Monday, December 17, 2018

The Lurker at the Threshold

As I was taking stock a few weeks ago, I found that the books I have started but haven't yet finished were really piling up. I counted them. There were a dozen in all, most bookmarked about halfway through. I realized then that if I were to keep at it, I might be able to finish all or most of them before the end of the year. I have read book after book now and have moved my bookmarks closer to the end of each like a counter. First came Count Zero by William Gibson (1986), the second in the author's series of what you might call Gothic science fictions that began with Neuromancer (1984). Next was Legends of Our Time by Elie Wiesel (1968), a powerful moral document and a model of literary style and clarity. In his style and voice, moreover in his treatment of serious and often transcendent questions, Wiesel reminds me of the American author Loren Eiseley. The most recent book I have finished is The Lurker at the Threshold, which is, according to the cover, by H.P. Lovecraft "with August Derleth." (That last part is in teeny tiny print.) I have the Ballantine paperback edition of 1971 and 1976. The cover design is great (see below) and includes an illustration by Murray Tinkelman. Another illustration by Tinkelman appears inside the front and back covers. That's about where the charms of this book end. Put another way, I have read The Lurker at the Threshold so you don't have to.

As I read The Lurker at the Threshold, I sensed that there was very little Lovecraft and too much Derleth in its pages. Now, after reading about the book, I find that's the case. Derleth based his novel on mere fragments by Lovecraft. It is otherwise a grand and failed pastiche. S.T. Joshi objects to The Lurker at the Threshold, writing "[it] begins well, but it rapidly deteriorates into a naive good-versus-evil struggle between the Old Ones and the Elder Gods." (1) We all have our areas of interest. Mr. Joshi is well known as an atheist. He and others have critiqued August Derleth for his Catholicism and for his attempts to turn Lovecraft's Yog Sothothery into a more nearly Christian conflict between good and evil. I would point out that you don't have to go that far in any criticism of The Lurker at the Threshold. Overlong, boring, lacking in any real human interest, and--worst of all in my mind--impossibly prolix, this book fails for a simple and avoidable reason: instead of using language to engage us and facilitate our understanding of the story, the author laid down clunky words, plodding sentences, and great, bulky paragraphs as obstacles before us. It's a wonder anyone has ever finished this book.

One of the flaws in The Lurker at the Threshold is that it reads as a kind of catalogue: all of Lovecraft's gods and beings are here, as are all of his place names, all of his fictional tomes, all of his fictional settings, all of his motifs, including arrangements of stones in the woods and the calling of whippoorwills. Even Lovecraft's patented language is here, though much reduced in its effectiveness in Derleth's iteration. It seems to me that in an attempt to bring Lovecraft back to life, Derleth inserted the names of everything or almost everything that his master ever created, as if the names themselves and some aping of style could bring about by some magical process a new story by Lovecraft. In my mind, it all falls flat. The second of its three parts is especially bad and seems interminable. On page 98 for example is a sentence--I won't bore you by transcribing it--of more than 140 words, and this is not Joycean or Woolfian, let alone Lovecraftian, prose. It's just plain dreck.

As another example of Derleth's innumerable literary offenses, there is a scene in which one of the main characters talks to an old woman of Dunwich, a scene that is at once unintentionally comic and annoying in the extreme. In her ridiculous accent, the woman sounds like Limpid Lizard from the comic strip Tumbleweeds. ("Yew might well ask. He was my grandfather. He come on tew some uv the secrets an' he thought he knew it all . . . .") Here is one of Derleth's more egregious attempts at Lovecraftian prose:
"And suddenly, as I stood there, feeling the freshness of the wind against my body, I was conscious with a rapidly mounting oppression, with a crushing sense of despair, of a horrible foulness, of a black, blasting evil of and around the woods-girt house, a cloying, infiltrating loathsomeness of the nethermost abysses of the human soul. . . . The apprehension of evil, of terror and loathing, settled like a cloud in the room [. . . .]" (The first set of ellipses is in the original.) (pp. 164-165)
Yeah, I know the feeling.

Anyway, I would not recommend that you read this book unless you want to punish yourself, or unless you're a Cthulhu completist. Read something else instead.

Next: More on The Lurker at the Threshold. Why? you ask. Just keep reading and you'll find out. 

(1) Quoted in Wikipedia from "Cthulhu's Empire: H. P. Lovecraft's Influence on His Contemporaries and Successors" in Pulp Fiction of the 1920s and 1930s: Critical Insights (Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, 2013), p. 28.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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