I know very little about Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his work. I have no clue who he was or what he did aside from the fact the he was an author, which is why I chose him as the topic. I heard about a creature named Cthulu, a god of destruction from a Lovecraft story, years ago when a friend was telling me about the Cthulu reference in Hellboy, which led into them telling me about Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Recently, some internet personalities were playing the PC game Call of Cthulu, during which they gave more back-story about Lovecraft’s stories and ideas related to the Cthulu mythos. The way the people were talking about the stories made them sound interesting; plots like evil deities from the ends of the galaxies and timeless monsters, waiting in ancient cities for the planets to align caught my nerdy interests. After hearing the lore the came from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, I decided to look up Lovecraft for myself, but lacked the motivation to get started. Then this paper presented itself as good kick in the pants for me to look up and research as much as I can about Lovecraft and his stories.
What I want to find out:
I want to find out more about H.P. Lovecraft and how he was able to create such vivid descriptions of monsters that allegedly “can’t be described.” His ideas seem far beyond any other writer of his time with such forward thinking ideas as alternate galaxies, complex Frankenstein-esque plots, and ancient cults to deities who cannot die. Because of these ideas, I would like to see if I can find out what inspired him to create such unique scenarios. Another point of research will be H.P.’s life. Since I don’t know a lot about him, I want to find out what makes him tick and what motivated him to write what and how he did.
His eloquent and sometimes verbose writing is not easy to follow, but despite that, he still has a legion of devoted followers who rehash and spread the word of Lovecraft, so I am going to find out what makes him influential and his stories so long lasting. Because of his fans, his writings have been adapted into movies, comics, games, and even into other stories with countless references and homage. His influence is very strong in today’s pop culture, and I want to find out as much as I can about how people use his ideas as a starting point for their own.
Since Lovecraft is hyped so much, I want to read his stories and find out what they are about, the plots, the concepts, and the description of things too complex for the human brain to comprehend. It is intriguing to have been told that there are stories about creatures that can’t be described given a description. I really want to see if that’s the case, or if it is just in the context of the story, or a sign of the times. Lastly, I am going to analyze the stories for any deeper meanings, which it is probably safe to assume there is, considering what I’ve heard about the content.
In my search for the answers about Lovecraft’s life and works, I found a plethora of books, articles, sites, journals, videos, and interviews all centered on the author’s writings. I started with the stories themselves, finding out that Lovecraft only wrote short stories. The first one I read perfectly set the tone for the rest of his stories. It is “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, and after finishing that (barely seven pages long) story, I couldn’t stop reading. That one turned into three, then five, then nine and counting because I’m not done reading his work by a long shot. The stories are so heavy on atmosphere and mood that I could place myself right next to the protagonist, and the eerie settings made for a truly unsettling read in a good way. Thankfully, I have become a fan after knowing so little and not being sure if I would enjoy his writing at all. I am not alone in loving Lovecraft’s stories; the documentary next on my list of sources is full of people who appreciate him as I do. The movie Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown seemed like the best source since it not only talks about Lovecraft’s life and motivations but also gives multiple perspectives, because the filmmaker interviews many current authors, like Neil Gaiman and Robert M. Price, and directors, including Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter, who were all influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. The documentary was the easy part of the search because it mostly gave praise and reasoning for Lovecraft’s thought process and motivations; however, the next source I tried painted a less appealing portrait.
Taking my search onto the Ventura College library database, an interview with author Laura Miller titled “Horror of Horrors: Is H.P. Lovecraft’s Legacy Tainted?” was next on the list. The point of the interview is to explain that the trophy for the World Fantasy Awards is a bust of Lovecraft and that there is a petition to have it changed because the interviewee brings up a very critical aspect of his personality; he was racist, and not a moderate one, but incredibly racist and anti Semitic. He wrote poems and made comments that were, even for his time, offensive. This is kind of a depressing fact to find out for someone who literally became a fan less than a week before. The interview consisted of Laura’s and other’s opinion that Lovecraft shouldn’t be the symbol for the trophy because of his bigotries. It was short and poignant, but at least there was a reason for it, unlike the next article I read. It was less about Lovecraft and more about a Frenchman who wrote a long and very poorly researched paper about the author, so I skipped it. Although that source was a dead end, it forced me to search for another reliable article.
In the process of looking for new sources, I was reminded of something I heard about called The Book of Dagon, so I used Google trying to narrow down my search, and did not find the story itself, but came across Disciple of Dagon. It is an 18 page biography about a writer, similar to Lovecraft, who added a little of his own lore to the Cthulu Mythos. It was an interesting read, but has little to do with Lovecraft. Continuing on, I returned to the VC database to find “H.P. Lovecraft: Prophet of Humanism”, which was quite similar to the documentary, but elaborating more on his beliefs, and the influence he left behind. It gives a very long, and probably incomplete, list of movies, stories, comics, board games and videogames, events, and authors all inspired by Lovecraft’s work.
The Book of Dagon stayed in the back of my mind because it was one of the things I originally heard about Lovecraft. I tried a more thorough search and actually found it. I was surprised at how authentic the author tries to make this fake story seem. The real author created fake authors, a fake translator and a fake publishing company. The story is a morbid read describing the rituals for summoning the Old Ones and demons. It has spells and other “black magic” related incantations involving sacrificing. There are “recounted” stories of summoning, one of which describes priests calling for a demon. Hearing the creature speak caused the priests to die and disintegrate to ashes. There are more stories of the like, and the last pages of the book have runic symbols that are allegedly an ancient Assyrian alphabet. The Book of Dagon is unsettling to read, but fits very well with the Cthulu mythos created by Lovecraft. I’m very sure it was someone adding more to the mythos because it doesn’t have an actual author, but for my purposes, it’s a good source to add. It is a way to show the influence to continue to build on the Old Ones lore that Lovecraft wanted and promoted.
The final source I came across is “H.P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies”. It is another biography similar to the documentary and the other article but has more about his inspirations and dreams that caused and motivated him to write. The article goes more in depth about Lovecraft’s childhood problems, and he that coped with it through reading, allowing him to escape. The stories he read prompted him to write his own stories from surprisingly freaky dreams for a child in the very early 1900’s. It was said he was born outside of his time, and this article solidifies that more so than the others.
It really seems like people are forgetting about Lovecraft, because when I would ask if someone had heard of him, most people would say no. After finding out that I thoroughly enjoy H.P. Lovecraft, it has almost become a goal to help others discover a writer who deserves more fans than he already has. Although it won’t attract many fans, his past is important to why he wrote. His sheltered upbringing had a massive part to do with not only why he became a writer, but what and how he wrote, with reading and his imagination being a major part of his pastime as a child. I would mention to people works inspired by Lovecraft that they liked, and I discovered that his works influenced his friends, and so much more of today’s horror and science fiction pop culture than I ever imagined, with his incredibly detailed, dark and imaginative stories, mythos, and concepts.
From early on, young Howard Phillips Lovecraft had a very sheltered and almost cruel childhood. His father was legally insane and put into an institution where he died five years later, leaving just his overbearing mother to care for him. The child became very close to her since “the young Lovecraft lived a highly secluded life with his mentally disturbed mother. He withdrew increasingly from the world…” being told that H.P. was too hideous to be in public, which royally screwed with his self-esteem (Nelson par. 3). The segregated Lovecraft became engrossed with reading in his grandfather’s library; most important of the authors he read was Edgar Allen Poe, who became a major source of stylistic inspiration. As he aged, he gained a love for chemistry, then astronomy, which further influenced his stories and thoughts about humanities insignificance. As a fledgling writer, the teenaged Lovecraft’s low self-esteem caused him to be overly critical of his own writings and he burned most of the initial attempts of storytelling. It would have been great to see how much he had improved or changed from his first to his last story, but I guess it was his way of thinking that caused him to be obsessive and almost anal retentive about perfecting his writing into the stories that are loved today. When his grandfather passed away, the house was sold and he lost the library that had been there for a majority of his childhood, which cause him to sink into a deep depression and become a recluse. He quickly developed an affinity for amateur pulp magazines “[saving] Lovecraft as both a writer and as a human being…[who] clearly didn’t know what to do with himself,…” (Woodward). Lovecraft finally attempted to publish his works because “all of a sudden, here was this small world of amateur journalism where there are other people like him, trying to be writers…” (Woodward). Because of the ability to relate to others, H.P. started coming out of his reclusion. Lovecraft became very close friends with some of the writers he wrote along side of, and they urged him to receive payment for his work. He was a ghostwriter from 1918 to 1920, during which time he wrote 17 stories and had a lot of influence of Lord Dunsany, a fantasy writer. In 1923, he submitted his stories to be published in Weird Tales, a popular, yet marginalized pulp magazine. This is where he published a majority of his works, rarely going to another, less trusted publisher.
Toward the end of his life, Lovecraft had evolved as a writer, but he still saw himself writing “Poe” pieces and “Dunsany” pieces, not Lovecraft pieces. His writing moved away from his previous influenced style, to a style that was more contemporary for the time, and his descriptions “[become] more specific, they go from unnamable, obscene things to being described as [for example] a cucumber body, with so and so tentacles, proboscis on each end, … and he started giving a sense of dignity and history to these creatures, that… is unique.” (Woodward). This shift in his writing after that point is considered his best works, like “At the Mountains of Madness” and “A Shadow Out of Time”, becoming much larger in scope and concept. Shortly after these stories were published, Lovecraft fell ill due to a collection of ailments, and died on March 15th, 1937 at the age of 47. Some believe that he died at the pinnacle of his talent, saying that he would have become a very popular writer in the 40’s and 50’s if he had taken better care of his health. He was popular in a small circle, and these friends created Arkham House, a publishing company. They released a collection of Lovecraft’s stories so that he may live on and not fall into obscurity. Today, Lovecraft is one of the most celebrated authors, with influences reaching far into today’s pop culture, possibly due to Arkham House and their devotion to Lovecraft’s works.
Using his tumultuous background and knowledge of chemistry and astronomy, he created some immensely popular stories. His writing style, I will admit, is verbose, but it usually works to the story’s advantage, giving a very rich sense of atmosphere and invoking strong feelings, usually dread or unease. The first story I read, “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, is a good way to introduce someone to the style. The story involves two scientists in a swamp looking for an ancient graveyard. They find it and one of the scientists goes down into one of the tombs with a telephone and cable, this entire time Lovecraft describes the eerie feeling the other man gets just sitting and waiting in this ancient inhuman place. All of a sudden, there is a call, and on the other end is the hysterical crying of the other man, telling him to run and never come to the place again. The one trapped in the catacombs refuses to tell what is enclosing on him saying “It’s too utterly beyond thought – I dare not tell you- no man could know it and live…” (Lovecraft 5) The man left above ground frantically calls, and receives an answer, not from his companion, but from a being whose very voice cause him to black out. It’s a short, but incredibly enthralling story at only seven pages. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a deeper meaning in the story; it’s just a simple, effective, horror story.
The next story I read is possibly the most important short story Lovecraft wrote, “The Call of Cthulu”. This is the base for which all the “Cthulu Mythos” launches from, by Lovecraft and fan alike. The story follows a professor, whose granduncle had died in a freak way, researching a unique and oddly ancient statue along with the dreams of an eccentric who had visions eerily similar to the idol. The nephew, out of sheer curiosity, picks up the same endeavor leading to stories of ancient cults and a derelict city rising from the bottom of the ocean. The story ends with the professor regretting ever taking up the task and becoming paranoid that he is going to meet his end very soon, much like his granduncle. Despite the story itself being centered around Cthulu, Lovecraft created enough of a platform to portray a pantheon, in which Cthulu is seen as a priest to the true deities who reside outside space and time. Because of its simple yet solid premises, other authors added so much more to the lore having conceived of dozens, maybe even hundreds of beings or deities to fill in the universe. Because of the depth and effectiveness of the stories involving the Cthulu mythos “even in HPL’s lifetime many readers felt sure he was the unwitting mouthpiece for actual occult entities, that his Cthulhu Mythos (as his disciple August Derleth dubbed it) was fact.”(Price par. 3). When someone creates a story so effective, some crazy people are bound to think that the stories have some reality behind them, but that just attests to Lovecraft’s abilities as a writer.
Of the Lovecraft stories I have read, it seems like only the longer ones have something of a deeper meaning. Like I said, “The Statement of Randolph Carter” seems generally devoid of an undertone, but stories like “At the Mountains of Madness” or “Pickman’s Model” have these motifs that lead to something that could come from Lovecraft’s personality or thoughts. In “At the Mountains of Madness” there seems to be an underlying theme about racism and slavery, a race that is said to have created life, identified as Elder Things, were at war with a race, the Shoggoths, previously enslaved by these creators. There is a note of sympathy for the Elder Things, which can be as a pro white message since Lovecraft was quite a racist even in his more tolerant later life when this was written. On a brighter note, it could also be a message of you get what you deserve, that if you are cruel you will be met with cruelty, because these creator beings were losing against the shoggoths. I will admit there that could be even more to it than what I see because I am looking fairly superficially and using knowledge about Lovecraft in reaching that assessment.
There are also many stories about men who have found ways to postpone death, some through chemicals or alchemy, some through black magic and occult practices, and another out of sheer willpower and a strong refrigeration unit in his house. All of these could be the innate fear in man of death and what lies beyond, whether it is just the blackness, or the timeless deities who look upon man with indifference and cruelty. I haven’t read all the stories, but ten bucks says there are plenty more deeper meanings behind the plots.
Regarding the Cthulu mythos, Lovecraft appreciated and encouraged other writers to add their own stories to his, and build the universe far beyond one man could do. One example of this is The Book of Dagon. As far as I can tell, the author played it as straight as possible, ghostwriting this fictional manuscript under the alias of either the priests who originated and practiced it or of Jeremiah Van-Meier, the translator of the “original document”. The reason why I believe this is related to Lovecraft’s mythos is because his first story published was “Dagon”, and there are many references to the order of Dagon in stories written by Lovecraft and other authors adding their own stories to the mythos. The Book of Dagon starts with back-story about its discovery and translation. The story then moves on to invocations for ceremonies, involving very specific rituals, flashy garb and sacrifices. The “scripture” then describes in detail the symbols used for summoning like the “Unique special feature of [the] Stronghold of Asshahvat is that any evil force could be summoned from the area depicted on the symbol when the sorcerer touches it or chants the spell.”(Dagon 11) There is the story about the priests I mentioned earlier. Then there is the most interesting part – a hymn written to Cthulu – further proving Lovecraft’s influence. That is followed by a few more canticles (hymns), and then ends with an Assyrian alphabet. Although the read itself is a tad dull except for one or two parts, it’s a great addition giving a very creepy reality to the whole idea of the Old Ones and the cult surrounding them.
With such outlandish mythos and plots, Lovecraft’s stories have lent themselves perfectly to the horror and sci-fi communities, giving inspiration “[that] permeated the arts and literature in a profound way and has continued to wield this power right through to our current culture.” (Price par.17). His stories are everywhere in today’s pop culture, in movies like The Thing, or Re-Animator, where the plots are almost identical to Lovecraft stories with modern updates. There are even more movies with quick references to a Lovecraft element, like Alien and Hellboy, with its Cthulu-esque monsters. Countless authors get influence from Lovecraft’s writing, many believe “Stephen King spoke for a lot of writers when he said Lovecraft opened the way for him [and others].”(Rath par. 2). Stephen King’s The Mist is a book heavily based off of Lovecraftian ideas, with tentacled monsters attacking helpless people trapped in a store. Neil Gaiman another author (and featured in the documentary mentioned earlier) wrote a book about two Shoggoths, arguing about Lovecraft as a writer, directly taken from “At the Mountains of Madness”. It is also rumored that director Guillermo del Toro is attempting to make an At the Mountains of Madness movie which I am ecstatically looking forward to, if it ever happens.
Videogames are another medium that Lovecraft has invaded, with the game Call of Cthulu heavily barrowing many elements of his works including Cthulu himself, Innsmouth, Massachusetts, the Order of Dagon, and the fish-men. The Alone in the Dark series has references to a Lovecraft deity, Shub-Niggurath, and uses a lot of the same dark atmosphere present in Lovecraft stories. The game Necronomicon is a flash game that uses elements from Lovecraft, like the titular item itself, the Necronomicon containing the rites and rituals for returning the dead and summoning demons. His ideas are everywhere, if you think of something you like, chances are it could have some Lovecraftian creations in it, because of the expanse of his influence.
Lovecraft is considered one of the greats, but unappreciated in his time. With marginal success, he was almost like Vincent van Gogh, becoming vastly more famous after his passing. His works are incredibly imaginative and way ahead of his time with advanced plots involving other galaxies, timeless creatures, and a great knowledge of the macabre. I have added H.P. Lovecraft to my nerd list of things I love. The hype that surrounded him lived up to my expectations and I am immensely happy that I finally got acquainted with his works. It was genuinely easy to find information on him considering his massive fan base of directors, writers, and average person alike. It was troubling finding out about his strong prejudices, especially how radically he believed in them and wrote about them at times, but later on in his life you could see him becoming more accepting. He was an anti Semitic that married a Jewish woman, and although it did end in a divorce, it was because of Lovecraft’s xenophobia and living in New York, not her Jewish heritage.
Despite that kind of flaw and criticisms, he is still seen as a great author, having given such a grand influence to today’s artists who continue to give us more and more Lovecraft inspired entertainment. Starting out as a tortured, humble writer, his friends preserved his memory and writings to cultivate his image into what it is today. His writings are a gateway for many artists who need a starting point or inspiration, and a way to help artists who feel overly critical of themselves see what they could become.
I will admit that some of the stories I read were just okay to me, but I honestly enjoyed most of them very much, with their rich details and heavy atmosphere. The saying that the creatures were indescribable wasn’t because they were so grotesque, it was just Lovecraft trying to convey that his creations were so far beyond what humans consider the norm for a living being. In the end, he did start giving more detail as to the features of the monsters he wrote so fervently about. I am usually pretty cynical about something when it is over-hyped, but because of Lovecraft, I will give a legitimate chance to newer “over-popular” things. Lovecraft has lived up to the things I heard and I will try to continue to convert others to the following of Lovecraft.