Posthumously revered for such short stories as “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” Howard Phillips Lovecraft eked out a poor existence on a dwindling inheritance, ultimately succumbing to cancer in his forties. Nearly 80 years later, the real-life enigma whose parents were both confined to a mental institution provides rich fodder for author Jacqueline Baker (The Horseman’s Graves), whose new novel is a sinister page-turner about loneliness and the restless past.
It’s 1936, and like many Americans Arthor Crandle is desperate for work. Straitened times lead him to accept a job offer as secretary to a reclusive writer who initially communicates with him only via verbose and cryptic letters. Arriving at his new employer’s sprawling home in Providence, Rhode Island, Arthor discovers the owner is none other than Lovecraft himself.
Despite her use of familiar devices – a flickering light in a dormer window, a gowned child wandering through a moonlit garden – Baker’s tale feels fresh, largely thanks to the quality of her writing. She knows the power of the horrific detail (a stumbled-upon jar containing a child’s teeth) and unleashes some wonderfully chilling don’t-look-now moments as Arthor edges closer to discovering the mysterious thing that haunts Lovecraft’s mansion. But The Broken Hours is no cheap Lovecraftian pastiche. Baker excels at taut, suggestive dialogue and revels in the implications of absent women (Lovecraft’s mother and aunt; Arthor’s own wife and daughter) and fickle memories that “like ghosts … can only be glimpsed from the corners of the eyes.”
Arthor is a fittingly imperfect narrator beset by personal guilt and petty deceptions; his uneasy interactions with his employer and Flossie, a young actress who arrives to rent a room in the house, are deftly rendered. Flossie, who resembles a pulp heroine, is given some of the few weak dialogue moments, shoehorning clunky historical references to Hitler and the Scottsboro trial, but these are minor irritations.
Although the ending leaves several plot details unexplained, the effect is, on balance, fittingly haunting.