Monday, 18 May 2015

The Haunter of the Dark

H.P. Lovecraft
The Haunter of the Dark and other titles (1950)

I'm confused. The introduction - unless I read it too fast in my haste to experience that sense-shattering horror which has sent even the most vigorous lunatic gibbering to the gallows in quest of merciful release from the depths of terror of a vintage so rich as to inspire even those amoral low-born ghouls of the night against whom even Vlad of the House of Drăculești might be deemed a reasonable, if not exactly amiable fellow to remark upon how that be some fucked-up shit right there - seemed to imply this was essentially a revised edition of The Outsider of 1939, the first ever published Lovecraft collection put together by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei; but although all fourteen of these tales appeared in The Outsider, that collection comprised thirty-six of Lovecraft's spookiest offerings, and was thus quite clearly a different entity.

Anyway, the illusion of this one comprising the first stories to be gathered together and reprinted as a proper book made sense as I was reading given that these, I would argue, might be considered Lovecraft's best by numerous criteria. For starters, not one tale opens with the usual ghostly house inherited from the uncle no-one wishes to discuss, and the majority of these seem conspicuously better written than his earlier, more campy efforts in which overcooked adjectival content serves to remind readers that we are supposed to be scared roughly every seven words; and he's reigned in the casual racism, at least a little. I therefore assumed these to have been tales written during the final stage of his life, by which point some of the more objectionable aspects of his personality had been smoothed out, which investigation reveals as being no more true than that this collection constitutes his greatest hits. I suppose then that he must have had good days and bad days, and his writing was accordingly variable.

Of what we have here The Whisperer in Darkness, The Colour Out of Space, and The Shadow Out of Time are at least as much science-fiction tales as they are horror, thus providing a welcome break from the clichés of the genre, in fact from the clichés of both genres; and the rest for the most part seems to avoid the kind of recycling which is found in at least a few of his other tales, aside from the predictable references to the usual forbidden books which, despite everything, must surely be amongst the most-borrowed titles from the Miskatonic library. The only problem - at least as I experienced it - is that horror fiction is essentially boring. It does one thing, and usually it does it for far too long, page after page, hammering the point home over and over. I state this in general ignorance of the genre, basing my view on what little I have read, which I presume to count for something given that the authors I've read are so often trumpeted as being the greatest the genre has to offer. I suppose there are exceptions such as Frankenstein, which is wonderful - obviously - but I've never regarded that one as entirely a horror novel.

Unfortunately, even at its best, Lovecraft's fiction tends to do one thing, usually for far too long, page after page, hammering the point home over and over; and so it all depends on how much you enjoy that one thing. I sort of enjoyed most of this - particularly those tales which, tinged with science-fiction, almost managed to do two things - but yeah - slimy slimy, sounds horrible, we get it.

The reduced level of overt racism additionally seemed a welcome change to the norm - a few instances of nigger and dago, but thankfully bereft of the usual qualifying disparagements. Of course, the problem with Lovecraft is that even without actual racial slurs, so much of his horror is either inspired by or else serves as a metaphor to his odious views, informed as they were by an extended childhood spent rotting away in a cloying familial environment, isolated from any real world experience which might have enlightened him as to the extent of his own bullshit; and so Lovecraft's world is that of the white Protestant man-child clinging to mummy's protective bosom, convinced of his own superiority based on secondary - and inevitably biased - accounts of all those degenerate mud races with their weird thumpa thumpa thumpa music and smelly food. His was the same mindset to which Nigel Farage tailors his political rhetoric, and sadly this permeates much of Lovecraft's fiction even without the name-calling.

In later life, as he found his horizons expanded, it seems his views either changed or else were at least tempered by contact with the outside world, and his fear of the unknown and degenerate dragging humanity back into the ooze achieves a subtle shift of emphasis as cosmic horror. It's still fear of the unknown but is directed outwards, expressing Lovecraft's commendable natural curiosity about science and the outside world - that which was denied him for longer than was probably healthy. Therefore in tales such as The Dunwich Horror we find an odd possibility of the monsters themselves being victims of external forces, as opposed to the usual variation on coming over here and taking our jobs. Further, to Lovecraft's awakening sense of wonder and obvious fascination with the known limits of science and the world around him, he was also clearly fascinated with that which horrified him, hence, I suppose, the extended page counts of some of the more repetitive tales. This, I would suggest, may be what makes his work readable, despite an often unpleasant subtext - even when he was pointing a finger and holding his nose, he was at least in a sense exploring rather than expressing only disgust. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.

...except I suspect the actual chronology of when these tales were written contradicts my image of Lovecraft gradually coming to terms with his own ignorance and in doing so becoming a better writer. Well, for whatever reason, The Haunter of the Dark was certainly more readable than previous collections.

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