Thursday, September 21, 2006

On Reading H.P. Lovecraft for the First Time (Part One) 

I shouldn't be prolonging or teasing about this; so I'll start by saying that I feel slightly embarrassed to admit not having read H.P. Lovecraft, one of those writers it seems that everyone else read when they were 16, until just this past month. More precisely, I've read 3 or 4 HPL stories in anthologies over the years, but I've never before sat down to systematically read his works, or even one complete story collection. I think I knew that I would someday, or should: I'd picked up a couple of the Ballantine editions first published in the '70s, and had acquired the 3 authoritative Arkham House collections in the years since then.

I say this with due humility, because there've been a number of times when I've chatted with this writer or that hardcore fan at conventions and been rather amazed at their casually mentioning never having read Isaac Asimov, say, or Robert Heinlein. (And they let you write a novel?) It's not that surprising, I suppose, to hear this; the field is too vast for any but the most dedicated (and senior) readers (John Clute, Don D'Ammassa) to have read everything worth reading, and obviously young writers are responding to the field as it exists today, without having necessarily spent time studiously learning its past history.

Still, for those of my generation, HPL is perhaps a significant omission. In my golden age, beginning of course around age 12, I discovered and sought out and read everything I could find by Bradbury and Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, and then Silverberg and Ballard and others. I suppose I considered myself a hard-headed SF reader, open to literary writing but skeptical of wishy-washy fantasy, and the passing encounters I may have had with HPL left me unmoved. (I bought a 1970s Ballantine 'Adult Fantasy' edition of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, whose title story I now realize is perhaps the least characteristic major story by HPL.)

But something a couple months ago led me to pick up one of those Ballantine editions and read a story or two. And discovering that electronic texts are available online -- albeit uncorrected and sometimes corrupt texts -- contributed something (which you may guess at but I'll not further explain) to my sudden intention to finally pay attention to HPL. And so since early August I've been reading my way through the stories, at first haphazardly but then systemically, chronologically that is, which means that as of this evening -- after having spent a week working my way through "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" and then finishing "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" just a few minutes ago -- I still have yet to read many of the 'major' HPL stories such as "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Shadow Out of Time", not to mention a handful of titles I'd never even recognized until this current project, such as "The Dreams in the Witch-House" and "The Haunter of the Dark" and "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Whisperer in Darkness". The best is yet ahead, perhaps? -- not that I haven't been fascinated by all those before, the way HPL themes recur over and over, the way as with some writers every story seems a variation on every other story, all of them accumulating to some great whole.

And so I expect to spend another week or two finishing the last dozen or so HPL stories, closing off the Ballantine editions and the Arkham House editions and the Library of America and Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Wheeler editions, and then posting another entry here about what I find fascinating about HPL, as if anyone needs my impressions, and then returning to current reading and current projects.
Nice post. I don't think I have ever sat down to read an entire HPL collection, and if my memory serves me right, I think I may have only read one story by him, if at all.

It is difficult to read everything. But your post has inspired me to look at some authors that have been on my back burner and start a plan. I look forward to your review of HPL.

I think this phenomenom of not having read a major writer is a lot more prevalent than you think. Might make a good panel discussion: What major genre figure have you (intentionally or unintentionally) ignored?

For me it's the two Roberts - Robert E. Howard and Robert Heinlein. I think I've read maybe two Howard stories (both of them good, mind you), but none of his Conan work. Since I edit a magazine of epic fantasy/S&S, this is something I don't admit too often (and usually in a whisper).

I often find myself saying I've never read Heinlein, though I suppose that's not true. Read STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND at 14, and hated it. Tried to read THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS at 13 and couldn't finish it. Then tried FRIDAY and gave up completely, writing him off as simply not to my taste. I discovered decades later when I picked up RED PLANET that I must have read it at a very young age (and loved it), but long before I learned to pay attention to authors. Same with STARSHIP TROOPERS, which means I've enjoyed at least two Heinlein books. But by the time I started paying attention to authors, I taught myself to dislike Heinlein.

I hope you didn't start reading Lovecraft from a dead start in chronological order. I tried that in 1989, after shelling out $80 for the 4-volume Arkham set, and his first two stories ("The Tomb" and a second I forget) were horrible. I set the books down and didn't come back for years - until I read "Call of Cthulhu" and "Shadow Out of Time," both of which I consider weird masterpieces.

- John
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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