It was only last year that I discovered the joy of short stories thanks to Anton Chekhov
and Edgar Allan Poe
(although it seems longer since time is a "great ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff"). Since then I have been interested in the great short story authors of all time (as well as writing my own short stories), among whom Lovecraft is often mentioned. So I was very optimistic about this volume of stories when I started to read it - particularly in regards to the 'infamous Cthulhu Mythos.'
This volume opened with a brilliant foreword by Robert Bloch which described why Lovecraft deserves to be among the greats of horror writing and short story writing. When I read his stories I found them to have a similar effervescence and mellifluous beauty to Poe and in some parts the simplicity of Chekhov, yet clearly the work was one hundred percent unique. What Lovecraft has done with his short stories is create a world that focuses on the unknown. His terror is not simple blood and gore shock tactics to scare the audience, it is the horror that requires a deeper level of skill, to creep the audience out by linking the narrators to mysterious and creepy terrors. I found the supernatural and science fiction elements of his horror unique to him as while his language may have been similar to other short story artists the themes were completely unique and specific to his work. Very few other short story writers have written short stories that constantly link while telling different stories.
What are the themes of these short stories? Well Lovecraft deals in a variety of themes such as:
dreams, mirrors and hence the self, the 'other', the unknown, the danger of cults and occult powers, corpses, tombs, old ruined houses, cannibalism, science vs. religion, the cosmos, monsters vs. men, crawling and slimy creatures, insanity and psychology.
It seemed to me that Lovecraft believed not in deities as such or had a personal religion but was more a scientist who believed in the power of the cosmos. His view seems that the universe is strange, chaotic and hence unordered by the power of one supreme being but perhaps there may be old powers that exist in the "black seas of infinity" and will exist after people. Of course while my beliefs are very different it was interesting to note this in his fiction. He seemed to still hold a concept of black and white morality despite there being very much a greyness about his stance on human life and the powers in the universe. Curious...
The thing I also loved about the stories was pointed out to me by the foreword. Where most novels and short stories have either an unreliable* or a reliable** narrator Lovecraft wrote stories that had both at once in some strange way. The way he did this was to write first person narratives with characters who had the information but also some kind of flaw to make you doubt where the reliability was or was not. For instance this particularly occurs in the first story in this volume. Where the narrator appears to describe everything reliably until right at the end we discover that he is in fact narrating from an asylum and he is being classed as insane. However he claims he's not insane. So which viewpoint do we take?
I strongly recommend also that anyone interested in Lovecraft check out the essay he wrote called Supernatural horror in literature
. It provides several unique insights and perspectives. I also naturally recommend his tales if you're into short stories or gothic horror fiction that meets a kind of supernatural science fiction horror.
*That is you're never quite sure whether what they're telling you is all the facts or 'the truth' such as in the case of Dracula for instance.
**Work it out from my definition of unreliable narrator That is a narrator who you believe to be telling all the facts or at least enough to trust his perspective. Think Nick from The Great Gatsby.