Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Am Esteemed

So, I've just finished Kenneth Hite's TOUR DE LOVECRAFT (Atomic Overmind Press, 2008), thanks to a loan of the book by Friend Jeff. It's definitely good enough that I'll be looking to pick up my own copy, so I thought I'd help spread the word to other fans of the Cthulhu mythos who might be interested.

It's an odd little book, only just over a hundred pages, which is essentially a compilation of fifty-one blog posts, each devoted to a single Lovecraft story. He begins with "The Tomb" (June 1917) and goes straight through them all in chronological order, ending with Lovecraft's last story, "The Haunter of the Dark" (November 5th thr 9th, 1935). The book's greatest weakness is that he assumes you're thoroughly conversant with every tale Lovecraft ever wrote; if you can't instantly recall, say, "The Tree" or "He" in great detail, then you'll be a bit lost, since he doesn't provide any kind of summary. The best solution, of course, would have been to have taken a few weeks to read this, first reading the story and then Hite's take on it afterwards, one by one all the way down.

It's still an interesting commentary. Hite's not afraid to praise where he thinks it due, as with "The Colour Out of Space" (which he holds to be Lovecraft's v. best; I think I'd rank it HPL's best horror story. And he's not afraid to knock a story he thinks overrated, like "The Outsider" (where I think he's dead wrong; I suspect he disparages the story mainly because it's a first-person mood piece that's hard to generate a game scenario out of). A critic or reviewer who's actually willing to voice his opinions is a Good Thing, and Hite's not shy on this point. For one thing, agreeing or disagreeing with him gets the reader involved in the book. For example, I think he's dead wrong about "The Thing at the Doorstep" (which I give high marks because it contains Lovecraft's only major female character, and one of his few attempts to actually capture something of the times he's living in) and also about At the Mountains of Madness (a tedious bore that would have been better at a quarter its bloated length); "The Shunned House" is also far sillier than his analysis makes it.

Perhaps the strongest point in Hite's treatment is the way he emphasizes the first appearance and re-appearances of typically Lovecraftian themes, how early stories anticipate later ones, how some themes build over several iterations to a crescendo while others simply taper off.* I think this is the part that makes his book most worth reading. He does sometimes wander off into tangents (e.g., devoting a good chunk of his discussion of "The Cats of Ulthar" into speculations about one character's name) -- a legacy perhaps of the book's blog-roots. And his categorization of some stories as 'Poe' tales and others as 'Machan' is an oversimplification (and he rather scants M. R. James' contribution), but still his critiques provide food for thought. He sometimes draws on critics, from scholars like Joshi to fanboys like Lin Carter and Price, but has no compunction about disagreeing with them when he thinks they're wrong.

And this is where I come into things. To my astonishment, as I was reading along, I came across a mention of myself in the discussion of "The Strange High House in the Mist" (TOUR DE LOVECRAFT, page 63):

"The estimable John Rateliff calls 'Strange High House' Lovecraft's 'single best story,' which is going a trifle too far in my opinion, but it's certainly HPL's single best fantasy story, better even than 'Sarnath' or 'Cats of Ulthar,' not least because it has a complexity and a multi-dimensionality not usually found in Lovecraft's fantasies . . ."

This hearkens back to my Classics of Fantasy piece (installment number IX) on HPL's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath: http://ww2.wizards.com/books/Wizards/default.aspx?doc=main_classicsdreamquest

I'm surprised, and flattered, that Hite read it, much less engaged with one of its comments, particularly since he makes clear that the DREAM-QUEST itself isn't his cup of tea (TOUR pages 66-67); another sign, I think, of the eclecticism that went into this little book.

So: not an essential work of Lovecraft scholarship, nor meant to be, but an enjoyable read and a fine way to brush up on his stories while looking at them in a new light that may shake the cobwebs off stories you haven't read or re-read in a while. Recommended.**

--John R.

*His ignoring all the stories Lovecraft "collaborated" on (i.e., ghostwrote) enables him to simplify his task, but it'd have been better if he'd resisted temptation to break his own rule and include one such piece, and not one of the better ones either ("Through the Gates of the Silver Key").

**By the way, Hite's Introduction does a pretty good job of setting the stage and conveying Lovecraft and the history of Lovecraft scholarship as he seeing them, while his Conclusion nicely wraps things up. His own listing, and ranking of, the seventeen tales by Lovecraft upon which Hite considers his opinion shd rest appears herein, on page v.
I'd advise skipping Tynes' maudlin meanderings that make up the Foreword, though.


Kenneth Hite said...

John, thanks for the review!

Contra your imputation, though, an HPL story's "scenario-ability" doesn't really figure into my appreciation for it -- otherwise, I would have loved "Thing on the Doorstep," and hated "Nyarlathotep."

Extollager said...

"not an essential work of Lovecraft scholarship" -- what would you say are some essential ones?

Jeff_Grubb said...

Hah! I didn't know whether to tell you at the time or not that you had a passing mention, but I am glad you had the chance to read it and comment upon it.


John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Ken. Thanks for the clarification.

Jeff, thanks again for the book. I don't think I wd have run across it on my own (since I haven't turned up another copy since learning of its existence).

Extollager: I'm really not a Lovecraft scholar -- I'm more interested in Poe, James, and Hodgson among older writers, and Clark Ashton Smith and (especially) Dunsany among his contemporaries, all of whom I think are better writers than Lovecraft himself.

Of the secondary materials I have, Joshi's biography is the one essential, simply for the vast amount of information he's gathered into one place. That said, I think Joshi inflates HPL to such a degree as to undercut many of his interpretations -- for example, his claim that Lovecraft is of interest primarily as a great philosopher, the most profound thinker of the twentieth century, which I think is moonshine, or his claims that Lovecraft stories he doesn't like aren't bad writing but deliberate "parodies" of pulp tropes (Hite's little book calls him on several of these). If I agreed with Joshi's ranking of HPL, I'd probably find his commentaries on HPL's work more persuasive. At any rate, his stuff is the absolute top-rank in Lovecraft scholarship; without his decades devoted to HPL we might well not have 'Lovecraft scholarship' but just a fun of fanzine pieces.

Among other pieces, I like works that tell me things I couldn't find out by reading the stories by myself, or that pull together information from the whole opus, like LOVECRAFT'S LIBRARY (by Joshi -- a listing of books Lovecraft is known to have owned) and Peter Cannon's THE CHRONOLOGY OUT OF TIME: DATES IN THE FICTION OF H. P. LOVECRAFT (an internal chronology of the mythos from the birth of Abdul Alhazred to the death of Rbt Harrison Blake); I also like the chart drawn up by Steven J. Mariconda (in ON THE EMERGENCE OF 'CTHULHU', pages 40-44) to accompany his piece on the difficulties people have had in trying to systematize
a 'Cthulhu Mythos': he lists each Lovecraft story (both those appearing under his own name and the ghostwritten collaborations) in chronological order, detailing its mythos element(s). This would have been even better if it'd included non-Lovecraft stories by Long, Smith, Howard, Bloch written in HPL's lifetime, but two out of three (the official _ the ghost-written) isn't bad.

If anyone else has read a particularly good piece of Lovecraft criticism, I'd be happy to hear recommendations.

--John R.