In his own lifetime, Howard Philips Lovecraft was a virtual unknown. His stories appeared in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories, alongside contemporary genre writers such as Robert E Howard and August Derleth, and wouldn’t be published in book form until long after Lovecraft’s death.
It was only after HP Lovecraft’s passing in 1937 that his work began to be reassessed, and even then his distinctive, verbose prose was scorned by the literary establishment. The critic, Edmund Wilson, infamously dismissed the author’s tales as “bad taste and bad art” in 1945.
Gradually, however, Lovecraft’s reputation grew, and he’s now rightly recognised as one of the 20th century’s most important American authors. In 2005, a collection of Lovecraft’s stories was collected together for The Library Of America, securing the author’s place in history, even as the pulp magazines that first published his work crumble into dust.
My induction into the weird world of Lovecraft was indirectly thanks to Jonathan Ross, of all people. In the late 80s, Jonathan Ross hosted a programme called The Incredibly Strange Film Show, in which he enthusiastically introduced a range of cult horror and action movies from around the world, from Mexican wrestling features to the gore epics of Herschell Gordon Lewis.
It was on 20 October 1989, when I’d just returned from a school disco, that I caught an episode of the programme based on the films of Stuart Gordon. One of the clips Ross introduced was from Re-Animator, specifically, the moment when crazed scientist Herbert West revives a cat with an injection of luridly glowing serum. “Don’t expect it to tango. It has a broken back,” West says, just before the cat starts screeching and leaping around the room.
This was the most remarkable thing my 12-year-old eyes had ever seen, and I immediately knew that I had to see the rest of the film. Sadly, my mother had other ideas, and expressly forbade me from even attempting to get hold of a copy on videotape.
It was mere days later that, while rooting through a box of books at a jumble sale, I happened upon a horror anthology with a lurid painting of a skull on the cover. One of the stories inside was called Herbert West: Reanimator by HP Lovecraft. I’d never heard of the author before, but I knew immediately that this must have been the tale Stuart Gordon had used as the basis for his film.
I might not have been allowed to see Gordon’s movie, but surely, I thought, the story would be the next best thing. I handed over my ten pence, and whisked the book home, and read it in bed that same night.
I was terrified by it. I’d read horror stuff by Edgar Allan Poe before, but this was the first piece of fiction I can remember genuinely scaring me. Reanimator‘s premise, of a mad scientist bringing the dead back to life with a life-giving potion, was gripping, the violent behaviour of the revenant test subjects mesmerising.
Chapter three, in particular, concluded with a sentence that left me shuddering beneath my duvet:
“Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares – a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.“
Ironically, Herbert West: Reanimator is one of Lovecraft’s least appreciated works. The author himself disliked its structure, and Lovecraft biographer, S. T. Joshi, once wrote that it was “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work.”
Nevertheless, Reanimator was my entry point into Lovecraft’s stories, and even having read it several times since that first encounter in the late 80s, I still maintain that it’s a strong tale, though perhaps not the best example of his style.
For the time, Lovecraft’s blurring of horror, science fiction and fantasy genres (creating a subgenre he described as cosmic horror), was extremely original and it’s little surprise that, for many years, few editors appeared to know quite what to make of his stylised, elaborately written little tales.
His best and most well known story, the novella, At The Mountains Of Madness, was rejected by Lovecraft’s usual venue, Weird Tales, for the crimes of being both too long and not containing enough horror, and ended up in Astounding Stories instead.
It’s a brilliantly woven story and exemplifies everything that’s great about the writer’s style: a chilly, atmospheric setting, unspeakable creatures that defy rational explanation, and fevered accounts of a long forgotten race of god-like beings.
It’s unsurprising that Mountains has had such a lasting effect on those who’ve read it, whether it’s as inspiration, as was the case with John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There, later made into The Thing From Another World and The Thing, or direct adaptation, such as the forthcoming movie from Guillermo del Toro.
At The Mountains Of Madness was one of several tales that all formed what was later termed the Cthulhu Mythos, a fully realised alternate universe in which seemingly omnipotent aliens (all with brilliantly exotic names such as Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep) ruled the ancient world before the rise of humankind. Evidence of their existence lurks in quiet places beneath the sea and far underground, and according to the mythical book, the Necronomicon, these gods will one day return to reclaim the planet.
Lovecraft’s best works, such as The Dunwich Horror, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and The Colour Out Of Space, are all woven into this fictional fabric, giving his stories a distinctive air of the forbidden.
It would be wrong to suggest that Lovecraft’s work was without flaw, or that some of the criticisms against his work were entirely unfounded. If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Lovecraft of, it’s brevity. Like Poe, he wrote in a verbose, adjective-ridden style that, in his lesser stories, was borderline infuriating. He favoured words such as cyclopean, gibbous and scoriac, words that left young lads like me reaching anxiously for a dictionary. Still, reading Lovecraft was great for improving the vocabulary, at least.
Rather more serious are the xenophobic undercurrents that permeate some of Lovecraft’s writing. Some of the passages in lesser stories, such as The Horror At Red Hook, make uncomfortable reading, and there’s no glossing over the fact that, even for his time, Lovecraft’s opinions were particularly unenlightened, and his insular world view permeated much of his work.
This ignorance is particularly sad when you consider that Lovecraft was, in many other areas, extremely learned. He had a keen interest in most branches of science, and spoke and wrote at length on all kinds of academic matters, from history to linguistics.
It’s an unfortunate fact that good writers, musicians and artists often harbour beliefs and habits we find difficult to relate to. Richard Wagner held particularly obnoxious views, and few of us would want to sit and have a pint with the man if he were still alive, but few would deny his abilities as a composer. By the same token, I can still appreciate the best pieces of Lovecraft’s writing, even if I despise his ignorance surrounding the issues of nationality and race.
Accepting these flaws in Lovecraft’s work and thinking, many of his tales are nevertheless enduringly readable. His ability to generate atmosphere, and to use his knowledge of history and science to create a believable air of realism, even as his characters were knee-deep in alien tentacles, has given Lovecraft’s work a timeless, page turning quality.
Lovecraft tapped into scientific attitudes that were quite new at the time, but are now widely accepted: the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe, and of the incomprehensible vastness of space. The concept of prehistoric aliens, and their possible influence on human evolution, was also a Lovecraft invention, predating a similar concept at the heart of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass And The Pit and the, frankly, nutty theories of writer Erich von Däniken.
Even Lovecraft’s harshest critic, Edmond Wilson, eventually found praiseworthy elements in his stories. The Color Out Of Space, Wilson pointed out, predicted the horrible effects of the atom bomb, while Lovecraft’s extensive essay on macabre tales, Supernatural Horror In Literature, was described as “a really able piece of work.”
Since his untimely death at the age of just 47, Lovecraft’s stature has soared, thanks in part to his old pen pal, August Derleth who, along with a group of fellow writers, set up Arkham House, specifically to publish and preserve the late author’s work.
Lovecraft’s life may have been tragically short, but his macabre tales of old gods, forbidden lore and indescribable terror continue to echo down the decades, inspiring filmmakers, musicians and artists, and evoking shudders in readers of all ages.
If nothing else, I have Lovecraft to thank for my enduring affection for science fiction and horror, and without him, I’d probably never know the meanings of such words as cyclopean, eldritch and gibbous.
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