Lovecraft: Why His Ideas Survive
H.P. Lovecraft is a polarizing figure. There are those who love his brand of horror and there are those who find it tiresome or overly inflated. Add to this that he was an eccentric and a racist and you have a figure that would seemingly not stand the test of time. Yet, it seems that everywhere you look you find an anthology of his works, art inspired by his writing or sections of magazines/fanzines/gothic websites titled after him. What makes this rather odd figure such a draw?
Positing two possibilities, this article looks at the open world that Lovecraft created as well as his lesser known but masterful long essay on the history of gothic literature. Lovecraft’s world was one of the first to be picked up by other authors and expanded. The cast of characters known as the Old Ones were and are a major factor of why much of his writing is still relevant. Secondly, few people pay much attention to the “academic” work that Lovecraft created. His Supernatural Horror in Literature was a massive undertaking that sought to review and categorize the gothic literature that was known up until the publishing of the long essay in 1927. Taken together these two factors can be noted as major reasons why Lovecraft’s work is still significant today.
Lovecraft, more than any author of his age, created a fictional world that almost seamlessly mirrored the real one with the exception of supernatural occurrences. Replete with street names, cities (Arkham) and a very famous university (Miskatonic), Lovecraft made the reader feel as if he or she were really looking at small town America. No other author had created such a personal experience for the reader. The gothic writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were no strangers to borrowing from real life to create fictional landscapes. Walpole’s Otranto was based on and served as inspiration for his own home Strawberry Hill and Radcliffe had a keen eye for ruins when she penned the description of her castle in The Mysteries of Udolpho, yet these authors made the landscapes ephemeral, grandiose and romantic, not believable. When you read Lovecraft you have a sense of place, an area that you can grab on to and make sense of. Arkham is far more tangible than the wild and mist filled forests of Radcliffe’s gothic travellers.
The reality of the landscape is superseded only by the intrigue attached to the Old Ones, a race of monstrous god-like creatures that have existed before humans and presumably before the earth was populated by anything at all. Stories like Dagon and The Call of Cthulhu specifically name some of these creatures and give us descriptions of what they are like. They have a primordial wetness attached to them where they are slimy or reminiscent of fish. Cthulhu is said to be a vaguely anthropoid monster “with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers” and a body that was wet and rubbery (Lovecraft 2008). Dagon too is named after the “Philistine legend…of the fish-god” and has scaly arms and lives under water (Lovecraft 2008). They are gods that are, unlike Lovecraft’s description of place, vague, undefined and largely obscure. Here the obscurity of the monsters in Lovecraft connect them intimately with the notion of terror. Obscurity, says Anne Radcliffe, “Leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate,” by confusing or blurring images an author is able to create chaos in the mind of the reader which not only leads to fear but also to feelings of the sublime (Radcliffe 1826). We will return to the notion of the sublime and terror a little bit later.
These gods then, have become something of a cultural trope. Their connection to terror and the early stages of the planet have inspired other authors to pick up on them and expand their numbers. August Derleth is probably the most well-known of Lovecraft’s successors but there have been many including the contemporary author Brian Lumley who has taken many Lovecraftian monsters and put them in different settings with characters of his own creation. Lovecraft’s monsters lend themselves to a particular type of monster-centered horror because they are so large and so primal. Any character dreamed up to fight against them or even interact with them becomes a symbol of modern man directly confronting the fear of the unknown. Humanity standing in the face of an unconquered past that exists with or without his/her input.
These monsters confront the reader with the notion that humanity is not as important as we may think we are. Philosophically, Lovecraft has reminded us that we are part of a planet, where a planet means a place that does not at all care whether we live or die. Eugene Thacker puts it this way: There is the World, the Earth and the Planet. The World is personalized, this is where “we” live and what we call home. Earth is everything that we may make personal, the birds and bees, flowers and mountains. Then there is the Planet. The Planet has existed before us and will exist after us, but that is the place where hurricanes tear down homes and earthquakes swallow towns. The Planet doesn’t exist for us or because of us, it just exists and is a brute fact of nature (Thacker 2011). Lovecraftian monsters exist like the Planet exists, a philosophical nexus that forces us to confront the very real idea that humanity has only been around for a short while and is not invincible.
While such thoughts may be depressing or at the very least melancholic, they are real and they are part of Lovecraft’s appeal. Most of humanity does not confront these questions on a regular basis, but they are indeed part of horror/gothic literature. It is through horror literature that we are able to confront such questions in a safe way. Whether people in general face these questions directly or not is a topic for another article, but readers of horror literature are aware in a keen way of the danger that lurks behind every villain, and Lovecraft makes this a central idea in his work. To develop this side of Lovecraft further, we turn now to his long essay in which he studied the history of gothic literature but more importantly set down his own philosophical ideas.
Supernatural Horror in Literature
Many fans of Lovecraft, and for that matter, many of his detractors, have never read his long essay titled Supernatural Horror in Literature published in 1927. The work is a historical catalogue of the gothic literature that was known to Lovecraft in 1925. When asked to compile the work he took a full year to read authors he had not encountered as well as many that he had already read. He took seriously the preparation for such an undertaking. Largely the essay is a work that scans different time periods and different authors, either passing judgement on them as being good, bad, or indifferent and detailing whether or not they used supernatural or cosmic elements in their work. By way of adjudicating Lovecraft sets out his own thoughts on what makes horror literature good or at least “atmospheric,” a term that he uses to mean creating an emotion in the reader. For this article it is important to look at what Lovecraft thinks makes for good horror writing and what kind of elements he aimed at for his own work.
Lovecraft starts his essay with the famous lines,
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (Lovecraft 2012)
This is not a new idea, almost the same wording can be found in Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime,
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (Burke 1990)
What the two have in common is the idea that pain and fear are intimately connected with producing strong emotions in a reader/viewer. What Lovecraft wants to say is that there is a deeply embedded psychological fear of the unknown, and therefore when confronted with anything that cannot be immediately recognized or explained away the reader is left in a state of terror. Terror, it should be noted, is not the same as horror. Terror opens the soul and “awakens the faculties to a higher degree” (Radcliffe 1826), it looks for “where the audience lives at its most primal level” (King 2010), it is “cleaner and more profound” (Kaye 1985). In short, terror brings us into the sublime. Horror by contrast contracts and annihilates the soul (Radcliffe 1826), is gory and repugnant and what you see when you turn on the six o’clock news (Kaye 1985). So while Lovecraft does include the word horror in his title, it is clear that he really means terror in its literary-historical context.
The major issue that Lovecraft takes with other gothic authors is that there work is often didactic, attempting to teach a moral (Lovecraft 2012). If any work attempts to teach then it is automatically optimistic according to Lovecraft, and optimism has no place in a work which is meant to excite our deeply embedded (virtually permanent) fear of the unknown. Further, he goes on to say that history has codified good feelings or optimism in religious ritual while it has codified feelings of fear and dread in supernatural folklore. This folklore has given rise to certain types of monsters that have been reused and changed throughout time but always combine fear, evil, wonder and curiosity in a composite body that provokes the imagination and creates keen emotion. For Lovecraft, cosmic fear literature has always existed and will always exist (Lovecraft 2012).
Finally, it has to be mentioned that Lovecraft did not care much for the everyday affairs of humanity. Though he was a prolific letter writer and corresponded regularly with friends, he consciously chose not to include the squabbles of mortals in his work. Lovecraft always aimed for literature that made humanity feel small and insignificant. His “creative imagination” was only sparked by the cosmos and the unknown. Relations between people was seen as being mundane and not particularly interesting. This belief is one of the reasons why Lovecraft thought other gothic literature to be optimistic. The heroine was most often saved from the villain and returned to a normal life. When a human deals with the cosmic they are forced to face primordial fear and the fact that they have confronted something that they cannot forget. Many of Lovecraft’s characters do end up insane or at the very least disturbed by their encounters. There is no return to Radcliffean or Walpolean normalcy at the end of cosmic horror.
So what does all of this have to do with the lasting legacy of Lovecraft? As we have seen, Lovecraft has created a world that can be expanded almost infinitely. His creatures and places are imaginary, but their detail is very vivid. The notion of a pantheon of elder gods can stir the imagination and inspire other authors to expand that universe. In the hands of other creative individuals the few Old Ones that Lovecraft created can become a whole world or perhaps a whole universe inhabited by monolithic architecture, slimy creatures and gelatinous monsters.
Also, it has to be acknowledged that he is one of the first gothic/horror writers to expound a critical and full philosophy. Lovecraft wanted his readers to know that it was acceptable to think about gothic/horror in more than just the ways of eighteenth century romanticism. Connecting humanity’s deepest fear of the unknown to a type of literature intended to exploit that fear was mostly revolutionary in the 1920s. Up until this point there were plenty of authors who wrote about the sublime or fear felt when left alone in the dark, but few penned treatise on the psychological terror that can be excited when engaged with a story.
Lastly, it is fair to say that Lovecraft gave his audience diversity. Stories about a thrumming mass of rats, a haunted violin player and a Frankenstein-esque medical doctor all play to very real fears, but they are also very different. Lovecraft may not have had the severe poetic style of an Alexander Pope, and he wasn’t the first author to combine fear and medieval trappings, but he was a unique author that provided diversity, philosophy and horror all bundled up in short fiction. Lovecraft the man may be looked upon with some disgust because of his personal beliefs and attitudes, but the world Lovecraft made is expansive, rich, and interesting. From inspiring other authors to inspiring table top games, Cthulhu (and the rest of Lovecraft’s creations) loom large in the imagination of anybody who thinks about and enjoys gothic/horror literature.
Burke, E. (1990). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Kaye, M. (Ed) (1985). Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural. Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York.
King, S. (2010). Danse Macabre. Gallery Books: New York, New York.
Lovecraft, H.P. (2008). Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft Edited by Stephen Jones. Gollancz: London.
Lovecraft, H. P. (2012). The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. Hippocampus Press: New York.
Radcliffe, A. (1826/2004). On the Supernatural in Poetry. In David Sander (Ed.). Fantastic Literature: a Critical Reader. Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT.
Thacker, E. (2011). In the Dust of This Planet. Zero Books: Washington.
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