A century after publication, the works of H. P. Lovecraft continue to influence popular media. His were tales that disturbed the mind and enthralled the senses. However, in his time he was a virtual nobody. He is neither as influential nor as well-known as literary goliaths like J. R. R. Tolkien or his idol Edgar Allan Poe; yet from his imagination was birthed an entirely new sub-genre: the cosmic horror story.
A horrid visionary
Lovecraft was fanatically loyal to his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. He liked cats. He had a happy childhood and many friends by correspondence well into adulthood. He was an atheist but adored the gods of ancient Egypt and Greece so much that he prayed to them as a boy. He was a complicated man and by no means an entirely positive figure: he was extremely anti-semitic, so much so that his wife left him, and he expressed fondness for Adolf Hitler during his lifetime before he died in 1937. He was racist, even composing several stories in which the ‘horror’ was interracial breeding. His ‘of-the-time’ thinking included an obsession with lineage and nobility, a number of his stories included the notion that family bloodlines could suffer generational curses, and many promoted the themes of fear of difference and change.
Nonetheless, Lovecraft’s true legacy lies not in his narrow-mindedness, but in his ability to blow the mind entirely. He drew inspiration from night terrors and the state of consciousness between sleep and waking. He had many influences in his life that steered him towards the bizarre and horrific: his father’s insanity and death due to syphilis; the works of Edgar Allan Poe; and humankind’s recent (at the time) discoveries of the scale and complexity of the universe. Human understanding of the cosmos expanded at a breathtaking rate during his lifetime; but for all that these scientific discoveries increased our knowledge about the nature of reality, they invariably led to more questions than answers.
Breaking from many science fiction writers and publishers of the time, Lovecraft rejected the modern notions of progress and technological advancement in his fiction. He was more comfortable with the weird — the way in which a story can destabilise the reader’s experience by undermining the narrator’s assumptions, something Poe did before him. Lovecraft’s writings spoke to the nihilistic notion that human beings are ignorant, insignificant specks adrift in the universe, no more able to understand the nature of reality than insects. Many today can identify with his philosophy of so-called ‘cosmic indifference’.
Despite all of this, Lovecraft was not so different from a typical nerd today. He was an amateur astronomer. He became interested in stories as a child, enthralled by the gothic horror tales his grandfather shared with him. He read ravenously, preferring books to people. His non-fiction work, Supernatural Horror in Literature references a vast array of fictional works, demonstrating his knowledge of the field at the time.
Lovecraft chose to write in a thick British style, which was already considered out of date at the time. This was something he was inspired to do by Edgar Allan Poe, and, like Poe (at times), he included various archaic forms of language in his work. He didn’t think his own stories were particularly worth publishing, at least at first.
The call heard round the world
Arguably, of all of Lovecraft’s short stories, his most influential and well-known is The Call of Cthulhu. It is the only story he ever wrote centred around the eponymous Cthulhu, which would go on to be the focus of one of the greatest collections of modern folklore: the Cthulhu Mythos. The story, originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, is framed as a manuscript discovered after the death of a man named Francis Wayland Thurston. It contains three ‘stories-within-a-story’, each describing escalating narratives throughout a fictional history, describing the worship and near-escape of the long-lived eldritch abomination.
Readers who have not read the story are encouraged to do so; it’s a fascinating experience and a premier example of Lovecraft’s work. A creature beyond human understanding (Lovecraft’s original depiction included six eyes), capable of impossible things, is discovered, possibly worshipped, and drives witnesses to utter madness. In the story, Cthulhu has been imprisoned for “vigintillions of years”, a vigintillion being ten with 63 zeroes after it. This sort of mind-bending detail is typical of Lovecraft’s work. The story includes horrifying dreams and cults seeking to bring back ancient horrors, both of which have become common fantasy tropes.
At the time, Lovecraft thought it was a rather middling story, and Weird Tales didn’t want to publish it when he first submitted it. Since its publication, however, it has acquired incredible renown. In addition to being remade as films, comic books, and radio plays, in 2018 it was published as a video game. The Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game released its seventh edition in 2014 (first released in 1981) and has been featured in popular shows such as Critical Role.
During his life, Lovecraft was generous with his fictional world. He invited other writers to work within his mythos, labelled thereafter the Cthulhu Mythos. The first group included Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner and others and this period of development was later called ‘The First Stage’. After Lovecraft’s death due to cancer of the small intestine, the Cthulhu Mythos was expanded further in a ‘Second Stage’ guided by his friend and publisher August Derleth, who first coined the term ‘Elder Gods’.
Since Derleth, many writers of Lovecraftian horror have taken inspiration from the mythos. After some dispute between Derleth and R. H. Barlow, the writer Lovecraft left as executor of his work, copyright of his work is now public domain.
Lovecraft wrote many other Cthulhu themed stories that hint at the vast linked mythology he had constructed. Most of his writings fit into this massive world narrative, but throughout his work, he managed to maintain the sense that we were glimpsing something huge and beyond comprehension.
Dagon was an earlier piece believed to be the very beginning of the Cthulhu mythos. Pickman’s Model is the tale of an artist who creates disturbing pieces, and independent filmmakers from many countries have turned the story into short films.
At the Mountains of Madness is the nearest we get to an explanation of Lovecraft’s fictional history. It is the journal of an explorer, one William Dyer, who journeys to Antarctica and discovers an ancient city beyond a huge mountain range. The explorers face horrid monsters, and barely escape with their lives. The story would later inspire Dan O’Bannon to create the Alien franchise and John Carpenter to make The Thing.
The Shadow Out of Time is another well-known story in which a monster steals a man’s body for years at a time, and has had some adaptations. The Shadow Over Innsmouth tells the story of a man stranded in an isolated town and his efforts to escape as the cult-like inhabitants hunt him through the streets.
Lovecraft’s own favourite of his stories was The Colour Out of Space, centred around a poisonous meteorite that crashes into a Massachusetts farm.
My personal favourite of Lovecraft’s works is Cats and Dogs, a 6,000 word essay making the very important point that cats are superior to dogs. Lovecraft wrote: “Dogs, then, are peasants and the pets of peasants; cats are gentlemen and the pets of gentlemen.” The man certainly loved his cats.
Other works included The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Cool Air (once adapted into a comic called Baby, It’s Cold Inside); the Dreamland stories; The Dreams in the Witch House; The Dunwich Horror; The Festival; From Beyond; a parody of Frankenstein eccentrically titled Herbert West—Reanimator; In the Walls of Eryx, Lovecraft’s only science fiction pulp piece; The Music of Erich Zann; The Nameless City; The Outsider; The Rats in the Walls; The Shunned House; an unusual parody called Sweet Ermengarde; The Temple; The Thing on the Doorstep; and The Whisperer in Darkness. Many of these stories aren’t horribly racist and some are quite profound. His creations were also used freely — indeed, with his urging — by a group of his contemporaries known as the ‘Lovecraft Circle’.
Influence on popular culture
Lovecraft’s legacy lives on in the work of many writers and other artists. A number of well-known horror and fantasy writers, including Stephen King, Ramsey Capmbell and Neil Gaiman, cite Lovecraft as one of their primary inspirations and have written Cthulhu Mythos stories. Anthologies of new Cthulhu fiction continue to be popular, with the Black Wings series edited by S. T. Joshi and the Innsmouth anthologies, edited by Stephen Jones, showcasing the work of a number of contemporary writers who continue to explore the mythology.
Lovecraft’s influence even extends to creators of Japanese manga and anime such as Junji Ito, Hideyuki Kikuchi, and Chiaki J. Konaka. Various science fiction works have also drawn inspiration from Lovecraft’s alien monsters, and the less that is said here about tentacle fetishes that have grown out of Cthulhu obsessions, the better.
There was a rock band called H.P. Lovecraft in the 60s and 70s that wrote songs inspired by his works — the owners of their record company even got permission from Lovecraft lore guardian August Derleth to use the name for their band. Metallica also released a song called Call of Ktulu (an instrumental inspired by Call of Cthulhu) and various other songs that reference his works.
In some ways, the horror of Lovecraft’s work has become diluted by its popularity. Cuddly Cthulhu toys, t-shirts and other memorabilia are available everywhere. The children’s book Where’s My Shoggoth? by Ian Thomas is also an interesting take that keeps the weird, but dials down the fear.
Finally, Lovecraft has inspired many games in the years since his death, despite loathing games while he was alive. Many tabletop games are based on or influenced by his works — for example, the legendary Dungeons & Dragons used his works as inspiration for the infamous Mind Flayers and the Far Realm, and the Great Old Ones are explicitly lifted from his work. A board game based on The Call of Cthulhu, with the same name, was released in 1981 and is in its 7th edition (the quickstart kit of which is reviewed elsewhere in this issue). The Shadow over Innsmouth inspired the video game Resident Evil 4, and many, many other video games owe his imagination a debt: including World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, The Elder Scrolls, Bloodborne, Fallout, Runescape, Smite, The Witcher, X-Com, and Hearthstone.
A reader unfamiliar with Lovecraft would do well to pick up some of his better-known stories. In his time, his tales opened the eyes of his readers to otherworldly horrors, the like of which they’d never imagined. Today, reading his work is a remarkable exercise in a kind of cultural anthropology — in them, we see the seeds of so many of the stories, games and movies we love.