Saturday, 30 April 2011

Short Story Review: The Cats of Ulthar and The Terrible Old Man

Despite hearing so much about them and their impact on popular culture, I only got round to actually reading something by H.P. Lovecraft recently. Perhaps it's because I've never been the biggest fan of horror, or perhaps it was the fact that the line of thought "I should read that" rarely translates into "I will read that", especially when dealing with older works.

Lovecraft, along with one of his biggest influences Edgar Allen Poe, is credited as creating the horror genre as we currently know it today. Not that there weren't scary stories around before that: rather, between the influence of Poe and Lovecraft it became a genre with recognisable structure and narrative tricks. Lovecraft's work is best known for the betentacled monstrosity Cthulu, as well as his vocabularly and tendency to use words that were practically dead by the time of his writing. Eldritch is particularly recogniseable example of this - really, the word has become associated with Lovecraft's creation.

When I did get round to reading some of his stories, they caught me off guard. Despite the fact that when Lovecraft was writing them, 80-90 years ago now, they had been written in a style considered old fashioned, I found his work very engaging. It was easy enough to adjust to the rhythym of his, admittedly adjective heavy, prose. The stories I found were interesting and varied, but all carried undertones of madness and a sense that something greater was looming over them.

So, without further ado, can these two randomly chosen shorts I read yesterday compare to the rest of his work?

The Cats of Ulthar

The story begins in something of a typical Lovecraftian style:

"It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat"

Immediately there is a sense of threat, of danger, of things whispered in hushed tones. Hearsay and rumour and maybe even lies. With the first three words he implants the idea that what is to follow may not be true, evoking superstition and a side of the world that lies beyond our understanding. Beyond the natural, even.

The story proceeds to tell us about cats, in similarly superstitious tones. We are then introduced to a couple of weird and scary elderly folks that lived before the superstition came into being. They are isolated from the rest of the community and live in a cottage that:

"was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard."

They also took delight in killing cats, since I'm sure it isn't hard enough already to make friends. A group of travellers then arrived in  the village, and our already sinister situation becomes all the more haunting.

It is a fairly classic horror set-up. Lovecraft's dark and evocative prose is every bit as fearful as you'd imagine from him, but the story feels unsophisticated. Perhaps it is hurt by it's short length, but I could not help but feel that it fitted a little too neatly into typical fears. The shadow of something more, something bigger and unfathomable, is not effectively portrayed here, instead opting for something that plays more into typical Christian fears and folk tales of pagan spirutalism. Maybe it is because we see a human manipulating the powers that takes away the mystery, or because such a clear motive is presented. Either way, something is definitely lost here.

 A decent horror short, but lacking in that which makes Lovecraft so good.

The Terrible Old Man

Yes, with a title like that, you're always going to be one step away from outright silly.

The story starts us off by putting the focus not on the elderly gentleman, but rather three rather foreign sounding men. Ricci, Czanek and Silva are conmen who prey on the elderly and vulnerable, and the titular old man is said by everyone to be rich. What could go wrong?

Again we see the overgrown and outlandish yard striking, this time with a twist:

"Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple"

Apparently eldritch monstrosities are mainly occupied with terrorising those who can't be bothered with gardening?

We are told of the various, and unnerving, eccentricities that the old man indulges in. Most of locals keep away from him, but since the conmen three are from out of town they don't know that he is best avoided. What harm, after all, could an old man do?

In theory this story should be something of a step-up from The Cats of Ulthar - it feels more Lovecraftian and has a very strong mystery component to it. Certainly, it feels like we - like the villagers - don't know who, or what even, the old man is. Problem is that it just isn't developed enough. It feels like it is going through the motions rather than trying to actually evoke that much of a response from the writer. Given more flesh and made longer it could have captured what the best Lovecraft stories have, but instead it feels a little like a self-parody.

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