Saturday, 11 February 2012

"The Dunwich Horror," by H.P. Lovecraft

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

When I mentioned a while ago that H.P. Lovecraft was a gap in my reading that I fancied exploring, I was loaned a copy of "The Dunwich Horror" by Beth of the excellent blogs "Upward Spiral" and "Things I Wish They'd Told Me."  As part of my wider New Year's Resolution to take control of my reading, I thought I'd start by reading books that I have borrowed and hadn't got around to yet - so I started with this one.

This is a collection of short stories - unusual for me, as I read few short stories and tend to prefer novels - which comprises the following stories:
  • The titular story, "The Dunwich Horror"
  • "The Dreams in the Witch House"
  • "The Lurking Fear"
  • "The Thing on the Doorstep"
  • "Hypnos"
  • "The Outsider"
    "The Dunwich Horror" is probably the most substantial story in the collection in terms of length and the uncanny, while the later stories are shorter but still effectively creepy.

      The first story, "The Dunwich Horror," starts with some description of the country around Dunwich, and I found Lovecraft's description of nature particularly interesting.  Lovecraft's landscapes are paradoxically unnatural: nature is heightened and strange, claustrophobic and off-kilter.  The world of Lovecraft is a liminal one that is impinged upon by "elder things" who used to populate the earth and want to find a gateway back to reclaim their territory, or unknowable things from other dimensions which are discovered by men who covet forbidden knowledge: nature hides strange secrets.  His stories of old creatures beyond our imagining create a hind-brain unease; a primal fear of things unknown and unknowable: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

      I found his stories more unsettling than I did terrifying, which suits me as I am too much of a wimp for terrifying.  Another thing: unsettling haunts for longer than terror, in the same way that cold, considered bitterness can strike at the heart more than the passing heat of impulsive anger. Lovecraft's stories create a state of unease by suggestion and creeping dread more than explicit description - and, when he does try to describe his horrors, he tries to put their strangeness beyond the reach of language.   In particular "The Lurking Fear" has a striking moment when the speech of one of his characters descends into hysterical, purple prose where madness overtakes sense. The best horror films build a sense of menace before showing the monster - it's interesting to think how horror works in writing compared to film, as it is such a visual genre - and Lovecraft's strength seemed to me to be in creating a smothering atmosphere of menace and dawning comprehension.

      His stories engaged my mind and my imagination to an extent that had me dragging down my old university reference books to find out more about him and his writing - a dangerous enterprise, as it started a bookslide on my over-stuffed bookcase - which is something I haven't felt compelled to do for a while.  He seemed sadly overlooked by my encyclopaedias of literature, so I resorted to Wikipedia (sorry). This intrigued me more, particularly the story of his unhappy and ill-fated marriage as I wondered how much this had inspired the twisted depiction of the marriage in "The Thing on the Doorstep."  This was always one of my failings as an academic: my tendency to be interested in deeply unfashionable and questionable biographical criticism.  As far as I am concerned, the author is far from dead: the mind that creates a world of imagination can be as fascinating as the work itself.

      I found H.P. Lovecraft fascinating so far: it's not like anything that I have ever read before.  I'm not a big reader of horror - being of a nervous and impressionable disposition - and my excursions into it so far have been restricted to Victorian ghost stories, vampire novels, Joe Hill's fiction and a few Stephen King novels (a Lovecraft fan, as I think is Joe Hill).  I've realised that Lovecraft is now out of copyright, so I have downloaded the few of his stories that I could get from Gutenberg for future reading.

      1 comment:

      1. That sounds great, I'll have to look up that collection. I enjoy short stories - I think they pack more of a punch sometimes. There's nothing worse than reading a novel which SHOULD have been a short story!