What Are They Reading?
Edited by Peter Straub.
Library of America. 838 pp. $35.
For dedicated fans of H.P. Lovecraft, there's something exceptionally exciting about the publication this February of a Library of America selection of his work. It looks like he's finally winning some long-overdue respect and recognition. To fans, the ones who have always believed, the book's arrival feels as much like an honor to the audience as to the man.
I was introduced to Lovecraft through the work of Stephen King, the literary hero of my pre-adolescence (and perhaps a bit longer thereafter than I'd care to admit). I devoured Lovecraft's Dream Cycle, his Cthulhu Mythos, as well as the work of countless imitators, who borrow freely from his archetypes and mythologies, including King: note his short story "Crouch End," for example, or his novella "The Mist.") I eventually wrote my undergraduate thesis on "The Call of Cthulhu," a precarious suspension-bridge of a short story that ushers the reader over a bottomless chasm of psychological and metaphysical grotesqueries, alternately daring you to look down, and begging you not to.
Chosen and annotated by the horror writer Peter Straub, whose work relies heavily on that of S.T. Joshi, the first and still-greatest Lovecraft scholar, the stories included here are some of Lovecraft's finest and most troubling. My favorites include "The Colour Out of Space," "The Thing on the Doorstep," of course "The Call of Cthulhu," and At the Mountains of Madness, one of several novels and novellas included in this book.
Borrowing liberally from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, At the Mountains of Madness can be read as a sort of sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's only novel. But whether you're familiar with the Poe book or not, this Lovecraft text is more than worthwhile on its own merits. As much a masterful exercise in suspense as a histrionic rant (it opens: "I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why"), the novel is a tale of adventure in an Antarctic wilderness and a buried city. I won't risk ruining the resonantly disturbing and wildly ambiguous ending for you by addressing it with any degree of specificity, but trust me--it's really something else.
As a relatively new resident of Brooklyn, I also find renewed pleasure in "He," where some restless spirits from the pre-Revolutionary days rise up to settle an old score; "The Horror at Red Hook," which obsesses over cult rituals in 1920s Brooklyn immigrant communities; and the fear of subway tunnels underscoring "Pickman's Model" (even though it's set in Boston). By this same token, there are comforts of home for me in the muggy evil of the book's opening story, "The Statement of Randolph Carter," set in a swamp near Gainesville, Florida (my much-beloved college town).
Lovecraft was a swirl of contradiction. He came of age in the twentieth century, yet loathed nearly every aspect of modern life. He was an American who yearned for a monarch and referred to the Revolutionary War as "treason." Barely publishable in his own lifetime, he mentored many young writers of his day, and his influence has been felt for multiple generations and counting. He was a detractor of Freud but his tales provide some of the most fertile and productive ground for psychoanalytic readings. In his early years, he was a pathologically racist and xenophobic Anglophile who spoke lovingly of Hitler in the 1920s, but by the mid 1930s he had become a secular humanist and even flirted with socialism.
And those are only the broadest sketches of the conflicts, tensions and neuroses that defined both the man and his work. With these and other intricacies writhing like a tangle of worms just beneath the stories, Lovecraft's prose thrives on its successes and failures in equal measure, collapsing them into some fresh, larger category of truly astounding literature.