Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Reviews: Waking Up Screaming

Waking Up Screaming
by H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft was probably the most influential horror writer of the 20th century. His influence has touched people as disparate as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Neil Gaiman, Brian Lumley, John Carpenter, Clive Barker, and many many more. Despite his posthumous fame, Lovecraft made very little money during his life. None of his books was ever published during his lifetime. 

His primary source of income was writing for pulp magazines, which paid little and not regularly. Lovecraft died of cancer, though the poverty derived starvation may have gotten him first. Lovecraft's primary work was done in short stories though he also created a few novellas and novels. Calling Lovecraft a horror novelist is far too limiting. Probably it is more accurate to call him a creator of weird fiction. Horror, sci-fi and just strange goings on all are found in all of his stories. Lovecraft was a peculiar man who professed to be indifferent to sex.

 His ex-wife famously said that Lovecraft was "adequate" in the boudoir. Also, even for his time and social/gender group Lovecraft was extremely racist. Just being around those he considered to be his biological and social inferiors could leave him in a quivering rage. So those elements occasionally came through in his stories. Heck some scholars believe that those personal failings are what drove and inspired Lovecraft. You can either deal with that or not. Beautiful flowers can grow from some ugly s***. Women are rarely found in Lovecraft's fictional creations and never as protagonists. Non-whites?  The less said about that the better I think. Let's move along. 

Anyhow, Waking Up Screaming is (mostly) a collection of Lovecraft's short stories which is tilted towards his early period. If you haven't ever read anything by Lovecraft before this could be a good place to satisfy your curiosity. He had a very distinctive prose style, one that is extremely descriptive, too much so at times. Lovecraft never met an adjective or adverb he didn't like. And the more out of the ordinary or antiquated the word was the more likely Lovecraft was to use it. 

Lovecraft was, as mentioned, something of a reactionary who thought that the US might have made a mistake separating from the United Kingdom. Lovecraft was a big fan of the 18th century and no doubt would have been happier living during that time.  What Lovecraft didn't like in his writing was dialogue. This can make his writing hard to get through at times. A great many of his protagonists are men such as Lovecraft saw himself, sensitive souls who may go mad when they discover or are forced to confront some other dimensional horror or worse some secret from their past.

The secret from the past and biological determinism were big themes in Lovecraft's work. They are what drive the short story "Arthur Jermyn" and the short novel "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". The latter story also manages to throw in Lovecraft's dislike for seafood. Actually the latter story is a catchall for all of Lovecraft's fears, including but not limited to immigration, what was then called miscegenation, and what Lovecraft saw as the decline of the old American nation. 

In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" the narrator says that he will tell the true story of why the US Federal government attacked the Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth, burned down much of it and arrested or killed many of its inhabitants.  

The novel "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" tells us what happens when a naive young man gets too interested in his ancestor's strange history. Some things can reach out from the past and not let go. "The White Ship" finds Lovecraft in full Dunsany mode. It's truly a wondrous piece of writing that will make you look for the magic in your own life. "From Beyond" finds Lovecraft using the advances in physics to imagine worlds which are close to us but which we'd be better off not knowing about."The Lurking Fear" could almost read as a satire of what urbanized New Englanders or other East Coasters think of their less well off countrymen in the weird places of upstate New York. How many horror stories today still use rural people as  a signifier of degradation and danger? 

"Cool Air" tells us of a doctor who insists that his dwelling be kept as cold as possible.  He has a good reason for that. This short story also uses one of Lovecraft's favorite tricks of revealing the shock/secret in the very last sentence of the story. "Herbert West-Reanimator" is Lovecraft's version of the Frankenstein story, though it is marred in my view by severe ethnic and racial hatreds. "The Temple" discusses a WWI German U-Boat Captain who sees things underwater which can not possibly exist. "The Hound" is a straightforward gothic horror story that shows Lovecraft's debt to Poe. All in all this collection is a fair introduction to Lovecraft for those who haven't read him or a good pickup for those Lovecraft fans who may be missing a few of the stories included within.
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