Friday, April 10, 2009

Desperately Seeking Lovecraft

It's rather frustrating when a character doesn't know he's stuck inside a piece of Lovecraftian fiction. You would think that the gloomy New England setting, disturbing art, indistinct chanting, and general prevalence of fish people would tip people off. And if anyone should suspect that they're in a Lovecraftian story, it should be acquaintances of the man himself, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Especially if ol' HP has recently vanished into thin air.

Orwin Battler knows a thing or two about horror. He's enjoyed some success writing stories for Weird Tales (he insists that he writes westerns, too, but they never sell) and has formed a mutual admiration society with Howard Lovecraft. Orwin leaves his native Oklahoma to visit Lovecraft in Providence (stopping in Chicago to look in on actual Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright), but upon his arrival, learns that the famed author disappeared just hours before, practically in front of his aunt's very eyes. Orwin also crosses paths with Nan Mercy, a beautiful Brown University librarian who purchases unusual and startling works for the school's special collection (which, incidentally, actually exists; trips to Brown's John Hay Library are frequently puncuated with a viewing of one of three books bound in human flesh). Miss Mercy is also interested in Lovecraft's whereabouts, suspecting that Lovecraft tore several plates out of a book recently acquired by the university. This naturally puts them both on the path to discovering deformed children, hidden cults, and immortal monsters.

Larry Latham's Lovecraft is Missing is a fond homage to Lovecraft's works. References to stories like Pickman's Model, The Horror at Red Hook, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu abound (making the very Lovecraftian suggestion that Lovecraft was writing not from imagination but from life), and by the close of Chapter Two we've seen our first octopus-faced statuary. But Latham recognizes that you can tell a Lovecraftian tale, complete with dread, and not take yourself unbearably seriously. Instead of saddling LIM with dreary tones and florid prose, he takes a slightly cartoonish approach, using mildly absurd humor where shock might fall flat, and permitting some of his characters -- whether fighters or worshipers of evil gods -- strands of irreverent dialogue. There's still plenty of gore, unnerving pagan rituals in the midst of small towns, old men in chains, unstoppable cosmic foes, and implications of madness for Lovecraft fans, but Lovecraft's neuroses, misotheism, and racism are replaced with an understanding that many of those unspeakable horrors look a bit askew to modern audiences. Handily, this also makes Lovecraft is Missing great fun even to readers who were never particular fans of Lovecraft's work or those who couldn't tell Cthulhu from Yog-Sothoth.

Admittedly, part of my affection for Lovecraft is Missing stems from my four years in Providence, but the way Latham captures the sloped city is but a small taste of his artistic talents. His rich palette and, as I've mentioned, faintly cartoony look (a happily rough-edged pulp) may seem out of place in a Lovecraft story, but they are gorgeously easy on the eyes (and that's before we get to his wonderful shadow work) and make the monsters, madmen, and cultists feel genuinely and appropriately jarring against the rest of the deceptively wholesome world.

Lovecraft is Missing has just completed its second chapter (sadly, the third doesn't launch until May 27th), and has set up plenty of mysteries regarding the fate of Miss Mercy's parents, the nature of Orwin's seemingly all-American town, and the mystical menaces who watch their progress. And, though Latham is leading us through familiar territory, he manages to own the material in a way that adds fun to the chills. I imagine that, at some point in the story, Lovecraft will be found, but hopefully he won't prove too much of a killjoy.

[Lovecraft is Missing]


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