When I was encouraged to read Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide, which jumpstarts from the “Deep Ones” part of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology and is intended as the beginning of an “Innsmouth Legacy” series (Tor’s got some previews from the months before the book was released), it was fairly popular in my library systems. While waiting my turn I got myself a better Lovecraft grounding: specifically, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which as a hardcover volume feels really impressive. (One of my math friends at Harvard demonstrated his thesis’s, er, gravity by dropping it on the floor for me. You’ve all heard the one about a class’s grades starting from “A to the person whose paper falls farthest down a staircase,” right? This guy seemed actually to be aiming for that—proudly.)
The source for the Winter Tide recommendation asked, upon hearing of my progress, “Do you think Lovecraft as an original author is worth reading?” That’s the sort of question I like to respond to publicly.
Do I feel honor-bound to have my Lovecraft “grounding” before I attempt a spin-off/re-imagining like Winter Tide or Lovecraft Country? Not at all. Do I think it’s likely useful background to enhance my experience not only of those books, but of a host of other cultural experiences up to and including overhearing “de-briefs” of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror at HRSFen Summer Party? Oh, yeah. Heck, I hadn’t even known until the other month the reference inherent in Batman Begins‘s “Arkham Asylum.” “Lovecraftian horror” is one of those terms thrown around enough that it’s worth having a primary-source experience for it.
Lovecraft’s well-acknowledged real-life racism and other prejudices are, indeed, off-putting to say the least. Some people recoil at his very likeness. To me, though, it can’t be any significant factor in my appreciation for his fiction. Fiction must speak for itself. I feel insulted, and sometimes literally pained, when I feel an author is insulting the audience—and this is partly because it’s a misuse of the medium. Characters with unsavory personal views, in contrast, are often a perfectly valid element in the author’s story-telling. And that’s how the racism in Lovecraft’s actual stories feels to my reading. His stories assume certain bizarre fears and ‘ick’ factors about certain heritages (long-term small-village insulation being even more off-putting to the characters than ethnic background). This assumption from story to story is consistent enough that one isn’t surprised to hear it comes directly from the author. However, the stories propound equally–or more–consistently and markedly the fear that “people around me might be in contact with or even worshiping arcane powers that it’s Better We Know Not Of”—that’s exactly the atmosphere people like in “Lovecraftian horror,” isn’t it?
Besides, it’s truly charming to skim over the annotations in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. There’s how many biographies and critical works and cross-referencing and maps and genealogies and other secondary literature? It’s just sweet that so many people have cared so much for the worlds he created. It reminds me of Tolkien.
C.S. Lewis might very well have agreed with me that Lovecraft and Tolkien have a legitimate kinship here. In An Experiment in Criticism, one of the greatest literary critics suggests very gently and very persuasively that the value of a book may lie less in how it is written, and more in how it is read. The chapter “On Myth,” though not the center of Lewis’s argument, is my favorite part of the volume, and the part applicable here:
There is … a particular kind of story which has a value in itself—a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work. …
The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing to us a permanent object of contemplation….
The degree to which a story is any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it. … Where one finds only danger for the heroes, the other may feel the ‘aweful.’ Where one races ahead in curiosity, the other may pause in wonder. … The myth-loving boy, if he is also literary, will soon discover that [John] Buchan is by far the better writer; but he will still be aware of reaching through [H. Rider] Haggard something which is quite incommensurate with mere excitement. Reading Buchan, he asks ‘Will the hero escape?’ Reading Haggard, he feels ‘I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.’
Over the course of almost a century, H.P. Lovecraft has inspired readers gleefully to dig into, mine out, crack open, polish, display, and send to the stars every little nugget of the strange, fearsome world his characters live and (mostly) die in. A discovery whether some version of that world strikes roots, too, in you is worthwhile irrespective of the quality or morals of the writing.
Oh, and about the writing: yes, I, too, get the impression from At the Mountains of Madness that you could cut out a full third of the text just by culling adjectives synonymous with “eldritch.” But it’s like with Philip K. Dick, or George Lucas: these men have ideas that can light fires in so many imaginations. That’s worth appreciating.