I’ve been reading a bunch of HP Lovecraft’s stories recently, plowing my way through the second of three Omnibus collections but out by Grafton Books in the mid-80s. For teen boys of a certain type—namely geeks those into science fiction and horror—Lovecraft is a name to conjure by. There is something about Lovecraft’s writing that strikes a chord, despite his weaknesses as a writer, and his weaknesses are plentiful. His stories aren’t even particularly horrific. In fact, he often fails to describe exactly what most teenaged boys would want to read: the horrific visions of twisted bodies and vile, disgusting monsters that populate his fiction. More often than not, his narrators will simply state “it was too horrific for words” or “it was beyond description” or something else of that nature. There is a sameness to the structure of many of his stories: Character gets lost in a distant region and/or space slightly askew to our world and then finds himself in a place that is more ancient than history and encounters any number of powerful, to vile to describe gods/demons/presences and either dies or returns with the sure knowledge that there is something beyond our ken, something powerful and dangerous and implacable, but he also knows that nobody will believe him. Time and again, Lovecraft uses slight variations on this structure so that, by the second page of the story, you already know the general outline of what will happen. This isn’t always the case, however, but when he does stray from this template, he quite often writes about a man who finds himself in another, often beautiful world, but loses his connection to that world for one reason or another.
Actually, two of my favorite stories thus far fall roughly into that second pattern. The White Ship and Celaphais both concern characters who long to leave this world and journey/return to a fantastic and enchanting land of unspeakable beauty. Not much happens in these stories beyond the description of various lands, but both end with a sense of melancholy that strikes deep and true to the heart.
Upon reflection, I think that an appeal of Lovecraft lies in the fact that his stories are always about something that is just under the surface or just out of sight or just around the corner from our reality. In a lot of these stories, the true horror doesn’t lie in what that something is, but that the characters who catch a glimpse of this larger world will not be believed. Nobody will take these narrators seriously. Each one has this great and terrific secret to share, an insight into the true nature of the world and yet they are powerless and impotent. They are unable to do anything but give an ignored account of the truth. I don’t know about you, but I remember my teen years as being a time when I believed that nobody had ever felt feelings so deep as myself, or understood the true meaning of love and pain with the subtlety and despair that I experienced. All my bad poetry, all my bad song lyrics were about sharing the fact that I had the true knowledge and if only people would listen to me, really and truly listen, they would understand what was real and true in this world.
Alternatively, I would also feel, as a boy-in-the-process-of-awkwardly-becoming-a-man, that as Lovecraft puts it in his story “Arthur Jermyn:”
“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemonical hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”
You could replace the word “life” with adolescence and I think you’d have an adequate description of a lot of people’s teenage years.
I’m certainly not saying that the pleasures of Lovecraft only appeal to adolescents, but I think being introduced to his work as an adolescent can help you see past his technical weaknesses and into the heart of his horror.
Below is YouTube version of the first part of a BBC radio series about HP Lovecraft. I found it after I had written the bulk of this entry and was amused to hear the narrator basically restating my ideas about adolescence in a much more pithy and thoughtful manner. Give it a listen. There are some really great authors talking about Lovecraft’s work in much more intelligent way than I have. If you have any thoughts on Lovecraft or favorite stories, drop me a comment, I’d love to talk more about his work with other fans. You can also find most of his stories online at either Feedbooks or Wikisource.