Fear of the Known
For generations, the early 20th-century American writer H.P. Lovecraft has been terrifying readers. We find out how.
H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) is a revered writer of supernatural horror fiction. Although little known during his lifetime, he is now regarded as one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century.
Born in Providence, RI, as Howard Phillipps Lovecraft, he began writing stories and poems as early as age 7. He published his first short story in 1916 and over sixty more tales in the next two decades, mostly in pulp genre journals. His 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” introduced the mythology of a terrifying cosmic entity who would appear in several subsequent Lovecraft stories as well as books, films, songs, and games by other artists.
Lovecraft’s work is characterized by its dark themes, fantastical imagery, and dim view of humanity. Although modern commentators criticize the racist tone of some of his stories, his writing would influence numerous literary figures, including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and such film directors as John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro. His imagery has appeared in rock songs, TV shows, and video games, and his stories are still regularly reprinted.
The early 20th century American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft was born into a solid New England family. It was assumed he would go to Brown University to study astronomy, but there was a problem.
Darrell Schweitzer: He discovered he couldn’t do the math.
But he could write, so much so that he would become posthumously one of the most influential horror writers ever. Through his mostly short form contributions to pulp rags lie “Weird Tales,” and regular correspondence with fellow writers, his universe has become the backdrops for countless creations since.
But his influence on popular culture comes with some baggage.
Jillian Sayre: He was racist and had antisemitic and had terrible world views.
Mike Bukowski: Then you have stories like “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which is basically about racial purity, and “The Horror at Redhook” which is just a giant essay on xenophobia.
Schweitzer: Well not a real cosmopolitan multicultural guy.
Sayre: He is not necessarily your favorite person, but as a writer he produces these sort of sprawling epics that are really provocative for a study.
Jillian Sayre is a professor of English at Rutgers University, among her most popular classes, a seminar called “American Horror Story.”
Sayre: This is not about demonizing a racist writer, but about how that writer allows us to think about ideas and prejudices that we all carry with us inside.
And all horror succeeds by demanding a visceral emotional reaction instead of a rational or logical one.
Sayre: Horror needs you in order to complete its work. A lot of times in the story you’ll have this sort of mirror reflection of your process in the story itself, so that the reader is not just implied but present in his stories. And a lot of them are his testimonies to invoke a sort of “you” of the reader, one that always comes to mind is the beginning of “Arthur German.”
Narrator: Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it, pure demonical hints of truth which sometimes may get 1,000 fold more hideous.
But despite being a contemporary of some of America’s literary greats, Lovecraft’s style is of an earlier age.
Schweitzer: If you’ve been raised on the idea that Hemingway is the ideal of a literary person, then you know you’re going to have a problem.
John Ashmead and Darrell Schweitzer are co-authors of Tales from the Miskatonic Library, an anthology of tales about, found in, inspired by, or stolen from Lovecraft’s mysterious fictional university library.
Schweitzer: So his style may be described as a mix of Poe, the Spectator, and Edward Gibbon, and so it’s very measured and it’s very stately and it is designed to be read aloud. There’s not a lot of dialog in it.
Sayre: Everything is sort of hyper descriptive, but also doesn’t reveal very much, so it implies things.
John Ashmead: There’s a nice command of how much detail to put in. And rereading his stuff you see, knowing how it’s going to come out, how little waste there is, he was very much of a craftsman. He got rid of everything that wasn’t needed to support the fact and then, that’s the story.
But sometimes just enough detail was still too much as illustrator Mike Bukowski’s art, when he set out to draw all the monsters in Lovecraft’s sprawling universe.
Bukowski: There was one particular creature in “At the Mountains of Madness,” that is described with paragraphs and paragraphs of minutia, like down to the length of its fingers. And I just couldn’t grasp it because it was such an alien entity, it almost looked like something, like when I finally figured it out, it almost looked like a microscopic oceanic creature, something like that. But I had to sit down and physically draw it to figure out what he was talking about.
For almost a century, artists like Bukowski have kept Lovecraft’s legacy relevant by constantly reusing and re-imagining his world. So much so, that by the 1990’s, Lovecraftian concepts have become deeply embedded in collective memory.
Joseph Hallman: The idea of Cthulhu or Necronomicon are these familiar little things that can now be called upon from childhood or from nostalgia.
Lovecraft’s influence on composer Joseph Hallman was manifested in a work called Imagined Landscapes: Six Lovecraftian Elsewheres. Like Lovecraft, Hallman’s goal was to leave the audience on the edge of its seat.
Hallman: Most importantly the idea of obscuration of sound so that the audience wouldn’t understand where a melody was coming from or where a sound was coming from. So I would color the sound with multiple instruments playing a single note or playing a note in a different way that is unfamiliar. So it’s very cool to watch performance of this piece because the audience is always looking around to try and figure out who’s playing what. And so that’s a big part of it, sort of unseating the aural expectation of what a classical music piece should be.
And even when it came to the traditions of his genre, Lovecraft was all about unseating one of the most fundamental talents of horror: fear of the unknown.
Sayre: What really horrifies his protagonists is discovering what they don’t know, is making known the unknown, and a lot of his protagonists respond by encouraging people not to know. “Don’t keep exploring Antarctica, don’t look in these places, don’t read this text,” sort of thing. The knowledge of it doesn’t bring any additional power, it in fact just makes you more aware of your own vulnerability.
Schweitzer: I’m sure he would have been both thrilled and terrified by the current astronomical discoveries. For example, that planets are common and that most stars have them. And by the deep sky photos we see from the Hubble Telescope, we’re seeing hundreds or thousands of galaxies. There could well be yet another intelligent species who will never have anything to do with us. So his basic message is, “The universe is not about us. We are only a small episode in a much larger cosmos. We are not the center.”