(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The critical acceptance of H. P. Lovecraft as an important American writer, and as the finest exponent of dark fantasy since Poe, has not come quickly or easily. Much of this neglect was due to a blanket rejection of the “pulp writer,” reinforced by the fact that Lovecraft published nothing in book form during his own lifetime. The primary outlet for his stories was Weird Tales, a pulp magazine whose circulation barely reached twenty thousand a month although its influence on horror fiction has been enormous. Moreover, Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre was modest in size and, for reasons both personal and commercial, a considerable portion of it never saw print during his lifetime.

There are, perhaps, even more obvious reasons for this general critical dismissal: In many ways Lovecraft was a poor writer. The prose is often vague, ornate, and studded with overblown adjectives such as “eldrich,” “uncanny,” “hellish,” and “weird.” At a time when even the pulps featured the hard, lean prose of a Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, Lovecraft’s purple verbosity sounded like a relic from the mid-nineteenth century. His characterization tends to be flat and undifferentiated. His plots sometimes collapse in the middle or disintegrate altogether, and his strain for sensational effect occasionally becomes painful. Lovecraft’s characteristically italicized last-line climaxes—“and the Monster was Real!!!”—sometimes evoke more laughter than dread.

How then can the reader take this author seriously, let alone grant him status as an important writer? The answer lies in the two unique contributions Lovecraft made to the supernatural horror genre in particular and to modern literature in general: His original approach to dark fantasy revitalized the genre and has influenced every important new writer in the field, and the vision that animates his fictions transcended the limits of the popular genre to offer a provocative and significant view of modern human beings’ predicament.

“The Outsider”

Because it has been so frequently anthologized, Lovecraft’s best-known work is probably the somewhat uncharacteristic short story “The Outsider.” An unnamed narrator laments his unhappy, bizarre youth. Having grown up bereft of human contact in a dismal, decaying castle, filled with damp “crumbling corriders” that smell like “piled-up corpses of dead generations,” he resolves to escape by ascending a partly ruined black tower whose top “reaches above the trees into the unknown outer sky.” After a difficult, perilous climb the narrator reaches a trapdoor, which he pushes open. To his amazement, he finds that he is not, as expected, on some “lofty eminence,” but is, instead, “on the solid ground.” Wandering about, he then comes upon a castle where a party is in full progress. As he enters, the guests run screaming. He assumes that there is a horrible presence lurking near him and becomes frightened. Sighting the beast, he overcomes his fears and approaches it, finally touching the thing’s “rotting outstretched paw.” Terrified, he flees back to the trapdoor but finds it blocked. Thus, he is forced to linger on the fringes of the world of the living, alienated from all contact with its inhabitants. In the last sentence of the story, the speaker reveals what he touched that so frightened him: “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”

The effect of this story on the reader is chilling—even if the story, when analyzed, is a bit absurd. Lovecraft succeeds in gaining the reader’s sympathetic identification with the narrator so the revelation of its monstrous being is a shock; and the experience itself is almost archetypal. One ingenious critic has offered five separate and different interpretations of the tale: autobiographical, psychological (Jungian), metaphysical, philosophical, and political. Although none of these readings is completely satisfying, they all have some merit and illustrate the important point: “The Outsider” evokes emotional responses that are not fully explained by critical exegesis.

At the same time, the story turns essentially on a clever deception: The reader is tricked into identifying with a creature who turns out to be a corpse or zombie or ghoul or something of that sort, a fact that is not revealed until the punch line. So the sensitive reader is likely to be moved and irritated by a story that seems both profound and trivial. This mixed reaction is characteristic of many of Lovecraft’s stories, and any attempt to assess his importance must somehow take it into consideration.

Despite its popularity, “The Outsider” does not suggest the full range of the author’s powers. At best it is a story with more resonance than substance, a very clever exercise in imitating Poe. To truly appreciate Lovecraft one must examine his central vision—the somewhat misnamed “Cthulhu Mythos.” (The term was coined by August Derleth, but Cthulhu is not really the major figure in the hierarchy. Contemporary Lovecraftians prefer to call it the “Lovecraft Mythos.”)

The Mythos did not spring full blown from Lovecraft’s head but emerged in bits and pieces. In “Nyarlathotep,” a fragment, Lovecraft presented the first important figure in his pantheon. “The Nameless City” introduced the “mad Arab, Abdul Alhazrad,” author of the Necronomicon, a fictive text of magical spells and arcane knowledge which became the bible of the Mythos. The book itself was brought into “The Hound” and “The Festival,” the latter story being the first set in the “Arkham, Massachusetts” region, site of most Mythos tales. It was not until 1926, however, that Lovecraft really consolidated his ideas and presented them in a single story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”

The artistic assumption behind the Mythos is that by the 1920’s the usual menaces of horror fiction—such as Satan, demons, werewolves, and vampires—had become overworked and obsolete. A new set of menaces, he felt, one more in keeping with contemporary views of humans and their place in the universe, was needed to breathe life into the genre.

The metaphysical assumption behind the Mythos is stated in the famous first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

In the Cthulhu Mythos, that “terrifying reality” consists of an order of beings, vast, powerful, and immortal, who hover at the edges of humans’ consciousness, poised to enter their world and sweep them away like so much useless debris. These creatures—the “Great Old Ones” or “Ancient Ones,” with exotic forbidding names and titles such as “Cthulhu,” “the messenger Nyarlathotep,” “the blind, idiot god Azathoth,” “the key to the gate Yog-Sothoth”—had dominated the earth long before human beings but lost the power eons ago for reasons that vary from story to...

(The entire section is 3076 words.)