Rereading Lovecraft in 2021

I’ve been working my way through that body of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction that is loosely based around the Necronomicon, or the Cthulhu Mythos cycle. (Actually, I am listening to the audiobook edition, mostly while I mow my lawn and work out at the gym.) This edition, read by various narrators and published by Blackstone Audio, is the edition authorized by the Lovecraft estate.

The readings are well done. The narrators take Lovecraft’s frequently purple prose seriously, without overdoing it. If you like audiobooks and you like Lovecraft, you’ll enjoy this audio collection.

Lovecraft’s body of work is partly nostalgia for me. I read most of Lovecraft’s stories during my college years. I discovered Lovecraft while browsing through the shelves of the University of Cincinnati bookstore in 1988. Also, Stephen King had mentioned him in several of his essays.

Reimmersing myself in Lovecraft after all these years, a few things stand out, both good and bad.

Let’s start with the good.

First of all, H.P. Lovecraft had an incredible imagination. When he wrote these stories, there were no horror movies. There wasn’t even much fantasy fiction as we know it today. Lovecraft died in 1937, the same year that The Hobbit was published. Yet Lovecraft created so many horror/dark fantasy tropes and conventions from thin air.

Working within the constraints of the pulp fiction era, Lovecraft did a fairly decent job of establishing continuity across his stories. The Cthulhu Mythos cycle isn’t technically a series. These stories were published individually, at different times, in various pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. The marketplace more or less forced Lovecraft into the short story/novella form, and every story had to begin with a blank slate. The writer couldn’t assume that any given reader had read his previous works. Nevertheless, when Lovecraft’s stories are compiled, there is a discernible consistency running through all of them.

And yes, his purple prose. Lovecraft was hyper-literate. You can’t read, or listen to, Lovecraft’s stories without increasing your vocabulary.

Now for the not-so-good.

His narrative style. Lovecraft was a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” or Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams”, and you’ll definitely see the differences.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote in a style that we would recognize as modern. Hemingway, in particular, was well-known for his direct, economical prose. But both Hemingway and Fitzgerald thought in terms of showing, rather than telling.

Lovecraft, by contrast, writes more like Herman Melville or Thomas Hardy. Rather than creating scenes on the page, Lovecraft often simply tells you what happened. This makes his writing occasionally cumbersome to wade through, and less accessible to modern readers.

There isn’t much we can say about Lovecraft’s characters, because his characters are paper-thin. They exist only as observers of the supernatural phenomena in his stories.

There are notably few exceptions here. The two main characters in “Herbert West—Reanimator” stuck in my mind a bit longer than the characters in the other stories, who disappeared as soon as the stories were over.

The typical Lovecraft character is a scholarly male recluse who is drawn into arcane research and observations by chance, or by idle curiosity. Lovecraft has virtually no female characters. Not even any damsels in distress.

In some literary genres in recent years, there has been a tendency to depict every female main character as a tough-talking heroine who can whip every male villain she encounters, even if they’re twice her size. We often see this in television shows and movies, and no one believes it.

But Lovecraft errs in the opposite extreme: I don’t want to read female characters that were obviously crafted for the sole purpose of making a feminist statement. But I don’t want to read a fictional world that is entirely comprised of guys who can’t seem to find dates, either. 

Lovecraft’s writing also reveals his prejudices, which were extreme and extensive even by the standards of his time. Lovecraft looked down on just about everyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon New England brahmin. His stories are filled with savage Africans and “swarthy”, conniving Greeks and Italians.

Not that he cared much for white, native-born rural people, either. Multiple Lovecraft stories discuss the degraded hill people who live in the backwaters of Vermont, for example.

There has been much writing, and much posturing, in recent years, about “canceling” Lovecraft because of his attitudes on race. His name was removed from a prominent award, and some book bloggers have even declared that Lovecraft’s fiction is no longer suitable for people with the “correct” attitudes on social and political issues. The hand-wringers often forget that while Lovecraft certainly didn’t like African Americans, he didn’t like much of anyone else, either. Lovecraft was an equal-opportunity snob/bigot. 

I am not going to make a show of being offended by a piece of pulp fiction that was written eighty or ninety years ago. But an undeniable fact remains: H.P. Lovecraft comes across as a rather narrow-minded person with a narrow range of experiences and interests.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read his fiction. As I said by way of disclaimer: I’ve already read all of these stories at least once. (I believe I’ve read “The Colour Out of Space” four or five times, the first time in 1988.) The scope of Lovecraft’s imagination was so broad, that these stories are worthwhile for any reader drawn to horror, dark fantasy, or so-called “weird fiction”. Lovecraft was a flawed man and a flawed writer; but he nevertheless produced some very engaging tales.

The Rockland Horror 3: sneak peek

The Rockland Horror 3, the third installment in the Rockland Horror series, is in the final editing stages. 

The Rockland Horror 3 takes place thirty-five years after the first two books, in 1917.

For those of you who are interested, here is a sneak peek at Chapter 1. (Note: This has not yet been through the editing/proofing stage, and thee may be a few typos.)

Chapter One

It was a chilly, wet day in March 1917, and thirty-year-old Joe Cullen was overdue for a smoke break.

Joe shot a quick glance over his shoulder. He wanted to make sure that his foreman was nowhere in sight.

Joe was relieved to find himself completely alone on the tree-lined road. All around him there was nothing but the silent woods. And the light, cold moisture falling from the leaden sky.

Well, almost nothing. There was the Briggs House, too.

This thought made him smile self-consciously. Country people and their superstitions. Never mind that Joe was as country as they came. He also read books, dagnabbit.

He bent and laid his shovel down in the long, sallow, late-winter grass at the edge of the road. The road itself was muddy, owing to the wet weather. He did not want the handle of his shovel to get muddy, too. He still had a lot of work to do with that shovel before quitting time.

That done, he stood, removed his gloves, and slipped them into the lower left side pocket of his coat. From the lower right side pocket he removed a box of Lucky Strikes and a box of wooden matches.

Joe was wearing a broad-rimmed hat, a treated canvas raincoat, and heavy boots. The overhanging tree branches—though still bare of leaves—also caught some of the light rainfall. But when you were working outside in weather like this for an entire day, it was impossible to avoid either the dampness or the chill.

Today’s precipitation was not a hard, driving rain; but it was a steady, unrelenting spittle that varied between mist and drizzle. Fireplace weather, Joe’s mother would have said.

But there would be no fireplace for Joe today—not until quitting time, at least; and that was still several hours away.

***

Joe was currently employed by the Indiana Department of Transportation, a brand-new state agency created by the Indiana Highway Act of two years prior. Joe was part of a crew that had been charged with preparing Washington Hill Road for paving.

At present, the road was all packed earth and gravel. It was literally the same road that had been used in the pioneer days. Washington Hill Road turned to mud every springtime, or even during a midsummer thunderstorm. That might have been suitable for the age of the horse. It would not do for the age of the automobile.

As he paused to light his cigarette—cupping both the cigarette and the match in his hands to shield them against the moisture in the air—Joe allowed himself a look at the Victorian mansion that was impossible to miss at this point on Washington Hill Road.

The Briggs House rose above him in the distance. The decrepit monolith appeared old-fashioned and dark, even when silhouetted against today’s cloudy gray sky.

The Briggs House was on the left side of the road. It  stood at the top end of a long, winding, overgrown private lane that rose to a promontory. When the trees were bare, the roofline of the mansion could be partially glimpsed far below Washington Hill, Joe knew. He was a lifelong resident of Rockland, Indiana.

He smiled to himself, and took a drag on his cigarette. Joe Cullen knew all about the Briggs House—the murders, the whispered stories of witchcraft and necromancy. Much of that was pure fabrication, and at least half of it was pure nonsense.

Joe Cullen had no way of knowing that within a matter of minutes, he would hold an entirely changed attitude about the Briggs House.

View The Rockland Horror series on Amazon

Coming soon: ‘The Rockland Horror 2’

Sometime later this week or early next week, The Rockland Horror 2 will hit the virtual bookshelves on Amazon.

The Rockland Horror series is for fans of:

  • Stephen King
  • Jennifer McMahon
  • Peter Straub
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Jeremy Bates
  • H.P. Lovecraft
  • Adam Nevill
  • T.J. Payne
    among others!

This story will pick up where The Rockland Horror left off. In the summer of 1882, the town of Rockland, Indiana is reeling from the wave of murders and kidnappings that occurred in recent months.

One man, George Marston, has been tried, convicted, and executed for these crimes.

The people of Rockland believe that the terror is over.

But two young women, Ellen Sanders Briggs and Louisa Goodwin, know better.

Since marrying the reclusive railroad tycoon Theodore Briggs, Ellen (nee Sanders) Briggs has found herself living in a state of captivity and abject terror. She is trapped in a big mansion filled with evil spirits, the roaming undead, and her cruel, mercurial necromancer of a husband.

Louisa Goodwin was given psychic powers of insight following her near-death experience. Louisa is struggling to recover from the personal tragedies she suffered during the preceding spring: the deaths of her parents and younger brother.

Louisa’s visions tell her that the situation in Rockland, Indiana is about to get much, much worse.

I’ll be posting links for The Rockland Horror 2 here on the blog as soon as the book is available. If you haven’t read The Rockland Horror (published in February 2021) get it here, or via the link above. As these books are both parts of a series, you should really read them in order.

More updates to follow!

‘The Rockland Horror’: multigenerational horror saga

Available now!

Hey, I’ve got a new horror series coming out. The first book will hit Amazon later this week, in all likelihood. (It is in the final proofreading stage.)

Here’s a little about the series:

Origins of the story: The Evil Dead in a haunted house

One of my all-time favorite horror films is Sam Raimi’s cult classic, The Evil Dead (1981).

The Evil Dead (just in case you’re one of the rare horror fans who hasn’t seen the film) follows a simple setup and plot:

A group of college students decide to spend a weekend in a cabin in rural Tennessee. One of them discovers a copy of the Sumerian Book of the Dead, along with a tape recorder. Both items were left in the cabin by an archeologist—who has apparently met a bad end.

And, of course, the college students throw caution to the wind, and tamper with both items. Because that’s the sort of thing people always do in horror movies.

Hijinks ensue. Evil spirits are roused, and they take over the college students one-by-one, transforming each of them into homicidal zombies.

I loved The Evil Dead, even though I recognized some of its flaws.

What flaws? you ask. The characters are cardboard cutouts, for one thing. Also, there is Raimi’s fondness for blending black humor with horror. The combination mostly worked in The Evil Dead. It detracted from some of his subsequent horror films.

But flaws aside, The Evil Dead was truly a powerful film, especially for the early 1980s. I recall watching it for the first time back in the summer of 1983. I watched a VHS rental copy of The Evil Dead, on the Zenith television in my parents’ living room. (I was 14 or 15 at the time.) For a full 85 minutes, my eyes were glued to the television screen. The rest of the world receded into the background. Only good storytelling can do that.

My concerns and storytelling style are different from Raimi’s. I like more character development; and I don’t like comedy-horror. But I loved The Evil Dead, nevertheless. I’ve long known that I would someday write a story of my own that would take The Evil Dead as its inspiration.

* * *

One day during the long, turbulent summer of 2020, I decided that I wanted to write a book that might best be described as “The Evil Dead inside a haunted house”. Basically, I was aiming for a story that captured the spirit of Raimi’s 1981 movie, without ripping it off.

I wrote an initial story that more or less followed the plot line of the 1981 movie. It was set in the present day. But as mentioned above, I didn’t want to rip off Raimi. I swapped out the claustrophobic Tennessee cabin of The Evil Dead for a big, old house in Southern Indiana. Like all haunted houses, this one had a backstory. (Haunted houses are usually haunted for a reason, after all.)

As I began writing the book, though, I discovered something: The backstory was much more than a backstory. The house had a long, horrific history—as did the people who lived (and died) there.

I realized that one story simply wasn’t going to get the job done.

So I scrapped my original manuscript, and went back to the drawing board.

Instead of starting the story in the present day, I decided to go back to the very beginning, to the origins of The Rockland Horror.

That is where Book One begins…

A total of nine books have been planned out, and are in various stages of writing and development. When completed, The Rockland Horror saga will cover the horrific history of one cursed house from 1882 through 2020.