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That delicious feeling of dread

Lovecraft Tales Edited by Peter Straub The Library of America: 846 pp., $35

April 17, 2005|Gavin J. Grant | Gavin J. Grant is a co-editor of the 2004 and 2005 editions of "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror," published by St. Martin's.

Howard PHILLIPS LOVECRAFT fans -- including August Derleth, who co-founded a press, Arkham House, in part to posthumously publish Lovecraft -- have always argued that Lovecraft's weird tales belonged squarely in the center of American literary tradition, that his style was a natural descendant of 19th century writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Besides, Lovecraft was given the literary stamp of approval in 1928 when Edward J. O'Brien listed "The Colour Out of Space" (published in Amazing Stories magazine) in the "Roll of Honor" in his annual anthology, "Best Short Stories."

For decades, collections of Lovecraft's stories were rare and expensive. Even when Arkham House reissued them in the 1980s (coincidentally just after the formation of the Library of America), they were printed in small runs and were hard to find. How exhilarating for fans of Lovecraft's horror stories that after years on the blasted heath of literary critical dismissal, the Library of America has admitted him to the critical fold and restarted the conversation over his legacy with "Lovecraft: Tales," the 155th volume in its series.

The Library of America series harks back to an earlier style of publishing in which hardcovers were made to be read carefully by many readers. This volume is probably the size of most entries on the bestseller list, but with its full-cloth cover and conservation-grade onionskin pages, it will last longer -- and will still be a pleasure to read.

"Tales" is organized in loosely chronological order, but casual Lovecraft readers (whose very existence, before this volume, would be hard to imagine) might prefer to pick and choose their points of entry. "The Colour Out of Space" is a prototypical Lovecraftian tale recounted by an unnamed narrator about a man who has undergone a mind-altering experience. Forty years before, a meteor landed "beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place" in darkest north central Massachusetts. On examination, local scientists noted that "upon heating before the spectroscope [the meteor] displayed shining bands unlike any known colours of the normal spectrum."

Composed of a plastic-like substance, the meteor melted and disappeared. Over the next year or so, the fields failed, then the animals began dying, until finally the Gardner family's health degenerated. The narrator's tale teller heard it from Gardner, the last survivor -- so now we are in a story of a story of a story! -- who told him of the ungodly light that pours up from the well nightly. In the narrator's time, the area is to be flooded for a reservoir, and it is his fear that whatever is in the well will infect the water and eventually all those who drink it. This open-ended, nebulous fear, the important events ignored in quiet corners of the country and the possibility of species-level danger are among the reasons for Lovecraft's fervent fan base.

Lovecraft's oft-parodied style (all those adverbs) is in full, glorious effect, starting with his earliest, clunky stories, such as "The Statement of Randolph Carter" and "The Music of Erich Zann." Lovecraft reveled in the English language: This is a writer whose thesaurus, if marked up, would make excessively, affrightedly good reading. However, if read after the perfect age (which anecdotal evidence suggests is in the early teens), Lovecraft lives up to his reputation for overblown, occasionally repetitive descriptions. "Most daemoniacal of all shocks is that of the abysmally unexpected and grotesquely unbelievable."

Indeed. But right there is another of Lovecraft's attractions. For outside of a story, most of us -- touch wood! -- might never expect to experience such a shock. Lovecraft's amazingly atmospheric tales, his great eye for detail, the slow and unending buildup of dread: What's not to like?

Lovecraft also should be considered in the context of post-World War I fiction. Although he attempted to enlist in the National Guard in 1917, his always-poor health let him down. Lovecraft was influenced by writers who brought the real horrors of modern war to fiction. (He began to find an audience around the same time as the publication of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Siegfried Sassoon's "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.") Of course, instead of long-distance bombardments and men as cannon fodder, Lovecraft's nightmarish creations were beings from beyond the stars, such as the incomprehensible-to-the-human-brain shoggoths in "At the Mountains of Madness": "They were infamous, nightmare sculptures even when telling of the age-old, bygone things; for shoggoths and their work ought not to be seen by human beings or portrayed by any beings."

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