Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Scary Stories

I came across a collection of H. P. Lovecraft stories in Costco a couple of weeks ago, and have started reading it. The first impression that I received is that it's a lot like reading Charles Darwin. One thing that occurred me when I was reading "On the Origins of Species" was the odd sensation of watching someone discover something that's now considered to be everyday knowledge. While Mr. Darwin's insights were pioneering 150 years ago, our knowledge has far surpassed that point, and so it now seems surprisingly basic. Reading Lovecraft is the same way. The settings for his stories are almost a century in the past at this point, and the stories themselves seem like the sorts of things that you'd find Cub Scouts and Brownies attempting to scare one another with during campouts. The subject matter does tend to be little beyond what one would expect grade-school children to work with, but the overall "tell instead of show" construction reminds me of how I remember the stories of my childhood to work - there wasn't any truly frightening imagery in the stories, just the repeated reminders that the characters were terrified.

Robert E. Howard, a contemporary of and correspondent with Mr. Lovecraft seemed to do the strange and weird somewhat better. But this is, I think, because Mr. Howard wrote the Conan the Barbarian stories in the third person, and was much more able to create rich descriptions of the character's physical reactions. And so while Mr. Lovecraft's first-person narrators would often simply inform the reader that they felt some indescribable terror, Mr. Howard would convey that through characters' reactions to that emotion.

This creates an interesting disconnect. I've been told countless times that H. P. Lovecraft was a master of the horror genre. But the genre has come so far, and moved so quickly, that it is difficult for me to perceive that mastery in the works that I've read to this point. Instead, it seems pioneering, and it's interesting for that. I can understand how people were drawn to this new variety of scary story, even if by now, it's old hat.

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