Volume 23, Number 04, Summer 2005

H. P. Lovecraft: Tales

Edited By Peter Straub

The Library of America, $35
Reviewed by Michael Grossberg
October 2005

The Library of America has embraced the missing link in horror: H.P. Lovecraft.

The reclusive Rhode Island writer, who lived from 1890 to 1937 while limiting his social contacts primarily to letters, bridged the gap between Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, arguably the two other great American masters of horror.

Lovecraft receives his belated due in the 155th volume of the Library’s prestigious series. Editor Peter Straub, the horror novelist, has chosen 22 of Lovecraft’s stories and novellas—a representative sample of his mysterious, melodramatic, arcane and antiquarian bent.

If this collection doesn’t help salvage Lovecraft’s long-underestimated reputation as a pioneer in the Gothic style of horror, nothing can.

Where Poe’s 19th century horror reveled in dark romanticism and brooding poetry, Lovecraft eschewed the poetic and the romantic for the clinical, the lurid and the menacingly alien.

And where King’s fiction is grounded in the anxieties and fears of everyday life, Lovecraft preferred to explore the fringes of the insane, the isolated and the unreal. Most of his stories shrink from realism like a vampire shrinks from the light.

King has praised Lovecraft as the 20th century horror story’s “dark and baroque prince,’’ while Joyce Carol Oates hailed him as the King of Weird.

On the other hand, in his notorious essay, “Tales of the Marvelous and Ridiculous,” critic Edmund Wilson dismissed Lovecraft as a hack and his genre as hopeless. (And Ayn Rand, in The Romantic Manifesto, mostly disparaged horror fiction as the lower depths of romantic fiction—although the links to dark romanticism are clear, from Poe to Victor Hugo.)

Although the strange truth probably lies in between, Lovecraft is not to everyone’s taste.

Let’s be frank, balefully frank: Lovecraft never saw an adjective he didn’t like. His houses are haunted; trees, terrible; families, degenerate; ghouls, fiendish; and abominations, unholy.

From “The Horror at Red Hook,” here’s a ripe-to-rotting example of Lovecraftian excess: “Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding.”

The horror, the horror.


Lovecraft, who often wrote about the missing links in human evolution (and devolution), defined many of the nightmarish archetypes that have influenced much of pop-culture, for good and ill. Seen any bad horror movies or gore-filled video games lately? They probably include a few Lovecraftian touches and tropes, from invasions by primordial alien intelligences to monsters emerging from decaying ruins.

In his fiction about alternate dimensions, suspended animation, devolution and invisibility, Lovecraft stretched the boundaries of horror to touch the eccentric fringes of science fiction.

From ghost stories (“The Outsider”) to pulp melodrama (“Herbert West—Reanimator”), Lovecraft’s fiction exudes mystery, a sinister sense of the abnormal, metaphysical pessimism about man’s place in the cosmos, and the cold sweat of prickly fear.

Lovecraft is best known for “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror” and other forbidding tales in his Cthulhu Mythos about a cosmic evil that predates mankind. These and other signature titles are included in the collection, although his letters, poetry, some novels and many other stories must await a second volume.

Many of his stories were published in Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and other pulp magazines, but some of his best weren’t published until after his death in 1937. Although Lovecraft died before the horrors of World War II and Nazi concentration camps were revealed, his best stories anticipate them.

Lovecraft never expected his stories to endure or influence so many writers. Among them: August Derleth (who founded Arkham House, an early reprint champion of Lovecraft), Colin Wilson, Robert Bloch, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Straub and King.

Nameless dread, thy name is Lovecraft.

(This review previously appeared in a slightly different form in The Columbus Dispatch.)

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