout in a way. I wonder if it even makes sense, or is even possible. Obviously people can be surprised by new things–like the first time people ever saw an elephant, or a television or whatever. But it’s not like they’d be incapable of giving some kind of a description of them once they did see them.

Could there in principle be something so outside of our experience as to affect us more like how Lovecraft describes? Even if people had never seen elephants, they’d seen animals, and all animals are at least distantly related through evolution, so even the odd ones aren’t going to be completely unlike anything else. But has there ever been, or could there be, an instance of something so new that it couldn’t even have been imagined by a human being and cannot be described in human language?

Again, there are things people maybe speak of that way, but I think only when they’re exaggerating for effect or speaking loosely. There are many things that could be puzzling about some unfamiliar object you’re holding in your hand, but I’m skeptical it even makes sense to say what’s puzzling is that something about its shape violates Euclidean geometry.

The closest I can speculate to something like that would be hypothetical. Maybe a new sense, for instance. What if no one had ever experienced sight before, no one in the human race had ever had an ability to somehow translate light into information? And then suddenly, all at once, we had functioning eyes? It’s not just that things would look different from what we’re used to; we’d have no concept of things “looking” like anything. There’d be a lot of “stuff” going on in our brains, but we’d have no way to interpret it. We’d be overwhelmed with an avalanche of nonsensical sense-data.

That I could maybe see as being unimaginable before it happens, and indescribable when it does. Lovecraft though is talking about sights and sounds and such, so not quite the same thing. I lean toward the view that his version of indescribability probably is more of a copout.

But when he does break down and describe things, interestingly enough it often seems anti-climactic to me. In the stories where the Old Ones are almost totally mysterious entities, and you don’t know quite how real or imaginary they are, and there are no more than the slightest hints as to their appearance, nature, intentions, powers, etc., that’s somehow more creepy and effective. When they’re just kind of this vague presence–probably powerful, probably malevolent–it’s intriguing. Once the author goes into detail about how they’re from such-and-such a planet, and they battled with the beings of this other planet, and they have this-or-that power of telepathy and flight and such, and they come to Earth to mine such-and-such metal to take back to their planet, etc., etc., it starts feeling like any mundane science fiction story or movie. Somehow losing the mystery deprives the stories of that visceral creepiness.

Anyway, there’s also the recurring theme of a central character who fights all the way the notion that there are any occult or supernatural forces, and eventually just can’t come up with any counter explanation. Typically what he eventually concludes is obvious to the reader long before.

That’s interesting though. Are the people in the stories really all that dim-witted? It reminds me of how when I was a kid I laughed at the common horror movie cliché that monsters are always impervious to bullets. So the cop or soldier or whoever stands up and fires his pistol repeatedly at the slowly approaching monster to no effect, his eyes widen in shock and fear with each ineffectual shot, he runs out of bullets and the gun clicks multiple times as he frantically continues to pull the trigger, and with the monster now just inches away in frustration he takes the gun itself and hurls it at the monster which predictably has no more effect than the bullets, and so the monster engulfs him.

And of course I’m thinking as I watch that, what idiot by now doesn’t know you can’t shoot monsters and expect anything to happen?

But the thing is, that’s like taking for granted that people in horror movies are supposed to be familiar with the conventions of horror movies. If instead we assume they’re familiar with real life, maybe it’s not so inexplicable they’d expect a monster to be slowed or stopped by shooting him.

So the people in Lovecraft’s stories take a suspiciously long time to catch on and believe what they’re seeing, but that’s only because we know these are horror stories. Would their reactions really be so out of line if these weird things happened to someone in real life?

(Well, sometimes. I think in some of the stories, the protagonist’s behavior really isn’t that far out of line with what a reasonable person would do in real life confronted by the same bizarre evidence, but there are exceptions. The Whisperer in Darkness is, to me, one of the most engrossing of the stories, but the narrator’s cluelessness about what’s going on really does cross the line into implausibility.)

Actually this reminds me of a related point that popped into my head reading these stories. Maybe these characters really are unbelievably slow to accept a supernatural explanation of their experiences, because I’m struck by how extremely widespread and deep are beliefs in supernatural phenomena in real life with far less evidence. Granted, Lovecraft routinely makes his narrators scientists and academics and such, but far from a reluctance to admit occult or other such weird explanations except as a last resort, I’d say most people jump at the chance to interpret things that way.

That’s one of the weirdest things about reading material like this. To me, it’s all completely unreal, it’s just a chance to use one’s imagination. But to a very large number of people, things very much like what goes on in this book are completely and obviously real. I don’t mean the specifics; I think (almost) everyone would comprehend that these stories are works of fiction. But it would be like me reading stories about train trips or boxing matches or koala bears. I’d know the stories are fiction, but they’d be about things I recognize as being real. For many people, they’re as certain of the existence of space alien visitors to Earth, or Bigfoot, or astrological influences on human behavior, as I am of the existence of trains, boxing, and koala bears.

I was reminded of this again just recently on an Internet message board. It’s not one specifically about the supernatural or anything like that, but people occasionally post about random off-topic things that happen to be on their mind. Somebody asked if people believe in ghosts, and immediately there were numerous responses, all affirmative. And not even “maybe” or “probably,” but person after person just stating matter-of-factly that they know ghosts exist because they themselves have seen or heard one. (They seem to have zero concept of perceptual experiences needing to be interpreted. To them, they directly perceived a ghost and that settles the matter. Not all of them would insist everyone else should believe in ghosts, since they may not have seen one yet, but they certainly hold that their belief in ghosts is not subject to doubt or argument because they’ve had the relevant experience to settle the matter.)

And of course this can be multiplied over various other such topics. Heck, the most egregious one is literalist religion, which really is the rational equivalent of taking some fairy tale like Jack and the Beanstalk literally.

But it’s just bizarre to me to stop and think what a vastly different worldview so many people have from mine. So much that I take for granted is utterly foreign to them, and vice versa. How different it must be for such a person to read these stories. A lot scarier, a lot more real I would assume, since they think stuff like this happens all the time in real life.

Anyway, just to get back to the repetition in the stories, dreams routinely turn out to be prophetic, to be some form of communication. Mystical cults from around the world pop up in multiple stories as being connected to the beings and phenomena from other worlds freaking out the narrator. Geographically almost all the stories take place in the northeastern United States, with the same fictitious place names recurring frequently–Arkham, Innsmouth, the Miskatonic River, Miskatonic University, etc.

Like I say, it’s kind of overkill to read so many overlapping stories together, but still, these stories are mostly effective. This is a good read. It makes me wish I could see some of these things in a movie, but there’s the rub. How could any monster or any phenomenon that is somehow beyond human comprehension and experience and imagination be depicted? It would have to be a sorry substitute. Or just left out of the shot, so you see people reacting, but not what they’re reacting to, but then we’re back to where we started and aren’t seeing the good stuff after all.

Some of the stories from this collection that for whatever reason stuck with me the most or held my interest the most include The Rats in the Walls (really not so much the whole story, but just the ultimate explanation that is revealed), The Whisperer in Darkness, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Actually, The Dunwich Horror, the one story I was already familiar with from childhood, is probably still as creepy to me as any of them.

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