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Review: The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker August 28, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content, Lovecraft.
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y648So, another Canadian literary novel. Jacqueline Baker has apparently written literary fiction set in western Canada, but this book is something very different, set very vividly in Providence, Rhode Island, home of a certain American writer.

H.P. Lovecraft may be his own most enduring character. He’s become widely known, even to those who’ve never read his work, as a strange, reclusive writer of horror stories. He’s been used as a character in many horror stories by other writers. The problem is, all too often writers present seriously skewed versions of him. Some horror writers who know his work fairly well present him as someone who believed in the kinds of things he wrote about, something Lovecraft himself would have perhaps been amused by, given his devotion to rationalism, materialism, and science.

Lovecraft had no use for ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and other old horror tropes. He was intrigued by cosmic horror, with its two main sources of horror: the realization of humanity’s utter insignificance in the cosmos, and the idea that that which breaks down our understanding of reality is horrifying. From that perspective, there should be nothing frightening about a story of, say, demonic possession ended by an exorcism, at least not for a Catholic, because demons and the efficacy of exorcism are already part of their understanding of the world. On the other hand, discovering that there are entities of great cosmic power who are utterly indifferent to humanity and could wipe us out as uncaringly as if we sprayed insecticide to kill some pests — that should disturb both the religious and the rational.

And yet, as a character, Lovecraft has all too often been presented as a mystic or a magician or someone vouchsafed true knowledge of cosmic evil. In at least one novel, he was presented as a cackling evil magician straight out of someone’s pulp fiction — but not his.

It’s a relief, then, that The Broken Hours is not one of those books. In fact, it takes some time to realize exactly what kind of book it is, and judging by many reviews online, some readers never actually do realize it. The ending is subtle but there are clues. At least, I think I interpreted the clues correctly, and the last one is far from subtle. Some other reviewers have come to the same conclusion. If you’re thinking of reading this book and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. Really. It’s worth experiencing with some mystery, even if you figure it out early.

Jacqueline Baker’s book is beautifully written and subtle. She tells the story of Arthor Crandle, who, desperate for work, takes a position as an assistant and secretary to a writer he’s never heard of. And then all the strange things begin to happen. The writer, Lovecraft, won’t see him in person, even though they’re in the same building. Crandle has visions of a young girl in the backyard, feelings of some oppressive horror at certain points in the house. He finds things moved around even in his locked room, and is sure he sees his mysterious employer at times, only to realize no one is there.

A young woman moves into the downstairs apartment, and they slowly develop a friendship. But the strange things keep happening. The story ends with some revelations, but doesn’t spell everything out in detail. So here come the spoilers. Lovecraft’s aunt Annie, who’s been away (part of the reason Crandle was hired as an assistant) returns, the downstairs neighbour Flossie disappears along with all the changes she made to the apartment, Annie recognizes Crandle and calls him Howard… well, evidently there never was any Crandle. He was Lovecraft all along, and Flossie was never there. The stories of insanity in the family, people’s strange reactions to Crandle, the fact that other people at times fail to notice Flossie’s presence, the revelation (not surprising to people who’ve read about Lovecraft’s life) that as a child Lovecraft’s mother grew his hair long and dressed him as a girl, the fact that Crandle never sees himself in a mirror, not to mention that he finds himself playing Lovecraft when he’s with Flossie… what seems to be an effectively creepy ghost story turns out to be a psychological tale instead. There is ultimately nothing supernatural happening. Lovecraft, ill, malnourished, poor, and separated from his wife, is having a breakdown.

It’s ironic — what seems to be the kind of horror story Lovecraft himself would never have written, a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story, turns out not to be supernatural or horror at all. It’s a spooky and ultimately emotionally affecting story.

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