Books 30 to 35: Modern Lovecraft

I’ve fallen down a deep dark well, where the eldritch creatures dwell.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about HP Lovecraft and his enduring but problematic legacy. While in many ways a mediocre writer, ol’ HPL’s visionary imagination and chilly nihilism – embodied by his pantheon of Great Old Ones – continues to resonate 80 years after his death. He is perhaps not quite a household name but his influence permeates pop culture like few others. Like some unnameable beast from beyond the stars, he’s got his tentacles everywhere.

His influence is often peripheral but in these six novels – all published in the last few years – it’s direct. So direct that the Old Gentleman himself appears as a character in three of them.

The best of the bunch is John Langan’s The Fisherman, an uncompromising tale of purist horror. Blending Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos with American folklore – and a healthy dash of Moby Dick – this is modern horror at its finest; a serious and disturbing look at how grief can twist and deform people. There’s nothing meta or self-aware about it; it makes no apology for being a classical horror tale.

The next most successful of these novels – Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean – takes a completely different tack. Despite it’s foreboding cover – a lonely hand rising above the waves of a dark, roiling sea – this is not a horror tale at all; rather it’s a literary mystery that blends history and fiction in a way reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s recent Moonglow

It tells the story of Charlie Willett, a Lovecraft obsessive who is trying to unlock the truth behind The Erotonomicon. No, it’s not some ancient book of unspeakable dark magic written with human blood, but rather Lovecraft’s erotic diary. Is the book – which suggests HPL was a raging homosexual rather than an asexual prude – real or an elaborate fake? And if it’s fake, why would someone go to such extraordinary lengths to rewrite Lovecraft’s sexual history?

The Night Ocean touches too on Lovecraft’s misogyny and racism; topics tackled more directly in the next three novels.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson is a riff on Lovecraft’s “dream cycle”, a series of short stories he wrote about a mysterious fantasy land that can only be accessed through dreams. Johnson’s novella is both homage to Lovecraft and criticism of his complete failure to write women protagonists – or to write any developed female characters at all. Sadly, Johnson commits some of the same sins of her literary forebear, drowning the book in description and forgetting to include a plot.

More successful is Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a similarly slight book that throws an African American hustler from Harlem into the midst of one of Lovecraft’s most openly racist stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” – reshaping and subverting it in unexpected ways.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country also tackles Lovecraft’s racist legacy. While it’s billed as a novel, it’s more a collection of interconnected short stories about a black family’s run-ins with a Lovecraftian cult. While Ruff is a decent writer, the stories never cohere in a fully satisfying way and LaValle offers more incisive commentary on Lovecraft’s bigotry in his 100 pages than Ruff manages in 400.

Finally, there’s Peter Clines’ 14. While the setting is compelling – a rundown apartment complex that conceals some very dark secrets – the pedestrian writing, clunky characterisation and total lack of subtext ensures it’s the least effective of this six-strong selection.

Author: adamgartrell

Political journalist drowning in books

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