It’s been another exciting Lovecraft season – in fact, it’s almost been like some kind of Lovecraft overload this last few weeks, as I’ve read all manner of weird fiction from both the master and several other mythos authors! After my two-part blog exploring some of the wider Cthulhu mythos stories, including some really significant works such as The Hounds of Tindalos, it’s time to once more immerse myself in the “baroque prince” himself.
This year, I’ve read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the longest piece Lovecraft wrote, which has the distinction of having its own blog entry back in November, which you can check out here. Going right to the other end of the spectrum, I’ll start this year’s foray with several shorter pieces, beginning with the fragment Azathoth. This is just three paragraphs from a proposed novel by Lovecraft that date from 1922, intended to form a story “in the 18th century manner”, with Lovecraft mentioning Vathek as a literary inspiration. It is quite flowery and very evocative in its language, describing a character who is tired of the current age where imagination and dreams have died. It is possible that the themes it would have explored were later taken up in the Dream-Quest, though Lovecraft mentions in a letter the possibility of there being a more Arabian Nights flavour to the work. It is notable for containing the first mention of the blind idiot god Azathoth, although only in the title.
Slightly longer is Nyarlathotep, a “prose poem” from 1920 which offers a pretty grim picture of human society, with a lot in common with He. Nyarlathotep is presented almost like a travelling salesman, albeit one who has woken up from millennia asleep in Egypt. He offers society a very dismal picture of life, and his revelations cause all manner of mass hysteria in the streets. I’ve read that it’s possible the story is meant as something of a parody of Nikolai Tesla’s electrical demonstrations, although I don’t know if that was the intention. I have read this story before, though, and remember being really quite baffled by it then as well – it is very weird, and I think a good example that shows how Lovecraft used these bizarre names for effect and colour, without really a great plan behind them.
Another “prose poem” is Ex Oblivione, which dates from the same year as Nyarlathotep but has a much more Dreamlands feel to it. A bizarre dream-like sequence from the narrator, telling of a dream of a bronze gate that he wishes to explore beyond. When reading papyri that speak of the gate, he discovers beyond it lies oblivion, and so takes a drug to induce him to dream again. Very odd, whether the gate is meant to be a metaphor for sex or otherwise!
Dagon is another short story and was one of the first tales Lovecraft wrote as an adult. There are, nevertheless, many of the hallmarks of Lovecraft’s style already visible here, such as the narrator near to the breaking point when he relays his story, the half-glimpsed slimy monster, the endless, madness-inducing blank vistas. It describes a seaman who escaped capture by the Germans during WW1 and coming across an expanse of rotting mire possibly thrown up from the ocean floor, walks in search of shelter. He finds a monolith carved with strange figures and runes, which attracts the attentions of a huge sea creature which appears to worship at the stone. Having been rescued at sea, he has taken to using morphine to forget what he saw, but when that proves ineffective, he decides to commit suicide. What a ride. Dagon, of course, would later surface as a religious cult in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, though the creature in this tale is possibly a member of the species and not the creature Dagon itself. Parallels have also been drawn with The Call of Cthulhu, which many think of as a re-writing of this story. It’s one that I’ve read before, but I honestly didn’t remember any of it from that earlier read!
Another story that I’ve read previously is The Music of Erich Zann, during the time when I used to read Lovecraft by the light of the Christmas tree. The story takes place in what is possibly Paris, where a poor student rents a room below the “genius” Erich Zann, a viol-player (not a violinist, as is often said, but apparently a genuine player of the viol, the forerunner of the cello). Zann plays in a cheap theatre orchestra, then comes home and plays utterly bizarre music through the night, which the student finds beguiling. Wishing to hear more, he presses Zann for a performance but is alarmed at Zann’s reaction to his request for the weird music. It seems the musician is playing his music to ward off some supernatural terror, which lurks beyond the garret window – though after the merest glimpse, the student abandons the house and can never return. It’s a story that Lovecraft said he liked a great deal, though later in life he worried that he had not been as explicit in what the horror Zann faced actually was. But it’s that subtlety that has otherwise given it critical praise. I do like it, its French setting lends it something of the air of The King in Yellow. I remember the Call of Cthulhu LCG had Erich Zann as a Hastur-aligned character, though cases have been made that Zann is facing off Nyarlathotep and, possibly, Azathoth itself (weird music vs weird music?) I suppose it doesn’t really matter – the atmosphere is key, as always, and the sense of weirdness comes through very clearly, without needing to resort to anything further. It’s almost like Lovecraft lets us decide in our own imaginations what is happening here, and I like it!
A bit more prosaic horror comes from The Hound, which is a story of grave-robbers haunted by that which they disturb. I believe it is intentionally over-the-top, as we follow the story of a chap who, along with his friend, has grown weary of what life can offer, so has started robbing graves. You know, as you do. When they dig up a similarly-depraved individual, they find a curious amulet which they take, but which prompts a giant hound-like creature to start haunting them. When the narrator attempts to return the amulet following his friend’s gruesome demise, he finds the hound-like beast occupying the coffin, and flees the graveyard, writing this story before he plans to shoot himself. I thought this one was more generically-scary, and aside from the language, it didn’t really feel a great deal like Lovecraft himself – until we get to the fact that this is the first time he mentions the fabled Necronomicon! Yes, the storied tome of unspeakable horror from the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, gets its first mention in print in this story. From reading around on the internets, it seems this is really the only reason to read this one. Ah well!
Sticking with some more prosaic horror, The Beast in the Cave was written when HP Lovecraft was 14. It’s actually not bad, either – I mean, I wrote a clarinet sonata when I was 14, but I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to publish it! HP, on the other hand, was churning out horror stories… This one is a fairly interesting one, as well – a chap gets distracted while touring a show cave, and having heard of colonies of people isolating themselves in the caves, goes off looking for evidence. His torch goes out and he hears something running up to attack him, so throws some rocks and manages to knock it senseless, whereupon the tour guide comes back and together they kill it. But the horror – it is clearly a mutated man! As I say, it was quite fun, all told!
To finish, though, I have re-read The Colour Out of Space, one of the big stories from Lovecraft’s later period (if such a thing can be said to exist). I call it a big story, though it isn’t long per se, it just seems to loom large within the Cthulhu mythos with which I am most familiar. The story is set against the backdrop of a reservoir being built, where, 40 years prior, Nahum Gardiner and his family saw a meteorite hit their land, thereafter the ground became tainted with some noxious substance and nothing grew well. The animals died, or ran off, and the family grew steadily mad, with their distant neighbour Ammi Pierce telling all of this to a surveyor for the reservoir after he has seen the acres of “blasted heath”. The reason for this tragedy is described as a “colour”, though one of unearthly hues, which had leeched from the meteorite into the ground, and driven the family mad when they drank water from the well. The story is pure, classic Lovecraft in so many ways, and features several hallmarks of his writing such as the “backwoods” informant, the indescribable horror, the science element, etc. Indeed, the story is often billed as sci-fi rather than horror, although Ammi’s account of his search through the Gardiner house really is classic horror – it is a classic blend of the two genres. The story was Lovecraft’s attempt to portray a truly alien adversary – the titular “colour” is just truly bizarre, almost like a cloud of vapour, which begs the question how is it sentient? Truly other-worldly. This one is what I would describe as one of the classics of Lovecraft’s tales, among the pantheon with The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Out of Time, and so on, one of the real heavyweights. I’m surprised, really, that I don’t really remember it from the last time that I read it. It has a very disturbing atmosphere to it, which continues to build and build – it’s really very good, and while it might not have Cthulhu or any of the other famed elder gods taking part in the proceedings, but it definitely succeeds for me!
That’s it for another year!