There’s significant amount of stuff that I love that was inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps chief among them being the stellar PS4 game Bloodborne, but I’d never got round to seeing where it all started. The brand of horror created by Lovecraft, for whatever reason, unsettles me and gets under my skin hugely effectively. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories is a Penguin collection of 18 of Lovecraft’s best known tales. I’ll briefly mention all of them.
The first tale is Dagon, an early tale of Lovecraft’s which serves as a forebear to the so called ‘Cthulhu mythos’ featuring vast, unknowable beings utterly beyond human understanding. It’s a relatively straightforward tale about a man who encounters the eponymous Dagon and is driven mad. It’s fairly simple by Lovecraft’s standards, but it’s a great way to open the collection functioning as it does almost as a microcosm of Lovecraft’s setting. Next is The Statement of Randolph Carter, another relatively straightforward horror story that is actually rather fun. It’s central conceit, relating a radio conversation between a man descending into an eldritch tomb and the protagonist outside, is very effective, although the ending is a bit goofy.
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family was one of my least favourite stories in the collection. I didn’t find it particularly interesting and it is also the first case of one of the least pleasant elements of Lovecraft’s writing; a pervasive racism throughout. I’m not one for retroactively holding writers to the standards of today; much of Othello would be considered problematic today, but in the context of the time of writing Shakespeare was being pretty damn progressive having a black protagonist at all. That said, Lovecraft’s racism extends beyond the casual and normalised bigotry of the time to a genuine hatred and contempt; we’re in Rudyard Kipling territory folks. Race mixing is something which horrifies Lovecraft and this story, an account of a lost missing link race of intelligent apes who interbred with humanity, revels in that horror.
The next story, Celephaïs, was the first one that I really loved. It tells the story of a man who visits incredible lands in his dreams every night, but particularly seeks the beautiful city of Celephaïs. As Kuranes, the protagonist, seeks the city he takes more and more extreme measures in the waking world. As well as being a wonderful exercise of imagination, Lovecraft’s exploration of how we seek illusion over reality is pretty interesting and perhaps rather relevant to fantasy fans! The following story Nyarlathotep introduces a recurring figure in the Cthulhu mythos, but is in many ways more poem than prose. It’s an interesting element of the collection, but I prefer the stories with a clearer sense of narrative. The Picture in the House is a very creepy little story and the first to involve a deeply sinister book, a recurring theme of the collection. It’s not the most complex story in the collection, but it’s quite a lot of fun.
The Outsider is one of a pair of stories which seem at least partially influenced by Frankenstein, although both are influenced by different elements of the story. This one tells of someone held their entire life in a strange castle who escapes to the outside world. It’s rather predictable, but another story which is enjoyably melodramatic. Lovecraft reins in this side of his writing later on, but I must admit I quite like the slight silliness to his earlier stuff. Herbert West – Reanimator is the second of the pair of Frankenstein inspired stories, in this case much more overtly, dealing as it does with the reanimation of the dead. Herbert West – Reanimator is significantly trashier than Frankenstein and is a little bit tongue in cheek. Of the lengthier stories in the collection, this story is far from the best but it may be the most fun. The Hound is a story of a haunting by a nightmarish dog after the disturbing of a grave. It’s not exactly a new concept and to be honest Lovecraft doesn’t necessarily do much to set this story apart.
The next story was one of my absolute favourites in the collection, The Rats in the Wall, a story which seems to be a fairly straightforward ghost story before revealing itself to be something far more grand and horrible. I would have happily read a full novel about the complex and nightmarish story implied in The Rats in the Wall. The Festival comes next and introduces to the collection the idea of cults worshiping ancient beings, which is a regularly recurring theme in Lovecraft’s work. It’s not explored as closely as in later stories, but it’s still a genuinely chilling read. He is a story about New York and it’s history, with an element of time travel. It’s mostly interesting in what it tells us about Lovecraft’s disgust for the city. Next up is Cool Air, a story which is somewhat reminiscent of Herbert West- Reanimator, concerning someone keeping themselves alive through extreme means. It’s a neat little story and the last shorter story before the collection focuses on Lovecraft’s longer pieces of work.
The next story is the title story and probably Lovecraft’s best known work, The Call of Cthulhu. The story concerns a man who discovers a cult worshiping a vast creature from the ocean from a race utterly alien and greatly older than man. They are so utterly unknowable that even to look upon them is to descend into madness. I liked this story a lot, although it wasn’t my favourite of the tales concerning the Great Old Ones. There is something about the figure of Cthulhu itself which is compelling, a physicality lacking in many of the other horrible creatures which populate Lovecraft’s pantheon. A recurring theme is that the protagonist themselves rarely directly encounter the beings, but hear from those that do. This means that The Call of Cthulhu has several layers of unreliable narration, leading the reader to question a lot of what they’re told.
I loved the next story, The Colour Out of Space, about a mysterious meteorite which lands in a farm and begins to corrupt the land around it. The sense of gradual decay is wonderfully depicted and very unsettling and leads together into a natural and terrifying crescendo. The following tale, The Whisperer in Darkness, is very caught up in the Great Old One mythology and is really fascinating from a world building point of view, as well as being a really enjoyable story in it’s own right.
The Shadow over Innsmouth is one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated tales and deservedly so, it was probably my favourite one. It follows a young man travelling the coast of New England who hears of the town of Innsmouth and the strange people who reside there. This is a sinister and nasty story with a foot firmly in the Cthulhu mythos. The town itself is wonderfully depicted and truly unsettling and it has an absolutely killer ending. I would suggest that if you were to read only one Lovecraft story (from this collection), it should be this one. The final story, The Haunter of the Dark, didn’t interest me nearly as much, but that is perhaps because it was in the unenviable position of following The Shadow over Innsmouth. Taking place primarily in a dilapidated church it conjures a strong atmosphere but the actual plot didn’t really grab me.
Overall though, I really loved this collection and I’m looking forward to using it as a jumping off point to reading more Lovecraft down the line. There are certainly off putting elements of Lovecraft’s work with his clear racism being particularly difficult to stomach. That said, I do believe that art is distinct from the artist and that whilst we should condemn Lovecraft as a man, we should not as a writer. Penguin Classics have released a couple more collections and I look forward to giving them a go.