November 6, 2012

Necronomicon (#82)

Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft

What I said then:

When I realised there was actually a book called the Necronomicon, I had to have it. Classic, bleak horror. Fun!

What I say now:

Actually, this wasn't nearly as much fun as I'd hoped. Lovecraft wrote a multitude of horror stories for American pulp magazines in the twenties and thirties, and Necronomicon is a chronologically arranged collection of some of his best, and most well known, tales. It's also eight hundred pages long.

There was my real error. If I'd picked up a book which contained a small handful of stories, and maybe one longer novella, I might have been able to appreciate the good things Lovecraft does. He's pretty good at establishing atmosphere; he sets most of his stories in a tainted, haunted version of rural New England, a setting which is pretty off-beat and unusual; and he definitely had a flair for inventing demons and ghouls and alien consciousnesses.

Unfortunately, under the weight of eight hundred god damn pages, all these positives came to seem repetitive and dreary. Honestly, the vast majority of the stories contained in this collection are incredibly similar: similar in setting, in tone, in language. Once I'd read five stories, I wasn't surprised (or even particularly interested) again.

Add to the repetitiveness his exorbitantly 'gothic' language, which sometimes was so overblown as to almost serve as its own parody. Check this sentence out (a character has just heard a horrifying sound): "To call it a dull wail, a doom-dragged whine or a hopeless howl of chorused anguish and stricken flesh without mind would be to miss its most quintessential loathsomeness and soul-sickening overtones." Yikes.

That sentence gets at another of my issues with Lovecraft: he has an almost complete fear of actually describing anything. He won't tell you about the horrible monster or whatever, he'll relate how horrible his characters feel upon beholding it. Describing something's effects, rather than the thing itself, is always a good way to get on my nerves. (There is one way to make this work, which is to have me care so deeply about the characters, and know them so well, that hearing about the creature/alien/thing's effect on them is enough to sustain the drama. Unfortunately Lovecraft's characters are, without exception, two-dimensional nobodies, so this option wasn't available to him.)

There are more than a few stories where, having told us in exruciating detail about every step in an expedition into some haunted, blighted place, Lovecraft completely wimps out and says 'Oh, what they saw there was so horrifying that I can't even relate it to you, that's how scary it is! The end.' Seriously. That rivals 'and then they woke up and it was all a dream' as one of the worst ways you can end a story, and Lovecraft did it over and over again.

There were occasional stories that stepped out of his usual, frustrating patterns, and they were by far the highlights. The stories being arranged chronologically, it was also really interesting to follow his growth as a writer across the years: he definitely became a better writer with time and practice. Those occasional moments of interest were nowhere near enough to make up for wading through the rest of it though.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
books to go: 79
note: I've fallen way behind with my reviews (sorry 'bout that), which is why the numbers don't quite add up here. Not that anybody probably pays attention to this stuff, but I'm totally anal-retentive, so I feel compelled to explain.