Monday, 20 October 2008

‘The Watchers out of Time’ – H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (Del Rey)

Right back at the start of October I had this idea that I would fill the blog full of tales of terror and other supernatural stuff (what with it being Halloween and all); looking back over what’s been posted it’s clear that I’ve failed miserably here with loads of fantasy and sci-fi but not a lot in the way of horror and ghost stories... Here’s some H.P. Lovecraft in an attempt to redress the balance!

H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors whose reputation in their field pretty much demands that I try them out but then I never seem to get round to it... ‘The Watchers out of Time’ is a fairly slim book (two hundred and eighty nine pages) that seemed like a good place to start as well as being a book that I could read in handy chunks over what turned out to be a very busy weekend (Sue’s birthday, lots of drinking happened). Note the two names on the cover though, H.P. Lovecraft had all the ideas but it was his friend August Derleth who went through Lovecraft’s unfinished notes (after his death) and expanded upon them to come up with the stories you will find in this book. Bearing this in mind, ‘The Watchers out of Time’ is maybe not such a great place to start if you want to read Lovecraft’s own stories but it’s still as good a place as any other to get an idea of the mythos behind Lovecraft’s Innsmouth and Dunwich settings.

‘The Watchers out of Time’ is a collection of fifteen stories detailing some of the more unsettling, and outright terrifying, things that can happen to the unwary traveller caught in the Innsmouth or Dunwich areas when the sun goes down. This part of Massachusetts is full of mad scientists, witches, warlocks and... things... that live beneath the bay... All of them have a story to tell.

I say ‘all have them have a story to tell’ but after having read ‘The Watchers out of Time’ I had to conclude that at least 95% of the time it was the same story being told over and over again. I was left with the impression that the America of the nineteen twenties and thirties was full of impressionable young men who suddenly found themselves in the possession of rambling gothic houses that had been left to them by sinister old grandparents. They would happily take up residence but wouldn’t hang around any longer than a couple of weeks, something would either scare them off or they would mysteriously disappear...
To be fair not every single story went along these lines, just enough of them that by the time I got to stories like ‘The Horror from the Middle Span’ and ‘The Shadow in the Attic’ I felt I knew how the story would go and ended up skimming to the end...

There are stories worth hanging around for however. ‘Wentworth’s Day’ is a tense affair that marches as remorselessly as the ticking clock that the story hangs upon. My heart jumped a little when I realised that the clock was slow! ‘Witches Hollow’ is another tale of creeping dread where a school teacher must fight for the soul of one of his students. Again, this story wrong footed me slightly when I realised where the true evil (in the piece) lay... I think my favourite though was ‘The Survivor’, a tale of immortality and its cost. Although I could see where this one was going, the main character remains uncertain enough that things remain on edge, for the reader, right up until the very end.
It’s a shame then that stories like these are the exception, rather than the rule, in their originality. I wish the others could have shown this too...

Where ‘The Watchers out of Time’ redeems itself is the atmosphere it gives the locales of Innsmouth and Dunwich through each tale. Lovecraft laid the foundations and Derleth continues this by giving each story a damp and fetid backdrop of palpable evil and a sense of a terrible history, stretching back through the ages, which interlinks all the stories and gives the first time reader (me!) a good idea of what the Cthulu mythos is all about. Little pieces of information had me wanting to know more.
It was a shame then that it felt, to me, like this was done a little too much in each of the stories and (as a result) the book as a whole. I ended up feeling like it was being laid on a little too thick for me; I’d got the message and didn’t need to be told over and over again. Maybe these stories would have worked better on their own instead of being all bundled in together... I was also sick and tired of words like ‘batrachian’ being used constantly. Once or twice is enough, really!

‘The Watchers out of Time’ is an enjoyable yet frustrating read in that it relies on repetition of certain themes when the subject matter clearly looks like it could benefit from expansion. However, I’d still say that it’s a good place for people to step in if they’ve never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft and fancy giving him a try. I’m half and half over seeking out more of his books though. Are they all like this?

Six and Three Quarters out of Ten.


Hagelrat said...

yeah, pretty much they are all like that. I love it.

steve said...

Graeme, This book actually contains very little writing by Lovecraft and none of his best tales. As you say, most of the writing is by Derleth, based on fragments left by HPL after his death.
Get the Necronomicon collection by Gollancz or the Penguin Modern Classics paperbacks for all of Lovecraft's best tales.