H. P. Lovecraft
Oct 9, 2016
Horror in America started with Edgar Allan Poe, whose dark mysteries often had naturalistic explanations behind the supernatural appearances. It was the era of Enlightenment, the dawning of the industrial revolution, and scientific enquiry held promise to throw back the veil on the mysteries of creation. This was the crucible of the birth of America, and Poe’s horror was rooted in this optimism – even at his darkest, Poe maintained that careful scientific reason and deduction would provide solutions.
A century later another author - inspired largely by Poe - looked at scientific inquiry and the fruits of the industrial revolution, and found that the end result was often more questions that required looking deeper, and then those questions led to more questions, endlessly pulling you along a path. Then when you finally find the answer, the answer is enough to drive a man mad.
You throw back the veil on the mysteries of creation and find, not the light of knowledge, but the primordial darkness staring back, and it’s been waiting.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft wasn’t a sociable man, or even a nice man. He was racist – and not in the “this was the early 1900s and everyone was” way. He was racist in a way that is disturbing even compared to the general racism of the time. He lived an ascetic life in his beloved Providence, Rhode Island, married but without children, preferring the company of cats to people. To his friends, he was kind and generous, but his friends were few and far between, and his best friends were kept at a literal distance – such as Robert E. Howard, the author of Conan, who lived in Texas, far from Lovecraft’s secluded home. His family was old money, but not as wealthy as they once had been. He saw a world changing around him, where old social orders were breaking down.
And he saw fear – fear of the unknown, fear of change. He saw men trying to make the unknown become the known. He himself was terrified of change, and repulsed by an increasingly open and physical culture. Lovecraft considered himself the product of an earlier time – a gentleman of the 18th century, thrust into the 20th.
So he wrote. Not novels – Lovecraft never wrote a full-length novel – but short stories and novellas, which he sold to pulp magazines, because horror was not a respectable genre. He wrote about “colours” from space – his old-world preferences revealed in his spelling – driving men to madness and slowly consuming them. He wrote about medical students pursuing eternal life (more than once), about unearthly music holding back the abyss, and artists whose monstrous subjects were real. Men slowly turned into fish-hybrids as they worshiped ancient gods. While personally atheist, Lovecraft also understood the power of myth and superstition on men. It was not unimaginable to his mind that these myths and superstitions had roots in a forgotten past. He crafted an entire mythology which ran throughout many of his stories, with old gods both evil and benevolent, cults, and artists tormented by dreams sent by sleeping devils.
In a literary world which frequently fell back on ghosts, vampires, and other tropes of Gothic horror, Lovecraft brought a vision of horror grander and stranger. Lovecraft would frequently take established science and alter it just slightly, or take the conclusions to ludicrous extremes (“Cool Air” is an excellent example of this). One of my favorite descriptions of his is “non-Euclidean geometry” – the idea that the very shape of a building is simply wrong to human perception. The old god Nyarlothep walks the earth as a carnival barker or itinerant showman, a dark man displaying the latest of scientific marvels as miraculous inventions, while a monstrous priest of the gods lies sleeping beneath the oceans, waiting for the stars to align so he may bring his masters to earth.
Most importantly, though, his prolific work was discovered posthumously by a generation of aspiring writers – Stephen King and Clive Barker both cite Lovecraft as a major influence – and in his life Lovecraft carried out correspondence with young authors like Robert Bloch, encouraging them to practice. Graphic novel legends Mike Mignola and Alan Moore both show extensive influences – Moore’s Providence series being based entirely in the Lovecraft universe. Lovecraft’s serialized novella Herbert West – Reanimator was adapted into a classic comedy-horror film. The internet is littered with references to Cthulhu, and you can buy plush monstrosities for your children. So profound is Lovecraft’s influence that creative works dealing with unknown, chthonic horrors are lovecraftian. It’s not that his work was flawless – in fact, it is highly variable in quality, tends to skirt the difficult act of description by assuring the reader that the horror is indescribable, overuses florid and bombastic verse, and, as mentioned before, is really egregiously racist – but that in his flaws he showed a host of writers that they could also write, that their craziest, most over-the-top idea could be the basis for a story, that when you pulled the mask off the monster you could reveal a worse monster beneath, that the bad guy can win in the end, and that no subject should be considered taboo. Without Lovecraft, Norman Bates becomes a common criminal, not a complex study in the violation of taboos; Barker’s Cenobites become demons from central casting, not a quasi-religious order dedicated to physical experience that hints at a cosmology far more horrifying than what mankind has imagined; King has no monsters in The Mist, no Dark Tower to ascend, no hotel possessed by evil, and Randal Flagg – who may be King’s own interpretation of Nyarlothep – stops walking the country in the wake of an apocalyptic epidemic.
So tonight, go outside and look up into the night sky and imagine what might be looking back at you, or what may lie sleeping in the ocean trenches, awaiting a secret signal to awaken. Think of what terrifies you, and write it down – it doesn’t have to be good – and know that the irascible, racist, antisocial hermit of Providence would have gently encouraged to keep at your craft.