- Genre: Horror / fantasy
- Pages: 443 (including notes)
- My rating: 7.5/10
This is the second collection of HP Lovecraft stories by Penguin, following on their first collection named The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Review here! This second collection features stories from the very start of Lovecraft’s career up to the end in chronological order, just like the first collection. So, once again we see a progression in Lovecraft’s writing, from short stories where his ideas are still in their infancy, to his stories influenced by Lord Dunsany and Edgar Allan Poe, to his novellas such as At the Mountains of Madness.
Although there are 12 stories in this collection, the first 8 make up only a quarter of the total page count. Lovecraft didn’t write so many longer novellas, let alone publish them in his lifetime, but they feature heavily in this one, and they determine the eventual quality of the collection. For a sample of his earlier short stories, the first collection The Call of Cthulhu gives a more comprehensive overview of Lovecraft’s writerly progression. Also, that one makes for an easier starting point, and it makes The Thing on the Doorstep a collection for advanced readers who are already familiar with him.
Let’s take a look at the short stories:
- The Tomb ****
- Beyond the Wall of Sleep ***
- The White Ship **
- The Temple ****
- The Quest of Iranon ***
- The Music of Erich Zann ***
- Under the Pyramids ****
- Pickman’s Model ***
The stories are uneven in quality. The Tomb displays Lovecraft’s skill at writing evocative descriptive prose. He just started out here, but his ideas and his storytelling show great promise. Beyond the Wall of Sleep shows something else: Lovecraft’s extremely dated ideas about class differences, foreign people and human degeneration. He was an immense xenophobe. The story is ok, but more whimsical than thrilling. The White Ship is clearly inspired by Lord Dunsany, but Lovecraft never attains Dunsany’s wonder and deep melancholy. I am not a fan of his Dunsany imitations. They feel forced and fall flat. The Temple is an interesting one. It is set on a German U-boat, a very unusual setting for Lovecraft, but he makes racist caricatures of his German characters. Lots of nice imagery in this tale.
Another short Dunsany tale is The Quest of Iranon. It starts out rather tedious with overly flowery, whimsical prose, but has a good twist ending. Lovecraft wrote this years later than The White Ship, and he learned to aim closer to the point of these fairy tales. The Music of Erich Zann takes a while to start going, but is quite unique and leaves a nice sense of mystery. Very curious is Under the Pyramids. Ghostwritten for the escapist Harry Houdini, Lovecraft recounts Houdini’s alleged adventure in Egypt. The tale is rather long, with Lovecraft squeezing it full research on Egyptian tombs. He makes the most of it. Pickman’s Model in contrast is a bit bland and boring. It has a twist that you see coming from a mile away and Lovecraft takes forever to get there. Not much happens.
Overall, the 8 short stories feel like leftovers from the previous collection. They are a haphazardly thrown together series and don’t add much besides a warm-up for the four novellas. Let’s look at the novellas now:
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward ***
- The Dunwich Horror *****
- At the Mountains of Madness *****
- The Thing on the Doorstep ****
The longer stories of Lovecraft have, in a way, the same simple storylines as his short ones. It’s not that more happens in the longer stories. They are just stuffed fuller with background information and biographical details of his characters. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward starts just like any other Lovecraft story: a man ends up in a mental asylum and the story tracks the case history of the man and his madness. It also unfolds like any other Lovecraft story: the madness is traced back to the man’s history and predecessors and their strange dealings with the occult. It just takes Lovecraft 100 meandering pages to tell it all, instead of 10. It’s like Lovecraft only knew one or two ways to tell a story.
The Dunwich Horror, in contrast, shows more inspired storytelling. It’s very atmospheric and colorful. I think this shorter form of 30 pages just works better for Lovecraft’s storytelling style. After The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dunwhich Horror is a breath of fresh air. There’s a simple focus on striking visual descriptions and the monsters this time manifest themselves clearly. It’s more a monster chase than a biographical case study. I understand why this is one of the most popular Lovecraft stories. The only drawback is that it is heavy on the hillbilly conversations, which is both amusing and hard to read.
At the Mountains of Madness is another highlight of this collection. Lovecraft dives into geology and paleontology in the unexplored reaches of Antarctica. Both the setting and his focus make At the Mountains… a unique work and very well suited for film or TV, and was probably an inspiration for Prometheus (2012). Lovecraft is heavy on the visual and scientific descriptions. At first, whenever he tries to link this story to his earlier mythos by referring to “Elder Things” and the “Necronomicon”, it sounds a bit clumsy and shoved in. But when the revelations start occurring, the mythos stuff becomes the primary focus.
The Thing on the Doorstep, the final story, is a weird choice for the title of this collection, because it is a short, rather unremarkable story. It does incorporate many of Lovecraft’s ideas and is almost a sequel of sorts to The Shadow over Innsmouth. Some chilling scenes light up the story towards the end, but most of it is rather predictable, while the doctor who investigates the strange happenings doesn’t seem very smart.
All in all, Lovecraft’s stories are a nice example of “how people in the past once wrote stories”. He is incredibly wordy and is all about exposition; a far cry from today’s sensibilities regarding literature. I find it quite hard to read his stories, but also enjoy his beautiful prose at the same time.