Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thrilling and Chilling and All Kinds of Creepy

So let's talk Lovecraft.  I have never read H.P. Lovecraft before, but it's one of those things that one picks up by osmosis if one spends enough time in certain circles.  Purple prose, Cthulu, racism, Arkham, the Old Ones, tentacle people from horrific fishing villages.  That kind of thing.

But I'd never read anything by Lovecraft, in spite of the fact that he's one of Brenda's absolute favorites, so I was interested when I saw a review copy of The Zombie Tales of H.P. Lovecraft on Netgalley, and I picked it up.  And to my actual surprise, I kind of loved it.

Surprise because I figured it was one of those things that had to be overhyped, you know?  Like, it's old, so maybe you recognize it for the precedents it set, or because you can see its influences down through the years.  But you don't actually enjoy those books, right?  The overwritten ones with interjections like "the horror!" in the middle of sentences?  They aren't actually successfully building atmosphere, are they?

But yeah, they are.  These stories are really surprisingly readable, not the rambling concatenation of fifty-cent words that mean "horrifying" that I was expecting.  Most of them are stories about generalized dread that build to a final, punchy reveal at the climax--a reveal that you've already figured out, but that still packs a bunch when it's laid bare and bald the way he does.

So let's see, which Lovecraftian milestones do we hit?  Purple prose: check, though not as much as I expected.  Cthulu: nope, not in this zombie-themed collection, more's the pity; ditto Old Ones.  There's a hint of the tentacle people in one of the stories, a delightful one about a man whose shy friend marries a woman of questionable background and ends up having his body gradually usurped (ooh, that one ended creepy). Arkham: yes, we spend plenty of time there, at Miskatonic University; the linked stories about Herbert West, Reanimator take place in that area.  Now that's a creepy one; I think I got the most creepiness out of the fact that the narrator is West's assistant, and as his doubts creep in, you wonder at how a person finds themselves involved in digging up a potter's field to try new reanimation substances.

Which brings us to racism.  Only a couple of instances here, just because it doesn't come up.  But honestly, one of those instances was literally one of the most offensive things I've ever read.  Basically, one of the corpses that Herbert West strives to reanimate is a black man who was killed in an illegal boxing match.  The way the narrator describes the body is the most outrageous, offensive thing I've ever read. 

Honestly, this is why it took me so long to review this book.  I meant to write this post a week ago, but I felt like I needed to address this, and to talk about how moments like this affect a book.  About how the fact that the book is nearly a century old would normally affect my reaction, but this is beyond the "times were different; atmospheric racism" defense.  About how to like problematic works. About a controversy that's I'm following on my Tumblr about a fanfic I've been loving, wherein the villain uses a racial slur, and how that author was failing her readers.  About social justice and all kinds of things.

But I just don't feel qualified.  So many great people are saying all these things, and I am a good solid step behind.  So I'm just going to go with how much I liked this problematic thing, and say this: there are a total of 2 racist moments in this book, one horrific and the other just icky.  There is no defense of this. 

But this book is also horrifying and creepy and atmospheric and evocative and full of meticulously crafted moments of dread.  And on the whole, I really, really enjoyed it.

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