Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Challenge: A Book that Scares You

Book: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft
Pages: 365
Date Read: 10/31 - 12/5/2015
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ 

Other Categories this book could have fit into:
A book with nonhuman characters
A mystery or thriller
A book of short stories
A book by an author you've never read before

I discovered in this reading challenge that I am not easily scared by books; though that might be because I am not willing to delve too deeply into horror. But this book introduced me to the genre, and did have some terrifying aspects, so it qualifies.

Lovecraft is a classic author, and I'm really glad I decided to give his stories a try. He's a prime example of early American writing, while clearly influenced by Poe, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I loved this collection and will be looking for more of his writing.

Each story was so individual that I would like to go through them and review them separately. Bear with me, there are a lot.

The Tomb 
"In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement in this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt for the authenticity of my narrative."
Those were the first words of Lovecraft's I ever read, and I immediately fell in love. How could you not?  The greatest horror stories always begin with the insane, and the voice was perfection.

This story had elements of a classic ghost story, with the draw of death and the appeal of all things beyond. The twist at the end, though heavily foreshadowed, was still worded perfectly to send a thrill through you. Though most of the following stories were written from the perspective of someone outside the horror, this one is up close and personal with the madman (but is he mad?) himself.

The tone and pacing of this story had me excited to read the next.

Beyond the Wall of Sleep 
"I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong."
There were some familiar science fiction elements to this story that felt almost Ray Bradbury-esque. Of course, Lovecraft came first, writing science fiction before that was officially a genre. This piece was thought-provoking, and opened my mind to the expansive world that Lovecraft imagined and explored in his other stories. There was also the classic insane asylum, which reminds me a lot of those sections from Dracula and lead me to believe that Lovecraft was heavily influenced by that book.

This is one that I look forward to rereading, as I am sure there is more to be gained from it.

The White Ship
"I am Basil Elton, keeper of the North Point light that my father and grandfather kept before me."
This story was lovely, and most intriguing in that the mythology felt familiar while being entirely new to me. I wonder how much Lovecraft's work has made its way into other stories I've read, that I knew his worlds before I was ever officially introduced to them. I don't have a lot to say on this one, other than that I would like to reread it and follow up some of his references, tracking down some of his other stories, so that I can get a firmer grasp of the ideas he was exploring. Reading it the first time it was a bit beyond me, but I look forward to going deeper into it.

The Temple 
(Manuscript found on the coast of Yucatan.)
"On August 20, 1917, I, Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, Lieutenant-Commander in the Imperial German Navy and in charge of the submarine U-29, deposit this bottle and record in the Atlantic Ocean at a point t me unknown but probably about N. Latitude 20°, W. Longitude 35°, where my ship lies disabled on the ocean floor."
Definitely the best part about this story was its voice. Though a bit slow, dry, and military (as you can tell from the first line,) there was definite character. And a German U-boat captain written by an American in 1925 was interesting to say the least. He captured the exaggerated German pride and over-logical thinking to a nicety.

Then there was the lovely ghost story aspect to this story. Ghosts at sea are a special favorite of mine, and this had all the best elements of such a tale. There was a definite sense of impending doom that made the ending inevitable. There were also some really wonderful, eerie visuals. This story may have been a bit harder to get through, but it was definitely worth the read.

The Quest of Iranon
"Into the granite city of Teloth wandered the youth, vine-crowned, his yellow hair glistening with myrrh and his purple robe torn with briers of the mountain Sidrak that lies across the antique bridge of stone."
This story was downright tragic, easily the saddest in the collection. It was also beautiful and haunting. I think it was my favorite.
"Wherefore do ye toil; is it not that ye may live and be happy? And if ye toil only that ye may toil more, when shall happiness find you? Ye toil to live, but is not life made of beauty and song? And if ye suffer no singers among you, where shall be the fruits of your toil? Toil without song is like a weary journey without an end. Were not death more pleasing?"
There was a lot in this story about the nature of man and dreams. It broke my heart, and I look forward to reading it again.

The Music of Erich Zann 
"I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d'Auseil."
One of the great things about Lovecraft's horror writing was that Hitchcock-esque quality of never quite showing us everything, but leaving the greatest of the horror to our own imagination. However, this story, I felt, left too much to the imagination, to the point where I felt like we didn't get the story at all. Something terrifying was no doubt happening, but I can't even begin to guess what, which makes it less terrifying than it could be. The setting was on point, and the characters distinct, but I would have liked more details. As it was, I found this story obscure to the point of boring.

Under the Pyramids
(with Harry Houdini)
"Mystery attracts mystery."
This story was ghost written for Harry Houdini, which was really exciting. I love Houdini, and hadn't even thought about him and Lovecraft being contemporaries. They go together perfectly.

However, this story was a bit... long and slow. Sometimes you get the overwhelming feeling that Lovecraft was being paid by the word. Scenes of this story were really interesting, and some truly horrifying, but I think several pages could have been cut to the story's betterment. That said, it was fun to get the Houdini style, and still have all the Lovecraft horror. Plus, there are some really interesting descriptions of Egypt. Overall, I enjoyed this story, but it did drag a bit.

Pickman's Model
"You needn't think I'm crazy, Eliot--plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this."
And here we come to the story that made me count this book as "a book that scares me." This one struck a little too close to home as being possible and horrific. I'm glad I don't ride the subway. This is exactly the sort of thing I want from contemporary horror -- taking distant and ancient evils, and then bringing them right up to your door. I also really loved the voice, which was conversational and familiar. The dramatic plot twist at the end was obvious from about halfway through, but it was horrifying enough that knowing it ahead of time really just served to make things worse. I really loved this story, though I'm creeped out just remembering it -- which I suppose is a compliment to a horror story.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward 
"From a private hospital for the insane near Providence, Rhode Island, there recently disappeared an exceedingly singular person." 
This is the longest piece Lovecraft ever published, crossing the line from short story to novella. But, to be honest, Lovecraft's strength was in brevity. His longer works tend to be redundant, exaggeratedly mysterious, and simply not as clean-cut as his short ones.

That said, this still had a lot of quality in it. The premise was properly disturbing, with necromancy being practiced in a way that almost made it seem almost logical. And Lovecraft did have a gift for making the horrific seem possible, even plausible, which makes it that much more terrifying. The characters in this one were distinct, and you felt bad for Charles Ward, in over his head and exploring things that ought to be left alone. This one was certainly thought provoking; I only wish it had been pared down a bit.

The Dunwich Horror
"When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country."
This wasn't one of my favorite stories, and was quite slow in spots, but it had some great visuals. It had more action than some of the others, and some classic monster attacks. Honestly, it could have been done as a really great horror movie from the 1960s -- and I wouldn't be surprised if it inspired some of those B monster movies. It was entertaining, and had great characters, but wasn't as thought provoking as some of the others.

At the Mountains of Madness
"I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why."
Again, this story is longer, and I just think Lovecraft did better with fewer words. Writing has changed a lot in the past hundred years, and Lovecraft's story structure is often meandering and over-explanatory. Sometimes I really enjoy that, but with this story I just got impatient to get to the exciting things that he was referencing time and again.

I would like to reread this story when I'm in perhaps a more patient frame of mind. I did really love some elements of it. They explore an ancient city, its art and history, built by beings that predate earth life, and it was truly fascinating. The descriptions were gorgeous, and it built a whole idea of this culture without actually showing it to us. I also felt like the narrator was refreshingly understanding, and it was cool to have some non-evil aliens. And there were some exciting scenes at the end. This is one where I felt like Lovecraft left just enough to our imaginations to be haunting, without being obscure.

The Thing on the Doorstep
"It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer."
First off, that may well be the best first line I have ever read. Second, this story was perfect. I completely adored the characters and the concept. It was hugely stressful, since you worry no one will listen to the narrator and the horror will just continue growing. The fact that it didn't really end was perfect for a horror story. As for the rest of it -- walking corpses, hypnotic possession,  a quest for immortality -- it had all the perfect elements for a truly creepy story. It was exactly what I wanted, and made for an excellent ending to this anthology.

Over all, I really enjoyed this collection. I would recommend it to anyone who's interested in classic horror, similar in style to Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft's style is beautiful, and his stories dark and deep.


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