H.P. Lovecraft

He never received more than a penny a word for his fiction. Yet Howard Philips Lovecraft's influence can be seen today in movies like the Alien cycle and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, in the artwork of H.R. Giger, and in the ongoing cottage industry of "Cthulhu Mythos" tales featuring writers like Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and others. Aspiring occultists and magicians seek out the "eldritch tomes" he created as props; any well-stocked occult book store will have several different books purporting to be his infamous "Necronomicon". (Relax: the original is safely under lock and key in the Miskatonic University Library. ;-) )

Before Lovecraft, horror tales typically dealt with the familiar monsters of myth and legend; vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, and suchlike. These monsters were bugaboos, night terrors, superstitions which could be vanquished by sunlight and science. (Dracula, in the end, doesn't stand a chance against Dr. Van Helsing). Lovecraft's vision is far more frightening. His monsters are not anomalies to be swept aside by modern learning, but rather the logical conclusion of our scientific studies. Einstein and Darwin make Satan and Jehovah irrelevant, but make Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth unnervingly plausible. In an age when science and technology were seen as keys to Utopia, Lovecraft saw the dark side of our scientific worldview. These concerns appear right on target in our post-war, post-nuclear era and ensure Lovecraft's continuing appeal.

Perhaps because of his passionate skepticism and idealistic atheism, Lovecraft was able to provide armor for supernatural imagery during what seemed to be the final assault on supersition. Though a few horror authors who preceded him attempted to rationalize supernatural elements to mollify the skeptical and jaded readers, most attempts declawed the story and left it a dud. Lovecraft's stories dripped with terror, by contrast. He used the negative imagery of the supernatural world (witches, goblins, demons, ghouls, often by different names) and combined it with the negative imagery of the modern world (illiteracy, crime, alienation, incest, plague, sexual perversion, urban blight, unethical medical experiments.) The hybridization of the very tangible evils of the secular world to those of the supernatural, gave immediacy and relevancy to the more far-fetched elements of gothic fiction.

But the power of his writing is undeniably in the rich imagery and the atmosphere it created. Lovecraft evoked crumbling antique cities filled with shadows, secret passages, mysterious libraries, dark forests, bottomless wells, ruins, catacombs, hospitals, slums, megalithic circles, and secrets so terrible that to reveal them would drive the listener mad from fright. Like most masters of horror, he understood that one had to play a psychological game with the reader; never describing too much, but when one did, it had to surpass the imagination of the reader in utter grotesqueness— usually with an undertone of something unsaid that was even worse. Deformities, degenerations, infections, infestations— and worst of all— interbreeding, are suggested by the appearance of the creatures, and sometimes alluded to outright. The relationships the reader can imagine between himself and the hideous beast are more terrifying than the beast itself.

The narrator was never a bumpkin; he was knowledgeable and sophisticated— either a scholar or an aristocrat. His perpetual references to contemporary, scientific, literary, and antiquarian trappings gave a sense of solidity on which to build the fantastic. It also lent a kind of authority to the narrator which made even the most heretical of assertions on his part seem well thought out, rational, and informed. Of course, the villains themselves had a kind of authority as well— an authority which made them overshadow the power of the rational clean-living protagonist. They were almost always unfathomably old, and possessed accumulations of centuries of the most wicked and degenerate schemes. They were even worshipped as gods, and accepted human sacrifices. They were powerful in the black arts, and that (thought-provokingly) overlapped the highest achievements of cutting-edge mad science. They were frequently insane; unpredictable, capricious, and ruled by perverted instincts. Yet it is mostly this last factor which has made the villains of Lovecraft's tales subcultural icons. They have become the most compelling embodiments of the transgressional that our culture has produced.

A prim, proper New Englander, Lovecraft was both terrified and fascinated with the workings of the subconscious mind. On the surface, Lovecraft's stories appear almost pathologically un-erotic. Yet many interpret his slimy, tentacled creations as representations of the genitalia (especially the female.) These slimy creatures are kept in check by academics (a clear representation of the male, conscious mind). When they get loose, they immediately attack the bucolic New England countryside which for Lovecraft represents the safe and the known. Lovecraft saw the subconscious and transrational as representative of everything frightening and evil; later writers, particularly Industrial thinkers, would not be so quick to condemn. Lovecraft would likely be amused and somewhat horrified to find later fans setting up "Esoteric Orders of Dagon" and envisioning Cthulhu as freedom from repression and from the human condition.

As a child Lovecraft's mother forced him to stay inside, telling him that he might frighten the other children because he was so ugly; throughout his forty-six years Lovecraft remained the quintessential "outsider" artist. In many ways his protagonists are as alien as the monsters they battle. The typical Lovecraft hero is an academic who, like Lovecraft, feels more kinship with the distant past and with books than with the world around him. One of his most beautiful and disturbing stories is titled The Outsider; the moment when its narrator discovers his own monstrosity is one of the most moving passages in all of Lovecraft's writing. This alienation is a powerful and often neglected part of Lovecraft's attraction. Second-rate "Cthulhu mythos" writers capture the tentacles and clustered consonants, but they miss the emotional resonance which makes Lovecraft's writing unforgettable.

Lovecraft's mother and grandmother died insane; throughout his life Lovecraft feared he had inherited their madness. This obsession with tainted genes appears throughout his work. After discovering that the shunned town of Innsmouth has been taken over by amphibious "Deep Ones" who have interbred with the populace, a man finds that his family has ties to Innsmouth and that he is a Deep One/human hybrid. (The Shadow Over Innsmouth). Returning to his ancestral home, a man descends into the cannibalism and madness of his ancestors after discovering the caverns beneath the family castle (The Rats in the Walls). These concerns with tainted genes and the place where humanity and monstrosity meet would later be reflected throughout Industrial thinking.

The dark side of Lovecraft's preoccupations with this tainting theme, is that he was a complete bigot for most of his life. He considered non-whites to be degenerate, considered Jews to be supersitious throwbacks, and people of African descent to be a completely different (and less evolved) species. The occasional appearances of European immigrants in his stories are hideous caricatures, while the merest suggestion of anything Asian or African is practically that of the demonic. As he grew older, he became largely disenchanted with antisemitism, married a Jewish woman (Sonia Greene), and adopted a young Jewish writer as his primary protegé— Robert Bloch, the eventual author of Psycho.

Lovecraft was alarmingly precocious during his youth; by age seven he was composing relatively sophisticated poems about the travels of Odysseus, and had read through the unabridged Webster's Dictionary. The latter point was reflected in his tales— his vocabulary was immense, and frequently obscure. His protagonists always resembled him; pale, tall, lanky, scholarly, analytical, morally rigid, slightly anachronistic, and paradoxically reclusive yet amazingly well-travelled and adventurous.

Lovecraft was also one of the greatest and most prolific letter-writers to ever live. Six volumes of his best correspondence have been published to date, and all display what a brilliant and entertaining mind he had, even when the audience was only one. Some of that audience was quite remarkable; Lovecraft's heyday was the era of pulp genre fiction, and it's masters were often correspondents of his. He had some communications with Ray Bradbury and countless other notables. One of his best friends was Robert E. Howard, best known for being the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Through his letter correspondence, he became a kind of mother hen for the greatest American innovators of fantasy, scifi, and horror during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some of these writer friends actually appeared in stories of his, with some playful name distortion to make it a little less obvious. Frequently, the mythical regions and monsters and tomes of lore which appeared in his friends' stories made cameo appearances in his own, and vice versa. After some time, it became a running gag with them to make references like this in every story, including references to some of their own. The idea was that the linkages would simultaneously bolster the believability of the tales in question, and plug the other story somewhat. After HPL's death, these complicated and somewhat contradictory references became the obsessive focus of Lovecraft fans and protegés, and became the foundation stone for what is known, somewhat inaccurately, as the "Cthulhu Mythos."

There is a degree of consistancy between the Cthulhu Mythos tales of Lovecraft, but this is mostly due to the fact that the preoccupations of his writing are very particular, yet he endeavored to express such as uniquely as possible in every subsequent tale. They all focused on a central point, but rarely stepped on each other's toes. The idea that he intended to create these stories as bits of a puzzle or a series is somewhat ludicrous, especially when you read his letters and percieve the flippant tone in which he described a lot of it.

That central point was this: that the supersitions of the past, with its hungry tribal gods, its malign witches and sorcerors, its demons and walking corpses, were all based on faded memories of ancient man's exposure to indescribably alien and brutal entities from Elsewhere, and their half-human servants.

These creatures did not obey the laws of science, partially because they were from other dimensions, and partially because they were advanced in scientific understanding far beyond ourselves. All the trappings of the occult were based on their culture; and functional sorcery, of their usages of interdimensional powers. Yet because they were alien and so incredibly powerful, they had little use for normal humans beyond food, and to breed half-humans as servants. Time had little meaning for them, and their own leaders preceded the formation of our universe. Their appearance was that of the truly alien; ranging from colors and shapes which were impossible to convey in human language, to amoebic and chimeric gargantua whose changing parts embodied everything unclean.

It was only because of the relative insignificance of mankind that we had evaded destruction so far; but these creatures had recently turned their attention to our world once again, and were beckoning their patient servants to prepare for their apocalyptic return. The result was the disintegration of society and morality, as the telepathic and genetic influence of the Great Old Ones made humanity more like them.

All of the Cthulhu Mythos tales feature a scholarly Lovecraft stand-in having his illusion of a safe world shattered by these revelations; and the protagonist either escaping by sheer luck, or meeting a horrible doom. The message was clear... all that mankind had achieved with the fruits of his sophistication, was a profound appreciation of his littleness and vulnerability— and his monumental hubris. In a stark and amoral universe, without any benign God to shephard virtue, refinements and culture are fragile as cobwebs caught in a typhoon, and are consequently doomed to fall.

Variations on this theme or myth has since become ubiquitous in genre fiction, and remains Lovecraft's most acknowledged contribution.

Recommended Reading:

Commentary by Clifford Hartleigh Low and Kevin Filan, Tuesday, June 16, 1998.

Photo: Rachel / Model: Todd Zino