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Review: “The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories” by H.P. Lovecraft (4 Stars)

04 Nov

Behold! The eldritch other in all its cosmic horror, brought to you thru Lovecraftian prose and a cascade of increasingly dismal and slightly unbalanced vignettes.

This comprehensive collection of Lovecraft stories focuses on the Cthulhu mythos. There are early and later tales and the book contains an introduction about the author, and explanatory notes which are footnoted throughout the text. The supplementary material included does a great deal to flesh out the person behind these strange tales and provide some context and perspective. The footnotes help illuminate the author’s life and provide interesting insights into the genesis of inspiration that permeated into the evolving creative process that formed these tales. Lovecraft’s personal worldview is problematic, to say the least, but it’s useful to have some background on him before delving into his works.

In some cases, the reader gets very early tales such as “Dagon” which is a short almost incomplete vignette. Yet, there is something there; a weighty thing, hiding in a tumultuous fog. A hint of evilness lurking in the darkness, just beyond human senses or comprehension. Even in his less expansive works, Lovecraft is able to hit the heavy notes. Strike an echo in the soul.

Lovecraftian prose can be overwrought and wordy, even troublesome. The language may be off putting to some modern readers due to the arcane text and alternative spellings, but nothing is insurmountable.

When it works, however, the author’s use of sparse words hit just the right notes to paint a vivid picture. By laying off the throttle of verbiage, Lovecraft makes things real and plumbs the depths of the reader’s personal demons. He is particularly good at this.

There is a certain distancing in Lovecraft’s tone of phrase. He is sparse in dialog and when he does use speech, the characters often carry on in monologues. Other times the narrator recounts letters or diary entries—or simply tells the reader about everything going on. A sort of “removed” air pervades the writing. However, you do manage to slip in among the cracks between the words, and somehow the author slowly slides you (almost imperceivably) closer to the action–often at the very bitter and horrifying end.

Something about the author’s word choice, even when buried in the arcane vocabulary of his time, creates certain undulations that rise above the waves and crest over into the subconscious archetypes of the mind. When he makes up words or monsters ot other devices of horror they feel real and not contrived. The Necronomicon, Cthulhu, Shoggoth, the Old Ones–what are these things? Lovecraft barely hints at them in his sparse descriptions, and yet we know them each and all.

The unknowable other, just beyond the reach of our senses is where most of Lovecraft’s tales lead. As many others have noted, Lovecraft is a master of taking familiar things and skewing them just slightly enough so as to create a sense of being uncomfortable. Something is just not quite right, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is until you realize you are too far into the endless abyss to turn back. Sometimes we get fleeting glimpses of the monsters lurking in the fringes of our universe, ready to usurp mankind and begin a new age for the Old Ones. Yet, mostly we don’t even get this, we hear second or third hand accounts about stuff going on in more isolated parts of the world. Something is out there, just beyond the corner of your eye.

Lovecraft’s plots occasionally hinge on predicable device that could be tiresome for experienced readers who have seen such tropes raked over the coals in media and popular culture. I think keeping a historical perspective while reading these tales helps to alleviate this. The other thing is Lovecraft’s style. His ability to bring characters to a predicable fate, of which often they are powerless to resist, is somehow captivating. Sometimes the characters can do absolutely nothing, but submit to that which is beyond their power and comprehension (while the reader just cringes with one eye over the protagonist’s shoulder).

Yet, Lovecraft manages to make this relentless ride worth it. We know how the roller coaster works, where it starts, what will happen along the way, and where it will end—yet we scream just the same when we feel that first rushing drop.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

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Posted by on November 4, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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