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The Shadow Over Innsmouth ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Shadow Over Innsmouth ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

H. P. Lovecraft, the foremost American horror writer of the twentieth century, lived from 1890 to 1937. His imaginative novels and short stories are the stuff of which nightmares are made. This “Belle Epoque Original” contains the short novel (or extremely long short story) The Shadow Over Innsmouth, plus three (long) short stories: “In the Witch’s House,” “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Innsmouth of The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a coastal town in Massachusetts unlike any other. Once a thriving fishing community, it is now a hellish nightmare. The buildings are falling down because they are so old and untended. Most of the people (the ones with any sense) have left. A black reef offshore about one mile has been a curse to the town. The reef is inhabited by frog-fish creatures that come ashore whenever they want. I’m not sure what the frog-fish creatures do to the people of Innsmouth, but whatever it is, it isn’t pretty. (I think they mate with them to make more frog-fish creatures like themselves.)

The unnamed narrator telling the story is touring the region to study the architecture and comes across Innsmouth by chance. Innsmouth isn’t really where he intended to go, but it’s where he ends up on his way to some other place. He becomes more interested in the history and appearance of the town than is good for him and does some investigating (some would call it snooping), incurring the displeasure of the locals. He ends up having to stay the night in Innsmouth, in a creepy hotel; it’s not the kind of home-away-from-home experience he hopes to repeat any time soon. The frog-fish people are after him all night long, to do him great bodily harm. He never sees them up close, but that somehow makes them scarier.

In the short story, “In the Witch’s House,” a young student is staying in a house (because the rent is cheap) where a legendary witch once lived. He is a studying ancient folklore, travel to another dimension, and ancient mathematical secrets that have long since been forgotten by man. He is influenced by the long-ago witch that once occupied the space he now occupies. He becomes slowly unhinged. Is what is happening really happening or is it only happening in his mind?

“The Lurking Fear” is about the Martense family, a New England family that has cut itself off from the world and lives in a “haunted house” on a remote hill that is affected by violent thunder storms. With inbreeding, the family “degenerates,” into a path of reverse evolution. (Each family member has one blue eye and one brown eye.) When a kind of grotesque, mole-like creature is found living in the ground underneath the house, investigators deduce that this is what the Martense family members have become.

In “The Rats in the Walls” a man owns an ancient “priory” in England that goes back to medieval times. He makes a lot of repairs to the structure and makes it his home until he discovers there is a terrible problem with rats living, not only in the walls, but in the vast underpinnings of the priory. The rats living there are especially hungry and aggressive. It’s probably not a good idea to make them a part of your life.

The life and work of H. P. Lovecraft are frequently compared to that of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). They both wrote on disturbing subjects, they were both New Englanders, they both had verbose writing styles, and they both died in their forties. During their lifetimes they were under-appreciated and under-recognized but achieved well-deserved literary immorality in death.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

At the Mountains of Madness ~ A Capsule Book Review

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At the Mountains of Madness ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) wrote At the Mountains of Madness in 1931. (It was first published in serialized form in a magazine in 1936). It’s a horror/fantasy/science fiction novel about an exploratory expedition to Antarctica, possibly the most inhospitable place on earth, where men go, not to get a good suntan or to meet girls, but to engage in scientific research. Besides frigid temperatures, rugged terrain, discomfort and loneliness, these explorers must also deal with something unexplained: the massive ruins of a fantastic, ancient city. (“Ancient” in this case meaning 500 million years.)

The Antarctic expedition in At the Mountains of Madness is led by a geologist named William Dyer from the fictional Miskatonic University from the fictional Arkham, Connecticut. He is relating the story in his first-person voice. After the explorers discover the remains of fourteen prehistoric life forms, previously unknown to science and also unidentifiable as either plants or animals, they find a vast, abandoned stone city, alien to any human architecture. By exploring these fantastic structures, they learn through hieroglyphic murals that the creatures (dubbed the “Elder Things”) who built the mysterious city came to earth shortly after the moon took form and built their cities with the help of “shoggoths,” biological entities created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. There is a suggestion that life on earth evolved from cellular material left over from creation of the shoggoths.

The explorers soon realize the Elder Things have returned to life and to their ancient city. They (the explorers) are ultimately drawn towards the entrance of a tunnel, into the subterranean region depicted in murals. Here, they find evidence of various Elder Things killed in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering placidly, apparently used as livestock. They are then confronted by a black, bubbling mass, which they identify as a shoggoth, and escape. The survivors of the expedition then make it their mission to discourage any future exploration to the region.

H. P. Lovecraft is considered the premiere American fantasy writer of the twentieth century. I think he is not an easy writer to read. His work is generally very wordy, laden with ponderous description. It’s not light or breezy reading. You have to pay particular attention to the text and if you’re reading late it night, it might put you to sleep.

Along with the short novel At the Mountains of Madness, there are three short stories in this Belle Epoque Original edition: “The White Ship,” “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” and “Herbert West—Reanimator.” “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” are verbose fantasies set in other realms. “Herbert West—Reanimator” is the famous story about a doctor obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. He rifles cemeteries for fresh corpses, aided by his assistant and friend, also a doctor. These two “mad scientists” conduct unholy experiments with dead people, often with tragic and horrifying results. Delicious.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Call of Cthulhu ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), like Edgar Allan Poe, is one of those American writers who achieved little success or recognition during his lifetime but whose fame and worldwide reputation grew after his death. This “Belle Époque Original” contains Lovecraft’s novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and the short stories “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath.”

“The Call of Cthulhu” is one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories. A race of gigantic beings from beyond the stars once ruled earth before men existed. (They have dragon-like bodies, wings, and tentacles on their faces.) An earthquake or cataclysmic event caused the beings to become submerged in the ocean in a fabulous city. Though they are gone for the present, they are only sleeping and will one day return to their position of prominence on the earth. One of these beings, Cthulhu, controls the dreams of certain super-sensitive individuals (humans) who will keep the “Cult of Cthulhu” alive until the time that it (the beings) will rise again.

“The Statement of Randolph Carter” is a slight, though interesting, story of two friends who, while conducting unexplained “experiments” with the dead in a very old cemetery, encounter more than they bargained for.

“The Doom that Came to Sarnath” is a about a fabulous ancient city called Sarnath, the most glorious city on earth. For Sarnath to come into being and prosper, a race of undesirable beings from the moon (“in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; with bulging eyes, pouty, flabby lips, curious ears and without voice”) had to be conquered and eliminated. The moon beings never forget what happened to them, though, to make way for Sarnath and, after a thousand years, return to wreak their vengeance.

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is too long to be a short story, so it must be a novella. It is a fantastic dreamscape that takes place entirely in the mind (dreams) of one Randolph Carter (the same name as in one of the short stories). In his wild and very imaginative dreams, Randolph Carter is on a quest to find the gods atop unknown Kadath and the “marvelous sunset city they so strangely withhold from his slumbers.” In his dreams he encounters many dangers and many hideous, unearthly creatures such as shantaks, night-gaunts, zoogs, moon-beasts, gugs, ghouls, etc. As repulsive as the ghouls are, they aid Carter in his quest because he facilitates the rescue of some of them who are being tortured by the moon-beasts. The quest to find what he is looking for is so difficult and dangerous that we have to wonder if it’s worth it or not, but apparently to Carter it is, possibly because he knows he is only dreaming and is never in any real physical danger.

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is one continuous narrative with no chapter or section breaks. As usual with Lovecraft, the writing is dense and wordy, with long and effusive description, sometimes almost entirely description. I’m not a big fan of fantasy writing in this style, but Lovecraft is the grand master of the genre. He is such a good writer that he elevates genre writing to another level.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp  

The Dunwich Horror ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Dunwich Horror cover

The Dunwich Horror ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) are often mentioned in the same sentence. Poe belonged to the nineteenth century and Lovecraft to the twentieth, and while their writing styles are dissimilar and reflect the times in which they lived, the two writers share certain similarities. Lovecraft was an avowed fan, if not an imitator, of Poe. They were both New Englanders and trod upon some of the same ground, principally in Providence, Rhode Island. They both wrote about the dark world that most of us never see. Poe wrote about murder, death, sadness and alienation and Lovecraft wrote about unseen terrors and monsters from another realm. They were neither very successful in their own lives but both are more famous long after they lived than they might have ever imagined being when they were alive.

The Dunwich Horror is one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories. It’s either a very long short story or a very short novel, so let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s a “novella” or a “novelette.” It’s set in the Miskatonic Valley in Massachusetts in a remote village known as Dunwich in the early twentieth century. Dunwich is old and seedy and is not a pleasant place to visit. Something odd is going on in Dunwich that people can’t explain. The Whateley family is strange, even by Dunwich standards. Old man Whateley is a wizard of some kind. When his weird albino daughter gives birth to a “child,” Wilbur Whateley, speculation is rife as to who the father is.

Wilbur Whateley is hideously ugly. Before he is one year old, he walks and speaks. When he is three years old, he seems as old as twelve and he grows a beard. Long before he is old enough to be of adult height, he is seven-and-a-half and then eight feet tall. More odd than his appearance, though, is his behavior. He can barely speak English but deals in ancient forbidden texts. Strange noises come from underneath the ground at the Whateley home and whippoorwills, ordinarily a serene and peaceful bird, trill violently all night long, as though trying to convey a warning.

As the story progresses, we learn that Wilbur Whateley is not human but is only in human form (he’s not fooling anybody). He is one of an alien race of “elder beings from another dimension” that wants to kill all human, animal and plant life on the earth and then “strip the earth and drag it away from the solar system and cosmos of matter into some other plane or phase of entity from which it had once fallen, vigintillions of eons ago.”

Wilbur is killed by a guard dog, however, when he breaks into a library late at night to gain access to one of the “forbidden books” that contains ancient spells he needs. After that, three “experts,” one of them a professor from the university, travel to Dunwich to confront the evil that threatens the world.

The Dunwich Horror was first published in Weird Tales magazine in 1929. It is classic American science fiction, by a master of the genre. It has some wordy descriptions, typical of Lovecraft, and some mildly annoying conversations in the mountain dialect, but they’re not that hard to get through. All in all, an interesting reading experience. I haven’t seen the movie version that came out in 1970, but from the description I read of it, it seems to bear little resemblance to the original story. They’ve concocted a “love interest” for Wilbur Whateley (in the person of Sandra Dee) that doesn’t seem to fit at all. So much for movie versions of books.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp