An Enduring and Disquieting Legacy

August 16, 2011

One of many artist rendering of Cthulu

The first time I ever encountered a story by H.P. Lovecraft was in elementary school, and I don’t remember exactly what the context was. Maybe a classmate had a book of Gothic horror short stories, or maybe I was looking through the shelves in the library and one of his collections caught my eye. I do remember what the story was, though; it was titled “The Rats in the Walls.” I remember that the style was too slow for me, not sensational enough. I knew that this was supposed to be a horror story, and it was taking some time, I thought, in getting to the point. I was impatient enough to skip through most of it to get to the end, and found the overall experience disappointing. It must have made an impression on me, though, because I remembered, at least, the name of both the story and the author. A couple of decades later I thought to track it down again, in the interim having devoured many other so called “horror” novels and stories by such authors as Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Stephen King’s books had definitely had an effect on me too, but I never really found them frightening. Entertaining, certainly, but nothing to keep me up at night. Edgar Allan Poe, who I had also read extensively, was more to my taste in terms of literature that had a truly disquieting effect on me, and when I did dig up a book of Lovecraft short stories, I was pleased to find that their styles are not much different. Lovecraft, in fact, credits Poe, a writer from the previous generation, as having had in impact on him as well. But never, not in Poe, not in King, and not in the other writers of “horror” or “sci-fi” or any other hybrid did I ever, or have I ever encountered since a mind so obviously deranged as that which speaks through the pages of Lovecraft’s stories. Stories only, because Lovecraft never wrote anything of novel length, more’s the pity. His longest is the novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

In seeking out Lovecraft and becoming more familiar with his work, I did so under the assumption that this was a relatively obscure writer. This assumption was eventually proven correct…sort of. If you’re a literary type, you may have heard of him, and if you’re a connoisseur of the horror genre, you almost certainly have. As it turns out, though, even if you’re only a casual reader, you’ve probably run across or fallen under the shadow of Lovecraft, regardless of whether it has been in literary circles, on screen, or even in music or art. This guy’s influence shows up everywhere, oftentimes when it is least expected. On Metallica’s Ride The Lightning, the last song is “The Call of Ktulu.” Ktulu, also spelled Cthulu, is a monster of Lovecraft’s own creation that forms the centerpiece of the so-called Cthulu mythos, a cycle of stories mostly involving humans that, in one way or another, come in contact with a group of monsters from the oceanic depths, or the worshipers of those monsters. Lovecraft had an enduring fear of the ocean, and of water in general, and you’ll find lots of his more hideous creations have aquatic connections. In the Sam Raimi trilogy The Evil Dead, starring Bruce Campbell, a horror is awoken at a cabin in the woods when passages are spoken from the Necronomicon, the book of the dead, another Lovecraft creation supposedly written by the “mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred.” Alhazred is, in fact, a pseudonym for Lovecraft himself, created by the writer after having read 1001 Arabian Nights in his youth. The Necronomicon appears elsewhere also. It shows up in the writings of Lovecraft disciple Brian Lumley, the English writer best known for his Necroscope series. Lumley is an unabashed Lovecraft aficionado, and his book of short stories Beneath The Moors is written in the finest imitation Lovecraft. Even comic books and cartoons tie in to Lovecraft. South Park, which won’t ever be satisfied until it lampoons everybody and everything, had an episode last year in which Cthulu appeared, to team up with Cartman. Also last year, Allan Moore, best known for his series Watchmen, wrote and released the very graphic four issue series Neonomicon, which posits that the writings of Lovecraft were based in fact, which is a theory that has arisen several times over the years in various circles, with varying degrees of seriousness. These are only a few of Lovecraft’s influences. There are more…lot’s more. All you have to do is look for them.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the man, was, by all accounts, a misanthropic person, disliking the world at large and most of its inhabitants. He was a racist, which is shown in his writing in a variety of ways, and also through his writing we may gather that he was frightened or disgusted by sex, the act itself, and sexuality in general. There are virtually no female characters in his stories, there is no sex whatsoever, and all of his horror and disgust of “deep places” and invention of icky and slimy things can lead us to certain other conclusions. He was, in fact, married, but probably not happily. He and his wife agreed to a divorce that never actually took place, although they were separated. He was never very successful with his writing, never managing to write and publish a novel, as I’ve said; his short stories mainly appeared in the magazine Weird Tales, and he never received much money for them. Largely unrecognized in his life, his work may well have passed into obscurity were it not for the efforts of some of his contemporaries, most notably August Derlith, another horror writer living in the same time period who championed Lovecraft’s work. He thought Lovecraft was profoundly gifted, and he was right. I’ve never really read anything like Lovecraft; his work stands very much apart from those that came before or the many who have come after who have imitated and have been influenced by him.

Although Lovecraft’s work will never be as popular, as, say, Stephen King, being written in an antiquated style that is, admittedly, an acquired taste, his creations, The Great Old Ones, The Elder Gods, Shogoths, The Necronomicon, Cthulhu, R’lyeh, and others, and many of his classic stories, The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, etc, are towering, if disturbing, literary achievements. Despite all his failings as a person, the more of his stuff I discover and read, the more of a fan I become. There is an element in his work that suggests that you are reading something that, perhaps, should not be read, not because of quality, but because of the ghastly secrets that might well be found within. That is why, I think, the popular theory remains out there that Lovecraft did not actually invent all of these things, and that something was “speaking through him,” or perhaps that he wrote based on what others had told him or hinted. The truth of that I cannot begin to contemplate, not only because I have no way of knowing, from a historical standpoint, but also because I would hate to think that any of the monstrosities written about by this man had any basis, however small, in fact. I will continue to read and study Lovecraft, at any rate, and I have no doubt I will continue to see his influence in the many spheres of popular culture. But I’ll be sure to read his stories with all the lights on, and nowhere close to the ocean.

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