My introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft was most likely the film Reanimator, though I don’t know if I realized the source at the time. I was interested in reading these stories because Lovecraftian mythos is has been the source of so much pop culture that I’ve imbibed – movies, books, video games – Lovecraft has either provided a source for other storytellers to embellish (as in the case of Reanimator) or has inspired all new horrors (like the xenomorph in Alien). Chances are if you have seen a horror movie or read any horror fiction of the past few decades, the material has in some way has been influenced or inspired by Lovecraft.
And with any hope, not the racist and sexist parts of Lovecraft, because you don’t have to look hard for those aspects of his worldview. It’s unfortunate that someone so influential casts a pall on his own legacy with outright bigotry – particularly racism against POC and immigrants. I bought the audiobook vaguely knowing about this, but I wasn’t clear exactly how much it would reflect in his work. Unfortunately, it’s very obvious when it’s there, but is not the main point of most of his stories. Whether or not you will enjoy them is dependent on your sensitivity to that aspect of his work.
It’s a stain on otherwise good to very good stories. Lovecraft has a wonderful way of creating a sense of dread and foreboding. Even when you can guess the ending or twist, getting there makes your skin crawl. He’s dealing with some truly terrifying subjects, and it’s really no wonder that he wasn’t famous during his life, given the subject matter. Ancient monsters whose very visage turns one delirious. Houses that hide all manner of horrors: tunnels to underground sacrificial altars, strange half-human half-monstrous children, crazed people locked into attics. Meteors that poison the earth and turn people into maniacs. Aliens from centuries past who can take over human bodies. Nothing about it seems new to us today because it’s been so heavily referenced by other works, but I found going back to this source very interesting and enlightening.
You can see why they’ve been adapted so many times in so many different formats, particularly the mythos of the Great Old Ones, including Cthulhu. The idea that these gigantic, malevolent beings of unknowable intelligence once ruled the earth and sleep somewhere below the fathoms of the oceans, waiting to rise once more to rule us all is another way of expressing one of humankind’s basest fears – that we are small, weak and meaningless in the span of time of space. That is the classic fear that Lovecraft touches on the most in his work, which certainly gives it relevance today.
When not being menaced by the threat of the Old Gods, Lovecraft’s characters are often endangered by their own desires to know more: the Promethean desire for forbidden knowledge which later takes its toll on the knowledge seeker. Many times, this toll is madness, sometimes it’s death. This is the theme of “Herbert West, Reanimator”. So universal is this theme, it’s been appearing in some form or fashion for centuries in literature – from Prometheus to Faust to Frankenstein. Lovecraft simultaneously reveres the men of science and learning who are so often his protagonists and yet punishes them with the very worst horrors when they stray too far, either into the forbidden knowledge of the Necronomicon (a volume mentioned frequently, which has the power to summon the Old Gods) or to the physical depths of the earth to mine the secrets of ancient ruins better left alone.
There are a few constants in Lovecraft’s work. First, the protagonist is always male. Second, more often than not, the man will be writing about his experience after the fact – either in a letter or a journal. This past tense voice allows a tone to be placed at the beginning of the narrative, an expectation of the horrors to come, and then the action slowly builds up to the point of revelation. I found this style rather repetitive and grating after the third or fourth story. The third constant is that white men of knowledge and learning will be consulted at some point to shed light on the unfolding mysteries. No women, for they only appear as wives, sisters and daughters. Usually if given a role it’s to be threatened or to be an unwitting pawn of some malevolent force. Any persons of ethnicity will at best be painted as superstitious natives. At worst they are craven criminals or lazy.
On the whole, the subject matter is very intriguing, but I’m not sure I would recommend these stories for modern horror fans. I found it interesting enough to go back to the source material, but compared to modern horror they seem quaint at times. Combining that with the casual racism and sexism, it may not be worth it for most readers. One can only hope that the bigotry has not been as influential on modern storytellers as the stories themselves are.
This review is for the audiobook version of The Necronomicon, purchased through Audible. It has multiple narrators: Paul Michael Garcia, Bronson Pinchot, Stephen R. Thorne, Keith Szarabajka, Adam Verner, Tom Weiner, and Patrick Cullen. The audiobook is about 21 hours long. It’s important to note that it’s advertised on Audible as including all of the Cthulhu Mythos stories, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, it does not. The various narrators take turns between stories which makes it easier on the ears. I certainly wouldn’t have minded a female voice at some point, especially since there’s so little female presence in the stories themselves. Here’s a list of the stories included. I’ve highlighted my favorites.
Dagon – Washed up on obscure shore, a shipwrecked man finds a strange monolith.
Herbert West, Reanimator – Scientist brings the dead to life and suffers the consequences.
The Lurking Fear – Something lives underground, but why is it so interested in the old mansion?
The Rats in the Walls – A man moves back into his ancestral home and discovers the sins of his forbearers.
The Whisperer in Darkness – Strange, otherworldly crablike beings terrorize Vermont. This was probably my favorite because it had so many weird things going on and I found it truly frightening in places.
Cool Air – The narrator meets his neighbor, a doctor who must keep his rooms cool at all times.
In the Vault – An undertaker is trapped in a vault full of coffins and must find a way to escape.
The Call of Cthulhu – A man discovers one of the Old Ones, and the cults who worship it.
The Color Out of Space – A meteor works horrific changes on a quiet farm.
The Horror at Red Hook – It’s about a weird necromancy cult, it’s also very racist.
The Music of Eric Zahn – A student meets his next door neighbor, who plays the most interesting music.
The Shadow Out of Time – A professor must determine why he doesn’t remember several years of his life.
The Dunwich Horror – The Whateleys are the strangest family in Dunwich, and that’s just the ones the townsfolk actually know about. (Fun fact: I just watched the 1970 movie with Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell and dear Cthulhu is it terrible. Of course, the source material must be changed somewhat, particularly to fit setting it in 1970, but it’s just slow and boring and Sandra Dee’s character is the stupidest woman alive. There is a dream sequence with a naked hippie orgy though, that certainly wasn’t in the story)
The Haunter of the Dark – A writer slowly becomes obsessed with a church no one else wants to enter, and for good reason. Here’s another story where the immigrants are smarter than the protagonist because they know to stay away from the cursed church.
The Outsider – A lonely man describes his attempt to make contact with other beings.
The Shunned House – What is in the house that no one wants to go in? Well, it’s not good.
The Unnameable – Two friends argue about the nature of life and something shows up to prove a point.
The Thing on the Doorstep – A man’s best friend marries a strange and unusual woman.
Under the Pyramids – There are mummies under there! Shocker. And more racist remarks about the natives.