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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Howard Phillips Lovecraft – A Paean

For as long as this blog allows me to contribute, you will occasionally read statements by me extolling the virtues of H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, I will probably repeat myself many times on the subject. But for now, allow me to begin.

The importance of H.P. Lovecraft to the genres of horror and science fiction cannot be overstated. He is seminal. He is a pillar of all that came after. He was the first of many, and where he was not the first, he was most innovative.

His name – Lovecraft – innocuous sounding enough, is now synonym to both “macabre” and “lurking terror.” Without him there would be no King. No Barker. No Carpenter. No horror as we now know it. [Caveat: there has been a remarkable amount of scholarly writing about H. P. Lovecraft, of which only tidbits I have read. I do not proclaim to be an expert on the man, only that I have come to love his stories and have begun to understand his importance].

And the saddest thing about H.P. L. is that he was completely unappreciated in his lifetime. He was convinced he was a failure. He died penniless. He was forgotten. Yet the list of what was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, even tangentially inspired, is simply vast. There are several board games, a role playing game, video games, and even two Metallica songs inspired by him.

My first exposure to Lovecraft was a paperback collection entitled “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which was an anthology of several of his stories. I found it while rummaging in the basement at the tender age of about 10, looking for some packed away Lionel train accessories. A basement, dark, musty and cluttered is a rather poignant place to find your first Lovecraft. On the cover was a man in a back tuxedo and cape, similar to what Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was fond of wearing, but with a face not unlike a cross between a Nosferatu and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It scared the bejeezus out of me, and from that point on I associated “Lovecraft” with “scary.” [I was young, and didn’t use big words yet].

I tried to read it, as I liked trying to scare myself [I had already delved into Edgar Allen Poe, the direct precursor of Lovecraft, as well as Stephen King], but I couldn’t get around his dense, spiraling, verbose writing. It was too much vocabulary, too much atmosphere, and not enough action for my young sensibilities. So, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” went back on the shelf.

Now, during the 80’s there were two movies I remember renting from Lynn TV, [the local video store], based on Lovecraft – “From Beyond” and the cult classic “Re-Animator.” I thought both of these movies were great; they were gory, violent, filled with nudity, and at least in the case of “From Beyond,” pretty freaking scary. The IMDB credits H.P. Lovecraft with some 71 films based, one way or another, on his writing. Yet none of these were in critical successes, and although a few were cult classics, most people, [myself included], have not seen them. One future project, “At the Mountains of Madness” is one that all horror fans should be looking forward to. [More on “ATMOM” below]. Therefore, these B movies would be my first official consumption of any H.P.L's material.

Years passed. I grew up, and went to the usual years of schooling. I read many books, and saw countless movies. I collected comics. I developed my tastes, which tend to the fantastical, at times weird, at times dark. I enjoyed visions of the future, both dystopian and utopian, far reaches of outer space, of Mars and Martians, of myths of Earth’s origins, of ancient times and creatures. I read King, Barker, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Herbert, Tolkien, and others. Then one day, in my late 20’s, I again came across “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and began to read. It was fantastic. I loved it. The first story was “The Colour Out of Space,” a very creepy, yet simple story about what happens to the countryside when a meteorite falls from the sky, written in H.P.L’s anachronistic manner [notice the spelling of “Colour”]. I buried my nose in the book, next trying to get through “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” about a desolate New England town peopled by worshippers of an ancient and malevolent sea god. In the middle I lost the book, and couldn’t find another copy of it in my local used bookstores nor the local Barnes & Noble. Then I got lucky when I found another H.P.L. anthology with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” in it. I picked it right back up, and devoured the whole thing, and then consumed the rest of the book.

At this point I was ravenous for more. I searched on-line and I found sites with his complete works [I am presently looking for a printed one for my bookshelf]. After-hours at my old office I would print out stories for my ride home on the subway, and in no time I went through them all.

A casual reading of H.P.L. finds that his themes repeat – madness; darkness; lurking; moldering decay; especially dark shadows; backward and decrepit people living in decrepit towns and countryside; orders of ancient and otherworldly beings and gods whose “magic” is more like science we cannot understand. His settings often repeat as well, and are mostly the back country of New England, usually centering on a town called Arkham, the Miskatonic University, and the denizens thereof. This last theme, of otherworldly beings and their super-science, would eventually be named by others the “Cthulu Mythos,” encompassing a series of loosely connected stories about these beings and their worshippers and victims. In my opinion they are the best of H.P.L., and certainly his most influential works.

And in creating this Mythos [though many others contributed to the Mythos, notably Robert Howard - creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, and Kull - and some crossover can be seen in the Conan stories], H.P.L. laid the foundation for modern horror. Unfortunately for him he would not live to see his work find the success he so longed for, due to his untimely demise in 1937.

With the Mythos came the Elder Ones, the Elder Gods, the Outer Gods, the Deep Ones, Cthulu and his Children. We get horrific entities with names like Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Dagon, Shub-Niggurath, Tsathoggua and creatures called shoggoths. We learn that the Elder Ones [another race of alien, interstellar primordial superbeings], Cthulu and his kind, and the Outer Gods vied for the Earth when it was young, and they are still lurking: some sleep below the sea in hidden cities; some dwell in hidden caves under the polar ice; some just beyond the gauzy fabric of this reality.

These things hailed from otherworldly parts known as Leng, R’lyeh, Ulthar, Skai, Kadeth, and Ib in the land of Mnar, and their deeds were memorialized in such volumes as the Necronomicon and the Pnapkotic Manuscripts, not to mention numerous horrific carvings, base reliefs, hieroglyphs, and totems. Pretty rich stuff from a writer making up canon on the fly, without ever working it out into a cohesive system.

Before H.P.L.’s influence took hold, horror was of the Victorian type: Dracula, Frankenstein, and the horror stories of old Europe: vampires, werewolves, and at the core of it, Satan. At times, instead of the devil being at the core, it was the acts of men: Jeckyl and Hyde, as well as the monster of Frankenstein – both examples of men trying to be God and the ramifications thereof. All in all, it was a very structured world, with God on one side, the Devil on the other, man in the middle, and in the end things would shake out. Man’s place in this order was assured.

It is after H.P.L. and the Cthulu Mythos took hold, when the madness and man’s uncertainty as to his place in the natural order, do we truly get modern horror as we know it. With this new paradigm, horror would eventually take new turns. We would encounter the backcountry cannibal families for the first time, waiting in their ramshackle farmhouses. We would experience stories that challenge our sensibilities as to our place in the universe. Killers were motivated [and would not die, or, stay dead] by forces that were wholly unexplained, and not attributable to either God or Satan, but rather unknown alien forces, or at times sheer, simple madness. Men would fall into fearful insanity at their powerlessness to act; at the realization of their insignificance; that the fate of man and the earth are already sealed and it is only a matter of time; that nothing can stop the inexorable march of evil to their doorstep. Man’s place in the universe was not only suspect, it was downright trivial when one became aware of the real forces at work. Some might say that his dreadful vision was influenced by the madness of the mindless slaughter of the First World War.

In my opinion H.P.L.’s magnum opus is the novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” which is probably his longest work. Simply, it’s about an Antarctic expedition [launched by the Miskatonic University] which goes horribly wrong, leading to death and insanity. It is the kind of story that grips you, steadily ratcheting up the tension until you cannot put the story down. It is credited for inspiring the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which in turn inspired “The Thing.” In “At the Mountains of Madness” we hear of a tale which ties together much of the Mythos, but leaving more than enough unexplained to fuel further wonder. We find out that our ideas of Earth’s origin, and its ultimate fate, is not what we would expect, or anywhere close to what we hoped for. But no such admonition to “Watch the skies” will ameliorate our collective doom.

H.P.L. can be found everywhere in the horror genre. Movies as disparate as Ghostbusters, The Thing, The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pet Semetary, Hellraiser, Hellboy, The Fog, and Event Horizon all owe H.P.L. a great debt for the groundwork he laid, the concepts he pioneered, and the atmospheres – the general creepiness – he was the master of. The same goes for horror literature, as well as comic books. Hell, Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum came from somewhere. Stephen King is practically his latter day protégé, another New Englander publishing the terrible goings-on in the unseen corners of Massachusetts and Maine.

H.P.L. is, with respect to the genre of horror, almost like Shakespeare to the English language – his influence is so wide, so diffused, so constant, you don’t even notice it. It’s like asking a fish to notice the water he is swimming in. But there it is – he is the dark, creepy, lurking atmosphere we all breathe.

I would like to give a special thanks to the Big AB of the Northern Wastes for his assistance in this endeavor.


PsychoShack Haunted House said...

Nice writing.. completely agree.
PsychoShack Haunted House

Mr. Karswell said...

Very very nice article, and nicely chosen selection of accompanying illustrations too. An HPL kind of writer only comes along once every generation or so, wonder when we'll see another?

Gary D Macabre said...

I have long been acquainted with Lovecraft's work, but for the most part was unable to find it in even the largest of book sellers and used shops. Usually when something surfaced it was a compilation of Cthulhu mythos by other writers, and not the writings of Lovecraft I was looking for. Not long ago I found an excellent compilation of Lovecraft's best know stories entitled "Tales of H.P.Lovecraft" edited by Joyce Carol Oates. This may be the ultimate introduction to his writings if your readers are so inclined to search one out.

2008 could be a banner year for Lovecraft fans or it conversely could be a tremendous bust. Noting his death in 1937, 2008 marks 70 full calendar years since his passing. The significance of this is that it is the requirement for becoming public domain. Perhaps this will inspire publishers to release complete volumes of his work. And make it much simpler for interested readers to actually find and purchase them.

Unknown said...

Nice write-up.
I love H.P. Lovecraft as well, and what you said about how you got into him basically sums up the same experiences that I had.

Dove said...

I have read some of HP Lovecraft's work many, many years ago but not recently and intend to return to him shortly.

Gary is correct, his work is now in the public domain and can be found at Classic Reader (google it).


pot head pixie said...

Funny, The Shadow Over Innsmouth (and other stories) was also the first Lovecraft I read as a teenager. I've still got the old paperback somewhere at home, I think.

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