Welcome to “Where to Start with Weird Lit,” an occasional book review series on classic gothic, horror, and science fiction (a.k.a. “weird lit”) authors and titles from our own Medical Humanities editor Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook. This week we’re kicking off the series with a look at one of weird lit’s master crafters: Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937).
~Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Book Review Editor.
Let’s go for a classic right off the bat: Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Rhode Island’s own pioneer of the tentacle’y.
Lovecraft’s biography isn’t nearly as tangled as his stories: born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, lived most of his life there, and died in the same city in 1937, a victim to undiagnosed stomach cancer. He was married but he and his wife, Sonia Greene, didn’t actually spend all that much time together outside of a brief cohabitation in New York City. Arm-chair psychiatrists have been having fun with Lovecraft for decades; his letters and non-fiction writings open up a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic nightmare world all their own and allow for brilliant parody along the lines of Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts from H.P. Lovecraft“:
I WENT OUTSIDE ONCE
IT WAS TERRIBLE
EVERYONE WAS WALKING DOWN THE STREET BUT THEY WEREN’T DESCENDED FROM THE MAYFLOWER.
Lovecraft’s stories are still pulling fans in — although once you’ve read through a few of his longer pieces, you may find yourself wondering why. His writing is verbose, hyperbolic, and often not all that good. But the appeal endures: film-makers, musicians, writers, visual artists all claim inspiration from Lovecraft; the best, of course, have taken their inspiration and turned it into something better than the original.
If you’re curious as to what the appeal might be, here are a few places you might like to start. (And I apologize for the quality of the online texts I’m linking to; you might find the Readability app useful. The story of Lovecraft’s copyright is almost as interesting as his biography and probably more tortured! Update: Thanks to an alert reader who sent along a link to the text archive I thought had vanished into the Internet ether: Electronic Texts of HP Lovecraft. You can also find a (very few) HPL texts on Project Gutenberg and some others on Internet Archive if you’re willing to brave the latter’s search function.)
There is always the classic: The Call of Cthulhu, the story that launched a thousand plushies. Cthulhu is really a two-parter: the first part tells the story of the unnamed narrator’s introduction to and initial researches into the Cthulhu cult itself; the second half is the retelling of the rising of Cthulhu’s dread city from the sea bottom. Cthulhu showcases just about every trick Lovecraft used regularly: faux newspaper narrative, documents from survivors, artistic artifacts, and so on as well as introducing the Big Squishy himself.
My personal favorite would be The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. I have very fond memories of sitting in the Fletcher Library in Burlington, Vermont, on a snowy day and reading this story. Ward is a novella-length piece with shades of many of the greats of gothic literature, including Dracula and Frankenstein as well as enough black magic, time travel, body-swapping, and demonic worship to keep anyone happy for a good long time. It also showcases one of Lovecraft’s weak spots: describing anything specifically. If you’re into audiobooks, Audible has several readings; I particularly like the one by Neil Hellegers and it’s less than $25 for an unabridged reading.
If you don’t have novella time, may I suggest The Rats in the Walls or Pickman’s Model? They’re both significantly shorter than either Cthulhu or Ward and are more of in the ‘shot in the arm’ mode of horror storytelling, rather than the slow, atmospheric burn of the longer stories. If you happen to live in or know Boston well, Pickman’s is particularly juicy. You may never look at the Boylston Street T stop in the same way again.
And then, of course, once you get hooked, you’re on your own. You can put cold iron your pocket — but it won’t help. Enjoy!