Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 9
H.P. Lovecraft: The Father of Modern Horror Literature
H.P. Lovecraft was perhaps the most imaginative innovator of the modern horror tale. His dark and fantastic creations have influenced and inspired numerous acclaimed authors and many of his nightmarish visions have lived on in the works of those who have followed in his footsteps. Yet, like Poe, Lovecraft enjoyed very little success and recognition during his own lifetime.
THE LEGEND OF HORROR
As Howard Phillips Lovecraft lay dying of cancer in Jane Brown Memorial Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, in March of 1937, he undoubtedly surveyed his life with a measure of wistfulness. His dream of becoming a genteel, respected man of letters had borne only meager fruit; a smattering of horror tales published in lowly pulp magazines like Weird Tales constituted his most important work. He was poor, and his main source of income stemmed from ghost-writing for other authors. He probably assumed his name would fade from literary memory entirely with his passing.
The world likely would have forgotten him had it not been for his friends. Over his lifetime, Lovecraft cultivated an enormous web of correspondents, and his collected letters today fill five massive volumes. Two of his more devoted correspondents, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, showed their admiration for their dead friend by forming Arkham House, a small publishing company whose sole initial mission was to publish a collection of Lovecraft's best tales. Though that collection, The Outsider and Others, sold poorly, it helped prevent the world from forgetting H. P. Lovecraft. His stories were reprinted in paperback and slowly gained a cult following, and now, more than half a century after his death, Lovecraft has achieved a kind of rock star status in the fantasy community. His work has inspired movies, video games, music and art, and his words have influenced countless writers from Robert Bloch to Stephen King.
Edgar Allan Poe may have pioneered that portion of the horror genre concerned with the terrors lurking in the flawed human mind, but it is H. P. Lovecraft who is regarded as the master storyteller of terrors beyond human imagining.
THE LIFE OF LOVECRAFT
Lovecraft was born in Providence on August 20, 1890. His mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, came from a once-estimable New England family that had arrived in North America in the early seventeenth century. His father was of more humble stock. A traveling salesman, Winfield Scott Lovecraft died of complications from syphilis when his son was only eight years old.
Though deprived of a father, Lovecraft did not lack for family; his mother as well as two aunts and a wealthy grandfather did their part in caring for him. Lovecraft proved to be an intelligent boy who learned to read at three years of age and who developed an affinity for Arabian Nights as well as Greek mythology. His taste for more bizarre fiction probably came from his grandfather, who loved to tell the boy thrilling Gothic stories.
Lovecraft also became a devoted student of the sciences, and in his teens his first published works were columns on astronomy for various local papers. Though armed with a formidable intellect, he suffered a nervous collapse that cut short his high school career, and he never entered college. His life was further complicated by the death of his grandfather and the tragic mishandling of the estate, which left Lovecraft and his mother virtually penniless and bereft of their grand Victorian house. These setbacks depressed him, and Lovecraft became a melancholic recluse for several years before restarting his writing career with many letters (often in verse) to the pulp magazines he enjoyed reading. His literary talents impressed the president of the United Amateur Press Association, who encouraged him to join the organization. Lovecraft not only joined, he later became president and even published several issues of his own amateur paper.
Lovecraft's literary efforts at this time were primarily poems and essays, but he soon began seriously writing fiction in 1917. But as his literary life blossomed, his personal life was dealt another critical blow: his mother, after a long stay in Butler Hospital after a nervous breakdown, died shortly after a gall bladder operation.
It was around this time that he met Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian Jew seven years older than Lovecraft who owned a hat shop in New York. They married in 1924 and lived in New York for a time, but the marriage wasn't successful. Her hat shop failed and Sonia took a job in Cleveland while Lovecraft searched in vain for work to supplement the meager income from his stories. Financial difficulties as well as long separations effectively ended the marriage although a divorce wasn't official until 1929.
Lovecraft returned to his hometown of Providence in 1926 where he remained until his death. This final period of his life was marked with more financial struggle. One of his aunts died, and Lovecraft moved into a humble house with the surviving aunt, doing various ghostwriting projects to earn a living. Ironically, this was the period when Lovecraft's best work (like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Shadow Out of Time") saw publication.
THE CTHULHU MYTHOS
Why have Lovecraft's tales passed the test of time and mesmerized generations of readers? The answer lies in his unique vision of horror. In stately, ornate and elegantly dispassionate prose more befitting a Victorian gentleman, Lovecraft would relate accounts of nightmarish, interdimensional monsters so awe- inspiring that we would go mad if we so much as glimpsed them. The gravity of his prose made the audaciousness of his imaginings that much more convincing.
"The Thing cannot be described," he writes in "The Call of Cthulhu," "...there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force and cosmic order." And yet he did find a way to put such phantasms into language. The end result was a complex cosmology of nearly god-like entities, the so-called Elder Gods or Great Old Ones, who are as old as the stars and who have visited the earth... and will return again. The most famous of them is Cthulhu, "a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long narrow wings behind." Cthulhu, a gargantuan Great One who came to earth long before the creation of man, is now imprisoned in a macabre tomb beneath the sea, a crypt constructed from the most bizarre architectural principles imaginable: "...the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours."
Cthulhu and other Great Ones of his ilk can be set free to wreak havoc upon earth "when the stars are right" or when ancient, ghastly summoning rituals are performed. Such rituals are described in the infamous Necronomicon, that dark tome of the blackest magic written by the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. Lovecraft's genius was in never showing the reader too much of these ancient cosmic juggernauts; a glimpse or two of the Elder Gods was all he would allow for he understood that the tense approach to a locked door was invariably more frightening than the thing itself behind the door. Stories such as "The Haunter of the Dark" and the novella At the Mountains of Madness thus are masterpieces of suggestion and anticipation, qualities sadly lacking in modern horror fiction and film.
Though he wrote other, more traditional horror tales, his stories of the frightening Elder Gods are the ones for which he will be long remembered.
In Stephen King's critical analysis of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, he discusses how Lovecraft's work helped shape his own interests in horror as a boy: "When Lovecraft wrote 'The Rats in the Walls' and 'Pickman's Model,' he wasn't simply kidding around or trying to pick up a few extra bucks; he meant it, and it was his seriousness as much as anything else which that interior dowsing rod responded to, I think."
King is not alone. Many other writers have fallen under the Lovecraft spell. Robert Bloch, famous for creating Norman Bates and Psycho, began his early career penning stories in the ornate manner of Lovecraft, with whom he was a correspondent. Ramsey Campbell, the British author of The Parasite and The Face That Must Die, considers Lovecraft a powerful early influence on his work.
Hollywood didn't forget about Lovecraft, either, although the film adaptations of his stories range from the awful to the mediocre, and none come close to capturing the essence or atmosphere of the original tales. Many of the films, such as The Dunwich Horror (1970) and Die, Monster, Die! (a 1965 adaptation of "The Colour Out of Space") were not strictly faithful to their source material and wound up becoming forgettable monster movies. More recent offerings, like Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and From Beyond, took even more liberties with the tales upon which they were based, injecting campy humor, extreme gore and graphic sex into the stories in ways which would have appalled the more straight-laced Lovecraft. He would have merely been bored with The Curse, a limp 1987 adaptation of "The Colour Out of Space" which had neither sex nor gore nor much of anything else to recommend it.
Lovecraft's stories have even appeared on TV; Rod Serling's Night Gallery featured workman-like adaptations of "Cool Air" and "Pickman's Model." Overall, however, the film and television industries haven't been kind to Lovecraft, and it is sadly ironic that movies such as Alien feature more distinctly Lovecraftian elements than actual adaptations of his stories.
Lovecraft's reach has extended into the music and gaming industries as well. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu is a popular role-playing game, and Dreamcatcher Games' computer adventure game, Necronomicon, is based on Lovecraft's short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. One wonders what Lovecraft, who detested games of any sort, would have thought about these uses of his work.
Hundreds of goth, metal and punk bands from all over the world have paid homage to Lovecraft in one way or another. Not only have acts like Metallica, The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets and Endura made explicit reference to elements from his fiction in their songs but there have been three separate bands named after Lovecraft himself.
The somewhat reclusive literary gentleman from Providence would be astounded to see how deeply his fascinating fictional world of ancient god-like monstrosities has affected the fantasy genre. Every branch of the entertainment industry has heard the name Lovecraft. Like Poe, he has survived near oblivion to become one of the most important and respected practitioners of the modern horror tale, and it is all but certain that the frightening call of Cthulhu will resonate for many generations to come.