Books Archive

Friday, June 2, 2017

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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Review - Future Humans

Scott Solomon, a friend of mine who happens to be an evolutionary biologist, has just released his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution. If that name sounds familiar, it's because I mentioned the book a few months ago in the entry, New Book - Future Humans. Now, as I wrote then, I did read and comment on one of the draft manuscripts for Scott, so I may not be the most impartial of reviewers. But I still liked the book very much and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ongoing human evolution.

I can't sum it up much better than the description from the publisher's site:

In this intriguing book, evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon draws on the explosion of discoveries in recent years to examine the future evolution of our species. Combining knowledge of our past with current trends, Solomon offers convincing evidence that evolutionary forces still affect us today. But how will modernization--including longer lifespans, changing diets, global travel, and widespread use of medicine and contraceptives--affect our evolutionary future?

Solomon presents an entertaining and accessible review of the latest research on human evolution in modern times, drawing on fields from genomics to medicine and the study of our microbiome. Surprising insights, on topics ranging from the rise of online dating and Cesarean sections to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Ebola, suggest that we are entering a new phase in human evolutionary history--one that makes the future less predictable and more interesting than ever before.

The book is well grounded in evidence. In fact, most of it is about actually observed human evolution, both in our very recent past just prior to the industrial revolution, as well as what can be gleaned in modern industrial societies. Of course, that makes the speculation far less sensationalistic than doe-eyed anime characters or web-footed aqua-people, but you probably won't lose any bets going along with Scott's reasonable inferences.

There were many good passages I could quote from the book, but here's one that I especially liked.

At it's core, evolution is about babies. Forget survival of the fittest - the only reason survival is important in evolution is because you cannot reproduce when you're dead. Ultimately, selection favors whatever traits result in making the most babies, grandbabies, and so on.

Scott went on to explain how natural selection has shifted in modern societies. When the vast, vast majority of people survive into adulthood, it becomes changes to fertility that will have the greatest effect on evolution. And that's exactly what many researchers have found - women having children earlier and entering menopause later, increasing their reproductive years and hence their number of offspring. Of course, the researchers have to use statistical methods to try to tease out cultural and environmental influences from genetic ones, but it really does seem as if these are hereditable, genetic changes. And that's just one of the many lessons I learned from the book.

There's a review in New Scientist some might find useful, Future Humans: Just how far can our evolution go?. You can also read an early version of one of the chapters as an article in Nautilus magazine, The Rhythm of the Tide, describing his trip to Ile aux Coudres, an isolated island in Quebec, to discuss what researchers there had discovered of recent evolution in the island's population.

On a personal note, I can say that it's a very different experience reading a draft as a reviewer vs. reading the completed book for pleasure. There's a bit of stress in reviewing the book, intentionally being critical, and trying to find flaws that could be improved. It was much more relaxing reading the book once it was done, and just enjoying it. (I should add that I reviewed it as a member of his target audience, not an expert in the field. I may like to write a bit about evolution on this blog, but I'm no biologist.)

The book was very interesting. It may be a little advanced for an evolutionary naïf, but if you paid attention in your high school biology class and remember the lessons, you'll probably find this book pretty informative. I definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New Book - Future Humans

A friend of mine, Scott Solomon, has just finished writing his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution.

Future Humans book cover
Publisher's Page
Buy from Amazon

Here's the description from the publisher's website:

In this intriguing book, evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon draws on the explosion of discoveries in recent years to examine the future evolution of our species. Combining knowledge of our past with current trends, Solomon offers convincing evidence that evolutionary forces still affect us today. But how will modernization--including longer lifespans, changing diets, global travel, and widespread use of medicine and contraceptives--affect our evolutionary future?

Solomon presents an entertaining and accessible review of the latest research on human evolution in modern times, drawing on fields from genomics to medicine and the study of our microbiome. Surprising insights, ranging from the rise of online dating and Cesarean sections to the spread of diseases such as HIV and Ebola, suggest that we are entering a new phase in human evolutionary history--one that makes the future less predictable and more interesting than ever before.


Scott Solomon is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. He teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and scientific communication at Rice University, where he is a Professor in the Practice in the Department of BioSciences. He lives in Houston, TX.

I read one of the draft manuscripts, and so can say that it really was an interesting, engaging read. And while you might worry that a book about future human evolution might be hokey or too speculative, you can rest assured that this book is well grounded and sticks to reasonable inferences.

You can pre-order the book from Amazon right now. It will be shipped in October.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Update - New Third Edition!

Book Cover to God? Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

I've published* a new update to my book, God? Leaving Christianity - only $4.99 from LuLu (also available for free online - but that doesn't make nearly as nice of a gift...) The book is a collection of some of my best essays on religion, both chronicling my thought process in abandoning belief and explaining some of my more recent thoughts on the subject. I've kept the book relatively short, just over 100 pages, to keep it as a reasonable introduction to non-belief that won't be overwhelming to readers.

I know it's hard to be impartial about a book I've written myself, but from the reactions of friends who have read the book, I feel comfortable recommending it. One of my friends, after reading the book, went and bought ten copies so that he could give them away to other people to read. The most recent friend I gave a copy to sent multiple text messages while reading the book to say how much he liked certain passages.

I usually order a small batch of books at a time to have some on hand to give to people who want a copy (I never push it on people, and only give it to people who actually ask for it). However, that most recent friend also received the last copy from the most recent batch, so I figured I'd read through and make a few revisions before ordering another batch, creating a new third edition.

If you're one of the select few who already owns the first edition, there are two new essays in this book. You can either read those essays online, or download a pdf copy with the link below. The pdf is formatted to print out as a booklet on 8 1/2" x 11" paper. Even if your printer doesn't have auto duplexing, Adobe Reader has options to print out a booklet.
Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf

For that matter, if you want to download a pdf of the entire book, you can do that, too, with this link:
Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf

However, I really do recommend the LuLu paperback version for people who want a hard copy. With the glossy cover and perfect binding, it's a much nicer form factor than anything most people can print out on home equipment. And at only $4.99, it's not that expensive.

If you just want to read the essays, you can do that online for free. But if you want a nice physical copy that you can hold in your hands or give to someone as a present, then go buy the book from LuLu**. Just in case you missed the multiple links in this post or the ad in the sidebar, here's the link to buy the book one last time:

Buy the book: God? Leaving Christianity


* I'm using 'published' in a loose sense, as it's really self-published from a print on demand company. As I've written before, this is the modern version of a vanity press, but without the expense of paying for a print run.

** Another option if you want the book is to befriend me and just ask for a copy, but then you'd have to know me in person.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Breaking the Law - Stealing 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

I just read* the classic book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I read it on my Kindle, but technically I had to break the law in order to do so. The author, Harper Lee, has refused to allow the book to be published in electronic format.

Now, I know I have a paperback version of the book stashed away somewhere in my house, but I was having a hard time finding it, and to be honest, I often times prefer reading on the Kindle, anyway. There are some aspects of old dead tree books that I like - the smell of the ink and the paper, the sound the pages make as you turn them, the way you can flip through the pages to re-read a section in light of something new you just read. But most of my reasons for liking print books are really just nostalgia. In general, the Kindle is a nicer form factor - easier to hold in bed, with one hand, or to lay on the table next to my plate while I'm eating.

But Harper Lee doesn't particularly like the idea of ebooks. In a letter to Oprah's magazine she wrote (among other things):

can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up -- some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece, so I won't complain too much about an old woman's eccentricities. But the magic of a book is in the content, not the medium. When I read, I get so caught up in the story that I'm no longer consciously aware that I'm reading. The story is in my mind, not on the page or screen in front of me.

Anyway, if you haven't yet read To Kill a Mockingbird, you really must do so. It's one of the best stories I've read. And if you prefer to read on an eReader like the Kindle, it's easy enough to find on Google. I'd recommend searching for a .mobi or .epub version rather than a .pdf so that the text can be resized. (As of right now, this link works and doesn't do anything crazy like install a download manager.) But don't just outright steal it. If I didn't already have the paperback somewhere in the house, I don't think I'd have downloaded the bootleg copy. So see if you can find a legit copy somewhere so that you at least own the content.

*To be honest, I didn't just read To Kill a Mockingbird. I finished it a few months ago and wrote this entry back then, but somehow forgot about it and left it languishing in my drafts folder for a little while. Oh well, it's not like this is breaking news. Better late than never, I guess.

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