Books: “The Classic Horror Stories: H.P. Lovecraft,” Roger Luckhurst

cover24017-small It isn’t hard to find copies of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories any more. Thanks to loving curation by his friends and self-appointed literary executors as well as scholars such as S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft is a well-known weird fiction author and a godfather of modern horror.

Roger Luckhurst’s collection brings together some of Lovecraft’s longer stories, including “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” The Lovecraft fan will find nothing new here but it would be a great way to start a newbie on the path to fandom. And there’s a lot to be said for a nice e-book edition which this definitely was. Disclaimer: I read this in a free NetGalley version through the kindness of Oxford University Press.

For the aficionado or interested new cultist—I mean reader, Luckhurst provides an extremely interesting introductory essay as well as a detailed chronology of Lovecraft and extensive suggestions for further reading.

There are some things I’d quibble about in Luckhurst’s essay, but they’re mostly minor issues of interpretation. He implies that Lovecraft more or less planned to write what became known after his death as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Of course, Lovecraft did plan to write his stories, but the creation of the Mythos, I think, was more of a post mortem event, spearheaded by August Derleth and other of Lovecraft’s literary acquaintances who realised the gift they had been left. Basically, Lovecraft built the playground and pretty much every horror author since has wandered through it.

I’d also argue with Luckhurt’s assertion that Lovecraft’s “obsession with the past was never retreat” as used in his fiction. Lovecraft’s characters are often in deliberate retreat from the modern world; see Charles Dexter Ward, for example. Given that Lovecraft himself seems to have preferred a world other than the one he lived in — whether it be seventeenth century America or England, antique Providence, or whatever — it’s still a retreat. After all, this is the man who taught himself obsolete forms of handwriting as a hobby. That being said, this is also the man who had a fascination with amateur science, was a reporter for amateur newspapers, and had a pretty good grip on a number of scientific subjects. The mix of the two is most interesting. Perhaps his aim was to create an all-new retreat: after all, some of his heroes — “He” — find the past only to discover it is as full of horror as the present. What does that leave?

It is, of course, interesting to point out that many of Lovecraft’s heroes are thinly disguised autobiographies. Most of them are ascetic, intellectual, sensitive men — he has not a single female protagonist that I am aware of and very few named female characters at all! — who have spent their lives in various obscure academic or literary pursuits only to be hauled unwillingly into a larger universe.

But these are all minor points of debate — like the fact that Luckhurst describes Wilbur Whateley as “a wild sport of a child grow[n] up wrong…” Of course, we know that Wilbur grew up just right — given his antecedents.

None of this takes away from the excellent essay Luckhurst has written or the pleasure of reading — or re-reading or re-re-reading — the marvellous stories in this collection.