I understand that H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre is not a universal source of delight. I do. Different styles appeal to different people – Faulkner once cracked that Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary,” to which Ernest responded “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” I’m somewhat abashed to admit that I’ve never read even a full page of Cormac McCarthy: I got about three paragraphs into All the Pretty Horses, realized that I hadn’t seen a comma yet and bailed.
But couple lengthy, richly textured, Byzantine chains of weighty, luridly melodramatic adjectives with wide-eyed gentlemen confronting extradimensional nightmares and – well, I love Lovecraft’s craft.
“Less than a fortnight later we left the last hint of polar land behind us, and thanked heaven that we were clear of a haunted, accursed realm where life and death, space and time, have made black and blasphemous alliances in the unknown epochs since matter first writhed and swam on the planet’s scarce-cooled crust.”
I mean, come on! Look at that sentence! That is awesome. It comes from “At the Mountains of Madness,” the 1931 story of a mostly-doomed Antarctic expedition that discovers a horrifying truth buried in the frigid wastes, and while the tale is one of ol’ Howard’s most famous, dios mio it could use some editing. (It actually was edited down a trifle on its initial release, in response to which Lovecraft pitched a titanic – nay, cyclopean – fit.) I think the piece is overbalanced – it’s a great concept, but there’s too much emphasis on explaining the concept relative to the amount of plot, and virtually no dialogue – but it’s the repetition that really starts to grate after a few dozen pages. “Madness” was published as a serial, so naturally each installment would include a little bit of “here’s where we’re at” sort of catchup, but by the sixth mention of how the whole landscape was like a painting by this one guy all the cool scientists know about I was frankly gunning for any further retreading, and that turned out badly for overall enjoyment. Here, let me sum up the entire middle third of the novella for you:
And then we went into another room! And it was really big and weird! Our minds reeled in aghast dismay at how big and weird it was, you guys! We could hardly bear to venture further into the next room, but then we did! And it too was – how I am driven nearly mad merely by the remembrance – super big and weird!
One chapter seriously begins “It would be cumbrous to give a detailed, consecutive account of our wanderings inside that cavernous, aeon-dead honeycomb of primal masonry; that monstrous lair of elder secrets which now echoed for the first time, after uncounted epochs, to the tread of human feet.” Yes! Yes it would! SO WHY DID YOU DO IT ANYWAY?
Basically, start with “The Call of Cthulhu” instead. It’s way punchier.
And in one of those unintentional segues that crop up in life from time to time, I went from the darkness at the edge of sanity to the hot thirst for justice in a dark-hearted society by switching over to Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, starring hard-nosed P.I.-with-a-heart-of-gold (or at least copper) Philip Marlowe. I think this is the third Chandler novel I’ve read (of only seven, alas), and like those this isn’t so much a traditional mystery as an adventure whose protagonist keeps having to figure out what to do next as he goes. Less Holmes/Poirot, more Travis McGee/Fleming’s Bond. But readers don’t go to pulp fiction (lowercase) for the intricately crafted drawing-room reveals; they go for desperate schlubs and pitiless dames and tight-lipped thugs who spit insults unintelligible to modern ears out of one corner of their mouths while dangling cigarettes from the other, see? And among the pulpsmiths, you turn to Spillane for tawdry sensationalism, Hammett for propulsive, realistic plots and characters, and Chandler for lush, fluid dialogue and prose. Check it:
“She looked at us lazily as we came over the grass. From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. Her mouth was too wide, her eyes were too blue, her makeup was too vivid, the thin arch of her eyebrows was almost fantastic in its curve and spread, and the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings.” Boom, roasted.
And a little later, describing a seedy old elevator operator, “He looked as if he had been sitting there since the Civil War and had come out of that badly.”
In the end, the hero doesn’t get the girl (he never does) and some of the guilty parties go free, but he (and we) know who did which crime and a little something about why, and at least some people got what they deserved for good or ill. After all, tomorrow’s another day… but until then “the night was all around, soft and quiet. The white moonlight was cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find.”
STEVE GILL is unusually tall, has a B.A. in Letters and a minor in Classics from OU, drinks a great deal of coffee and openly delights in writing, editing and catching the occasional typo for Slice – especially since his dream career (millionaire layabout in a P.G. Wodehouse novel) is notoriously difficult to break into. He's probably trying to think of a joke about pirates right now.