I just read two more Lovecraft novellas, At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. They’re both fairly different from the dream quest stories– they’re clearly sf for one thing– though also different from what I expected.
What stands out about both stories is the narrative technique, which I find so antiquated that it’s hard to deal with. Bluntly, the narration hides the good stuff as long as possible. It approaches the theme from way off, teases us with ambiguous details, goes out of its way to suggest that there may be rationalistic explanations or it may all be mad hallucinations. This was kind of standard for the period, of course, but Lovecraft takes it to an extreme. I let him go on and on, but I think it’s not to modern tastes. We know you’re going to write about aliens and magic, that’s what we’re here for, just go to it.
Another common theme is Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, again an old trope of sf, present in the first clear examplar, Frankenstein. This too seems dated; I don’t think many people today really believe in forbidden knowledge. It’s still a useful literary device to suggest that some medieval magician was really onto something, but we don’t really think they were. (Yes, I know some fundies retain a horror of magic, but I think it’s more a sense of spiritual danger than a belief in specific powers. Even (say) Jack Chick seemed more convinced that witches are bad people than that witches have actual physical powers.)
Some spoilers ahead in case you intend to read these stories.
When he does get to it, it turns out that Madness is about aliens (Elder Things) on Earth, and the heart of the story is a fairly extensive bit of conworlding! The clever bit here is that by a slow process Lovecraft manages to turn our reaction to the aliens from horror to interest to sympathy; the real horror in the piece turns out to be visited upon the Elder Things, not on humans… their own servants turn against them.
Most of the orientalism of the dream stories is absent here, though the theme of exploration is strongly present. The story is set in about the one corner of the globe that an unsuspected civilization could still be slotted in, the empty center of Antarctica.
Ward turns out to be about necromancy, but its structure is that of a detective novel. The narrator (never named or personalized, but the story is not omniscient and reads like the report someone has compiled) slowly accumulates facts, makes a case, demolishes alternative theories, and finally gets to the stuff the reader has guessed about fifty pages back. It works more as a horror story than Madness— the necromancers are doing disturbing things in the basement– but the final twist (the revelation that Curwen killed Ward and attempted to take his place) is pure detective story. (He also has a lot of fun with antiquated English.)
One of the most surprising tropes in Lovecraft is the idea that New England is kind of inherently creepy. I lived there for three years and mostly associate it with colleges, Pats fans, granite in your yard, jellyfish on the beach, and a road system modeled on spaghetti, but not with eldritch horrors. I don’t think Yankee Magazine ever even had a photo spread on shoggoths.