The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. By H.P. Lovecraft. Penguin. $17.
The White People and Other Weird Stories. By Arthur Machen. Penguin. $16.
Abarat, Book Three: Absolute Midnight. By Clive Barker. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $24.99.
Most of today’s frights come in the form of film or other video, such as computer games, and certainly the creators of modern horror have found many ways to ratchet up the scariness – often by piling on ever-larger amounts of gore. But many of those same modern creators of horror get their inspiration from sources that used only the written word to evoke chills and nervous looks over one’s shoulder. For those specializing in internally focused horror, the notion of a mind turning against itself, one of the most-cited sources is Edgar Alan Poe. But for those who look to external sources of horror, as is far more common, one of the most influential figures has long been Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose genuinely bizarre ideas of old gods, races before humankind, colors that could not exist, impossible geometries and unseen things shambling or crawling just out of sight were presented in elegant, deliberately old-fashioned language whose cadences and beauties invariably made the terrors being described even more horrific. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories features 18 Lovecraft stories, from the dream-based “Nyarlathotep” (1920) to the frightening “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), with echoes of both Poe and Ambrose Bierce. Several stories here are among Lovecraft’s very best: “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), for example, and the title story (1926). Lovecraft’s signature style is everywhere; for example, in “Herbert West – Reanimator” of 1921-22: “I saw outlined against some phosphorescence of the nether world a horde of silent toiling things which only insanity – or worse – could create. Their outlines were human, semi-human, fractionally human, and not human at all – the horde was grotesquely heterogeneous They were removing the stones quietly, one by one, from the centuried wall. And then, as the breach became large enough, they came out into the laboratory in single file; led by a stalking thing with a beautiful head made of wax. A sort of mad-eyed monstrosity behind the leader seized on Herbert West. West did not resist or utter a sound. Then they all sprang at him and tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.” Or, from an even more eerily effective Lovecraft story, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930): “I was glad to be out of that downstairs study with the queer odour and vague suggestions of vibration, yet could not of course escape a hideous sense of dread and peril and cosmic abnormality as I thought of the place I was in and the forces I was meeting. The wild, lonely region, the black, mysteriously forested slope towering so close behind the house, the footprints in the road, the sick, motionless whisperer in the dark, the hellish cylinders and machines, and above all the invitations to strange surgeries and stranger voyagings…” Lovecraft is hellishly effective when read slowly, savoring his language and his many references to chthonic (hence Cthulhu) myths and terrifying ancient secrets. S.T. Joshi’s excellent notes and fine introduction to the Penguin collection help put Lovecraft in perspective. Lovecraft’s own perspective comes through quite clearly indeed from what he wrote. And quite chillingly.
And to whom does Lovecraft owe his style? For all the echoes of other American writers that occasionally show up in the Lovecraft stories, the style of Lovecraft has distinctly British elements – and not only in Lovecraft’s preferred spellings (“colour,” “odour”). Some elements of Lovecraft’s writings reflect those of Arthur Machen (pen name of Arthur Llewelyn Jones, 1863-1947), a Welsh author of stories that draw deeply on ancient legends and on disorientation, not only of the characters but also of the reader. Joshi is also the editor of The White People and Other Weird Stories, again providing helpful notes and a fine introduction, and in this book there is also a Foreword – by film director Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth shares more than a few of Machen’s sensibilities. Among the 11 stories here is the decidedly Lovecraftian (or proto-Lovecraftian) title tale, in which a young girl recounts her experiences with witchcraft: “And though it was all dark and indistinct in my room, a pale glimmering kind of light shone in through the white blind, and once I got up and looked out, and there was a great black shadow of the house covering the garden, looking like a prison where men are hanged; and then beyond it was all white; and the wood shone white with black gulfs between the trees.” And there is “The Inmost Light,” which may be thought of as a proto-Horcrux story by those familiar with the Harry Potter novels and films: a doctor convinces his wife to extract her soul and deposit it in a gem, turning her physical being into a horrific shell. Machen is harder to read than Lovecraft – his style is not so nuanced and elegant, and his paragraphs can go on for pages in 19th-century mode. But his concepts are quite frightening enough to make some time with his stories well worthwhile, if perhaps better not spent in the darkest hours of night.
And what of modern masters, influenced by Poe and Lovecraft, Bierce and Machen and Lord Dunsany and the other great horror writers of the past? One of the best is Clive Barker, whose gigantic novels mix outré concepts with genuinely shivery scenes. Barker’s Abarat series has been slowing emerging since the first book, simply called Abarat, in 2002. It was followed by Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War in 2004. And now the third book – of what Barker plans as a five-book sequence – advances the story still further. Abarat: Absolute Midnight is a big book, at nearly 600 pages, and a beautifully illustrated one whose pictures not only show parts of the story but also become part of it and help advance it. The Abarat series is about 16-year-old Candy Quackenbush, who travels through the world of the title – where islands are hours, multiple people share single bodies, and the would-be Empress of the Islands has decided to turn off all suns, moons and stars. Candy fits into Abarat and its denizens (and they into her) all too well, as she finds out when, at one point, she no longer shares her mind with any of them: “Never in her sixteen years had Candy felt as alone as she felt now. …Only now, alone in the vastness of her thoughts did she sense the horror of such solitude. …She was utterly, unconditionally alone. How did people, ordinary people like those on Followell Street – even her own mother, even her father – deal with the loneliness?” The horrors in Abarat emerge without preamble; they are usually just there, and then gone. “She’d done her best to warn her grandson about the vicious power of his affections. She’d forced the lesson upon him by sewing up his lips with needle and thread when she’d first heard him use the word love; the scars that her handiwork had left were still upon his face the last time she’d seen him, which had been on the deck of her death-ship, Wormwood. The scars, however, had failed to inspire contrition in him.” Or: “There were creatures in this rising multitude that were as ancient as the elements. The Crawfeit, for instance, whose bodies were bone cages filled with flocks of burning birds; their heads black iron pots brimming with a vile stew of venom, angel’s grief, and human meat; their limbs lengths of burned muscles held together with hair and hooks, and arrayed with dagger fingers. They were not demons. The Abarat had no known hell.” Is the Abarat itself a hell? Certainly there is much here that is hellish, but there are odd bits of dark beauty as well, and the whole island world seems like a vast dreamscape – and indeed is sometimes visited by Candy in dreams (although not always). Combining elements of horror stories with ones drawn from picaresque novels and filtering everything through some genuinely weird sensibilities, Ararat: Absolute Midnight makes it a point to advance Candy’s story some distance, but not too far: “In a happier world all would have been put right. The evil-doers delivered into an all-consuming fire, and those who had been saved from execution free to return to their homes, lives and loved ones unharmed. But this was not that happier world.” No indeed; but it is, in exchange, a more fascinating world than a simplistic one of good triumphing over evil – and a world in which horror, fright and love are sure to continue commingling, however uneasily.