I had never read a word of H.P. Lovecraft until last summer. I figured it was like pot—if you got into him in high school, you’d probably like him forever, but if you didn’t, you wouldn’t, no loss. But then I realized that I knew a ton of women who were huge Lovecraft fans. And this struck me as so strange that I had to see for myself what all of the fuss was about.
Reading him as late as I did was interesting. I mean, like everyone else, I had watched “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel and laughed, but I certainly didn’t understand before how much of it is an—I think unintentional—homage to Lovecraft. Shoot, any number of unscripted shows on TV right now seem based on Lovecraftian premises: there’s something out there in the dark that most people know nothing about, but our intrepid protagonists, who might seem a little goofy, have evidence of vast hidden knowledge of this horror, which they will use to investigate said horror. See the aforementioned “Ancient Aliens” or “Finding Bigfoot” or any of the “Ghost Hunters/Adventures/etc.” shows.
And he is a skilled writer. He can take things that just are not objectively that scary—a giant elbow, an alien shaped like a pyramid—and creep you right out with them.
But whoa doggy, the dude is racist. And not just in the “oh, he had some unfortunate personal beliefs, but we can overlook them and still enjoy his art” way. His stories often hinge on the idea that “fully human” is English people and people of English descent and creeping up out of the uncanny valley to ruin things for people of English descent are bunches of different groups of people who range from not very human at all—strange islanders and non-white people of all sorts—to people who could almost pass for human, if you weren’t vigilant—like the French.
One of his best stories, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is all about how a man is rightfully repulsed by the residents of Innsmouth, who have, to put it mildly, interbred with the wrong sorts of people, people they met while they were out sailing around the world, only to discover, to his horror, that he is one of these repulsive people. The story is great and scary and ooky, but the story doesn’t work without the premise that there are some folks we just shouldn’t mix with.
So what do you do with an author who is hugely influential and, in many ways, rightly so, whose work has some enormous problems? That question becomes more interesting and less hypothetical when you realize most, if not all, Lovecraft stuff is probably in the public domain. If you want to try to fix your problems with Lovecraft’s stories, you can.
While I was trying to figure out what made my friends swoon over Lovecraft, I came across his story “The Shunned House,” which is, as far as I’m concerned, just about as perfect a haunted house story as you can get (with one massive exception—the stupid giant elbow at the end).
So, I got this idea to retell “The Shunned House,” but set it near where I live, and post the story at my blog. I thought this would give me a chance to really understand Lovecraft’s technique, to see how he does what he does.
Lovecraft is so confident in his storytelling ability that he can tell you what happens—in this case that the narrator’s uncle dies—right up front. Most storytellers build suspense by keeping from you what happens until the last minute, but Lovecraft builds suspense by withholding how it happens. I don’t think this is a good strategy for most writers. To me, a horror story is a kind of tragedy. Letting your reader know that almost everyone has a happy ending ahead of time seems like you’re backing away from the tragedy of it.
But, obviously, it works for Lovecraft. And for “Ancient Aliens,” for that matter. I mean, every episode, you know it was aliens that did something. The mystery of the episodes is what they did.
I also think that it’s really genius how Lovecraft lets things build up without immediate resolution. He brings things up early on—not just the uncle’s death, but the other deaths in the house, and then drops them for a while. He just leaves their unresolved nature hanging over the story. So, even though the story starts out without anything particularly scary happening at the moment, and the only weird thing Lovecraft’s narrator brings up is a strange moldy spot, the deaths the reader doesn’t know enough about set a tone. This is a trick utilized by “Ghost Adventures” every week. They tell you the story of the place upfront, and it’s not particularly scary, but the weird stories you’re told in the first half set the tone for the things that happen (or don’t) in the second half.
But even in this awesome story, which I love, you can’t escape the specter of Lovecraft’s ubiquitous gross personal beliefs. One of the house’s inhabitants, William Harris is described as “enfeebled as he was by the climate of Martinique,” because, of course, the tropics are corrupting and ruinous. Even people from the countryside come in for a Lovecraftian sniding, “Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions.” And the one weird thing that ties all the deaths in the house together is that people speak French. Quel horreur!
Lovecraft’s politics are right at the heart of his stories. You take the heart out, and I’m not sure how Lovecraftian what’s left is. But I’m also not sure that’s all that terrible. We seem to be doing all right with reanimating the heartless corpses of his work and putting them work to our own ends. That seems fitting.