BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: H P Lovecraft

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we reach the dark tales of one of the masters of madness and lurking horror at the edge of the rational world.

Howard Phillip Lovecraft remained for a long time the only horror writer I had any time for. It’s hard to explain why I became such a fan of his, but resisted the rest of the genre, but after exposure to his work via the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game I quickly owned a now-very-battered set of paperback collections, and when I bought my Kindle a “collected works” was one of the first things I downloaded. For a writer who never considered himself a success, and was never hugely popular within his lifetime, Lovecraft’s influence is now everywhere, in games, books, films and comics; whenever you see some tentacled horror from beyond the known dimensions rear it’s squamous head, thats Lovecraft, right there.

In some ways its hard to imagine how these stories got such a hold. Reading them now, with years of ingrained affection, I may not be best qualified to judge, but if “Lovecraftian” is anything it’s a collection of tone, common obsessions and occasionally ponderous writing that at its best touches deeply atavistic fears about sanity, corruption, and man’s place in the world. At its worse, its stodgy, dull, misogynistic and shockingly racist. So Lovecraft is a writer of contradictions, and at times a hard writer to love, but undeniably a great voice when it all comes together.

So lets talk about when it all comes together. Lovecraft’s best work can be summed by his biggest recurring theme – man gazes beyond his local worldview in the great abyss of cold, hard reality, and is conquered by it, sucumbing to madness, corruption, death, or all three. This fear for the physical and mental self, that fear that what you are and what you believe springs palpably from stories such The Shadow Out of Time or The Shadow out of Innsmouth, or the dread that the world as you know it is a lie, and terribly things lurk in the dark corners of the world can be found in The Whisperer in the Darkness, The Thing on the Doorstep, and of course, The Call of Cthulhu.

There is also a great “everyman” feel to his protagonists. Sure, many of them are basically himself, or his friends; educated middle-class East Coast americans, but there are few heroes among them, just the curious, or the unlucky who wind up facing those horrors from beyond. Its a bit like James’ work where the central conflict is between the uninitiated and mysterious power, not seekers of that power becoming undone by over-reaching. Its not horror that you look for, it’s horror that finds you.

Finally, I think part of Lovecraft’s enduring appeal is that his “mythos” – i use the term loosely, as it’s later fans and co-writers that attempted to stitch together any coherent version of his various gods and beasties – transports and adapts easily without losing any of its raw power. As I mentioned already, his influence is everyone once you know what to look for, and that, as much as the works himself, is his legacy to the world of Horror.

Next time: A contemporary of Lovecraft and fellow purveyor of Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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  1. Lovecraft was a great fan of British supernatural writer MR James, to the extent that he even borrowed some of James’s plots. Despite his pantheon of horrors I don’t think Lovecraft is anywhere as good a wordsmith as James was.

    • dwgrampus /

      i agree – James is a much sharper writer, and you can see the influence on Lovecrafts work. I do think HPL taps into some real darkly primordial fears that are uniquely his though – and I have a great affection for him that probably carries me past many of his flaws!

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