The Dunwich Horror and Others
(Arkham House; 433 pages; $27.95.)
Dagon and Other Macabre Takes
(Arkham House, 1986; 448 pages.)
A double review by
There is no arguing the vast literary influence that Lovecraft exerted
over the themes, conventions, and styles of supernatural and science
fiction literature. Combining symbols of archetypal supernatural terror
(embodiments of mythic, religious, and cross-cultural societal significance)
with materialistic concerns, a cynical intellect, and themes invested
with philosophical speculation as well as with surface thrills, he (and
his readers) sought both escape from, and a better understanding of,
the natural world by refuting its scientifically held laws. This was
accomplished with the emotional and intellectual tool of fiction, with
which Lovecraft imagined that which he couldn't believe in, created
what his soul longed for.
Lovecraft's unique themes, distinct approach, and revisement of convention
remain influential today. His cosmic motifs and themes, which favored
overt cosmicism over the traditional static horrors of the supernaturally-based
Gothic tradition, were brought to forceful and convincing life by his
nihilistic, uncompromisingly bleak vision of an ignorant species fumbling
around in an unknowable cosmos. A universe void of empathy, unconcerned
with a humanity when we were lucky, easily able to destory human life
when we were noticed. The world, the cosmos according to Lovecraft,
lacked the conservative moral postering of "good" vs. "evil"
once so often displayed in such representations of the horror genre
as the proper Gothic or the Victorian ghost story. There is no moral
significance in Lovecraft, and rather than hampering the emotional effects
of his frightful visions, this lack of moral postering makes them undeniably
The first in a three-book series from Arkham House, the small press
company responsible more than any other for the prestige that Lovecraft
enjoys today, The Dunwich Horror and Others brings together
the complete weird tales of the Old Gent of Providence, a man whose
imagination was as vast as his kindness to his proteges. For the first
time these texts are the way the author wanted them, corrected by S.
T. Joshi, whose diligent work is based on research of Lovecraft's manuscripts,
revisions, and the appearance of earlier tales found in their original
publication. This, then, is the ultimate Lovecraft experience, and I
envy any among you who are approaching this unique, philosophically
profound author for the first time.
While significant textual revisions may not be detected in too many
instances, most of the changes appearing to be in minor details, even
the preservation of a thought, an image, or a stylistic approach is
appreciated by readers who want to see, to think, to feel as
Lovecraft intended when compsing these flights from the mundane. Including
some of his best work in the field, and chosen by August Dereleth for
that very reason, this volume includes "The Colour out of Space,"
"The Rats in the Walls," "The Outsider," and "The
Whisperer in Darkness" besides the influential title story which,
despite many critcs' arguments to the contrary, I find to be much more
than a formula piece written for the audience of Weird Tales.
Far from a simple piece of pulp escapism, "The Dunwich Horror"
is a synthetic mingling of many of Lovecraft's thematic interests, and
as such, offers a unique, chilling look at the author's culminating
philosophical scope while highlighting such themes as human-alien breeding,
the interconnectedness of other realms and our own, the problems of
perception, and, of course, his developing Cthulhu Mythos.
Changing the face of fantastic fiction in the Twentieth century by
replacing a tired emphasis on physical death and moralistic terror by
emphasizing instead the terrors and awe possible only when confronting
the sublime unkown, Lovecraft brought fantasy to an unsurpassed level
of maturity, particularly by his insistance on employing the devices
of modern scientific thought and mechanicalism as means to help achieve
his horrid effects -- using them, in fact, as components of his dark
aesthetic -- rather than depending on the supernatural to refute materialistic
culture and thought (such as his contemporary Machen).
Whereas much dark and fantastic fiction of the time did little than
shock with effect while reaffirming a pre-planned framework of conservative
religious and moral values, Lovecraft avoided such completely. His work
suggests instead awesome alien powers, unknown vistas of space and time,
and broken scientific myths whose cold sense of a bleak, black existence
becomes a new mythology.
Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, another volume of this series,
publishes in chronological order more of Lovecraft's scientifically
charged stories, including "Supernatural Fiction in Literature".
This essay is a land-mark discourse on the historical origins, aesthetic
conventions, and psychological/artistic importance and effects of the
supernatural in fiction. Included are such efforts as "The Tomb,"
"Dagon," "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," "Facts
Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn," "From Beyond," and
others which illustrate Lovecraft's maturing themes and growing fixations
as he developed as a thinker and artist. Imbuing the weird tale with
stark visions of cosmic alienation, a bulk of his work focuses on 'the
outsider' both metaphorically and literally. This makes Lovecraft an
early precursor to the intellectual existentalists whose philosophies
would characterize modern literature for over a decade after the second
Several of Lovecraft's motiffs may be followed in these volumes, from
the terror and dangers of cultural degeneracy through inbreeding to
the horror of mating with alien creatures; from science as a gateway
to magic and thought as a gateway to dreams; from his emphasis of isolated,
wise if withdrawn outsiders -- professors, professional men, and loners
-- alienated from their society and the normally held laws of space
and time. When confronted by Ancient Ones and their own fears and inadequacies,
mankind is depicted as an insignificant insect in the black cosmic waters
of infinity, unable to comprehend let alone defy alien gods and beings
from other realities. Going even further, Lovecraft suggests that we
are unable to even properly perceive or interpret true reality.
Depending on his usual authoratative style to make eldrich wonders
appear not only believable but sinisterly probable, the stories reprinted
here are marvels of aesthetic construction and culmulative emotional
effect. At his best, Lovecraft examined the insignificance of
an insignificant human species defenseless against the amoral, unknowable
powers of an existence which we had very little knowledge of. There
is no God in Lovecraft's universe, nor is there purpose to our
sufferings, struggles, and petty triumphs.
Of even further interest in these volumes is the evolution of Lovecraft's
different "phases" of creativity, wherein he preferred different
subject matter and choices of approach to the terrible and awesome,
and his wide choice of interests. The dedicated reader can notice without
difficulty in several of these stories related subjects and ideas that
constitute varying phases in his developing thoughts and approach. First,
there are traditional supernatural stories written in the Gothic tradition
and inspired by Poe, including "The Tomb," "The Picture
in the House," "In the Vault," and "Pickman's Model."
These all belong to an older horror aesthetic. Besides these are pieces
of whimsey and mythology, employing classical Roman/Egyptian/Eastern
sources and inspiration: "The Tree" and "Celephais,"
"Hypnos," etc. Also included are "The White Ship,"
"The Cats of Ulthar," and "The strange High House in
the Mist," some of his Dunsany inspired Dream Tales, alongside
more personal fantasies like "The Outsider" and the inventive
terrors of "The Music of Erich Zann." The New York stories
("The Terrible Old Man," "The Horror at Red Hook,"
and "He") are joined by such horrific science fiction spectacles
like "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" and From Beyond" and
such pulpish work-for-hire fare as "Herbert West: Re-Animator"
are overshadowed by such mythos pieces as "The Haunter of the Dark,"
"The Call of the Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in Darkness"
and "The Shadow Out of Time."
Lovecraft's primary literary themes (as well as the beliefs informing
them) crafted/discovered poetic borderlands between the past and the
future. The present is often the center of his attention, albeit a present
formed by the eldritch malignity of the past (often pasts outside of
human conceptions of time or space), emphasizing issues which are themselves
timeless, belonging to entities or celestial forces outside of man's
finite understanding or ability to comprehend.
An aesthetic feeling of vastness exists in his universe, complemented
by reinforced suggestions of our frailness when compared to the hugeness
of the universe and our inability to even properly conceive of "truth."
The original stories in these collections, artifacts on which Lovecraft's
lasting worth is based, are more than entertainment, more than chilling
stories of escape; these stories are, at their best, ways of looking
deeper into the reality of the imagination, the psyche, and the power
of the written word to better understand our own thoughts. Perhaps by
doing so, we may confront those demons that come from within but are
best faced as symbols in literature. Lovecraft used fiction to face
several of his own insecurities, and his work is available in these
carefully published, attractive hard-covers for us to do the same.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: