Sunday, March 22, 2009

Father of Modern Horror? - The Road to Madness

The first time I heard about Mr. Lovecraft was back in Junior High. I had a friend who was a huge reader, and while I was enjoying the "Dragonlance Chronicles" he was delving into Lovecraft. He told me that the guy was better than Stephen King (who I had only experienced via movies). I looked at the cover, with some seriously disturbing artwork by Michael Whelan, and considered it. Unfortunately our library didn't have the book and I quickly forgot about the author (but not that cover!).

I'm trying to remember where I ran into Lovecraft again. It might have been connected to anime or perhaps Mr. King's "Dark Tower" series. I was really into both when I finally got around to picking up a compilation of Lovecraft's short stories, called "Dreams of Madness and Death". It was a tough but rewarding read. Lovecraft's imagination was dark and seemingly limitless. I especially enjoyed the stories that fall into his "Dream Cycle". The blend of the surreal, the ethereal and the dark and decaying captured my imagination. I was inspired by Lovecraft for one of my first attempts at a short story, and he definitely influenced a novella that expanded into my first full-blown novel. So to say I owe some debt to H.P. is accurate enough.

Every year or so, I revisit his work and find it just as obtuse and rewarding as I remember it. For me, the interest in his work comes from the way his imagination worked. The way he conjures up his tales and how he alludes to the unknown and its horror are all very well executed.

When I'm asked to recommend some of his work, I am hesitant, and that's because he is not an easy writer to enjoy. I find that most people either enjoy his work in spite of his style or are completely turned off by his style. I can't blame them. Reading Lovecraft requires patience, a willingness to dig beyond his clunky prose and bad dialogue and find the nuggets of horror within.

What is interesting is that he is compared with Poe. To me, Poe had a greater skill with words and a clear grasp of the Gothic nature of horror. His stuff is very traditional, but at the same time very poetic. The age of the material is what gives it the style it has. If Poe was writing today, he would be more approachable in language, but I think his words would be just as carefully chosen. On the other hand, I think that if Lovecraft was writing today, his work would still be clunky and affected. That's just the way he chose to write.

One more comment about Mr. Lovecraft. His work is definitely a closer reflection of modern horror than Poe is. As I noted, Poe is rooted in the Gothic, ethereal ghosts, treacherous mind games and fear of the dead rotting corpses (and the memories they bring). Lovecraft is based more on horror via discovery. His protagonists are usually souls who delve too deep. Their desire for knowledge often causes them to unleash something sinister. There is a basis of science in most of his stories (even the fantastical ones start with the main character attempting to seek knowledge before being thrust into a fantasy world). This makes Lovecraft much more "real" to modern readers. The fact that the protagonists are attempting to discover truths and facts gives them a legitimacy. So when the horrors arrive, we are in tune with them and that is where the uncanny and unsettling comes from.

What do you think of H.P. Lovecraft? Is he over-rated, under-rated? Do you have a favorite horror author? What do they do to make the horrors in the story "real" for the reader?

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