What Makes a Lovecraftian Story?

by S. T. Joshi

ELLEN DATLOW, ed. Children of Lovecraft. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2016. 367 pp. $19.99 tpb.

This is the third of Ellen Datlow’s anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction, following Lovecraft Unbound (2009) and Lovecraft’s Monsters (2014), the former consisting of all original stories, the latter mostly of reprints. This new volume is also all original—and it betrays many of the same deficiencies that beset its predecessors.

In her brief and perfunctory introduction, Datlow speaks derisively of Lovecraft’s prose style (“his prose was often clumsy and overblown”), echoing the strictures of Daniel José Older, who regards Lovecraft as a “terrible wordsmith.” Datlow is apparently unaware that any number of distinguished scholars and critics—including Joyce Carol Oates, whom she otherwise reveres—have regarded Lovecraft as a master of poetic prose. Regarding his prose as the “worst” aspect of his writing, Datlow urges would-be Lovecraftian writers to “create stories using the best of Lovecraft (the terror of the cosmic unknown, and his vision) to explore new themes, new horrors.” Let it pass that there are many other themes in Lovecraft’s stories than cosmicism. The question is whether her authors actually deliver on these recommendations.

To my mind, in large part they do not. There are four types of stories in this book: (a) poor stories that have little or nothing to do with Lovecraft; (b) poor stories that are derived from Lovecraft’s ideas; (c) reasonably good stories that have little or nothing to do with Lovecraft; and (d) very good stories that are genuine adaptations or elaborations upon Lovecraftian motifs. I wish that that fourth category were larger, but it isn’t; instead, a distressing number of stories fall into the first category.

I do not wish to linger on this subset of stories, but my duty as a critic compels me to do so. The worst—and in some senses the most surprising—culprit is Laird Barron’s story “Oblivion Mode.” I am saddened to see the decline and fall of this writer, who began so promisingly with two outstanding story collections (especially the second, Occultation [2010]) and a very creditable novel, The Croning (2012). But he has apparently bought into the encomiums of his numerous devotees and now thinks that anything he writes is pure gold. This story’s plot is a trifle opaque, but it appears to deal with the efforts of one Karl (born Karla) Lochinvar and certain others (including a talking dog) to battle some person named Baron Need in a nebulous fantasy realm (or perhaps some moment in the past, as Romans are mentioned at one point). To say that there is nothing even remotely Lovecraftian in all this is hardly necessary; to say that this is a real stinker of a story is something of an understatement. I am half inclined to think that Barron engaged in a literary experiment to see how bad a story he could write that would still sell. If so, he found Datlow a willing victim for his ploy, relying as she does on what vestigial reputation his name still carries.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Mr. Doornail” deals with a wife who feeds her husband’s heart to the nebulous creature of the title. Written in an arch, pretentious style that quickly becomes wearying, the story entirely lacks a Lovecraftian foundation—unless the random mention of a tentacle is a tie-in. Brian Evenson’s “Glasses” is a curiously conventional story about a woman who sees a strange entity through a new pair of glasses. It is written in a flat, affectless manner that generates no sense of the reality of the events—and of course there is nothing remotely Lovecraftian in the narrative (although this story too features a passing mention of a tentacle).

In the second category there are also some notable misfires. Siobhan Carroll’s “Nesters” is a mechanical pastiche of “The Colour out of Space,” with the events transferred to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. There is little or no attempt to do anything but retell the Lovecraft story in a different setting—hardly an exemplification of the “new themes, new horrors” Datlow is urging. We also have Stephen Graham Jones’s “Eternal Troutland,” a long-winded, meandering, unfocused story, written in execrably slovenly prose, about the unexplained murder of a veterinarian and the ghost of a dog. I am quite serious: this actually is the plot of the story. Is there a Lovecraftian element in all this? Not quite; but it is possible the author is making some remote connection to Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos,” if we are to take seriously some characters’ discussion of time travel.

Orrin Grey’s “Mortensen’s Muse” is a story about a silent film actress who becomes a model for a photographer who wishes to use her in a series of “grotesques” he is creating. In one picture is a “hairy and squat” entity whose existence is beyond explanation, and which later kills the photographer. No reader is likely to miss the fact that this is a cheap ripoff of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” written in mundane prose utterly lacking in atmosphere. David Nickle’s “Jules and Richard” also uses “Pickman’s Model” as its source, but once again there is no elaboration of the basic idea: the story ends up being an unimaginative retelling of the tale. Richard Kadrey’s “The Secrets of Insects” is an uninspiring story about Nyarlathotep taking the form of a serial killer in California.

The third category I have identified—reasonably good stories with no Lovecraftian content—has only two items. A. C. Wise’s “When the Stitches Come Undone” tells of a man who returns to his home in a rural region called the “holler” (hollow), as he reflects on a traumatic incident in his youth when a cousin was apparently killed. This tale mingles terror and poignancy in deftly written prose, but I cannot identify any Lovecraftian element in it. (Lovecraft once planned on writing a story about a “witches’ hollow,” and the plot-germ of it survives in his commonplace book; but it does not seem as if Wise has derived her story from this plot-germ.) Livia Llewellyn’s “Bright Crown of Joy,” which concludes the volume, is a deliberately fragmented mood piece—an end-of-the-world narrative in which global warming (or perhaps something more sinister) has decimated the human population and rendered the earth all but uninhabitable. Are we to think that the narrator’s repeated utterance, “He is coming,” alludes to Cthulhu arising from his underwater city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific? Possibly; but Cthulhu is never mentioned by name, and in general I sense no true Lovecraftian content here. Nevertheless, Llewellyn’s fine use of dense, poetic prose is a pleasure to read.

Children of Lovecraft is saved by four stories that both are masterful in themselves and genuinely use Lovecraftian motifs as an imaginative springboard. Gemma Files’s “Little Ease” (the title refers to an English torture chamber where a prisoner “could neither entirely stand up nor entirely sit down”) is the potent tale of a female pest control specialist who is brought in to rid a decrepit boarding house of some unspecified insects. In the course of her work she runs into an elderly woman who is involved in research on a cipher written in John Dee’s Enochian language. Dee was, according to Lovecraft (and Frank Belknap Long, who originated the idea), the English translator of the Necronomicon, but this point is not mentioned in the story. Nevertheless, the tale is strongly Lovecraftian in overall atmosphere, alluding subtly to “The Rats in the Walls” and perhaps even to “Under the Pyramids,” the memorable Egyptian story Lovecraft ghostwrote for Harry Houdini.

John Langan’s “The Supplement” is to my mind the finest tale in the book. Here an elderly woman (a retired librarian) obtains a mysterious book from a dubious character; touching the book’s pages somehow allows the woman to relive (and revise) critical parts of her past life. Her teenage daughter, who died of a heroin overdose, comes back to life, and the woman seems to spend years with her, taking part in her life as she marries and has children of her own. The story almost entirely lacks any terror, but is an inexpressibly plangent account focusing on the bitterness of grief and the simple pleasures of domestic life. Above all, it renders the now stale Lovecraftian motif of the “forbidden book” vivid and mesmerizing.

Not far behind is Brian Hodge’s novelette “On These Blackened Shores of Time,” where a young man’s car falls down a deep sinkhole in a small town in Pennsylvania; both the man and the car simply disappear. The man’s parents refuse to give up hope and remain convinced that he is still alive. They conduct some research, finding that the sinkhole is located over the site of an abandoned coal mine where some riots occurred in 1927. As this narrative progresses, both the terror and the poignancy of the scenario grow to an almost unendurable pitch, concluding with a dénouement that is both cosmic and poignantly human.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Excerpts from An Eschatology Quadrille” is one more tale—she has written many—that simultaneously fuses Lovecraftian elements with her own distinctive vision. This magnificently evocative story is derived from a throwaway line in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” referring cryptically to “Mother Hydra” and “Father Dagon.” From this unpromising source Kiernan weaves a tale that spans more than a century (and extends decades into the future) and an entire continent, focusing on a strange jade carving that sows madness and death. Here, again, is an actual elaboration of Lovecraftian motifs—cosmicism, archaeological horror, and the notion that widely disparate events are connected in a web of inexplicable strangeness.

But on the whole, I am forced to conclude that Ellen Datlow does not have any real sense of what is truly “Lovecraftian” in contemporary writing. It is as if she is using Lovecraft’s name to assemble an anthology that would otherwise have no particular reason for existence. This volume might just as well have been called Children of Weird Fiction. Part of the problem is that Datlow seems to have a very narrow cadre of contributors whom she favors. Setting aside Ramsey Campbell and Caitlín R. Kiernan as nearly unapproachable masters of Lovecraftian fiction, the best writers in this vein are (in my judgment) John Shirley, Cody Goodfellow, W. H. Pugmire, Jonathan Thomas, Ann K. Schwader, Nancy Kilpatrick, and Lois H. Gresh. But not one of these authors appears in any of Datlow’s three anthologies of Lovecraftian writing. Should she ever contemplate a fourth such book, it might be well to expand her stable of writers to include those who have actually done vital work in this narrow but fruitful realm.