Crows Nest, AUD 29.99, ISBN 978-1-74237-350-8
Horror, 2010 (Reissue)
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft is just one of the many compilations of HP Lovecraft’s more popular stories available at the moment. This one, from Australian publisher Allen & Unwin, attracted my attention because of its eye-catching (if grossly inaccurate) cover and its nice packaging. This one is thick but light, easy to read without worrying about the pages coming loose, and it even comes with this black slim ribbon attached to the spine that can be used as a bookmark. I’ve never owned an actual book of HP Lovecraft’s stories, although I’ve read his stories before, so this one seems like it’d make a nice and pretty addition to my bookshelf.
If you’re not sure who HP Lovecraft is, well, he is considered one of the best twisted minds when it comes to horror. He died in 1937, and much of his fame came posthumously, although his works were admired and much of the elements of his stories eventually influenced other authors of horror and fantasy in the 1920s and 1930s. When it comes to his name, most people think of Cthulhu, the infamous tentacled monster that is mostly considered a creepy evil elder god thing by popular culture, although some people naturally found those tentacles too sexy for words.
But he left behind other works too, that this compilation would highlight. The folks making this compilation defines “the best” as follows:
Herbert West – Reanimator. Loosely inspired the gore trilogy called – ta-dah – Reanimator, this one is about a crazy scientist and his accomplice as they work to perfect the crazy scientist’s serum that would resurrect dead people. Stolen bodies, homicide, and the usual undead fun ensue.
The Rats in the Wall. With nothing better to do and no one else to live for, our hero heads back to a village in England to get in touch with his roots. Well, it turns out that the house of his ancestor is haunted and crazy fun never stops.
The Call of Cthulhu. Of course it’s here. Basically, it’s about this academic trying to piece together information revolving around a hideous statue. Bits and pieces from disparate locations combined produce a fragmented but terrifying tale of an apocalypse heralded by – what else – Cthulhu’s welcome party for humanity.
The Dunwich Horror. Creepy redneck village gets shaken when a redneck lass gives birth to a creepy child with creepier tendencies.
The Whisperer in the Darkness. Yes, there is a “the” in the title of the story in this collection, it’s not my doing so don’t look at me. It’s another visit back to Crazy Town as another academic discovers, through correspondences with a learned hermit in some backwater province, that aliens are already here and they are, naturally, creepy.
At the Mountain of Madness. Another academic can’t keep his nose out of where it doesn’t belong. This time, it’s creepy alien astronaut thingies somewhere in mountains of Antarctica. This one has giant penguins. Really.
The Shadow over Innsmouth. Aside from Cthulhu, the creepy things here may be the most popular creations by the author. The frog men in this story exert wholesome influence to the point that these frog men become staple villains in the fantasy genre, especially role-playing games. There’s also an awful movie with gay guys doing their take on this story, starring Tori Spelling (no, not as a gay guy). I strongly dissuade anyone against watching that movie sober.
The Shadow Out of Time. Yes, another academic. This one thinks he’s going crazy, but he discovers that his hallucinations and dreams may actually be the result of his possession by a member of an alien race. Wait, how do we know it’s not another one of his crazy delusions? Well, we won’t know, will he?
The Haunter of the Dark. Yes, more academics. Can you see a pattern in these stories? This revolves around a device that ends up being a tool by an ancient evil to use and manipulate gullible academics into doing his dirty work.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This one pits a dead necromancer against a doctor, and the whole tale unfolds through letters and other documents.
Aside from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and Herbert West – Reanimator, the stories here share a similar and often disturbing premise: mysterious otherworldly entities, often terrifying in their appearance and undecipherable when it comes to their motives, are among us, and you don’t want to know what they are doing. You really don’t, as the countless losers of the academia in these stories demonstrate. Even the “good” aliens, if we can call them that, are as sinister as those entities, and often, humans are collateral damage in their struggles with one another.
Unlike his contemporaries who were more successful with barbarian stories in high fantasy settings, HP Lovecraft prefers to build dark and desolate worlds full of bleak apocalyptic messages. Despite the occasional phrasing that would seem antiquated and odd today (he wrote them in the 1920s and 1930s, after all), these stories show the author’s near-perfect way with pacing and building up a truly terrifying pitch. It’s pretty remarkable, really. The author doesn’t resort to any narrative tricks. Often, he gives away the whole story within the first few paragraphs. Yet, these stories never fail to draw me in, into this fascinating and horrible place called his imagination, and when the denouement comes, it’s always a terrifying one. Sure, there is some gore, but nothing too graphic compared to today, as well as casual mentions of fun things like incest, perverse coupling with tentacled beasts, cannibalism, and more. These are all good horror stories, combining slow tension and atmosphere building with occasional glimpses of shocking acts and revelations to make even a hardened horror fan like me shiver with delighted terror.
But there is one big problem with the stories here: the blatant racism against anyone and anything that isn’t Anglo-Saxon in nature. The author was an Anglophile to such an extreme degree that his racist sentiments seeped through every word in every story. The racism can be cringe-inducing – the protagonist of The Rats In The Wall naming his black male cat Nigger-man is just the mildest example here – but it can become outright repulsive especially when the author goes at great lengths to paint “Negroes” and “mongrels” in the worst possible light. Aside from using the “blackness” or “brownness” of the African and South American cultures as a short-cut way to say “evil and disgusting”, the author used most charming adjectives to describe these characters.
He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing; with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore-legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.
That’s from Herbert West – Reanimator. Okay, so perhaps one black character can be nasty, but when every “Negro” and “mongrel” character is painted in similar light… Oh, and in this story, the reanimated Canadian (white) dude turns out to be a leader with brainpower while the reanimated things of people whose skin colors were the author’s least favorite are depicted as savage animal-like beasts that eat children.
The region now entered by the police was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men.
Sentences such as the one above, from The Call of Cthulhu, pepper the stories, implying not-very-subtly that white people are good while other non-white cultures are “traditionally evil”.
In view of the author’s blatant racism against any culture that doesn’t advocate drinking of tea with the pinkie finger projected out at the correct angle, stories like The Shadow over Innsmouth come off like thinly-veiled screes about how “good” people shouldn’t mingle and even talk to “mongrels” because those mongrels have disgusting evil ways that would only end up corrupting these good people. Cultural purity, please, or Cthulhu would give everyone the slimy tentacle.
In many ways, the racism actually contributed to the atmosphere of horror in this collection. Not that I’m justifying the author’s racism, of course; I’m just saying that it makes sense in a dark and perverse manner to have the protagonists of these disturbing stories to be almost racist, as such racism often blinds them to the obvious and allow them to continuously ignore the creepy things or underestimate them until it’s too late. This racism isn’t a sneaky plot device, by the way – the author’s racism in his real life was pretty well-documented. It’s just that, in a way, the racism enhances the oh-so-wrong atmosphere of the stories, unlike if, say, the author decided to write romance stories instead, because then the racism would be a hundred times more horribly jarring.
I’m not expecting everyone else to overlook the racism. In fact, a part of me will always feel guilty about enjoying these stories, but at the same time, these stories are great, and I can’t pretend that they aren’t. These stories are solid great horror romps that still stand the test of time, archaic phrasing and wording notwithstanding. There’s a good reason why some people still think that the ancient grimoire mentioned in some of these stories, the Necronomicon, is real: the author’s world building is accentuated by his masterful storytelling style that it feels possible that there could be dark and creepy ancient entities lurking openly in the shadows waiting to do twisted things to us.
At any rate, The Best of H.P. Lovecraft is a pretty collection that is a good place to start for anyone who want to discover the dark and often disgusting world in which the author’s stories are set in. Do know that the author didn’t even hide the fact that he was a racist in his stories, however, and that’s going to be a huge hurdle that a reader has to overcome in order to appreciate these stories. If the reader even wants to, that is.