Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dark Wisdom

I have an interesting relationship with the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Along with Glen Cook, I sometimes refer to him as the worst writer that I love to read. Lovecraft's "sins" as a writer are numerous, and mostly fairly obvious. He used an over-wrought, affected, dry style for most of his stories. He didn't show, he told. (Horror in particular doesn't work this way. I don't think something is scary just because you tell me that it is.) He often sabotaged his own works by humanizing his monsters (At the Mountains of Madness), dallying with anticlimactic or silly climaxes ("The Call of Cthulhu"), or confusing and bizarre ones (Mountains again), or sometimes failing to even provide a climax at all by refusing to let us even know what exactly happened, what the monsters were supposed to be, or what in the world was going on ("The Colour Out of Space", "The Dunwich Horror", and again, Mountains.) His supposedly awe and terror inspiring villains are bested in surprisingly banal and anticlimactic ways (Wilbur Whateley is killed by a dog, Cthulhu is sent packing after getting bumped in the head with a sluggish old fishing boat.)

I love reading Lovecraft anyway, though, because he has some great ideas and concepts "underwriting" his stories (despite the fact that a huge portion of Lovecraft's work is written in open and frank imitation of other authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and others.) The idea of a secret history, monsterous threats lurking just below the surface that are beyond the ability humanity to understand, much less oppose, etc. I've said before that what I like most about Lovecraft is often the story that I can read between the lines, not the story that we actually got. Those stories, those hints of stories, are what is so intriguing. And therein, I believe, lies the longevity of the Lovecraftian style, and my own personal fascination with it as well.

Gary Myers' short story collection Dark Wisdom almost became my fourth casualty in a row; a book that once started, I found myself with little motivation to finish. Because it was so short; just over 100 pages, I forced myself to keep going and read it anyway. This little over 100 page book has twelve extremely short short stories (averaging, I think, about nine pages each, when you account for the poor yet space-occupying illustrations that pepper the book.) Myers has many of the flaws of Lovecraft, and yet few of Lovecraft's strengths.

In particular, he just tells us stuff. Even these short, short stories are littered with needlessly clunky exposition. Literally every single story is so flawed. Few, if any, of the characters is fleshed out, or even given a believable motivation; the point of view characters are transparently merely plot devices, driving on autopilot through the plot as quickly (and unbelievably) as possible. And rather than Lovecraft's antiquated and stylized prose, Myers writes with such simplicity as to almost approach a juvenile style. By the end of the collection, I was almost hoping he'd finally break out in a string of descriptive words like foetor, eldritch, maddening, blasphemous or Cyclopean.

That said, there are some pretty cool ideas nestled here and there in these stories. The idea of a Deep One being an emergency understudy on a filming of a 50s b-movie knock-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance. The young pregnant girl trying to run away from her fate as the mate of the leader of a cult of Shub-Nigguruth, not knowing that the unholy life within her womb was destined to end hers in the pangs of birth. The testimony of a policeman who, while investigating a serial killer, discovers a brood of ghoul puppies. The two kids who find the real Necronomicon, with working rituals, on the internet. And so on, and so on.

But, as I said, none of them were developed or executed well enough to make reading them really worth it. I got the book for free from the library, and it only took me a few hours to read it. That was already too much of an investment for what I got back from it. If I'd actually bought this book, I'd be extremely disappointed. As it is... well, frankly, my expectations weren't all that high to begin with.


Shane Mangus said...

I have not read Dark Wisdom, though I want to get it soon. I have read The House of the Worm, and I was transfixed by the prose. I prefer short fiction, which may be why I loved this book as much as I do. The slim volume can be read in an afternoon, and I love it that way. The biggest strength I found with Myers' work was how much he could convey with few word. His weakness lies in the fact that he is extensively knowledgeable in all things Muthos, and he assumes the reader is as well. Luckily, this was nowhere near my first foray into Mythos fiction, so I was able to keep up as he rattled off one obscure Mythos reference after another. The House of the Worm is a Dreamlands cycle of stories, and I absolutely loved reading it.

Joshua said...

I'm a huge Dreamlands fan (my favorite Lovecraft story is, atypically, The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath) so even though I didn't particularly enjoy this collection, I still want to read Myers Dreamlands one someday.