This was my first taste of anything by H.P. Lovecraft, though I knew roughly of his work by reputation: a master of horror, a very American writer, with more than a hint of racism. Is that what I found here? Sort of.
Given the various compilations of his work that have been put together, it’s worth noting that this particular collection (published by Penguin, under their ‘modern classics’ label) contains the following stories: Dagon, The Statement of Randolph Carter, Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, Celepaïs, Nyarlathotep, The Picture in the House, The Outsider, The Hound, The Rats in the Walls, The Festival, He, Cool Air, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour Out of Space, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Haunter of the Dark.
These are roughly in chronological order, which shows. The earlier stories here are relatively short and punchy while the later ones are better developed. Indeed, the accompanying notes raise a point I noticed in that some of the later stories appear to be revisions and expansions upon the earlier ones. For example, the Call of the Cthulhu is recognisable as an alternative take on Dagon; also, Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family seems to be the seed out which grew the longest story here, The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Before reading, having heard that it was horror, I was expecting something either like a ghost story, like a James Herbert, or more gruesome, like Stephen King. It was neither. In this respect it was a pleasant surprise. That’s not to say that there isn’t some gruesomeness here, with Cool Air possibly topping the lot in that respect. The frustrating thing early on was that Lovecraft omitted the detail almost entirely, so we get descriptions like ‘[what I witnessed was too horrible to put to paper]’. It ought to be noted that most of the stories are written in the first person, with each central character speaking with roughly the same voice, making it seem as though Lovecraft was a single character going through one disastrous lifetime to another, being reincarnated multiple times.
What did strike me, however, was how alarmingly modern his writing was. Most of the stories here were written in the early 1920s, yet there is little here to indicate them as such; had someone told me they were written in the last 10 years, I would not have instantly thought the notion absurd. Indeed, his timeline is far closer to that of Thomas Hardy than it is to my own lifetime, but one could hardly guess at this. The biggest downside to his writing that I found was his predictability; almost every story had an ending that could be guessed fairly early on. The later stories were less predictably, though I don’t think I was ever particularly surprised. They are, however, very entertaining. Not a single one was a great struggle to read, though Lovecraft does, at times, stumble over his words slightly which makes it a little clunky. But that’s a relatively small criticism.
What about the supposition of racism? Well, there are some attitudes demonstrated here which do make for uncomfortable reading, and not in the good way that a horror writer might hope for. If anything, I would say it is most prevalent in Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, though on reading the rather extensive notes at the back of the volume, the majority of the thinking about his views on race come out in his extensive letter writing which is not included here, except for small snippets of a few letters.
By some way, The Call of Cthulhu is the best story of the bunch. The other, later stories, are also good, though the grand scale which Lovecraft manages to evoke from fairly a small-scale start is very well done. The general mythology which he develops throughout the stories, with Cthulhu being alluded to later on, along with Nyarlathotep’s appearance in more than just the story bearing his name, make for almost an alternative world. Yet Lovecraft has not delved into the fantasy realms of Tolkein or Lewis. Rather, it’s a world just slightly different from ours, shifted by a tiny amount, where the monsters which be there always may now been heard or their shadows glimpsed.
And if you read The Rats in the Walls, it’s best not to then move to a new home where you can hear the water in the pipes of a night.