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H.P. Lovecraft - Overrated

I've recently been reading a collection of several H.P. Lovecraft short stories*. I was excited when I first bought the book. There are all these pop culture references on the Internet to the Cthulhu mythos, the Old Ones, "the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe" (Wikipedia), and beings "so horrific that direct knowledge of them meant insanity for the victim" (Wikipedia again). Sounds like pretty deep stuff, like stories to make you really ponder the universe and humanity's place in it.

Well, I'm about halfway through the collection, and it's little more than B-movie quality plotlines. The monsters are basically just monsters, with a thin veneer of exposition about them being ancient aliens from distant corners of the universe. But that thin veneer doesn't really add much. Replace the alien aspects with more traditional magic, fairy tale, or fantasy elements, and the stories wouldn't really change. Once the monsters are finally unleashed towards the ends of the stories, they could just as easily be the Blob or a werewolf - generic, mindless killing machines.

But even worse is his writing style. There's a certain well known writing technique, Show, don't tell. Writers can go overboard with it or overuse it, but the point is to paint a picture with words, not just say what's going on. The classic example is, 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' Well, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft never got the memo. Do you know how to tell if a scene is supposed to be scary in a Lovecraft story? The narrator will tell you it's scary, or he'll throw scary sounding adjectives into an otherwise normal description of a scene.

Consider this paragraph, from At the Mountains of Madness:

The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset. Here, on a hellishly ancient table-land fully 20,000 feet high, and in a climate deadly to habitation since a pre-human age not less than 500,000 years ago, there stretched nearly to the vision's limit a tangle of orderly stone which only the desperation of mental self-defence could possibly attribute to any but a conscious and artificial cause.

Pretty scare ruins, huh. You can tell because they're 'monstrous' and 'fiendish' and 'on a hellishly ancient' landscape, in a 'deadly' climate. And just a bit later, we learn that ,"It was, very clearly, the blasphemous city of the mirage in stark, objective, and ineluctable reality." But take away those adjectives, and you're left with merely an unusual set of ruins.

Or consider this paragraph, from The Dunwich Horror:

Morning found Dr. Armitage in a cold sweat of terror and a frenzy of wakeful concentration. He had not left the manuscript all night, but sat at his table under the electric light turning page after page with shaking hands as fast as he could decipher the cryptic text. He had nervously telephoned his wife he would not be home, and when she brought him a breakfast from the house he could scarcely dispose of a mouthful. All that day he read on, now and then halted maddeningly as a reapplication of the complex key became necessary. Lunch and dinner were brought him, but he ate only the smallest fraction of either. Toward the middle of the next night he drowsed off in his chair, but soon woke out of a tangle of nightmares almost as hideous as the truths and menaces to man's existence that he had uncovered.

This text that Armitage is translating is supposed to be terrifying, but we only know that because the narrator says Armitage is scared, and in a rather conventional way of having nightmares. You know what I have nightmares about, still? College finals. Not particularly horrifying.

Or consider this from The Call of Cthulhu;

Johansen, thank God, did not know quite all, even though he saw the city and the Thing, but I shall never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and in space, and of those unhallowed blasphemies from elder stars which dream beneath the sea, known and favoured by a nightmare cult ready and eager to loose them on the world whenever another earthquake shall heave their monstrous stone city again to the sun and air.

Again, we know this is scary, because the narrator tells us how scared he is, followed by an adjective laden description of what he's scared of. But take away the spooky adjectives (unhallowed, nightmare, monstrous) and replace the over the top nouns (the Thing, horrors, blasphemies) with more neutral descriptions, and it's not really terrifying.

I would have quipped that the only way Lovecraft knew how to make a scary setting was with a thesaurus, but here's an article where someone counted how many times Lovecraft used certain words in his stories, Wordcount for Lovecraft's Favorite Words. As that person put it, "One of the things any fan of Lovecraft discovers early on is that Lovecraft was very attached to certain words. We either laugh or groan every time we hear something described as 'indescribable' or called 'unnamable' or 'antiquarian' or 'cyclopean.' "

Granted, I am being a little harsh. Lovecraft obviously wouldn't have had a following if he didn't describe scenes at all. But there are way too many sections where he doesn't show us how the story is scary. He just tells us it's scary, and uses distractingly bloated prose to try to convince us.

I will say that the stories aren't horrible. The big problem is that my expectations were too high. There's such a huge Lovecraft following on the Internet that I was expecting great, when the reality is only mediocre to decent. They're worth reading just to see what all the hubbub is about, but don't expect deep thought provoking stories that make you face "the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe".

Out of the stories in the collection I'm reading, the two best by far are "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow out of Time". Despite the problems discussed above, they're actually pretty good and enjoyable to read. Just don't expect masterpieces.

And this review didn't even get into Lovecraft's racism, which was bad even for his time.

*The collection I'm reading isn't actually the product I linked to up above. The collection I'm reading is a 'bargain' book from Books-A-Million, The Essential Stories of H.P. Lovecraft, that I bought on a whim at the bookstore. However, for 1 novella and 6 short stories, it's $8 (I think I got it half off), while the complete collection I linked to, with 1 novel, 4 novellas, and 53 short stories is only $11.23, so I figured if anybody was actually going to follow the link and buy something, the complete collection was a much better deal. And for a nice hardcover, that's not a bad price. However, given that his writings are all in the public domain, you can read electronic versions for much cheaper, or even free. Here's one such collection, HPLovecraft.com - His Writings.


Thanks for this. I'm currently reading Lovecraft for the first time myself, and came across this post while searching online to see if anyone out there was as underwhelmed as I am.
I agree completely about him telling you in plain language how horrific something is or how terrified a character is. While reading it I think to myself "sucks to be them, but I feel fine".

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