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Waking up Screaming by H. P. Lovecraft

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is widely regarded as the dean of American horror fiction. Drawing upon earlier writers of the weird such as Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, he created brooding stories of wrongness that slowly unfolds through the ideas of narrators whose naivete about the dark truths of the universe is progressively eroded until the final sanity-shattering revelations upend their comfortable worlds.

This collection includes some of Lovecraft's best-known works, particularly "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "Herbert West -- Reanimator." But there are also some more obscure works here, ones that first appeared in obscure fanzines and have rarely been anthologized.

It is opened with an introduction by Poppy Z. Brite which helps put Lovecraft in context not only of his predecessors, but of how his works have affected subsequent writers of horror and weird fiction, particularly Stephen King. At the same time, many of Lovecraft's works which are generally regarded as horror also have strong elements of science fiction, surprising at a time when horror generally meant the malign supernatural, not the ability of science to transgress moral and ethical boundaries, or the threat of evil or merely indifferent alien entities to the liberty and safety of humanity.

The first story in this collection, "Cool Air," is one of those stories in which scientific principles are used to horrific effect. The unnamed first-person protagonist sets forth to explain his deep-seated revulsion of chill, and in the process reveals a medical horror that prefigures modern ideas of cryopreservation that have spawned science fiction stories of technological immortality. But in the case of Dr. Munoz, his hubris in seeking to artificially prolong his life brings catastrophic consequences when his chilling machine fails and leaves him without the cold upon which he has become dependent.

"The Hound" takes a common trope of supernatural horror -- the trespasser who disturbs some dangerous vengeful spirit -- and gives it a characteristic Lovecraft twist in the first-person narrator who begins by informing us that he's about to tell us the readers why he must kill himself. With that idea set in our minds from the beginning, the ugly secrets unfold amidst a sense of grim foreboding.

"The Lurking Fear" is one of Lovecraft's longer stories, almost a novella, about a haunted house. However, this particular haunt is not your typical ghost, rather drawing upon the ideas and fears that were popular at the time, of the possibility that evolution might go backwards and advanced forms might give rise to degenerated ones of a disgusting nature.

"The Terrible Old Man" begins with three crooks who decide that an old sea captain should be an easy target. He's reputed to have considerable wealth squirreled away from his sea voyages, and his aged state should preclude the ability to put up any effective resistance. But when they actually carry out their plan, they discover that this decrepit ancient has surprising resources in those mysterious bottles which he calls by the names of members of his former crew.

Lovecraft often gives the impression of having been a humorless individual, but in "The Unnamable" there's a distinct sense that he's sending up his own work. The narrator is being twitted by a friend for his constant talk of the unnamable and the ineffable -- and in the end he turns the tables on his doubter.

"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" is another story that contains elements generally associated with science fiction -- in this case telepathy and communication with alien intelligences -- but handled in the manner characteristic of horror, laden with menace. It also features a very good description of a supernova.

"The Shadow over Innsmouth" is one of Lovecraft's best-known stories, dealing with his imagined Massachusetts coastal communities that are often called Lovecraft Country. In it, the first-person narrator makes an impulsive detour on his travels through the area and visits the sinister and half-abandoned town of Innsmouth. There he hears a story of unnatural relations with beings from the sea and the resultant hybrid children, some of whom could pass for human while others were so monstrous they had to be shut away in the boarded-up buildings that make the town so frightening. Although he intended to leave before nightfall, circumstances arise to make his departure impossible and he must resort to staying the night in the local hotel, a building of most unsettling aspect. He's no more than prepared for bed when he hears frightening noises and discovers most sinister activities going on outside. Although he escapes, his experience has changed him, and not for the better -- for his trip to Innsmouth was not mere chance, but the workings of a hidden family legacy.

In "The White Ship" we have a dreamlike story of a voyage upon a magical vessel -- but with a stinger in its tail. Gifts can be lost, and sometimes it is better to never have than to have and lose.

"The Outsider" touches upon Lovecraft's fascination with the culture of Ancient Egypt, which was getting a fresh awareness in Western culture as the result of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and its incredible riches. However, as always Lovecraft gives his subject matter a horrific twist, as we learn the story of Nephren-Ka, the evil Pharaoh who turned away from the worship of the sun-god Amun to that of darker and more dire deities. And our protagonist has a mysterious link to this forgotten and forbidden sovereign which draws him ever deeper into the morass of ancient evil.

Although fear of death and longing for eternal life is a nearly universal human meme, once death actually occurs there is a general sense throughout human cultures that it is to be accepted and that seeing to undo it is a trespass as grave as improperly bringing it about. Myth and folklore are full of stories of heroes who descend into the underworld seeking to rescue a dear departed, only to discover their loved one hideously transformed, such that there is no choice but to bow to the inevitable. With the rise of modern medicine and the scientific understanding of the operations of the human body, there was a growing interest in the possibility of applying that understanding to reversing the physiological event of death through purely natural means. However, in "Herbert West -- Reanimator" Lovecraft suggested that such things might not be so easy, and that there could be horrific consequences to such experiments, both physically and morally. This story is shuddersomely prefigurative of the atrocious experiments of Josef Mengele and the other Nazi scientists upon those they regarded as disposable Untermenschen.

In "Arthur Jermyn" we have yet another iteration of one of Lovecraft's deepest dreads, namely the devolution of a formerly aristocratic lineage as the result of genetic pollution by inferior strains. In this case, we also have the elements of a mysterious white goddess-monster from darkest Africa, a theme we see in such contemporary writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard.

"The Moon-Bog" is another brief story that relies for its effect upon the dread inspired by a mysterious body of water at night. In it, the protagonist's friend incautiously summons something he does not understand, with horrific results.

In "The Temple" we have another collision of aristocracy and barbarism, this time in the person of Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, commanding officer of the submarine U-29 of the Imperial German Army. In school we learn about Germany's practice of unrestricted submarine warfare and hear it condemned as inhuman, but Lovecraft shows its inhumanity through the eyes (and rationalizations) of one of its perpetrators. As this is Lovecraft writing, the deeds bear their own appropriate fruits, to the horror of the noble Junker carrying them out. (One is left to wonder what Lovecraft might have written of the horrors of the Third Reich and its Final Solution, and what karmic punishments he might have meted out to the SS guards who carried them out).

Although the name of Dagon was evoked in "The Shadow over Innsmouth," the short story "Dagon" does not directly tie in with that classic. Instead, this story takes place somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and deals with a monstrous sea creature that might be a god.

"From Beyond" deals with some of the themes that would later find more full development in "The Colour out of Space" (not included in this volume), in particular the intrusion of a mysterious alien entity or force that consumes life and which is so completely incommesurate with human life as to be incomprehensible. However, here it is not the result of a chance intrusion of the Other, but of a deliberate effort on the part of one of the characters to press beyond the limits of human perception, with the result that a barrier is broken that had in fact protected us from that which is beyond our ken.

The final work in this volume, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," is practically a novel in its own right. In it we have many of the themes characteristic of Lovecraft -- the family secret which lies lurking to drag down the descendent, the unhealthy obsession with secrets best left alone, etc. -- but developed at a far greater length and extent than in any other work of Lovecraft's'. As the titular character delves into the mysterious activities of his disreputable ancestor, it becomes increasingly obvious that he has opened a gate to something that would've been better left alone. And it's changing him in terrible ways that may well prove his undoing.

Or as one of his ancestor's contemporaries warned, do not summon what you cannot dispel.

Overall, this is a fairly good introduction to the works of H. P. Lovecraft, including both some of his best-known works and some obscure ones.

Table of Contents

  • "Being Providence" an Introduction to H.P. Lovecraft by Poppy Z. Brite
  • "Cool Air"
  • "The Hound"
  • "The Lurking Fear"
  • "The Terrible Old Man"
  • "The Unnamable"
  • "Beyond the Wall of Sleep"
  • "The Shadow over Innsmouth"
  • "The White Ship"
  • "The Outsider"
  • "Herbert West -- Reanimator"
  • "Arthur Jarmyn"
  • "The Moon-Bog"
  • "The Temple"
  • "Dagon"
  • "From Beyond"
  • "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"

Review posted July 21, 2011

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