Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Shunned House--H.P. Lovecraft

Well-written story that shouldn't be as well-received as it has been, even by me.  When people think of Lovecraft's good stuff, it fits this mold: bizarre delivery of a bizarre idea; local setting; big words and even bigger sentences; vague specificity; unfocused focus--and Providence.  Always Providence.  (You can read more about the guy in a previous blog entry, here.)  Scenes that could've been very scary--the disfigured people staring; the insane woman howling in the upstairs room--are mentioned briefly and done away with.  Instead the focus is on the basement dirt, the uncle, the foul odor, the tenants throughout the years who had died or gone insane.  And the elbow, of course.  Spooky stuff that seemed vampire-like are glossed over; how we got vampires from the giant evil residing beneath the sand floor is a mystery.  How acid poured on a giant elbow can drive away a giant evil--and in the form of a misty vapor--is just as confusing.

The story simply should not work.  But it does.  And well.  It is scary.  It is catchy.  It is fluent and stylistic and creepy.  It's got style.  Creepy style.  If only all of his stuff could have this quality, he would've been much more respected, much more published...His fans have been very kind to him as they continue to strongly celebrate the good and blissfully ignore the bad.  All fans do that, of course...but there's been a lot of bad.

This story isn't one of them.  It's a keeper.


  1. Speaking as a prolific reader, most fiction writers, if they produce enough text, tend to churn out a significant number of poor quality pieces. Even Shakespeare had his share of duds.

  2. Hey, Anthony, welcome to the party. I agree with you: prolific writers will write the occasional clunker. Shakespeare certainly did that--Pericles, most of Caesar, many of the histories, Timon of Athens...I could go on. Stephen King has, too--Rose Madder and The Cell, for example, are really bad.

    But I have to respectfully disagree with you on one point: Even Shakespeare's duds had some truly great parts. I love belting out some of Pericles's rants. Caesar has some ingenious lines. Shakespeare's histories were much more popular than his tragedies and comedies in his lifetime--so his audience loved them, at least.
    And even Stephen King has at least some effective scenes in his duds. (And I should also mention that Lovecraft was not really prolific, especially when compared to the sf/fantasy pulp writers of his day. Those guys produced mountains of paper. Lovecraft was, frankly, rejected too often to be prolific.)

    Such was not the case with the odd and frankly racist man from Providence, Rhode Island. Lovecraft wrote some thoroughly bad stuff, and this comes from Harlan Ellison and other die hard fans of his, not just from me. "The Shunned House" benefits from some lyrical writing and memorable scenes. Without those, the story, as I mentioned, is a mess. But with the lyricism, it worked. It was Lovecraft doing Poe, maybe; Poe was another writer of the macabre who could (much more often) write music made from ridiculously long words and sentences, and some turgid prose.

    Poe had an obvious but misplaced genius, which even his many detractors admitted to. It's just that it didn't matter, since his behavior upset and alienated so many people. Lovecraft had an oddly occasional genius; but where Poe had it in abundance, Lovecraft's was the sporadic bump in the road. I'll bet his best stuff came from incredibly inspired moments when he got out of his own way and "saw" a clear vision. Otherwise, he tried way too hard, and he let his bias get in the way. His worst stuff (and even some of his best) comes across as shrieking and ranting. Poe's only seems that way on the surface, but a good writer or astute reader will see the meticulous planning that went into his best work. You can see his workmanship.

    And, if you haven't done so already, check out Lovecraft's (seemingly, thousands) of letters. He had an oddly productive genius there, too, but, once again, he tarnishes it by letting his bias roam free.