Dog Days Classics: The Shadow over Lovecraft

the lurking fear - lovecraft

The flimsy, Ballantine paperback edition of The Lurking Fear and Other Tales, an oddball collection of short stories spanning much of the career of H.P. Lovecraft, sports what has to be one of the least frightening cover illustrations in horror fiction. A leering monster, the face of which looks like the lovechild of a unidentified primate and a vampire bat, peers through the broken shards of a window. The candle clutched in its hand illuminates bared teeth and scraggly hair.

The more I think about that cover, the more fantastic it becomes. It is a throwback to the 1920s and 30s pulp magazines that were Lovecraft’s bread and butter, a time of adventure fiction that was painted in broad strokes, frequently pulsed with energy and was, to modern eyes, often painfully unselfconscious. Reading those stories can be a minefield of conflicting social values, but mixed with the discomfort is a lack of pretension and love of story that I keep coming back to: a sense of fun as a worthwhile end in itself.

Lovecraft was a curiosity even among that crowd. Born in 1890 into a rich New England family, as a young man he would see both of his parents committed to an institution, where they remained until their deaths. During these turbulent early years, his family’s wealth was mismanaged and lost. By the time of his mother’s death in 1921, he was a man whose security and sense of place in the world had been torn away.

A most peculiar man

During his youth, a nervous breakdown caused him to drop out of school. He took to educating himself through frequent reading, and turned to writing fiction as he grew into adulthood. Though he would later travel frequently on the east coast, leaving his beloved hometown of Providence, RI, for a couple of years, the events of his youth left him with a life-long yearning for the past and for the home he had lost. Writing was a passion that he pursued, with limited commercial success, until his death from intestinal cancer in 1937.

I came across the The Lurking Fear as a teenager. I don’t remember where I picked it up, and I like the idea of it appearing mysteriously on my shelf. I began by reading the book’s first story, which shares its title with the volume. It began with these sentences:

There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear. I was not alone, for foolhardiness was not then mixed with that love of the grotesque and the terrible which has made my career a series of quests for strange horrors in literature and in life.

The energy contained in the words, the powerful and immediate sense of mood, were propulsive. The story followed a rogue, amoral investigator’s attempts to identify the cause of mass killings and disappearances in the Catskill Mountains. Tied into these tragedies are the story of a historic family’s long isolation, and of the protagonist’s descent into madness.

Lovecraft’s writing was thrilling on an instinctive level. I had probably read a few scary stories and seen some slasher films before that time, but no matter how dark those stories got, they still took place in a world with rules: a world in which good was confronted by evil, and triumphed. Fiction, even when it ended unhappily, concluded with the restoration of order and the affirmation of the essential benevolence of the universe.

Lovecraft did not write that kind of story. His characters’ slides into darkness were uninterrupted and inevitable. They faced threats that they could not hope to conquer; often, the best they could manage was to survive. Absent were the ghosts, vampires, and other typical foes of horror fiction. The more Lovecraft’s protagonists learned about the truth of the mysteries they faced, the more damaged and insane they became.

Other stories from The Lurking Fear filled in corners of the world he created, one which congealed over the course of his career to include repeating themes, settings, and characters. “Dagon,” an early piece, is the story of a desperate, shipwrecked sailor and his encounter with the otherworldly. It is an ordeal that leaves him intact in body only:

I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed. . . I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

For Lovecraft, the terror was all around: under the earth, in the depths of the sea, and, perhaps most famously, in the vast coldness of the cosmos itself. His gift for atmosphere and the strength of his worldview were hypnotic. He also had a tendency, evident particularly in his earlier works, to pile on descriptors in a more-is-more fashion. At the time, this struck me not as excess, but as urgency on the part of the narrator to convey the desperate straits that he–and all humanity–are dwelling in without even knowing it.

Not that everyday life was much comfort. Many of Lovecraft’s most personal stories revolve around the drab mundanity that he saw in the world around him, and around characters–often barely disguised representations of himself–who escape into the world of dreams. I read “The White Ship,” one of The Lurking Fear’s few examples of this story type, at the perfect time and place in my life. This little-remembered story struck me on a level of resonance that few things ever have. It opens with this:

I am Basil Elton, keeper of the North Point light that my father and grandfather kept before me. Far from the shore stands the grey lighthouse, above sunken slimy rocks that are seen when the tide is low, but unseen when the tide is high. Past that beacon for a century have swept the majestic barques of the seven seas. In the days of my grandfather there were many; in the days of my father not so many; and now there are so few that I sometimes feel strangely alone, as though I were the last man on our planet.

It is revealed that Elton, through the sheer weight of his isolation, has gained knowledge unattainable to most. Reading this story as a teenager with few friends, I could not help but feel envious of experiences like this:

But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent. All my days have I watched it and listened to it, and I know it well. At first it told to me only the plain little tales of calm beaches and near ports, but with the years it grew more friendly and spoke of other things; of things more strange and more distant in space and in time. Sometimes at twilight the grey vapours of the horizon have parted to grant me glimpses of the ways beyond; and sometimes at night the deep waters of the sea have grown clear and phosphorescent, to grant me glimpses of the ways beneath. And these glimpses have been as often of the ways that were and the ways that might be, as of the ways that are; for ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.

What follows is a story of longing, transcendence, pride, and loss that could not have connected more squarely with me. I have reread it only a few times over the years, afraid that it won’t be the same: that I might find it changed into the monotonous, silly story that many readers think it is. Either that, or I will find that the story is unchanged, but that I have changed too much to feel the same way about it.

This is quite possible. I have since discovered that the stories in The Lurking Fear are generally not considered to be among Lovecraft’s best (one exception to this is suspense-filled novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). I would have to go to other volumes, in the years to come, to find such favorites as “The Colour Out of Space,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Ironically, I did not even finish The Lurking Fear at the time; despite my enthusiasm, back then I could rarely focus for the amount of time necessary to finish any book, even one that I liked.

But as years passed, and my reading habits evolved and diversified, Lovecraft’s work clung to me. Though I sometimes thought of his work as a guilty pleasure, the world he created was under my skin. I felt pride in his growing popularity, and in whatever glimmers of literary recognition he received.

Over time, however, his flaws became more apparent. I began to write stories of my own, and trained myself to dislike the generous use of adjectives and adverbs found in Lovecraft’s fiction. His stories followed similar, frequently repetitive themes, and their plots were often predictable. To the modern reader, his language–ornate and archaic even for its time–could seem pretty silly.

Reading Lovecraft as an adult, I discovered that there were any number of reasons to dislike the man and his writing. Lovecraft was a racist; more than that, he was a misanthrope. He disdained people in huge swathes: women, foreigners, rural dwellers, the poor. The more I read of his life and his views, the more I saw that it was difficult not to fall into a group that he looked down upon.

But something had happened to me over my years of reading Lovecraft; nothing that I learned about him could change the way I felt about his stories. The happiness they gave me overpowered their flaws. Nor did I feel resentment for the man himself: a man who, despite sharing my love of history, in some ways represented parts of it that were best left behind. The more I learned about the life he had led, the more I empathized with him. At some point since my teenage years, Lovecraft’s stories had become such a part of my life that I had come to love them unconditionally. And Lovecraft himself came with them.

Underneath the bitterness and prejudice that sometimes filled his letters was a man whose world, from the early stages of his development, had been upended again and again. Beginning in his earliest childhood, random chance had begun to systematically strip him of everything he thought he was, and everyone he loved. That he was born into privilege, and that the poverty he experienced later was something many had, and have, dealt with since birth, could not have made the experience less devastating; the only world we know is the one we have always known.

Lovecraft’s materialism, and his portrayal in fiction of the cosmos as meaningless and indifferent, was embodied in his stories by Azathoth, the most terrifying (to me) of his many monsters. Dwelling at the center of creation, Azathoth is the mindless, dancing chaos that is the true heart of the universe. As portrayed in Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” he is atheism taken to its darkest, most despairing conclusion:

…that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity—the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time…

Lovecraft had watched both of his parents die in an institution. He had been turned out of his childhood home, and lived in poverty thereafter. He achieved little in the way of professional recognition, and managed to short-circuit both his marriage and whatever career opportunities came his way. His health began to decline at a young age, probably as a result of malnutrition. Is it any wonder that, when he thought about what lay beyond life, he saw only oblivion waiting for him?

This is not to excuse all of his behaviors. His prejudices were many, and were terribly unfair. He disliked foreigners, whom he thought were invading his native New England, and country-dwellers, whom he saw as backwards and uncivilized. His resentment was turned toward anyone who might threaten the world as he wanted it to be: the way it had been, in his idyllic, imagined past.

Like everyone, Lovecraft was incredibly complex. Like me, he was critically, irrevocably flawed, and to write him off because of those flaws would feel, somehow, like abandoning a man whose deep fear and insecurity I completely understand. It would be like admitting that there is no hope for myself. The person who wrote “The White Ship” was a person worth knowing.

Looking now at the cover of The Lurking Fear, it becomes a little clearer why the monster is so unthreatening. Candle in hand, he looks more like a shut-in than a beast on the prowl. The viewer, peering through his window like a voyeur, is the real intruder, and the monster seems more likely to slip back into the darkness than attack.

Lovecraft–or at least, the vision of Lovecraft that I have built for myself–is, to me, an extension of the self-aware loser inside of us. He felt battered by the world, and lacked the clarity to perceive his own accomplishments and flaws. He disliked the present, and clung to a pristine, romantic past that was continually slipping away. The characters in his stories, many of whom are thinly-veiled representations of himself, reveal a man who dreamed of an escape from the mundane. Like those characters, it was not something he could achieve in this life.

Can there be anyone who is not described, at least a little bit, by these qualities? That Lovecraft was often hobbled by these feelings, and vented his bitterness in ways that were far beneath a man of his intelligence, doesn’t mean that he was undeserving of sympathy. His flaws and prejudices are revealing of a person at war with his own deep feelings of insignificance, and who struggled to achieve a sense of meaning. In a letter to his friend August Derleth, he wrote:

I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I continue to refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthensome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory—impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future. . . Now this all sounds damn foolish to anybody else—and very justly so.

I don’t think it sounds foolish. The desire to escape from fear and pain is virtually universal. When, inevitably, we are denied this escape, we frequently respond, as Lovecraft often did, with anger and sadness.

Reading Lovecraft has helped me learn to accept people, including myself, in spite of their flaws. Celebrating his accomplishments, and embracing all that there is to love about his work, is something that I should learn to apply to more people and circumstances.

During his life, Lovecraft often seemed, to himself, like the person that I fear becoming: never quite able to get ahead, achieve satisfaction, or conquer his demons. But there is a hopeful side to his struggles. That he has achieved such reverence and recognition, though he did not live to see it, leaves open to all of us the hope that after we are gone, and in spite of all our flaws, the world will see us for how special we really were.

Note: All story excerpts in this article were taken from the H. P. Lovecraft Archive at www.hplovecraft.com.

Nathan Hartle is a writer and travel photographer from North Carolina. Check out his work at www.nathanhartle.com.
 

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