Thursday, 13 February 2014

Necronomicon: Review in Progress

HP Lovecraft has long been regarded as a master of literary horror, with his many notable works which include the Call of Cthulu and At The Mountains of Madness, still very relevant and influential to modern horror stories. The man inspired the likes of Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman and recently I picked up his 1,000 page bibliography of short stories: The Necronomicon.

Initially I was going to wait until I had read the entire book and then review the whole thing, however with so many pages and stories I knew I would forget some of the key points by the time I had gotten round to finishing the book. And so instead you have this, a review in progress. I will update this post after I read each short story, and will give each story a score out of ten. This will culminate in a few months time in an overall score for the book, once I have read all the stories.

Now, without further ado let's start talking about the stories.

Story No. 1: Dagon

The first story in this anthology is titled "Dagon" and is the last accounts of a man driven mad by his encounters in the middle of a hellish, dried-up ocean. Ship-wrecked and on his own, he saw a creature that he insists was horrific beyond imagination, however I have to say this story doesn't quite have a grasp on the horror its main character was subjected to. While the story is entertaining and an interesting insight into how a man can be driven mad by unexplainable phenomena, it was not what I would call scary and this caused some of the descriptions to seem more tedious than terrifying.

Story No. 2: The Statement of Randolph Carter

The Statement of Randolph Carter was a much stronger story than the first in the book. It is in this story that a traumatised Randolph Carter gives us his account of the events that occured between him and Harley Warren at the ominously described Big Cypress Swamp. Lovecraft's story-telling skills are put to much better use here, as he describes through Carter the feeling of fear and isolation felt as Warren met his fate that night. This story has no description of any hellish creatures, but this works in the story's favour as rather than long-winded and slightly ineffective descriptions as seen in "Dagon," the description of the beings found in the hole of the pair's creation is left only to the vague and terrified cries of Warren himself.

As a story-telling device this works much better than a standard description, as Lovecraft instead leaves the reader's mind to wonder what horrors could be causing this terrified reaction. Add a chilling ending and you have a story that is the strongest Lovecraftian tale yet and, despite being only four pages long, leaves a lasting impact on the reader for nights to come.

Story No. 3: The Doom That Came to Sarnath

The third story in the Necronomicon, The Doom That Came to Sarnath was a little disappointing, and quite frankly bizarre. Lovecraft spends a long time describing Sarnath - the once magnificent city that was completely destroyed years after the men of the city slaughtered the strange beings of Ib - but never really builds any sense of tension. The beings are slaughtered, the town is described, the town is destroyed. There are some moments of creepy imagery thrown in, but these moments are rare. Overall, this story does not seem representative of Lovecraft's best work, and appears to be a simple morality tale of "What goes around, comes around."

Story No. 4: The Cats of Ulthar
The Cats of Ulthar is another morality tale, this time explaining why it's against the law to kill a cat in the land of Ulthar. This story, while still not one of Lovecraft's best, is more entertaining than The Doom That Came to Sarnath for many reasons. First, Lovecraft has omitted the unnecessarily detailed descriptions that bogged down the Sarnath story, and as a result the entire tale is shorter but still manages to leave more of an impact than the previous story. Lovecraft explores human evils in this story, while keeping in touch with his mysterious side particularly at the end. While this story isn't outstanding, it was certainly more entertaining than the previous story in the book and overall an interesting read.

Story No. 5: The Nameless City

The fifth story in the Necronomicon is another leap in quality, even if we're yet to reach the very impressive, "Statement of Randolph Carter" standard. The Nameless City sees a lone explorer wandering through the remains of a long abandoned city of mysterious origin. Who - or what - once lived here? What is it that they did? Why did they leave? These questions are answered to varying extents within the story, however the lack of answers is made up for in the nice build-up of tension and eerie descriptions throughout. This is the first story since "Randolph Carter" that I found genuinely creepy, which was great to see.

Unfortunately, the story does have a slightly anti-climatic ending which tainted the tale just slightly for me. Additionally, the ending wasn't even particularly well explained so I left the story more puzzled than frightened. However, overall this was an enjoyable read and a promising sign that things are looking up for this so far disappointing compilation.

Story No. 6: Herbert West - Reanimator
By far the longest story in this compilation so far, Herbert West - Reanimator is also by far the strongest. Lovecraft tells the chilling tale of Herbert West from the perspective of his research partner. West is a man whose research involves bringing people back from the dead through the use of a medical serum, but soon this research becomes a grotesque obsession and West slowly descends into madness.

My previous experiences with longer Lovecraft tales has been very negative, and so honestly I was dreading having to read through his longer stories. However, Herbert West has squashed that dread and replaced it with optimism as Herbert West was actually very easy to read - a trait I wouldn't give to many of Lovecraft's other stories. Not only was it easy to read but it was also quite unsettling, with many creepy and tense moments.

While I did feel it started to lag slightly towards the end, for the most part Herbert West - Reanimator is a beautifully written, well-paced and scary ride through a world of weird science and the dangers of playing God.

Story No. 7: The Music of Erich Zann
Story number seven in Lovecraft's anthology I am delighted to say is another hit! The Music of Erich Zann is a story from the perspective of a man disturbed by the sound of Erich Zann's peculiar music, and the experiences that have accompanied it. In this story Lovecraft creates a very eerie tone which escalates into a truly chaotic and heart-stopping climax. Additionally, Lovecraft describes the abnormal street of Rue d'Auseil expertly, and in a way that is very easy for the reader to understand even 100 years after it was written.

The Music of Erich Zann is one of my favourite Lovecraft tales yet for how tense and enthralled it made me feel. I just hope that the impact of these shorter stories are not lost as Lovecraft makes the transition to far longer stories later in the anthology.

Story No. 8: The Lurking Fear

After taking a break from Lovecraft's stories these past couple of months, I wasn't sure what to expect as jumped back in to the Necronomicon with story number eight, The Lurking Fear. Surprisingly though, I found my transition from modern books back into Lovecraft's stories very easy, thanks to The Lurking Fear being one of the most compelling stories yet in this compilation.

The Lurking Fear follows the story of a man attempting to uncover the mystery behind the being that has been terrorising villages surrounding Tempest Mountain, leaving gruesome murders in its wake. He also aims to find the link the being has to the ill-fated Martense family that once lived in a mansion house atop the mountain. The story was gripping, once I had begun I struggled to put the book down as each chapter in the tale ended on a more haunting note than the previous one. While Lovecraft's descriptions of the geographical aspects of the Mountain and its proximity with local villages was at times confusing, his firm grasp on his main character and the ominous descriptions of the body's left by the Lurking Fear more than made up for this.

Ultimately where The Lurking Fear falters is the ending. This is something I have noticed with a few of Lovecraft's tales now, that often the endings leave me feeling unsatisfied. Here it was again a case of some confusing descriptions, and a feeling that nothing was explained to the extent that I would have liked. However, perhaps I am missing the point of Lovecraft's stories as he aims to bring to life horrors that simply cannot be explained. Even with the disappointing conclusion and some confusing descriptions this was still a very entertaining read and another great story in this anthology.

Story No. 9: The Hound
I'm unsure of exactly how long it has been since my last venture into Lovecraftian territory, but I would hazard a guess of around a year and a half. Maybe longer. Either way my extended break from this iconic writer had made me forget just how intense a good Lovecraft story can be. The Hound ranks as one of my favourite entries in the Necronomicon to date. Telling the story of two men who, dissatisfied by what life had offered them, were driven to the unspeakable act of grave-robbing this is a brief story which packs a real punch.
The brevity of the tale allows Lovecraft to adopt a fast pace, as the unnamed narrator reveals just why he is mere moments away from killing himself. The reveal of what exactly he and his companion (known only as St John) uncovered in that fateful grave in Holland, is as thrilling as it is terrifying with Lovecraft's vivid descriptions painting the most horrid of pictures in the reader's brain.
So far, it has been the Necronomicon's shorter offerings that have truly left a mark on my mind, and so I'm intrigued to reach the longer tales of terror that await me and see if they affect me in the way they have so many readers before me. It's been a long time Mr. Lovecraft, but if the quality stays this high then I'm glad to be back.


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