Tuesday, December 01, 2009

To build a fire....

So, I mentioned Stephen King in a post and, like clockwork comes the response:

"Stephen King? Pphhhhtt! Prolific hack!" two... three... four... waitforit! "Now, H.P. Lovecraft was the scariest writer ever!"

You know, it's very fashionable to pooh-pooh King, and his very popularity and prolificity are automatic strikes against him for anyone with the faintest pretensions to bohemian hipness or literary snobbery. But when he brings his A-game, the man sure can spin a yarn. I've found most of his novels to be pretty formulaic and dull, but when he connects, it's rarely just a dribbling grounder; he usually goes yard.

I like Lovecraft, but I also think that Lovecraft is the most overrated author among the neckbeard set. Given all the time I've spent among SF fans, among whom he's completely revered, there was no way his works could live up to the billing when I finally got around to reading them. Sure, he's good, but to hear the Cheeto-smeared-t-shirt crowd at DragonCon talk, the first three paragraphs of The Mountains Of Madness will cause you to run out and buy a nightlight, if they don't drive you stark gibbering mad from terror. Instead, I wound up disappointed because it wasn't bound in human leather a la the Necronomicon, nor was my sanity blasted from my mind by page five... or page 105, for that matter. I'd read so many Lovecraft ripoffs over the years that the real thing was hardly terra incognita when I got there; the haunted house just isn't as creepy if you've already been given the floor plan and know where the bogeymen are going to jump out. It's important to remember that every writer with pretensions to the "horror" genre feels obligated to write at least one Lovecraft pastiche, but that's all Lovecraft ever wrote.

So a great part of it is that I came to Lovecraft as an adult, and none of his stuff really scared me; a lot of my friends who have more affection for his works first read them as students in grade school, and therefore they get the benefits of the rosy glow of nostalgia that I well know, since I feel the same about Tolkien or Kipling.


(Incidentally the title of this post is both a clever reference to what the comments section is sure to look like, and an homage to a really scary story that has nothing to do with anything at all even remotely supernatural or gory.)

47 comments:

MrWolf. said...

'When he brings his A-game'. And that is the problem, right there. As you say, he can make the spine tingle, and the neck-hair rise. Some of the time.

His books are the written equivalent of being trapped in a lift with an old stoner who, after every ten minutes of 'Dave ain't here, man' monologue, segues into fifty seconds of the St. Crispin Day speech... and back again.

He is so irritating and disappointing because he IS a wonderful writer. Sometimes.
Best wishes.

Tam said...

If he just stuck to short stories and novellas, his batting average would be closer to .750 than .250, but the lure of the novel is apparently a potent one for him.

Noah D said...

King also fell into the same trap as many other 'big-name' writers - no-one at the publishing houses dared say "This novel is crap, and needs serious editing at best." (See also 'Clancy, Tom'.)

(Then again, my favorite King story evah is 'The Gunslinger', before he expanded it to fit in with the rest of the bloated Dark Tower drek. Spare, strange and engaging.)

Jeffro said...

At least King got people to read. I'm partial to The Stand, personally.

Heh - got the London reference right off. Excuse me whilst I fight for a bit of the ferment, crawling with the rest of the yeast.

Jim said...

I'm partial to 'The Stand' as well. The man can write well sometimes. He's a class A Jerk, but he can write.

Caleb said...

I really liked The Gunslinger, although I'm ambivalent about the rest of the Dark Tower

Ken said...

Anyone who writes even as a hobby ought to read On Writing. It's the best of its kind, even better than Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing (which is also very good).

King is an excellent craftsman, who has the blessing -- and curse -- to have the throw weight to publish The Novel I Wrote While Standing in Line for a Chili Dog at Fenway the Other Day.

Blast Hardcheese said...

'Misery' is the one of his that got to me. Short and to the point. And there's that...one scene (anybody who's read it knows which one).

The only time I've sat there and kept telling myself to stop reading, that I really didn't want to read this. But I still couldn't stop reading.

Joanna said...

The Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft in under a minute

Ditto for King.

I read Carrie and The Green Mile in high school; they were technically proficient, but they didn't resonate. Ditto for Lovecraft, frankly. I'm not much of a horror fan.

On the other hand, catching "Misery" on TV made me seriously reconsider being a novelist.

Ken said...

@Blast Hardcheese, please say hello to Big McLargehuge.

Zendo Deb said...

Read Le Guin's "Steering the Craft."

She is a better writer than King, and she wrote a better "how to write" than King.

wolfwalker said...

Um, excuse me, but...

"Now, H.P. Lovecraft was the scariest writer ever!"

Never said it, never meant it. He's not. I just said he was light-years better than [spit] King. Which he is.

The best Dark Fantasy writer I've ever encountered is Tim Powers. If you can read On Stranger Tides without getting creeped out in some places, then there's something Not Right about you.

...an homage to a really scary story that has nothing to do with anything at all even remotely supernatural or gory.

I was forced to read that story in English class every year for three or four years ... at a time when I had already developed a general loathing for tragedies.

To this day, I hate that story as I have never hated any other written work of fiction.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I've only read the Dark Tower books. I thought it was a good run of books. Never really had much interest in King soI don't really care either way.

Tam said...

Wolfwalker,

It wasn't meant as a specific rebuttal to you, more of a generalized response to a range of statements I've heard over years.

Tam said...

Zendo Deb,

For whatever reason, Le Guin is just not on my wavelength.

aczarnowski said...

Lovecraft has a vibe I dig and I read them post undergrad. By today's standards sure he's pedestrian; in a world where torture porn like SAW goes 6 movies we're past jaded.

Lovecraft also beats King on consistency. You're 100% correct that when he's on King is worth every page. Too bad there is so much wasted paper between here, there and often in the middle of the same story.

Did his use of a "Ruger 44 automatic" kill the Gunslinger series for anybody else? The later (longer!) books got worse with each additional page but that's where it started for me. A guy like that can't get a technical edit for the umpteenth printing?

Cossack in a Kilt said...

Kipling! Despite much current critical opprobrium, I still stand by Rudyard for a stellar read. Kim was my favorite bildungsroman even before I knew about the Dulles and Philby connections, and both "Tommy" and "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" are mighty hard to beat.

Dominique said...

Doubtless I'm going to be stoned for blasphemy for saying this, but I very much enjoyed The Eyes Of The Dragon. Lovecraft, I never really got into (nor Poe, for that matter), but I've mowed though most of King's work.

Ed Foster said...

I stand with Cossack on this one.

Or Jack London.

WV goill. Is that a girl from Brooklyn or a sick gentile?

Themadlemming said...

I'm a Lovecraft fan. Other than a couple of his short stories, I never could get into King. In horror, I generally prefer short stories over novels, though Brian Keene writes some good horror novels (IMHO).

perlhaqr said...

When King put himself in the last few Dark Tower books, I was done.

Themadlemming said...

I hate to stir more controversy, but I also prefer Robert E. Howard to Tolkien. While Tolkien was great, I just like Howard better.

alath said...

Re, Lovecraft: I have read all his stuff and love it. To me his stories seem quite innovative - I haven't read anything earlier than Lovecraft from which it appears he borrowed heavily. Subsequent horror/macabre writers have picked up on Lovecraft themes, but nobody seems to have done anything better. Rather, it seems to me that the writers he influenced are all lame, pale knock-offs.

It's as if the Wright brothers built the Flyer, but there never was a Bleirot, no Lindbergh, no P-38, no MIG-15. I'd be saying, "I think those Wright guys were really on to something. Too bad nobody ever took the idea and moved it forward."

Bob said...

De gustibus non est disputandum, I always say.

King even wrote a Lovecraft pastiche of his own in the Night Shift collection, it's called "Jerusalem's Lot."

Old Grouch said...

I'd read so many Lovecraft ripoffs over the years that the real thing was hardly terra incognita when I got there...

I give thanks that my father's library included both a complete Edgar Allan Poe and a complete Sherlock Holmes, and that I first read LOTR in the mid 60s. It's much easier appreciating the importance of the originals when you've read them first.

Matt G said...

"(Incidentally the title of this post is both a clever reference to what the comments section is sure to look like, and an homage to a really scary story that has nothing to do with anything at all even remotely supernatural or gory.)"

Heh. It was that. And London wrote it both ways (he dies. he lives), I guess as a result of focus grouping? ;)

TJP said...

King's publisher isn't going to circular file the lesser manuscripts because the books sell. I'm not being cynical, I'm just pointing out that we are fortunate to live in a civilization where one can make a living whether the product is 10% art or 90%. There is room enough in this world for everything from the King James Bible to a fast, entertaining read like a Stephen King novel.

Now from the other end, I appreciate honest critique more than cheerleading. There is far too much of that going on with Lovecraft, so I have no desire to read a single word he wrote. I took the advice of many people when selecting newer sci-fi novels, and almost all of those were awful.

King's assessment in "Everything's Eventual" was correct: short story writing is a lost art; between picture books that replaced fiction serials, and the strong financial incentive to go with the publishers' one-size-fits-all book-pushing scheme, too many authors are attempting novels when they shouldn't.

kaerius said...

Poe is way better than both Lovecraft and King...

Rustmeister said...

The only book that scared me was Peter Straub's "Koko".

I don't know why, but it gave me nightmares.

LabRat said...

Horror is an incredibly subjective genre. Lovecraft, for example, does absolutely nothing for me; by the time he gets to where he's going, I've long since fallen asleep. King, however, I've read pretty much all of his work- though I will cheerily admit some is deeply flawed. (Cell, I'm talking about YOU.) Peter Straub likewise does nothing for me, nor does Dean Koontz.

I really enjoyed everything I could get my hands on from Joe Hill well before I learned he was King's oldest son. He's an improvement on his old man if you ask me.

Ruzhyo said...

I have been a fan of Lovecraft since I discovered him a few years back, yet the only one of his stories that felt creepy to me was 'The Color Out of Space.' I think Lovecraft's over-wordiness is part of his charm.

@aczarnowski, I am still looking for Mr. King's Ruger .44 Automatic, but have not encountered it at any gun shows or on Ruger's website. Stephen King, wheteher you like his work or not, rarely bothers to achieve any realism or knowledge regarding guns.

Sigivald said...

Lovecraft isn't scary, typically - and indeed, I'm not sure he really tried to write horror rather than, as Howard would have put it, "weird tales".

Chambers, Machen, Smith, Lovecraft, Howard; not horror, really.

(The Color Out of Space, as Ruzhyo says, is pretty damned creepy in spots.

King, at his best, utterly destroys Lovecraft in terms of scariness.

But at the same time, Lovecraft is, I think, a far more thought-provoking and inspiring writer.

Look at all the Lovecraft spin-offs and inspirations, in terms of specific content.

Now try to think of even one King spin-off, in terms of content.

I can't think of a single example, though I wouldn't be surprised if one or two lurked somewhere.

King scares people by making the real world scary; Lovecraft creates new worlds. He's much more of a fantasy (in the "fantastic") sense author.)

Brian J. said...

None of the aforementioned authors are anywhere near Algernon Blackwood.

Fortunately.

Lovecraft calls Blackwood a 'Modern Master,' which calls into questions Lovecraft's literary taste.

elmo_iscariot said...

Lovecraft's a lot like Tolkien for me: great idea man, passable writer. I can see what they're doing and appreciate how clever it is, but it doesn't really click emotionally. Tolkien doesn't stir my sense of adventure, and Lovecraft isn't actually scary, but reading them is engaging in the same way that reading lit crit is.

You can illustrate this to most Lovecraft fans really easily. Have 'em read some of HP's less proficient forerunners. Once they've slogged through short-story-collection-with-a-framing-device The Three Impostors (which is available free online), either they'll feel your pain or you should suspect they're really Mi-go brain slaves. The Novel of the Black Seal is an especially good example in that book: it has quite a few of HPL's workhorse elements of Cosmic Horror, but they just don't gel into anything readable.

James said...

I've read several King novels and I agree that the shorter the work the better it is. I think that King is a far better storyteller than a writer, I would put Howard in the same category, but Howard was a better writer. King can drag me along through a story without me noticing just how bad it is until I've finished it. I always end up disappointed afterward.
IMHO, there are many better writers out there, and I won't read any more King.

og said...

Lovecraft doesn't ring true because he never for a moment believed any of the crap he wrote. I liked Lovecraft because of the way he makes up names for stuff. It's like he was feeding his rottweiler Scrabble cubes and using the letters in the order they emerged to name his characters.

King stuff sometimes rings true because when he has the rolled up $20 out of his nose and thinks about it a bit, he can sometimes scare the dogshit out of himself. Though I expect there was some of that WITH the $20 up his nose, too.

Laughingdog said...

I was thinking of the same comparison as Elmo, though a for different reason. I look at Lovecraft in the same way that I view Tolkein or The Beatles; none of them were really the best at what they did, but they were all groundbreaking.

It's a lot easier to take a good idea and distill it into something better than it is to have the great idea in the first place.

Heath said...

King's a talented writer, and I enjoy his stuff, but after hearing the man talk in real life... He's just such an asshole it takes away a little bit of the enjoyment for me.

Anonymous said...

The thing that made Stephen King great - and made his work so creepy - was his skill at characterizing both people and places. At his best, King created places that could have been just down the road from your own home town, peopled by folks you saw every day.

Unfortunately, King hasn't "brought his A game" since about 1986. That was about the point at which King became such an Important Bestselling Novelist that he could have published his grocery list without any meaningful editing...and somebody would have bought it in hardcover just because it had King's name on the jacket.

And, what's more, King became so arrogant that he would have expected you to buy his grocery list just because it had his name on it.

His grocery list might actually have been more readable than some of the dreck he turned out in the late eighties and nineties, either due to King's liberal politics taking over the narrative of some of his works (John Ringo has a similar problem, albeit from the other side of the political spectrum) or due to the lack of an editor or publisher capable of saying "NO!" to him. The Tommyknockers is a good example of the former; Cell - which was a great short story that was stretched well beyond its breaking point - is a perfect example of the latter.

As for arrogance, well, as somebody else mentioned back up the thread, when he wrote himself into his Dark Tower series as a main character he lost me as a fan...

I thoroughly enjoyed Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Christine and his Night Shift short-story collection. IMHO, the rest of his catalog needs to be remaindered.

--Wes S.

kahr40 said...

I've never been able to get into Lovecraft. The writing syle makes a wonderful sleep aid. The last thing I read by King was Pet Semetary. Scare me. No. Creep me out...hell yes, but in such a way that I have little or no desire to read anything he written since.

Stretch said...

To Build A Fire: made into a movie by CBS sometime in the early '70s. IMDB only lists 2003 and 2008 versions. Most "Made for TV" movies are drek but the CBS version gave me frostbite while sitting in my living room. I think it had 12 or fewer words of dialog (man addressing dog). As perfect an adaptation as one could hope for. And as Tam observes; terrifying.

Fenris said...

I guess I'm a heretic. I enjoy Lovecraft. Is he scary? Not so much. I enjoy the mental concepts however.
King bores me to tears. I can manage to grind to the end of his short stories, but I have never been able to make it through one of his novels without extreme effort. Somewhere along the lines of one chapter requiring two to three months downtime before reading a phone directory or dictionary fails to generate more enthusiasm.

DirtCrashr said...

I read a bunch of Lovecraft in HS but his antedeluvian wordsmithing and thoroughly boggy east-coast centeredness left me out in the cold.
King - I read some of his early stuff before the books got as thick as a Bible, but with size came soporification.

Anonymous said...

Lovecraft's ideas were certainly unique for the time, but his style is just too verbose. Clearly, what we need are Lovecraft's stories as written by the master of concision

global village idiot said...

I almost always love your writing. Few have your knack for turning a memorable phrase, or your talent for getting down to essentials when discussing a topic.

With that in mind, I read something in this post that almost sounded like someone else wrote it for you. It's unlike you to put a baseball metaphor next to a card game metaphor ("dribbling grounder" v. "going yard"). It sort of works, but bangs around in the head in the same distracting way a piece of toilet paper hanging on your shoe takes your mind off where you're going. In the one case, you bump into a restroom patron washing his hands; in the other, you post in the comments before you even finish reading the post.

gvi

tom-the-impaler said...

I liked Lovecraft, but agree that he's scarcely the best example of his own style. The Lovecraftian works of Robert E. Howard are all better written than any original, though you'll have to search the used book stores for examples.Here's one of my favorites.

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0801211h.html

Also you ought to find an old copy of "Weird Tales 32 Unearthed Terrors" which is an incredible anthology of that old pulp rag. Favorites from it were "The Automatic Pistol" by Fritz Lieber, "A Square of Canvas" by Anthony Rudd, and "The Chain" by H. Warner Munn.

Tam said...

"It's unlike you to put a baseball metaphor next to a card game metaphor ("dribbling grounder" v. "going yard")."

???

I had never heard "going yard" as slang for anything but a homer.