- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

H. P. LOVECRAFT: A LIFE

By S.T. Joshi

Necronomicon, $29.95, 708 pages, paper

H. P. LOVECRAFT: TALES

Edited by Peter Straub

Library of America, $35, 864 pages

THE SHINING HAND AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR

By J. E. Muddock (Dick Donovan)

Midnight House, $40, 333 pages

REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

The recent enshrinement of genre master H. P. Lovecraft in the prestigious Library of America raises once again the annoyingly undead critical question: Was Lovecraft, the author of numerous influential works of what he termed “supernatural horror,” really any good? Howard Phillips Lovecraft spent most of his brief (1890?1937) life in his native city of Providence, RI. Except for frequent trips along the eastern seaboard and diligent correspondence with those who shared his literary and antiquarian interests, it was a largely uneventful existence, punctuated only by a catastrophically ill-advised (and also brief) marriage.

These facts and many others are disclosed in S. T. Joshi’s ample “A Life” (published originally in 1996). It’s an admirable work of sympathetic criticism, valuable for its detailed accounts of Lovecraft’s sickly, “bookish” youth; his painstakingly acquired assimilation of literary influences (Poe above all); successes as a contributor to Weird Tales magazine and beneficiary of the tributory independent publisher Arkham House; reviser of lesser writers’ horror stories; and tireless producer of the letters which, his biographer argues, may eventually constitute “his greatest literary and personal achievement.”

Mr. Joshi overrates Lovecraft’s often inane juvenilia and (what is ingenuously labeled) his “philosophical thought.” But he offers trenchant summaries of all the significant fiction, and properly credits Lovecraft’s impressive conceptual power, the critical acumen displayed in the brilliant book-length essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and the ornate prose style made “distinctive … [by] its mingling of scientific precision and lush Poe-esque rhetoric.” And Mr. Joshi is disarmingly frank about the oeuvre, acknowledging “that Lovecraft conceived — or… executed — only a relatively small number of plots and scenarios, and spent much of his career reworking and refining them.”

That redundancy grows quickly apparent as one proceeds through Peter Straub’s selection of 22 of Lovecraft’s “best” stories. And chronological arrangement underscores this very uneven writer’s slow development. The most glaring examples are an early (1919) tale about a curious scientist’s unwise excavations in a remote cemetery, “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” and the atrocious “Herbert West — Reanimator,” published in serial form and never thereafter revised to edit out repetitions. This overheated, essentially daft story of a grave-robbing physician’s mad quest for “the secret of life” fails almost every way a story can fail: It’s truly, irredeemably ludicrous. (Still, it did inspire Stuart Gordon’s amusingly gory 1985 film “Re-Animator.”)

Even the better early stories — which portray a solitary outcast who unknowingly embodies the unknown (“The Outsider”); an elderly violinist possessed by strange infernal harmonies (“The Music of Erich Zann”); and a Catskills mansion possessed by a lingering evil (“The Lurking Fear”) — are hamstrung by their author’s penchant for schoolboyish summary rhetoric such as “Most daemoniacal of all shocks is that of the awesomely unexpected and grotesquely unbelievable.”

But Lovecraft hit his stride with “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), in which an American protagonist (more fully characterized than are most of this writer’s humans) inherits both an English estate and its resident curse — then surpassed it with “The Shunned House,” about a property built above a colonial burial ground, which wreaks continuing vengeance on its dwellers’ successive generations.

The vision of unfriendly visitors to earth (“The Old Ones who lived ages before there were men, and who came to the young world out of the sky”) that crystallized in the narrative pattern since known as Lovecraft’s “Cthulu Mythos” first appeared in “The Call of Cthulu” (1926).The theme is picked up in a fine story concerning a malevolent being brought from outer space by a meteorite that strikes a New England farming community (“The Colour Out of Space”); another about a sea captain’s unwise pact with “The Deep Ones” and their connection to a family haunted by a history of vampirism (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”); a vision of Australia imperiled by a “Great Race” that descended thence eons ago (“The Shadow Out of Time”); and the splendid novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” in which an arctic research expedition yields unwanted knowledge — and Lovecraft pays rich homage to Poe’s “Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.”

Also not to be missed: The image of an immortal evil concealed in a Providence church (“The Haunter of the Dark”) and Lovecraft’s only novel “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927), a beguiling combination of horror story and generational saga, rooted in the Salem Witch Trials and featuring a warlock for the ages. It is, in this reviewer’s opinion, Lovecraft’s masterpiece.

Readers who can tolerate Lovecraft’s deep purple prose should check out “The Shining Hand,” which collects 23 kindred stories produced by the late Victorian (1842-1932) writing machine better known as thriller writer “Dick Donovan.” It’s a lively amalgam of folklore-inflected yarns and traditional horror stories that employ both runaway melodrama and a Lovecraftian penchant for often absurdly supercharged language. But J. E. Muddock has flair, and an imagination — notably in a wry tale of Edinburgh siblings who routinely host the Prince of Darkness (“The Strange Story of Major Weir”); an incarcerated madman’s memories of his marriage to a woman who came to him from the grave (“The China Dog”); a surprisingly effective comic ghost story (“A Night with the Dead”); and a story set in the Brazilian wilderness, where descendants of a lost primitive race inexplicably endure (“The Prophecy”). Muddock/Donovan is a deeply flawed writer, but almost always a dependable and stylish entertainer.

If Jane Austen is your preferred cup of tea, Lovecraft and his tribe may be forever alien to you. But the house of fiction is a rambling old edifice. Somewhere in a dank cellar filled with rotting fungi, there’s surely a corner for J.E. Muddock — and perhaps a place of honor for H. P. Lovecraft.

Bruce Allen writes about new and old fiction for Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, Raleigh News & Observer and Sewanee Review. He lives in Kittery, Maine, home of the misnamed Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

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