Not one short story this week, but an entire collection, stuffed full of HP Lovecraft’s overblown language and trademark use of four adjectives whenever one would do – a truly hideous, bloated, blasphemous, loathsome collection of tales from beyond the tomb – just the thing to resurrect this little horror slot from its summer death…
The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft
There are five individual stories in the book, plus the Herbert West – Reanimator series, which is made up of six linked episodes. The ‘zombie’ reference in the title is a bit of a cheat – only the Herbert West stories contain what we might think of today as zombies, and I suspect were probably influential on the development of the zombie genre, but Lovecraft himself doesn’t use the word. Most of the rest do have a connection to people returning from the dead in one way or another, but in one or two of them the link is tenuous indeed.
All bar the last story were written between 1921-26, Lovecraft’s early period before he developed the themes and style of his best known Cthulhu Mythos stories. There are some mentions of things, however, such as Arkham and the library at Miskatonic University, that he would go on to develop and use in the later stories. Even at this early stage in his career Lovecraft had developed his love for overblown language, though not yet (thankfully) his penchant for ridiculously overlong descriptions of ancient alien buildings. The final story, The Thing on the Doorstep, was written in 1933 and is much more in the Cthulhu style – as a result it is by far the longest story in the book, though still reasonably tightly focused in comparison to some of his other work.
The included stories are:
The Outsider (1921) – a rather good story of a boy who grows up locked away in a castle deep within a forest. One day he ascends the black tower and after much peril finds himself in the world of men – but there is also a hideous, blasphemous creature here and a nice, if somewhat predictable, twist ending. (On that point, I always feel a little reluctant to use the word predictable with these early, influential writers, because I suspect they’re only predictable now because so many people have subsequently recycled what were probably original plots at the time.)
Herbert West – Reanimator (1921-22) – This starts off brilliantly with a horrifying tale of a medical student obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. Each episode is told by his fellow student (unnamed) who starts out as a willing assistant but gradually becomes more appalled at West’s experiments and ends up fearing for his own life. The stories get darker and more gruesome as they go on – these are horror in the true sense of the word and very imaginative. Each story stands alone but there is also a strand that runs through them all, and the horrific ending is chillingly foreshadowed throughout. Unfortunately the series was spoiled for me by one episode in which Lovecraft uses some really vile dehumanising language about a black character. I try hard not to let contemporary attitudes get in the way when reading books of an earlier period, but that’s sometimes harder than others. It’s generally accepted, I think, that Lovecraft was particularly racist, more even than different times can account for, but this is the first of his stories that I’ve read where it has been quite so blatantly and disgustingly expressed. A pity – otherwise the series is excellent and spine-chillingly horrific.
In the Vault (1925) – Another lovely bit of horror, although I admit this one made me laugh rather than shiver. A lazy undertaker becomes trapped in a vault with the coffins containing several of his customers. A cautionary tale to remind us all that we should do our jobs properly – angry customers can make their complaints in many ways…
Cool Air (1926) – Again good! A mysterious doctor lives in rooms in a boarding house, where he has installed a refrigeration system to keep the temperature unusually low. It’s fairly easy to work out what’s going on in this one, but it doesn’t matter – the writing keeps it creepily horrible anyway. And when the refrigeration system breaks down and the temperature rises – ooh! Let’s put it this way – you may want to be sure you have an emergency ice-lolly on stand-by when reading this one…
Pickman’s Model (1926) – the only one I thought was really quite poor. A painter paints weird and horrible pictures that terrify everyone who sees them. I found the twist in this one was not only obvious but weak, and it had the Lovecraftian fault of going on and on with repetitive descriptions for far too long.
The Thing on the Doorstep (1933) – a story of Arkham and the hideous fish people of Innsmouth. The most traditionally Lovecraftian of the stories, and a very good one to end on. A man who has been over-protected all his life falls for a beautiful but strange girl from Innsmouth, and against the advice of his friends and family marries her. But soon it seems that she has some kind of evil control over him, and his sanity, perhaps his very life, is at risk. Again I think the reader knows what’s going on here long before the participants do, but it’s very well written and has some genuinely disturbing images, particularly towards the end.
Now that I’ve read a reasonable amount of Lovecraft I think I can say I actually prefer his earlier stuff, before he developed his rambling style and before he got so heavily into the whole Cthulhu, ancient alien business. If you can overlook the racist language in Herbert West, then this is a very good collection, which should make your porpentine pleasantly fretful…
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.