Monday, 18 February 2013

Was H.P Lovecraft actually a good writer?

I admit it. I'm one of those people who is inclined to buy anything remotely Lovecraft-esque, watch any Lovecraft-inspired film and generally wax lyrical about his stories all day long. He's inspired a generation of horror writers, including Stephen King, and his influence continues in popular culture to this day. However, I know that many people don't quite 'get' Lovecraft. His prose can be turgid and adjectives suffocating. There are certainly problems with his style and themes, and characters tend to be as thin as the paper they're printed on. So why do we love the guy so much?

Lovecraft has written some classic works of horror, from The Call of Cthulhu to At The Mountains of Madness, along with dozens of short stories. It's true that all of them aren't quite up to scratch. Azathoth is unfinished, Dagon doesn't really go anywhere and even At The Mountains of Madness has some very dry sections.

What's more is that most of his characters are male intellectuals without much back story (if any) and usually their dialogue is implied. If Lovecraft was a modern author he would no doubt be firmly criticised for his poor characters; he may even be called a hack.

Lovecraft uses a boatload of purple prose, too. Plus, his language is archaic and he tends to use the same words a lot, like 'squamous' and 'gibbering'. Surely this isn't the mark of a good writer.

But even after all of that, Lovecraft is held to high esteem. Why is that?

The fact is, Lovecraft was a genius world builder. He created a pantheon of hideous beings that were completely original at the time. He wasn't concerned with characters because to him humanity was expendable in the eyes of indifferent, mad gods. This vision that we can't do anything about our fate, that there are things out there that are beyond us and that could destroy us on a whim is, well, really unsettling.

What makes Lovecrafts works, particularly in the Cthulhu Mythos, so effective is not the characters or the descriptions of these weird alien beings. It's the fact that in these stories humans don't matter. They go insane and they die. Usually it's the horror that is implied in the stories, those thoughts that stay with you in the periphery of your mind months after you've read them.

For instance, going back to Dagon, we're left with the thoughts of strange, ancient creatures writhing in the slimy black depths of the ocean. That's the horror of it. Similarly in At the Mountains of Madness we're left with the thought of 'what could possibly exist beyond that mountain?' He makes us think.

Lovecraft plants that seed of horror in your mind and lets it lurk there. He was never a great writer in a literary sense, like Hemingway or Dickens, but he is an amazing writer when it comes to atmosphere and making us think about ourselves not as amazing beings with the universe on our side, but as fragile things at the mercy of a cold, uncaring universe.