Elusive, mysterious and dark, H.P. Lovecraft has become emblematic of all that is horrific and bleak. The deep shadow of his influence looms over generations of horror writers that have followed in his shadowy path. Indeed, having impacted the commercial giant that is Stephen King, and had a major influence on the terror genre’s literary virtuoso Ramsey Campbell, H.P. Lovecraft is arguably the most influential horror writer in the western literary canon. His existential dread and bloody terror has pimpled the skin, wracked the nerves, and sent shivers down the spines of even the most horror-hardened of readers.
H.P. Lovecraft was born in Providence at the beginning of the twentieth-century. His successes were rather slim, having only managed to publish stories in inconsequential pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories. Tragically, and like many other great writers, H.P. Lovecraft’s literary gifts were recognised posthumously, which meant that he was to die destitute and penniless.
It seems a cruel and ironic joke on the part of the universe, whose caprice and callousness Lovecraft frequently wrote on, that it would rub him off its surface before he could bask in the sweet warmth of the literary recognition he so sought and deserved. But perhaps such an ending would be too sickly and sweet for the cynical and cold-eye style that Lovecraft embodies. It was as if his life was another one of his stories, his magnum opus, and he completed it by dying destitute. A man of his word, one might say.
His most famous work is undoubtedly The Call of Cthulhu, which was written in 1928. In it, Lovecraft wrote that –
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far…”
“I have looked upon all the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”
His writing is heavy and drips with an inky nihilism and dread that offers no hope of salvation. Indeed, some critics have pointed this feature out as demonstrating naïveté and amateurishness, given that he all too frequently exposits on the meaninglessness of existence, and the caprice and cruelty of the cosmos, be it directly or indirectly. However, it is such elaboration that arguably creates the brooding hum that echoes under his sentences, which, like paths to hellish realms, take us to corners of the mind and imagination that we would otherwise not seek out.
Whatever one thinks of Lovecraft, what is clear is that he was a vociferous reader, having gobbled up and absorbed the circulating ideas of his time. Influenced by Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Lovecraft saw an absurd and pitiless universe where mankind represents but a twig in the sprawling tree of evolution, over which the universe malevolently hangs, blank and numb to the tragicomedy unfurling beneath.
Indeed, as John Brownlee points out in Wired –
“What most people are fans of is not Lovecraft, but Lovecraft’s ideas, his vision of humanity being weak and helpless and surrounded by malevolent cosmic evil. Yes, there are gods. We are not alone in the universe. But our gods hate us.”
What’s interesting, here, is the distinction between Lovecraft and his actual ideas. For example, because of Lovecraft’s infamous racist slurs and spasms, many people have felt the need to recoil from his work. However, this need not be the case, given that we can be attracted to Lovecraft’s works and ideas, and not his character, with whatever flaws he may or may not have had. Moreover, to not like a writer, however good, because of his or her character, can lead to artistic deprivation. Evelyn Waugh, it is said, was a terrible human being, but a fantastic writer. Salvador Dalí, as George Orwell proclaimed, was a terrible person, but a great artist. This distinction is important.
The persisting relevance of H.P. Lovecraft raises an interesting question:
Given the dark, mysterious and bleak nature of Lovecraft’s work, why does it continue to be attractive to many readers?
Amy H. Sturgis, a scholar and author, notes that humans have ceaselessly questioned their place in the universe, looking for places onto which we can anchor meaning and significance. Religion, astronomy, social anthropology and sociology all attest to this truth. However, what solace does H.P. Lovecraft bring, given his bleakness? Perhaps readers find something refreshing in the blunt and unpromising picture Lovecraft paints with the black ash of coal. Perhaps there is something indulgent in pondering our insignificance, a philosophical and ponderous misanthropy that is simply delicious to consume as art.
If such is the case, then Lovecraft will go on being popular, for he provides such in spadefuls.