or, How I Discovered H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft was not my first literary hero (that would have been Mark Twain), but he was the first to open my imagination up to new, strange possibilities, and he was the first to make me wish I could write stories like he did.
I first discovered Lovecraft when I was about 13 (around 1977), when I checked a collection of his stories out of the junior high school library. The book was The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, published by Scholastic, Inc., 1971. Many years later I came across this same edition in a used book store, and immediately purchased it. Because of this, I can say exactly which stories of his were the first I read, as well as the order in which I read them.
To view a scan of the cover of this tome, click here. (Is it just me, or does this deep one look suspiciously like the Nosferatu?)
Though I found all the stories in this book to be fascinating, scary, and downright weird, I didn't pursue any further Lovecraftian works until years later, when I stumbled across the "Necronomicon" (also known as the Avonomicon or the Simonomicon) in a bookstore. "Oh," I thought, "this is the book that H.P. Lovecraft made up. Somebody must have written a fake one--I wonder if it's based on his stories." Well, no, of course it wasn't, but I bought it anyway as a curiosity and it got me back into Lovecraft all over again. I am not a Lovecraft expert, but his works have inspired me to write fiction more than any other author I have read, and I seem to do a better job of writing spooky sort of Lovecraftian stories than any other type of fiction I have attempted. Following is a list of the stories as they appear in the book, along with a few comments on each.
SPOILER ALERT!!!Although I have tried not to say too much in my brief comments about these stories, there may still be one or two small spoilers for those who haven't yet read them.
The Colour Out of Space
"West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut." This opening sentence hooked me immediately. I had the impression that I was venturing into new, uncharted territory, where dark, feral things were lurking. The idea of something unknown and malevolent falling from outer space was just possible enough in the real world (and still is) to make this a truly haunting story, and I have always liked the idea of the narrator of such stories surviving afterward. Not getting eaten or otherwise destroyed, but living a haunted life with the nightmarish memories of what he had been through, and knowing that the worst may be yet to come.
This story absolutely blew me away. These days, my (hopefully) more sophisticated mental processes might see something like this coming, but back then I had no idea how the story would end until I read that last relevatory line. I remember sitting there, almost stunned, for several seconds before finally chuckling gleefully over such a twisted story. Then I reread it again.
Imprisoned with the Pharaohs
Another story in which the narrator lives through unmentionable horrors (which are, of course, mentioned in all their ghastly clarity), leaving him with haunting memories, uncertain of exactly what may have happened. I have never thought about the Sphinx and the pyramids quite the same after reading this. This story was inspired by an idea from Harry Houdini.
The Transition of Juan Romero
This is probably the weakest story in this collection, and back when I first read it I wasn't sure what the heck it was supposed to be about. Now I know that it was one of his earlier tales, when he was still working out his nameless horrors. It still makes a good preview of the kinds of things he would come up with later.
In the Walls of Eryx
The editor of this collection (Margaret Ronan) says, as an introduction to this story, that it's "the only out-and-out science fiction story ever written" by Lovecraft. It can be considered sf by its setting and some of the elements used in it, but the science-fictional part is only incidental--it is truly a horror story. The sf setting is probably because it was actually a collaboration of Lovecraft with a teenage fan of his named Kenneth Sterling. The horrors in this story are known by the narrator, so it isn't really typically Lovecraftian in that the "monsters" are more or less understood and explained. But the concept of the invisible maze...
By the time I got to this story the idea of Lovecraft writing a horrific Christmas (or Yule, anyway) tale made complete sense to me. Another story in which the narrator survives with terrifying memories of his experience and is haunted by the mind-blasting knowledge he had gained. Here I read for the first time of the abhorred Necronomicon (the real one, by which I mean the fictional one that Lovecraft thought up, not the fake one you can buy in bookstores). The last line of the story is an excerpt from the Necronomicon, a line that I committed to memory and never forgot: "Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl."
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
Ah, Innsmouth! That shadowed city on the shore that has fallen on hard times, and where the people don't quite look right. Here I first learned of Cthulhu and the Deep Ones, of the sunken city of R'lyeh and the word fhtagn. Another tale in which the narrator finds out something hideous and shocking about himself and his ancestry. A story that impressed me greatly with its overlying atmosphere of barely concealed horror.
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