So many of the books and authors I’ve read over the years have been influenced by HP Lovecraft, and yet I’ve read very little of his work before. Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Fred Chappell (yes that Fred Chappell). The novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson a mix of Lovecraftian horror with David McCullough style feats of engineering storytelling was my favorite fiction of the year in 2016. This was my entree into the recent surge of Lovecraft reimaginings as his books went into the public domain and people began to push back against his racism and attitude toward women. Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the excellent Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle all fall into this category. Then I discovered a writer who quickly jumped to my top 10 or 15 list, Caitlin R Kiernan.
I started with her Agents of Dreamland last year, which is very much a part of that resurgence of Lovecraftian fiction. I’ve since read seven more of her books and nearly all of it relates back to Lovecraft in some way. I still prefer her to him, but as I read this collection I understood her work much better. Reading this collection was worth it for that alone.
I know that I read At the Mouth of Madness a few years ago, and last year I read The Horror at Red Hook so that I could better understand Ballad of Black Tom, which is a retelling of Red Hook from the perspective of a black man. I think that I probably read another story or so of his back before I started keeping a record of my reading in 2002, but I can’t be sure. Lovecraft’s influence is so pervasive that I could recognize it when I saw it. Reading these stories, though, I realized where my understanding was off regarding him. First I didn’t realize how much of a materialist he was. There are rites and ancient gods, yes, but they are all from outer space or other dimensions. I also realized how right people are when they point out that he was racist and xenophobic even by the standards of his time. That’s impossible to hand wave away, but it doesn’t mean his work is not worth reading. It is very much worth reading, even if I much prefer those he influenced.
The standout stories in this were the title story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Colour Out of Space, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Dreams in the Witch House. I will likely read all of those again.* The gradual build of tension, dread and madness as people search out knowledge that they should never have is one of my favorite approaches to storytelling. Cults try to raise ancient alien gods. There is something out there watching us, but it is not benevolent. Mankind is so small in the cosmos, and the existential horror of a materialist worldview is used to great effect. More than anything else, the mood of a Lovecraft story is what I enjoy most about it.
I finally get why he is so beloved and so reviled at the same time. I plan to read another collection of his work sometime soon, but also to read and reread some things he influenced. I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s The Mist. I also look forward to rereading The Man Who Bridged the Mist and The Ballad of Black Tom now that I have more context. I’m glad I read this.
Recommended (some stories highly so).
*There are others like Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family to which I will likely never return.
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