Why No Love for the Craft of Howard Phillips? – Part 1- The Whisperer in the Darkness

I originally discovered H.P. Lovecraft because in the 1970’s the Ballantine Fantasy book imprint put out a series of paperback books of Lovecraft’s stories that sported covers that were wonderfully disturbing.  The one called “The Shuttered Room” had an image of a human head with sharp shards of glass sticking out of the forehead and cranium area.  The eyes were alert but the head terminated at about the upper lip. Below that it was just a dripping ooze of decay.  How could I resist?

The world divides into two camps.  Those who think H. P. Lovecraft was a great writer and those who don’t.  I fall solidly into the second camp.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t hate the guy and some of his writing is somewhat interesting.   But his writing style (if it can be called that) makes you want to throw the book at a wall or tear it in half.  Plot twists are telegraphed so blatantly that surprise is virtually impossible.  The plots themselves are sometimes so badly contrived as to suspend the suspension of disbelief in even the most sympathetic reader.  The prose is so arch and artificial that it descends into self-parody.  Sometimes he appears to be imitating Edgar Allen Poe but Lovecraft never makes it work for him.  So that’s my case against him.

That being said, I think Lovecraft had a very powerful imagination.  Buried inside some of his stories are elements that strike a nerve.  Sometimes he’ll describe a scene or paint an image that resonates.  Something primal and disturbing.  It’s almost as if he could pluck things out of his nightmares and embed them into a framework of poorly written and inept story elements.  I believe that Lovecraft’s horror talent was of a visual nature.  I have a theory that the best way to present his work is cinematically.  If a writer/director was sufficiently attuned to what is authentically frightening in Lovecraft’s works, I believe films based on some of his stories could be much better than the stories that Lovecraft left us.  But is there enough there?  The stories are a hodge-podge of plot elements and scenes.  Quite a bit of work would be needed to create a movie from any or even several of them strung together.  And is there actually enough of an audience to even warrant the expense of a major motion picture?  Director Guillermo del Toro attempted to bring “At the Mountains of Madness” to the screen but failed.   So, we’re stuck with the stories.

In this series of posts, I will give a few examples of what I think is some of his worst writing and then I’ll finish with some things that I felt were well done.

The first story is “The Whisperer in the Darkness.”  This is the story of two New Englanders communicating mostly by letter about an infestation of super-intelligent space-faring winged, giant lobster-shaped fungus creatures in northern Vermont.

There are many examples of terrible prose to choose from but one of my favorite passages is the one where the narrator recognizes the lobster man’s footprints, “Too well did I know the marks of those loathsome nippers, and that hint of ambiguous direction which stamped the horrors as no creatures of this planet.  No chance had been left me of merciful mistake.  Here, indeed, in objective form before my own eyes, and surely not made many hours ago, were at least three marks which stood out blasphemously among the surprising plethora of blurred footprints leading to and from the Akeley farmhouse.  They were the hellish tracks of the living fungi from Yuggoth.”  (italics by HPL).  So, the footprints are blasphemous?  I’ve got 12 years of Catholic school education and not once were lobsters mentioned except as an abstention during Lent but no blasphemy angle.  And he calls them the living fungi.  If they weren’t alive wouldn’t the story be kind of pointless?

So here we have a giant lobster that walks upright and apparently is able to propel itself through interstellar space on wings.  Also, even though these creatures have technology that allows them to traverse intergalactic space, wage war on super-intelligent aliens and remove human brains from their bodies and keep them alive and sentient inside a metal tank they are unable to prevent themselves from being drowned in the flooding of small Vermont streams and are also highly incompetent when confronted by a farmyard protected by an old man with a rifle assisted by his german shepherd dogs.

And one of the dopiest plot holes is the fact that every night the old man would withstand a siege at his farmhouse by these creatures but by the next day, he was free to go unmolested for miles in every direction to buy bullets and new guard dogs and even post the letters that were the text of the story.  Why didn’t he just keep driving until he got to Montpelier and then show the authorities the proof of his discovery.  Or at the very least just drive away and escape altogether?  Was he afraid the lobstermen would come after him in Boston or Providence.  Wouldn’t they be kind of conspicuous with the wings and claws and fishy smell?  And also New Englanders really like lobster meat.  I’d think of this whole invasion as a sort of food business start-up opportunity for the protagonists.

In addition to the ludicrous details of the flying-lobster-mushroom-men is the absurdity of the protagonist being unaware that one of the lobster men is dressed up as his friend and talking to him in the same room.  Endless clues are provided that point obviously to the identity of the “Whisperer” but apparently the narrator is possessed of such indestructible stupidity that at the end of the story he is shocked to discover the truth.  Maybe this is Lovecraft imitating some 19th century gothic horror story convention.  But it’s just plain ridiculous.

This story more than any other had me for a while entertaining the idea that Lovecraft was actually writing comedy.  I was imagining John Belushi or Chevy Chase dressed in a giant lobster suit with big floppy wings and covered with mushroom decals sitting across a dining room table from Wallace Shawn performing the dialogue from “My Dinner with Andre.”

Then I wondered if Lovecraft was a morphine addict.  But finally, I settled on the obvious reason.  He was a starving hack writer chronically broke and churning out dreck as best he could.  And this was what he produced.  Very sad.

Stay tuned for more Lovecraft complaining soon.

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