Saturday, September 22, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft: Tales: edited by Peter Straub


H.P. Lovecraft: Tales: edited by Peter Straub (Collected 2005): If you're going to buy one collection of H.P. Lovecraft's horror and science-fiction stories, this Library of America volume is the one. While it omits the products of about ten years of HPL's apprenticeship learning to write, along with all of his Dunsany-era stories, it nonetheless does contain pretty much all of Lovecraft's essential fiction. The inclusion of his essay on supernatural fiction would have been nice, but the appendices make up for that exclusion.

More importantly, Straub uses the new standard HPL texts as assembled by S.T. Joshi from Lovecraft's original manuscripts and the original magazine appearances of these stories. As monumentally important as editor and publisher August Derleth was to the survival and posthumous propagation of Lovecraft's work, his editing instincts were always somewhat wonky. Derleth tended to think that italicizing key passages and putting exclamation marks after every third sentence made HPL scarier! It didn't. The much calmer, less obtrusive prose of these remastered stories restores a lot of the lost grandeur and sublimity of Lovecraft's greatest moments.

While Lovecraft made cosmic horror and imaginary gods a staple of American horror fiction forever after, he also made the documentary tone a mainstay of horror fiction. Most stories are first-person accounts given by a narrator who has survived the events (at least for a little while -- there's always a cost to saving the Earth) or who has collected information about events that he himself did not participate in. One of the odd things about the current horror boom in 'found-footage' and 'fake documentary' films is that HPL would have loved them: they, and not narrative horror, are the closest approximation on the screen of what the narration of stories from his mature writing period seeks to achieve.

As other critics have noted, one of the fascinating things about looking at HPL's stories in the order of composition rather than the order of publication is to see him gradually losing interest in horror. His work after 1931 or so (he died in 1937 at the age of 47) moves more and more towards being straight, though extravagantly cosmic, science fiction in which all the mythological elements have rational (albeit bizarre) explanations.

For example, the cosmic aliens of "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Shadow Out of Time" really aren't that menacing -- certainly not compared to the invading horrors in the earlier "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Colour Out of Space." Indeed, the time-travelling Great Race of "The Shadow Out of Time" turns out to be relatively benign, while the Mi-Go of "Whisperer" seem more misunderstood nuisance than threat.

Another progression involves Lovecraft's oft-mentioned racism and bigotry. In his early 1920's story "The Horror at Red Hook", pretty much all the horror flows out of Lovecraft's then-deep-seated loathing of non-WASPy ethnic types, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and miscegenation. But by the last two chronological stories in this collection, Lovecraft presents Australian aboriginals as the only group with a rational response to the things that lurk in the cyclopean ruins of ancient cities hidden in the Outback, and working-class Italian Americans as the last line of defense against the resurrection of the extraordinarily dangerous Nyarlathotep. It's a welcome shift in attitude.

In any event, this is a fine collection with a decent bibliography, time-line, and annotations, though the last seems a bit scanty. Though it at least defines the word 'nefandous.' Highly recommended.

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