If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft … they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s un-putdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing”, but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works.
– China Miéville
One of Lovecraft’s worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as “horrible,” “terrible,” “frightful,” “awesome,” “eerie,” “weird,” “forbidden,” “unhallowed,” “unholy,” “blasphemous,” “hellish,” and “infernal.” Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words — especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.
— Edmund Wilson
So that was what these lekythoi contained; the monstrous fruit of unhallowed rites and deeds, presumably won or cowed to such submission as to help, when called up by some hellish incantation, in the defence of their blasphemous master or the questioning of those who were not so willing?
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
H.P. Lovecraft is what people like to call a “problematic” writer. For many, the quote just above is all they need to know about him: a jumble of wild adjectives seemingly thrown into the air and left where they fell, married to a convoluted tangle of dependent clauses, all ending in a non-sequitural question mark. Lovecraft’s more fervent admirers sometimes say that he is a “difficult” writer, whose diction must be carefully unpacked, not unlike that of many other literary greats. His detractors reply, not without considerable justification, that his works don’t earn such readerly devotion, that they remain a graceless tangle even after you’ve sussed out their meaning. And that’s without even beginning to address the real ugliness of Lovecraft, the xenophobia and racism that lie at the core of even his best-regarded works. Lovecraft, they say, is simply a bad writer. Full stop.
Well, they’re mostly right. Lovecraft is in most respects a pretty bad writer. He is, however, an otherwise bad writer who somehow tapped into something that many people find deeply resonant of the proverbial human condition, not only in his own time but perhaps even more so in our own. Despite his clumsy prose and his racism and plenty of other sins, his stature has only continued to grow over the decades since his death in poverty and obscurity in 1937 at age 46. This man who himself believed he died a failure, who saw his work published only in lurid pulp magazines with names like Weird Tales and never had the chance to walk into a bookstore and see a book of his own on the shelf, now has a volume in the prestigious Library of America series. His literary influence, at least within the realm of fantastical fiction, has been almost incalculable. Stephen King may have sold hundreds of millions more books, but it’s Lovecraft who’s most often cited to be the most influential single practitioner of horror fiction of the twentieth century. In popular culture too he’s everywhere, from 1979’s classic science-fiction thriller Alien to 2014’s critically acclaimed first season of True Detective. The alien monstrosity Cthulhu, his most famous creation, now adorns tee-shirts, coffee mugs, and key rings; you can even take him to bed with you at night in the form of a plush toy. For a lifelong atheist, Lovecraft has enjoyed one hell of an afterlife.
Perhaps most surprising of all is Lovecraft’s stature as one of the minor deities of ludic fictions, living on a plane only just below the Holy Trinity of Tolkien, Lucas, and Roddenberry. He was an avowed classicist who found the early twentieth century far too modern for his tastes, who believed that he’d been born 200 years too late. He disliked technology as much as he did most other aspects of modernity, wrote in an archaic diction that was quite deliberately centuries out of date even in his own day, and in general spent his entire life looking backward to an idealized version of the past. Yet there’s his mark stamped implicitly or explicitly all over gaming — gaming with its cult of the new, its fetishization of technology, its unquenchable thirst for more gigabytes, more gigahertz, more pixels. It’s a strange state of affairs — but, then again, one of the Holy Trinity itself was a musty old pipe-smoking Oxford professor of philology who was equally disdainful of modern life.
At any rate, we’re just getting to the point in this little history of gaming where Lovecraft starts to become a major factor. Therefore it seems appropriate to spend some time looking back on his life and times, to try to understand who he was and what it is about him that so many continue to find so compelling.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born his parents’ first and, as it would transpire, only child into comfortable circumstances in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. His father was a traveling sales representative for a local silversmith, his maternal grandfather an entrepreneur and industrialist of considerable wealth and influence. The specter of madness, destined to hang constantly over Lovecraft’s own life as it would that of so many of his fictional protagonists, first raised its head when he was three years old: his father had a complete nervous breakdown on a sales trip to Chicago, likely caused by syphilis. He never recovered his sanity, and young Howard never saw his father again after his breakdown; he died in an asylum within five years.
Lovecraft’s mother was also of what they used to call a “nervous disposition,” alternately encouraging, coddling, smothering, domineering, and belittling him. Still, life as a whole was pretty good for much of his childhood. Mother and son lived with his grandfather and two aunts in a rambling old house with a magnificent library and a cupola outfitted as his personal clubhouse, complete with model trains, armies of lead soldiers, and all the other toys a boy could want. While he showed little interest in children his own age and they in turn showed little in him, Lovecraft would come to remember his childhood as the best period of his life. The family treated him as a prodigy, indulging his interests in chemistry and astronomy and clapping heartily when he read to them his first stories and poems — and, it must be said, not without reason; one of his poems, a gloss on The Odyssey composed when he was just seven years old, consisted of 88 lines of meticulously correct iambic heptameter.
But then, on March 24, 1904, came the event that Lovecraft would always reckon the greatest tragedy of his life. His grandfather died on that date, leaving behind a financial situation that proved, thanks to a recent string of losses by his business interests, far worse than anyone in his family had anticipated. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to move from the spacious ease of the family homestead, which had come complete with a retinue of liveried servants, into a cramped little duplex, where they’d have to fend for themselves. The young Lovecraft, already extremely class-conscious, took the decline so badly that he considered suicide. He compensated by claiming ever more stridently, on the basis of little real evidence, to be the latest of a long line of “unmixed English gentry.” Given his already burgeoning obsession with racial and familial purity, that was a wealth far more important than mere money.
Despite his prodigious childhood, Lovecraft’s academic career petered out anticlimactically. For some years he had hoped to become an astronomer, but when the time came to think about university he elected not to even attempt the entrance exam, fearing that his math skills weren’t up to the test. Avoiding the stigma of failure by not even trying would continue to be the pattern of much of his life. Arrogant yet, as arrogant people so often are, extremely insecure at heart, he preferred to adopt the attitude of the wealthy gentry of old whom he so admired, waiting in his increasingly shabby ivory tower for opportunities to come to him.
His academic career was over before it had really begun, but Lovecraft considered workaday employment to be beneath him. He lived until age 28 under the thumb of his mother, subsisting on the slowly dwindling remains of his grandfather and father’s inheritances and the largess of other family members. His principal intellectual and social outlet became what was known at the time as “amateur journalism”: a community of writers who self-published newsletters and pamphlets, forerunners to the fanzines of later years (and, by extension, to the modern world of blogging). A diligent worker who was willing to correspond with and help just about anyone who approached him — a part of his affected attitude of noblesse oblige — Lovecraft also had lots of time and energy to devote to what must remain for most practitioners a hobby. His star thus rose quickly: he became vice president of the United Amateur Press Association, the second largest organization of its kind in the country, in 1915, and its president in 1917, whilst writing prolifically for the various newsletters. His output during this period was mostly articles on science and other “hard” topics, along with a smattering of stilted poetry written in the style of his favorite era, the eighteenth century. He also began the habit of copious and voluminous letter writing, largely to fellow UAPA members, that he would continue for the rest of his life. By the time of his death he may have written as many as 100,000 letters, many running into the tens of pages — a staggering pace of eight or nine often substantial letters per day in addition to all of his other literary output.
By the time he was serving as president of the UAPA, his mother, always high-strung, was behaving more and more erratically. She would run screaming through the house at night believing herself to be chased by creatures from her nightmares, and suddenly forget where she was and what she was doing at random times during the day. She was quite possibly suffering from the same syphilis that had killed her husband. At last, on March 13, 1919, her family committed her to the same mental hospital that had housed her husband; also like her husband, she would die there two years later after a botched gall-bladder surgery. Lovecraft was appropriately bereaved, but he was also free. Within reason, anyway: unable to cook or do even the most basic housekeeping chores and unwilling to learn, and having no independent source of income anyway, he wound up living with his aunts again.
Around the same time, he began to supplant his nonfiction articles and his poetry with tales of horror, drawing heavily on the style of his greatest literary idol, Edgar Allan Poe, as well as contemporary adventure fiction, his family’s history of madness, and the recurring nightmares that had haunted him since age six. While the quality of his output seesawed radically from story to story during this period, as indeed it would throughout his career, he wrote some of his most respected tales in fairly short order, such as “The Music of Erich Zann” and “The Rats in the Walls.”
That last story in particular evokes many of the themes and ideas that would later come to be described as quintessentially Lovecraftian. An aging American industrialist chooses to retire to his family’s ancestral home in England. He builds his new family seat on the ruins of the old, a place called Exham Priory which was abandoned during “the reign of James the First” when one of the sons murdered his parents and siblings and fled to Virginia to found the current branch of the family tree. Three months after these events, as local legend would have it, a flood of rats had poured forth from the derelict building, devouring livestock and a few of the villagers. Since then the site has been one of ill repute, never occupied or rebuilt and avoided conscientiously by the locals. Dismissing it all in classic horror-story fashion, our elderly hero rebuilds the place and moves in, only to be awakened night after night by the sound of thousands of rats scurrying behind the walls, rushing always downward toward an altar in the cellar, a relic from an ancient Druidic temple that apparently once existed on the site. Working with some associates, he finds the entrance to a secret underground labyrinth beneath the altar, where his ancestors practiced barbaric rites of human sacrifice and cannibalism; it was apparently his discovery of and/or attempted initiation into the familial cult that led that one brave son to murder his family and flee to the New World. Alas, our hero proves not so strong. The story ends, as so many Lovecraft stories do, in an insane babble of adjectives, as the protagonist goes crazy, kills, and eats one of his comrades. He is telling his story, we learn at the end, from the madhouse.
Many Lovecraft stories deal similarly in hereditary evil and madness, the sins of the father being visited upon the helpless son. That seems paradoxical given that he was an avowed atheist and materialist, but nevertheless is very much in keeping with his equally strong belief in the power and importance of bloodlines. There are obvious echoes of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in “The Rats in the Walls” — so obvious that Lovecraft, admittedly not exactly the most self-aware of writers, could hardly fail to be aware of them. Yet I think a comparison of the two stories also does a great deal to point out the differences between the two writers. Poe focuses on inner, psychological horrors. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it’s his protagonist’s guilt over a senseless murder he himself committed that leads him to hear the beating of his victim’s heart under the floorboards of his house, and that finally drives him mad. Whatever else you can say about his plight, it’s a plight he created for himself. But the evil in “The Rats in the Walls” is an external evil in the face of which psychology is meaningless, guilt or innocence irrelevant, and the narrator helpless. Lovecraft brings us to shudder not for his characters, who are so thin as to be impossible to really care about, but for humanity as a whole. Nihilism on this cosmic scale was something new to horror fiction; it’s the bedrock of his claim to literary importance.
Lovecraft’s big break, such as it was, came in 1923 when one of his young protégés told him of a new paying magazine called Weird Tales that was just starting up and was thus eager for submissions. Why, they asked, didn’t he submit some of his stories?
The letter that Lovecraft attached along with his initial submission of five stories finds him still affecting the persona of an English gentleman of leisure who likes to amuse himself with a bit of scribbling now and again, who doesn’t really care all that much whether Weird Tales is interested or not.
Having a habit of writing weird, macabre and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly founded periodical … I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing … the only reader I hold in mind is myself …
The magazine did accept all five of them for the handsome fee of 1.5 cents per word, beginning a steady if far from lucrative relationship that would last for the rest of Lovecraft’s life. Weird Tales would remain always far from the top of the pulps, selling a bare fraction of what the biggest magazines like Argosy All-Story Weekly and Black Mask sold. Yet even among its stable of second-tier authors Lovecraft was not particularly prominent or valued. In over a decade of writing for Weird Tales, he wasn’t once granted top billing in the form of a cover story. Indeed, many of his submissions, including some that are regarded today as among his best work, were summarily rejected.
It was shortly after his stories started appearing in Weird Tales that Lovecraft embarked on the one great adventure of his life. In March of 1924 this confirmed bachelor, who had never before expressed the slightest romantic interest in a woman, shocked family and acquaintances alike by abruptly moving to New York City to marry Sonia Greene, one of his UAPA correspondents. Just to make it all still more bizarre, she was a Jew, one of the groups of racial Others whom he hated most. But anyone who thought that his wife’s ethnicity might reflect a softening of his racism was soon proved wrong. He instructed Sonia that she should ensure that any gatherings she arranged be made up predominantly of “Aryans,” and persisted in excoriating her ethnicity, often right in front of her. The marriage soon ran into plenty of other problems. She was loving and affectionate; he, she would later claim, never once said the words “I love you” to her. She had a healthy interest in sex; he had none — indeed, found it repulsive. (He had an “Apollonian aesthetic,” she a “Dionysian,” he would later say in his pompous way.)
The couple separated within a year, Lovecraft renting a single large room for himself in Brooklyn Heights, a formerly wealthy area of New York now come down in the world, full of rooming houses catering to transients and immigrants. That last in particular always spelt trouble for Lovecraft. He poured his bile into “The Horror at Red Hook.” One of his uglier stories, it’s set in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a similar history to that of Brooklyn Heights. It reads like a bigot’s vision of Paradise Lost.
Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”. The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing.
From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through.
After describing his unhappiness in New York to his aunts with increasing stridency — he said he awoke every morning “screaming in sheer desperation and pounding the walls and floor” — Lovecraft got from them a railway ticket and an invitation to come back home at last in April of 1926. His two-year adventure in adulthood having ended in failure, he resumed what even his most admiring biographers acknowledge to be essentially a perpetual adolescence.
Back in Providence, Lovecraft wrote his most anthologized, most read, most archetypal, most influential, and arguably simply best story of all: “The Call of Cthulhu.” Its opening lines are the most famous he ever wrote, and for once relatively elegant and to the point, a mission statement for cosmic horror.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” is an intellectual gentleman, apparently an anthropologist of some stripe or other, who stumbles upon a sinister cache of documents whilst serving as executor of his grand-uncle’s estate following the latter’s death under somewhat mysterious circumstances. An epistolary tale in spirit if not quite in technical form, the bulk of its length consists of our narrator explaining what he found in that initial cache as well as the further research to which it leads him. He gradually uncovers evidence of a sinister global cult, older than antiquity, which worships Cthulhu, an extraterrestrial entity of inconceivable power. Cthulhu sleeps entombed somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean, waiting until “the stars are right,” when he will rise again to awaken his even more powerful comrades — the so-called “Great Old Ones” — and rule the world. Non-converts like our benighted narrator and his grand-uncle who learn of the cult’s existence tend not to live very long; it apparently has a very long reach. Importantly, however, it’s also strongly hinted that the cult may be in for a rude surprise of its own when Cthulhu does finally awaken. He and the Great Old Ones will likely crush all humans as thoughtlessly as humans do ants on that day when the stars are right again.
In only one respect is “The Call of Cthulhu” not archetypal Lovecraft: it has a relatively subdued climax in comparison to the norm, with our narrator neither dead nor (presumably) insane but rather peeking nervously around every corner, waiting for the cult’s inevitable assassin to arrive. This is doubtless one of the things that make it so effectively chilling. Otherwise all of the classic tropes, or at least those that didn’t already show up in “The Rats in the Walls,” are here: locales spanning the globe; forbidden texts; non-Euclidean alien geometries “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” There’s the affectedly archaic diction: “legends” becomes “legendry”; “show” becomes “shew.” There’s lots of words that you’ll only find in Lovecraft, to such an extent that you know as soon as you see one of them that you’re reading either him or one of his imitators: “eldritch,” “Cyclopean,” “daemonic.” There’s the way that every single person or document talks in the exact same voice and diction. (This applies even to an extract from The Sydney Bulletin, which describes the crew of a ship as “a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes.”) And yes, this being Lovecraft, the usual racism and horror of miscegenation is also all over the place: the cult makes its outposts not with the upright Aryan races but with the “debased,” “mongrel” peoples of the earth. Almost as notable is what is conspicuously missing, here as well as elsewhere in the Lovecraft oeuvre: humor, women, romance, beauty that isn’t somehow “blasphemous” or “daemonic.” Come to think of it, about 95 percent of life’s rich pageant. Some writers like Shakespeare and Tolstoy enfold the whole world of human experience, while others focus obsessively on one tiny corner of it. Lovecraft is definitely among the latter group.
Many of Lovecraft’s later stories continued to explore what came to be known as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” sometimes in the form of novellas rather than short stories. Always generous with his friends and correspondents, he also happily allowed other writers to play with his creations. Thus the Mythos as we’ve come to know it today, as a shared universe boasting contributions from countless sources — many of them, it must be said, much better writers than Lovecraft himself — was already well into its gestation before his death. Whatever else you can say about Lovecraft, his complete willingness to let others share in his intellectual property is refreshing in our current Age of Litigation. It’s one of the principal reasons that the Mythos has proved to be so enduring.
When not writing his stories or his torrents of letters, Lovecraft spent much of the last decade of his life traveling the Eastern Seaboard: as far south as Florida, as far west as Louisiana, as far north as Quebec. Preferring by his own admission buildings to people, he would invariably seek out the oldest section of any place he visited and explore it at exhaustive length, preferably by moonlight. Broker than ever, he often stayed with members of his small army of correspondents, who also took it upon themselves to feed him. Otherwise he often simply went hungry, sometimes for days at a time. Paul Cook, one of his few local friends, was shocked at the state in which he returned to Providence from some of his rambles: “Folds of skin hanging from a skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws.”
Those friends and correspondents of his, more numerous than ever, were an interesting lot. They now included among them quite a number of other writers of pulpy note, some of them far more popular with inter-war readers than he: Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Clark Ashton Smith (the outside writer who first and most frequently played in the Cthulhu Mythos during Lovecraft’s lifetime), Fritz Leiber (creator shortly after Lovecraft’s death of the classic fantasy team of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert Bloch (author many years later of Psycho). Those last two, as well as many or most of Lovecraft’s other regular correspondents, were notable for their youth. Many, like Bloch, were still in their teens. The picture below shows Lovecraft on a visit to the family of another of his young friends in Florida in 1935. Robert Barlow had just turned 17 at the time. It’s an endearing image in its way, but it’s also a little strange — even vaguely pathetic — when you stop to think about it. What should this 45-year-old man and this 17-year-old boy really have to share with one other?
Ironically, Lovecraft died just as his career seemed to be on the upswing. In 1936 he received $600, the most he’d ever been paid at once for his writing and a small fortune by his meager standards, for two novellas (At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time) that were published by the prestigious (by pulp standards) Astounding Science Fiction. This marked a major step up from the perpetually near-bankrupt Weird Tales. Best of all, both novellas made the cover, signaling what could have been the start of a steady relationship with a magazine that valued him much more than Weird Tales ever had, that may have finally allowed him to earn a real living from writing. But it wasn’t to be. On February 27, 1937, after weeks of excruciating stomach pain, he visited a doctor for the first time in years, who determined that cancer of the small intestine and acute kidney disease were in a race to see which could kill him first. He died on March 15.
The upswing in Lovecraft’s literary fortunes that began with his publication in Astounding proved oddly unaffected by his death. In 1939 August Derleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House — named after the fictional New England city, a stand-in for Providence, where Lovecraft set many of his stories — to preserve his works in book form. A long, convoluted series of copyright disputes arose almost immediately, initially between Lovecraft’s young friend Robert Barlow, whom he had named as executor of his estate, and Darleth and Wandrei, who claimed to have been bequeathed the rights to his stories by his family. This tangle has never been entirely resolved, but most people today simply act as if Lovecraft’s stories are all in the public domain, and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever been sued for it.
Edmund Wilson’s infamous 1945 hatchet job for The New Yorker, from which I quoted to begin this article, is entertaining but not terribly insightful, and must have been disheartening on one level for fans of Lovecraft, especially as it set the tone for discussion of him in high-brow literary circles for decades to come. On the other hand, though, the very fact that Wilson, the country’s foremost literary critic at the time, felt the need to write about him at all is a measure of how far he had already come in the eight years since his death. Since then Lovecraft has continued to grow still more popular almost linearly, decade by decade. He long since became one of those essential authors that anyone seriously interested in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, or horror simply has to read, and if the recent success of True Detective is anything to go by he’s not doing too badly for himself in mainstream culture either. As I write this article today I see that not only “Lovecraft” but also “Cthulhu” are included in the Firefox web browser’s spelling dictionary. What more proof can one need of the mainstreaming of the Mythos?
But just what is it about this profoundly limited writer that makes his work so enduring? Well, I can come up with three reasons, one or more of which I believe probably apply to most people who’ve read him — those, that is, who haven’t run screaming from the horrid prose.
The first and most respectable of those reasons is that when he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his one stroke of unassailable genius, Lovecraft tapped into the zeitgeist of his time and our own. We should think about the massive shift in our understanding of our place in the universe that was in process during Lovecraft’s time. In the view of the populace at large, science had heretofore been a quaint, nonthreatening realm of gentlemen scholars tinkering away in their laboratories to learn more about God’s magnificent creation. Beginning with Darwin, however, all that changed. Humans, Darwin asserted, were not created by a divine higher power but rather struggled up, gasping and clawing, from the primordial muck like one of Lovecraft’s slimy tentacled monsters. Soon after the paradigm shift of evolution came Einstein with his theories about space and time, which claimed that neither were anything like common sense would have them be, that space itself could bend and time could speed up and slow down; think of the “loathsome non-Euclidean geometry” of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. And then came our first inklings of the quantum world, the realization that even the comforting regularity of Newtonian physics was a mere facade spread over the chaos of unpredictability that lay beneath. The world seemed to be shifting beneath humanity’s feet, bringing with it a dawning realization that’s at the heart of the embodiment of existential dread that is Cthulhu: that we’re just not that important to anyone or anything; indeed, that it’s difficult to even express how insignificant we are against the vast sweep of the unfeeling cosmos. I believe that our collective psyche still struggles with the ramifications of that realization today. Some cling ever tighter to traditional religion (it’s interesting to note that fundamentalism, in all its incarnations, is a phenomenon that postdates Darwin); some spend their lives trying to forget it via hedonism, career, social media, games (hey, I resemble that remark!); some, the lucky ones, make peace with their insignificance, whether through Nietzschian self-actualization, spirituality, or something else. But even for them, I believe, persists somewhere that dread and fear of our aloneness and insignificance, born of the knowledge that a rogue asteroid — or a band of inconceivably powerful and malevolent aliens — could wipe us all out tomorrow and no god would save us. It’s this dread and fear that Lovecraft channels.
That’s the philosophical argument for Lovecraft’s importance, and I do think it’s a good one. At the same time, though, it’s hardly a full explanation of why so many of us continue to enjoy — yes, enjoy — reading Lovecraft even after he’s beaten his one great idea comprehensively into the ground over the course of dozens of tales. We also read Lovecraft, ungenerous and even voyeuristic as it may sound, because we’re fascinated by the so obviously troubled personality that created them. In short, we want to know just what the hell is up with Lovecraft, this man who fancied himself an independent, strong-minded gentleman scholar yet is actually terrified of just about every damn thing in the universe. Various people have advanced various theories as to what in fact was up with Lovecraft. Some, noting his inability to express any other emotion than terror and, most of all, disgust — which he admittedly does do very well — have said that he must have been on the autism spectrum. Others, noting his habit of surrounding himself with young male admirers and his occasional habit of describing their appearance in rather, shall we say, idealized terms, have questioned whether he was a closeted homosexual — quite possibly closeted even from himself. In the end, though, all such theories end up feeling unsatisfying and anachronistic.
What is clear is that the Lovecraft we meet in his fiction is a walking, talking bundle of neuroses and phobias, disgusted especially by the seething biological physis that is life itself. Most of all, he’s disgusted by that ultimate imperative of biology: sex. His work is so laden with Freudian imagery that it’s the veritable mother lode for any believer in displacement theory: “rigid” pillars; yawning abysses coated with slimy moisture; dilating doorways leading into dark, strong-smelling tunnels; thick round “Cyclopean” columns (did someone say something about a one-eyed trouser snake?). Read in the right spirit, passages like this one from “The Call of Cthulhu” become hilarious:
…everyone watched the queer recession of the monstrously carven portal. In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.
The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and at length the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there.
What makes all of this still more hilarious is that Lovecraft has no idea that he’s doing it. It’s almost enough all by itself to make one a believer in Freud — if one can stop laughing long enough.
And that in turn gets us to the real dirty little secret about Lovecraft, the reason so many of us continue to love this pretentious bigot like we do the racist but entertaining old uncle we see every Thanksgiving: he’s just so fun. He’s the best camp this side of Plan 9 From Outer Space. This is the real reason that people want to take Cthulhu to bed with them as a plush toy. In the countless works of Lovecraftian fiction that have been written by people other than H.P. Lovecraft, the line between parody and homage is always blurred, largely because he’s uniquely impervious to the typical mode of literary parody, that of exaggerating an author’s stylistic tics until they become ridiculous. The problem is that Lovecraft already parodies himself. Really, how could anyone write anything more ostentatiously overwrought than this?
The tramping drew nearer—heaven save me from the sound of those feet and paws and hooves and pads and talons as it commenced to acquire detail! Down limitless reaches of sunless pavement a spark of light flickered in the malodorous wind, and I drew behind the enormous circumference of a Cyclopic column that I might escape for a while the horror that was stalking million-footed toward me through gigantic hypostyles of inhuman dread and phobic antiquity. The flickers increased, and the tramping and dissonant rhythm grew sickeningly loud. In the quivering orange light there stood faintly forth a scene of such stony awe that I gasped from a sheer wonder that conquered even fear and repulsion. Bases of columns whose middles were higher than human sight . . . mere bases of things that must each dwarf the Eiffel Tower to insignificance . . . hieroglyphics carved by unthinkable hands in caverns where daylight can be only a remote legend. . . .
I would not look at the marching things. That I desperately resolved as I heard their creaking joints and nitrous wheezing above the dead music and the dead tramping. It was merciful that they did not speak . . . but God! their crazy torches began to cast shadows on the surface of those stupendous columns. Heaven take it away! Hippopotami should not have human hands and carry torches . . . men should not have the heads of crocodiles. . . .
To those last lines I can only reply… no shit, Sherlock. Long after the cosmic horror has had its moment and you’ve realized that obscure diction doesn’t a great writer make, the camp will always remain. While it may be borderline impossible to parody Lovecraft, it’s great fun for a writer to just go wild once in a while in his unhinged style, to ejaculate purple prose all over the page in an orgasm of terrible writing. (Having once written a Lovecraftian interactive fiction, I fancy I know of what I speak.) This, again, is extremely important to understand when reckoning with his tremendous ongoing popularity, and with the fact that so many excellent writers who really ought to know better — people like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, and Joyce Carol Oates — can’t resist him.
If you haven’t yet read Lovecraft, I certainly recommend that you do so. Love him or hate him, he’s a significant writer with whom everyone — especially, as we’ll begin to see in my next article, those interested in ludic culture — should be at least a little bit familiar. And getting a handle on him isn’t a terribly time-consuming task. While his other works can certainly be rewarding to cosmic-horror aficionados and lovers of camp alike, you can come to understand much or most of what he does and how he does it merely by reading “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” In my opinion the best of his later works is At the Mountains of Madness, more a work of pulpy Antarctic adventure than horror and all the better for it; his prose here is a bit less purple than his norm. (That said, it does also contains one of the best instances of high Lovecraftian camp ever, when he shows himself perhaps the only person on the planet who can find penguins “grotesque.”) After you’ve read those three all of his writerly cards are pretty much on the table. His other works more amplify his modest collection of themes and approaches than extend them.
Next time we’ll take up another weird tale: how a young game designer turned these nihilistic stories whose protagonists always end up dead or insane into a game that would actually be fun — one that you might even be able to win once in a while.
(The definitive biography of H.P. Lovecraft is and will likely remain S.T. Joshi’s sprawling two-volume I Am Providence. A shorter and more accessible biography is Paul Roland’s The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft. Worthwhile online articles can be found at The Atlantic, Salon, The New York Review of Books, and Teeming Brain. The Arkham Archivist has put together The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, a free-to-download ebook for Kindle and EPub readers. Finally, there’s BBC Radio’s excellent Weird Tales: The Strange Life of H.P. Lovecraft.)