H.P Lovecraft. Not a great writer, but a great story teller.
This blog post is, for the most part, my opinion. I don’t claim to hold any level of genuine qualification as a literary critic. However I’m pig-headed enough that that doesn’t bother me too much.
Back in the nineties, during my regrettably well-spent youth, I stumbled upon a couple of very interesting computer games for my old 486DX: Shadow of the Comet and Prisoner of Ice. Both games were flawed in many ways; however, I loved the story and mythos behind them. It was deep, chilling and somehow felt fundamentally wrong. Both games had the same three words printed on the box artwork: Call of Cthulhu.
Now back in mid nineteen-nineties Britain, most of us didn’t have access to the internet, and our house was certainly no exception to that rule. As a result, I couldn’t just open internet explorer and lookup what the hell Call of Cthulhu was. So I played the games, had fun doing it and went about my business. One day I found myself in a used book shop. God knows, why because I was hardly a great reader in those days. But that aside, I saw a book on a rotary shelf titled Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft, read the blurb and was very excited. I bought it and that evening relaxed in bed and began reading. Bloody hell, it was hard work! I tried to persevere but gave up. A short while later, I tried the Mountains of Madness. The same result. I concluded that I simply lacked the reading skill or artistic temperament to appreciate, or indeed access, that text.
Years have passed and I’ve thought about Lovecraft many times over the two decades. I’ve seen other Lovecraft-inspired works, read books by many other authors and written a book myself. A couple of weeks back, I decided to give old Howard Phillips Lovecraft another shot. I can see why I had so much bloody trouble as a teen; his prose is not easy to read to say the least. I started with his novella, A Shadow Over Innsmouth. At the start it reads like a report in the first person, very fact orientated, very clinical. Next came what I fully expected to be dialogue; however this soon revealed itself to be extended monologue with only the implication of a two-way conversation. At this point I couldn’t honestly say I was enjoying the book but it was only the first few pages. I persevered and trudged on.
Consider the following. Try reading it out loud:
“It took no excessive sensitiveness to beauty to make me literally gasp at the strange, unearthly splendour of the alien, opulent phantasy that rested there on a purple velvet cushion.”
Hard work in my opinion (I believe the term is purple prose). His writing is clunky, lacks flow and creates a barrier between the reader and the narrative.
I continued on as the rather drawn-out writing described the protagonist’s approach to town. I was feeling a little more engaged now, I could feel a little menace coming from the page. I still had little idea who the protagonist was, but I did know that he liked architecture. I knew precious little else about him. A few pages later, we were back into monologue, paragraph after paragraph of the stuff. This time written in accent:
“’Twas then Obed got the ol’ branch railrud put through. Some Kingsport fishermen heerd abaout the ketch an’ come up in sloops, but they was all lost. Nobody never see ’em agin.”
I understand the need for accent writing and have used it myself. However, what the reader is looking at are not real words, and the brain is not used to interpreting them. Reading accented text is perfectly palatable in small portions, but when one is reading extended monologue it can be a little overwhelming. The character of Joseph in Wuthering Heights is a classic example – the lexical equivalent of trudging through a deep peat bog on a Yorkshire moor.
In fairness I’d lay good money that on a personal level, my dyslexia doesn’t help in this.
I called it a night at this point and tried again with a fresher mind the following night.
The story moved away from monologue and gathered pace. The writing was still clunky as the protagonist described what he saw around town, but the feeling of menace grew a little stronger. This is when my reading experience changed; I was finally enjoying it, I felt the menace of the town, I felt the tension in the air. Story-wise I was ‘in’. Stephen King’s writing for example, tends to draw you in. In fact, not just draw you in but draw you in, drag you into the cellar and then lock all the doors with you inside. Lovecraft’s writing draws the curtains then locks, bolts and chains the door to keep you out. Even once you’re in, you sometimes feel like an unwelcome guest. But inside is good.
Once you’re past the clunky writing, purple prose and extended monologue you experience the true genius of Lovecraft’s writing. He created a world and mythos like no other – truly horrendous creatures, a constant feeling of oppression and a menagerie of monsters. Somehow, through all the undeveloped characters, long monologues and adjective-heavy prose he plants a seed in your mind. One that quickly grows, showing you ancient creatures’ dark intent and pure evil. He may not have been a great writer but he was a great story teller.