By H.P. LOVECRAFT (Dover; 1945/73)
From one of the foremost horror scribes of all time comes perhaps the finest, most concise recounting of the genre I’ve ever encountered. No, H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t known for his nonfiction, but excelled nonetheless in the critical and bibliographic spheres. Both are richly represented in this short and indispensable study of classic horror fiction, which reaches to the late twenties, the time Lovecraft completed the first draft of SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE (revised versions were published in 1939 and 1945, from which the Dover edition under review was taken).
Keep in mind that the author’s opinion was a decidedly biased one. Lovecraft’s idea of horror literature, or the “weird tale”, completely excludes things like romance and “commonplace sentimentality”, and has a definite cosmic angle, as enumerated at length in his introduction. An excerpt: “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains…A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present…a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
That quote explains some of the books omitted herein. A widely acknowledged classic like Prescott’s VARNEY THE VAMPIRE is completely passed over while Hanz Heinz Ewers’ indispensable Frank Braun trilogy (THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, ALRAUNE, VAMPIRE) gets only a passing mention. The reason for this, I’m guessing, is that those novels don’t conform to the formula outlined above. More inexplicable absences include Jeremias Gotthelf’s THE BLACK SPIDER and Edgar Jepson’s THE GARDEN AT 19, both of which seem right up Lovecraft’s alley, as well as the entire ouvre of Oliver Onions. Clearly even Lovecraft was incapable of reading every worthy book in the horror field, but the absences of Gotthelf, Jepson and Onions stand out, if only because SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE is otherwise so thorough in its overview.
The study begins in controversial fashion, with Lovecraft enumerating his less-than-enlightened theories about the racial origins of the weird tale (you can profitably skim through the opening chapters), but immediately hits its stride once the capsule reviews of individual novels and stories kick in. The works covered include genre essentials like THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO (which Lovecraft accurately chastises as “tedious, artificial and melodramatic”), THE MONK, MELMOTH THE WANDERER, VATHEK, FRANKENSTEIN, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, THE KING IN YELLOW and DRACULA.
All the descriptions are enlivened by Lovecraft’s irrepressible enthusiasm, which remains infectious. The prose occasionally feels overly stiff and academic, but the author’s passion and descriptive power really make the various tales he discusses come alive–often to their detriment! His enthusiastic dissertation on the deadly M.P. Shiel, for instance, is all-too persuasive…at least until one attempts to read Shiel’s work. Ditto the admiring write-up on Leonard Cline’s THE DARK CHAMBER, which Lovecraft again (in my opinion, at least) wildly overrates.
For the most part, though, I find Lovecraft’s observations dead-on. He rightly devotes an entire chapter to the work of Edgar Allen Poe, and includes lengthy overviews of the writings of still-unsurpassed masters of the macabre like Walter De La Mare, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson and Henry James. Lovecraft’s skill in distilling a story’s qualities down to their very essence is in ample evidence in each entry, which makes for an excellent reading guide and an overall volume indispensable to the library of every true genre fan.
After reading this book, however, I’m left with one niggling query: what might Lovecraft, who was so articulate in his likes and dislikes, think of today’s crop of horror fiction?