Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cool Air

Short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

This story is very clearly influenced by The Novel of the White Powder and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. I wrote about the overall commonalities of the three stories here. But I recommend reading all of them first. I'll put the spoilers there, and keep this post shorter.

Our narrator lives below an eccentric old Spanish doctor. He gradually befriends him (with shades of Erich Zann), and then things get a bit gross and weird. This is easily the best of Lovecraft's New York stories, really the only one I'd recommend to people. It is suspenseful and you really want to keep reading even if you know what is going to happen, or picked up on all the foreshadowing.

It's not typical or cliched in really any sense, despite my being able to cite two clear influences on Lovecraft here. I think the atypicalness of the story is best summarized by one of my favorite quotes from the introduction of the story:
"It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangor of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady and two stalwart men by my side."
Overall, a really nice, unusual piece of horror writing that shows some maturity from Lovecraft. A personal favorite, although certainly not his best.
3.5 out of 5 kinds of dark, slimy trails end in terrible little pools.

The Novel of the White Powder

Short Story by Arthur Machen

A young woman watches her brother be transformed by some early anti-depressants, but it turns out the chemist gave him something that didn't quite match the prescription.

I really like Machen's descriptions and the sense of sinister but unspecified changes in someone's personality. The final description of her brother really makes this story for me. There is also some repeated imagery of the sunset as a burning city that gets increasingly more sinister, and I'm not sure how metaphorically we're meant to take it by the end.

But overall, this story was not all that it could be. There is a nice creepy ending that could have come out of Poe, but then we follow that up with pages worth of a rambling letter from the chemistry researcher and some supernatural and religious mumbo-jumbo. Machen should have taken a page out of Poe and ended with the horror. Instead he makes the Lovecraftian mistake of overexplaining. Which is funny, since Lovecraft's own story inspired by this is much better in that regard and doesn't overexplain the ending.

Machen criticized Lovecraft for not having enough of the spiritual in his fiction, but that is one sense in which I think Lovecraft holds up much better than some of his contemporaries.

3 dark and putrid masses, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid out of 5.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

Short Story by Edgar Allan Poe

A doctor uses mesmerization on a dying man to relieve his pain, and as an experiment in staving off death. He is more successful than anyone would hope for.

This is one of Poe's most gruesome tales and I like that about it. It's very short, and without the vivid descriptions of the body, Valdemar's eyes, and his voice, there just wouldn't be enough to it. But with these lovely, disgusting little bits it achieves Poe's One Big Effect quite successfully. The sudden end of things with only a sentence of denouement makes the tale much more effective than it would be from other authors. 4 nearly liquid masses of loathsome—of detestable putrescence out of 5.

The Shunned House

Novelette by H.P. Lovecraft

"Long-winded, statistical, and drearily genealogical" is how Lovecraft describes the narrator's uncle, Eli Whipple, and his book of research. And that's exactly how most readers will describe the first half of this novelette.

We get a long, past-tense description of the strangeness of the titular house, and how everyone who lived there seems to die an early death. We learn that some residents spoke in French before dying without ever having know French. And we learn all about the family history and renovations made to the house. Lovecraft lets slip that not only does the narrator survive, but the mysterious problem has been solved and now people don't die or have anything weird happen in the house. I'm inclined to either stop here, or fall asleep.

The narrator tosses around a few theories about vampires and werewolves, and tells of previous residents trying to kill their own families and being found drained of blood. Eventually he sees a human-like gaseous form rise from the fungus in the cellar, and he and his uncle decide to go in, watch the spot, and attempt to eliminate the threat. This whole story has a distinct feel of the Call of Cthulhu pencil and paper RPG. And the main characters seem a bit munchkiny.

They bring two absurd methods of fighting the unknown thing (which they take some wild guesses at that Lovecraft implies to have been not too far off): a pair of WWI flamethrowers, and a giant Crookes Tube (LASER). They have an option for either the corporeal or incorporeal menace with little reason to how they got such ridiculous bullshit.

Anyway, they have an interesting and tense night in the house and eventually vanquish the monster, which ends up a little weirder and more difficult than anyone, including me, had expected. The night vigil is actually scary and interesting and I like the sciencey method of victory. I do quite like the last two chapters and especially the night spent in the house, but overall the story leaves a lot to be desired. 2.5 out of 5.

P.S. the most significant thing in this story is the beginning of Lovecraft's use of scientific justifications and solutions to his supernatural problems. We'll see a lot more of this later on.


Short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

My least favorite story of Lovecraft's New York period, which was the worst period of writing in his career. The main value of this story is in the autobiographical aspects on Lovecraft's feelings about his move to the city.

A writer moves to New York City, then hates it (and all the immigrants of course). While wandering around one night, he meets an old guy who also loves history, and this man shows him around, and then takes him to a window that can magically see into the past and future. Then shit gets weird.

Honestly, not enough happens in the story, and it was tough to get through despite being very short. And then it is tough to actually remember. But Lovecraft isn't a complete failure; there are some nice bits of description, particularly the view of the future and the creepy ghost ooze thing at the end. I also like the first line: "I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision."

But overall, the story doesn't make a lot of sense and has little point besides hatred of the city. Although there is a bit of a stealth moral about not being too hung up on the past, I'm not sure Lovecraft meant it.

Lovecraft's visions of the future aren't good enough for more than 2 impious pyramids out of 5.

The Horror at Red Hook

Novelette by H.P. Lovecraft

Detective Malone was caught in a building collapse and now screams and runs at the sight of tall buildings. The story is about how Malone developed his phobia. He is apparently "sensitive" to magic and mysterious happenings, sort of a prohibition era Agent Mulder. He, like Lovecraft, is big believer in the theories from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and believes that there remains one big cult among all the foreigners in New York.

Malone was assigned to investigate the smuggling of illegal Kurdish immigrants into Red Hook, and later he investigates an epidemic of child kidnappings. Both cases lead to Robert Suydam and the weird rituals he and his immigrant friends participate in. It's actually a fairly creepy story with some weird twists, but the cultish phrases and whatnot all come verbatim from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is less exciting than Lovecraft's usual occult flavor. The conclusion is the other disappointment, and on reflection, the entire story makes zero sense.

The incident on the boat seems unlikely, and a terrible way to orchestrate things, relying on a lot of stupidity and perfect coordination which could have been much more easily accomplished in Suydam's house or something. The thing with the pedestal makes no damn sense at all, nor does Suydam's last-minute change-of-heart. And the whole concept of Lilith and a demon-marriage just isn't that scary. And it's surprising coming from an atheist like Lovecraft. Touches like the children who burn up in sunlight, pregnant kidnapped women, Suydam's magical rejuvenation, and the building collapses just seem tacked on, irrelevant, and built up as a lot more significant than they should be given the lack of discussion or development.

Even for Lovecraft, the story is long and rambling (as he points out himself in a letter) and the language is even more overwrought than usual. It's also pretty racist and xenophobic. I could go on complaining for longer, but the point is that this isn't a very good story.

Still, I like it more than a lot of people do. It certainly isn't the worst of Lovecraft, and I feel "The Horror at Red Hook" is underrated in the sense that it is a bad story with some merit, rather than having nothing to offer at all. I don't feel that racism is the entire point and the concept of a secret cult in the city with underground boat passages for smuggling and secret movement is a fun concept with room for horror, if not terribly original. I guess the main redeeming quality is in the description. I find the scene with the claw marks on the boat pretty scary (even if it doesn't make much sense), and the concept and descriptions of the caverns and underground waterways is pretty nice. So it is maybe worth reading if you like Lovecraft a lot, but certainly one of his worse pieces. "The Rats in the Walls" has some nice cavern description, and is a hell of a lot cooler and more original.

2.5 out of 5 immigrant children were recovered in the police raid.