A unique American talent in any respect, H. P. Lovecraft was easily the 20th century's prime mover of macabre fiction. "H. P. Lovecraft Lovecraft: Tales" by...

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A unique American talent in any respect, H.P. Lovecraft was easily the 20th century’s prime mover of macabre fiction.


“H.P. Lovecraft: Tales”


by H.P. Lovecraft

Library of America, 838 pp., $35

After rereading “The Rats in the Walls” late at night, I didn’t want to go into the basement for my laundry.

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Long after his demise, the old master’s power strangely continues to grow, as evidenced in the dreadful volume, “H.P. Lovecraft: Tales.” Many of his hoary yarns still shock with purple-tinged eloquence, but there’s more to this tome.

Barely able to eke out a malnourished living in the disdained pulp magazines of the ’20s and early ’30s during his short, sad life, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, for all his unrestrained imagination, wouldn’t have dared envisioning this: joining the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman and Twain on the Literature shelf.

Collections of Lovecraft’s mind-blowing stories are easy to come by these days, after decades of a widening reputation in the maddeningly ghettoized class, “cult horror author.” But an edition by Library of America (a nonprofit publisher dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing) marks a long-overdue validation.

A unique American talent in any respect, he was easily the 20th century’s prime mover of macabre fiction: the heir of Poe but weirder, more wildly imaginative, more cosmic and, I suspect, more disturbed. The debt that any modern writer or filmmaker of horror owes to Lovecraft is inescapable — although it’s worth noting that, despite Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” and “Dagon” and John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness,” there has never been a satisfying Lovecraft-inspired movie. At any rate, without Lovecraft there probably wouldn’t be a Stephen King or a Peter Straub.

Best-selling horror novelist Straub (“Ghost Story”) has collected 22 of Lovecraft’s stories, with a serviceable chronology of his life that’ll make you want to learn more, and notes to explain obscure references as well as distinguish the real ones from the fictional. (Author and Lovecraft cohort August Derleth has pointed out that a number of libraries and booksellers thought the obscene “Necronomicon” of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, an imaginary manuscript Lovecraft referred to in several stories, was a real book and put in orders for it!)

Lovecraft had his own influences, including Poe, Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. But there’s no precedent for his twisted output, in which New England-set “mythos” often involved old and powerful monstrosities from eons before man’s existence, waiting to escape and consume the Earth when some cult or curious fool unleashes them with black magic.

High-born in Providence, R.I., in 1890, Lovecraft was a sickly and solitary young man who endured his family’s steady diminishment and financial decline. Moving to lesser and lesser digs, the Anglophile and antiquarian spent as little as $2 a week on food. He died in 1937 of untreated intestinal cancer and kidney disease. All of which makes his reticence with regard to his work seem inconceivable.

He never submitted “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” for publication during his lifetime. Included in this volume, it’s a chiller about a young man fascinated — and then possessed — by a diabolical ancestor. Also included: his masterpiece short novel, “At the Mountains of Madness,” about an Antarctic expedition that discovers the bizarre, horrifying remnants of a civilization of old ones — and the decadent creatures that replaced them. After the legendary “Weird Tales” pulp rejected that one, Lovecraft withdrew it from submission.

Other standouts in the volume include “The Rats in the Walls,” in which an old man restores his family’s ancestral home, despised by local villagers, and is led by unsettling night noises to a gruesome subterranean revelation — and transformation. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (which inspired the “Dagon” film and not the story of the same name) features the pulse-pounding chase of a young man through a run-down seaside town, after the local drunk reveals too much to him about the fishlike residents’ secret.

Some of Straub’s choices and omissions are puzzling. I wouldn’t have left out gems like “Dagon,” “The Tomb” and “The Festival,” while throwing in “The Haunter in the Dark,” a walk-through of a tale about a college student obsessed with a menacing church.

But you can’t print it all in one volume. This is still a collection devotees will treasure and that will widen the unblinking, fishy eyes of neophytes.

Mark Rahner covers pop culture at The Seattle Times: mrahner@seattletimes.com