Having grown up quite fond of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, I have read bits and pieces of Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction throughout my life, but before I dive into some of the Mythos-related works on my to-read pile, I wanted to make a concerted effort to follow its progression from start to finish. This lovely leatherbound tome represented an excellent opportunity to see Lovecraft’s evolution as an author, although it’s a hefty beast that left my wrist complaining for weeks.
It’s no secret to fans of weird fiction that Lovecraft held some reprehensible views, being remarkably racist, anti-semitic, and generally xenophobic even by the standards of his time. My previously disjointed experience of reading his fiction had left me with the impression that this wasn’t an attitude that heavily pervaded his Mythos work. I thought the worst of it was channelled into his more prosaic works, like the execrable nonsense that is ‘The Street’, a rant against multiculturalism thinly disguised as a short story. Unfortunately, that was a mistaken impression, and these attitudes are on display in many of his Mythos stories. A number of them are themed around the dilution of a bloodline by outsiders, resulting in their degeneration into anything from simplistic cannibals to warped aquatic monster hybrids, all of them thin stand-ins for the immigrants and people of colour Lovecraft feared.
And yet there is something compelling to me about the Mythos, despite its author. The majority of the fiction I read is either humanist or concerned with humanity’s relationship to spiritual or deific forces. It’s hard to escape an anthropocentric viewpoint. I appreciate the way that Lovecraft confronts humanity’s cosmic insignificance, even if he did it out of fear instead of intellectual curiosity. We tend to feel, and so we tend to write, as though the end of humanity will be the end of all things, but we’re just one species on one planet, and when we’re gone, that planet may recover from our depredations, life that isn’t human will go on, and other planets will spin under alien suns. I believe it’s a good thing to come to terms with, because we have to decide to find meaning in the impermanent, and fiction is a great lens through which to do so. That said, this perspective does significantly lessen their impact as horror stories, which Lovecraft’s sometimes overwrought tone aims for.
I appreciate that Lovecraft’s alien threats aren’t threats because they hate humanity or because they are uniformly evil, but because they generally have about as much interest in us as sapient beings as we have in the emotional landscapes of cows. Quite a few of the bad things that happened to people in these stories only happened because they went poking around in the forgotten places of the world that had clearly already welcomed life antithetical to theirs. Just as we insist on wading into waters that we weren’t born for and then complaining that there are sharks; the belief that we have an unassailable right to exist unchallenged in every corner of the planet makes us an entitled species.
Lovecraft is obviously a big fan of Lord Dunsany and several of his more dreamlike works are homages; clumsy ones to begin with, but polished and compelling by the time he reaches ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’, which is likely my favourite work in the whole substantial volume. In a way, I think some of these works reflect a certain lost potential — Lovecraft was seemingly at his best when he wrote from wonder rather than from fear, but he did so much more of the latter. Still, it’s unsurprising that the minds of bigots will be limited by fear.
I think that for the casual reader, this volume might be too complete. Progressing as it does from the earliest stages of Lovecraft’s career, you’re stuck with a good couple hundred pages of his youth’s work, with its stilted prose, lack of subtlety, and painfully overwrought endings. By the time the book reaches the good stuff, I expect a lot of readers would have put it down and wondered why on earth everyone keeps talking about this Cthulhu thing. I’d be more likely to recommend a compact tome of the best Mythos works to most readers, but I’m glad this edition exists for completists like myself, as it was illuminating — albeit sometimes in unfortunate ways — to take in the full scope of his work. I will probably never reread it in its entirety, as there’s too much here that is simply distasteful and of little continued value, but there are many good bits to pick at, and pick at them I shall.
Lovecraft’s most valuable legacy is simply the foundation that he laid upon which so many others have built. There are many excellent Mythos works in the world, and few of them were written by him. I don’t know if that would have pleased him or galled him, but given who he was as a person, I am okay with not caring.