Tomorrow, August 20th, marks the 132nd birthday of the biggest name in cosmic horror, the man who made tentacles fashionable and non-Euclidian geometry scary, H.P. Lovecraft. And, by some wild twist of metaphysical synchronicity, it’s also our buddy Fletcher’s birthday, so naturally, he has a few things to say about Lovecraft.
On the Occasion of Lovecraft’s Birthday
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
I can remember the exact day I first read an H.P. Lovecraft story: July 13th, 1977. I was just shy of turning eleven. I had taken out Scholastic Book’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror (1971) from the Stapleton Library, the place where I spent huge portions of my early life. My friend Jesse’s parents were out of town and he was staying over and I decided to read one of the stories out loud. It was a miserably hot and humid night and somehow it seemed perfectly appropriate. At random, I picked “The Transition of Juan Romero,” a workpiece that Lovecraft never intended to publish. We weren’t particularly scared. Then the great blackout of 1977 hit. By flashlight I then read “The Festival.” With its strange green flames and decayed ancestors, it did spook us – enough that it ensured I finished the book. It made me a Lovecraft reader for life.
While the collection has some lesser works, it also includes two of his most important works – “The Colour Out of Space” (1927) and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936). The other stories are the fantastic “The Outsider,” a story ghost-written for Harry Houdini entitled “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” and the sci-fi tale, “In the Walls of Eryx.” Looking at this collection over fifty years after it was published and when Lovecraft’s fiction is everywhere, this remains a solid first introduction to the Old Gentleman from Providence’s work.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is a fantastic story that does much to establish and explore Lovecraft’s mythos, but “The Colour Out of Space” is perhaps the epitome of Lovecraft’s writing. His weakest stylistic tics are there – phonetic dialects, purple prose – but so are some of his best themes – the wonderfully creepy New England setting and the conflation of science fiction and horror. It concerns the arrival and effects of a meteor containing a strangely colored globule on a part of the Massachusetts countryside just outside the town of Arkham (Lovecraft’s more-haunted cognate for Salem). One summer night following a day of strange portents, the meteor falls from the heavens, crashing into the ground next to the Gardner family’s well. Soon, strange emanations begin seeping into the ground, the trees, and finally the livestock and people. In the end, whatever fell to the earth departs, leaving death, but no answers, on its return to the stars.
The story begins with one of Lovecraft’s most evocative and memorable paragraphs:
West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages, brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.
Lovecraft was a master at building atmosphere and he accomplished much of this with his detailed portrayals of the landscape and architecture of his settings. In just a few paragraphs the stage is set and the reader knows something unsettling is underway. As the narrator gradually uncovers the events of fifty years previous, the horrors build up, until he learns how the Gardner’s whole world was destroyed. It’s a story that has been filmed several times, never accurately or with a sense of place or the weirdness of the original (Nic Cage’s recent version gets closest).
Unlike some readers, it’s generally the monsters that keep me coming back to Lovecraft, not the existential despair. Nonetheless, this story works so wonderfully well for me exactly because it is so different from the rest of his best stories. The monster is never explained or even really seen. Lovecraft also taps into existential despair in a subtler way than he usually does. It’s never stated explicitly, but the universe of “The Colour Out of Space” is ultimately hostile and unknowable. The victims aren’t scholars or artists drawn to exploring things man isn’t meant to know, but an utterly innocent family doomed to extinction. This is cold, cold scary stuff and I loved every page of it when I first read it all those decades ago and still do.
There’s no editor listed on this collection, but The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror features a foreword by one Margaret Ronan and it turns out she did indeed edit the book. In researching her, I discovered that, as a teenager, she was a regular correspondent with Lovecraft. To what degree is unclear, but he did put her on his list of people to notify should he die. He was clearly a strange cat with some reprehensible beliefs, but he was also unfailingly generous with his time and words to fellow writers and fans. He was very encouraging to Ronan and she would go on to become a prominent editor at Scholastic, particularly of supernatural anthologies and related non-fiction.
The other day on Twitter, Laird Barron, one of the best contemporary horror writers stated that “Lovecraft’s greatest legacy is opening the doors for better writers to run with the ball. Not a criticism.” I suspect that’s more right than I’d like it to be. Whether playing in Lovecraft’s sandbox or creating their own as Barron has done, numerous gifted writers have explored his themes and styles with tremendous artistry. Lovecraft never wrote a novel as sustained as T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies (1984) or a story so potent it made me despair of ever writing fiction as Barron’s own “Hallucigenia.” Still, it’s Lovecraft’s tales I return to regularly. Perhaps some of it’s due to nostalgia, but most of it’s due to the monsters (and, yes, the existential despair). So, happy birthday, sir, from a fan (and someone who shares a birthday with you).
The header image is “Colour out of Space” by Ludvik Skopalik, available through Creative Commons.