The Horrors of H P Lovecraft

21 Sep

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, where he also lived for most of his life and eventually died in 1937. Despite his relatively short life and modest literary output – three short novels and about sixty short stories – he left an indelible stamp on the field of supernatural fiction, of which he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American exponent. Lovecraft was gifted with a fertile imagination which, fed by the independent study and reading that was forced upon him by frequent illnesses which disrupted his schooling, spurred him to write many essays and poems early in his career based on the wide knowledge he acquired. But it was in the writing of horror fiction that Lovecraft truly excelled, especially after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, to which he contributed most of his stories.

Like the modern American master of horror, Stephen King, Lovecraft’s fiction has a unifying internal mythology, which is often called the Cthulhu Mythos, after one of his most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu (by the way it’s pronounced Khlul-hloo – don’t worry, the word is meant to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-human word). The Mythos implies that the reality we know is narrow and constricted – that lurking just beyond the boundaries of sanity are beings of vast power and malice that ruled this world before mankind, and that intend to do so again. Aspects of the Mythos which appear in Lovecraft’s tales again and again include the following: the fictional town of Arkham (inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman comics), a place described as “witch-cursed and legend-haunted” in The Thing on the Doorstep; the Necronomicon, a blasphemous grimoire containing all manner of satanic rituals, apocalyptic prophecies and black magic spells, written circa 700 AD by the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazred; and the Great Old Ones, the ancient rulers of the universe, who have slumbered in a place called R’lyeh for uncounted aeons but are now stirring and intend to take back what was once theirs.

It is possible to write almost as much about Lovecraft, who was a complex character, as his work. He was famously racist, paranoid, brilliant, disturbed and reclusive. In terms of his literary contemporaries and antecedents, he had a huge respect for M R James, Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany but a devotion bordering on obsession for Edgar Allan Poe. There has been endless speculation about his sexuality – at various times he has been alleged to have been asexual, homosexual and in love with his own mother! Personally I don’t feel that it is particularly constructive to dwell on Lovecraft the person in an attempt to explain his writings. Suffice it to say that he is the architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, who consistently challenged the preconceptions of his readers and whose legacy stands to this day – the mythologies of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien and countless other fantasy, science fiction and horror universes all owe a large debt to Lovecraft’s imaginings.

Probably Lovecraft’s finest work was in the form of his three novellas, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward but, because of their length, I’ve decided to leave you instead with a sample of his shorter work. The Tomb (click to read!) was one of Lovecraft’s first published stories and is a tale of psychic possession, which intriguingly features a number of autobiographical details, especially relating to Lovecraft’s childhood.

7 Responses to “The Horrors of H P Lovecraft”

  1. Royalrat September 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    I’ve heard a lot about Lovecraft. After reading your post I’ll go buy me one of his novels. Which one you suggest to begin with?

    • anilbalan September 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, yes, I should have mentioned that if you’re going to buy anything by Lovecraft try and get hold of the Wordsworth or Penguin collections of his works, which contain all his novels and most of his short stories, as well as lots of interesting Lovecraftian trivia. As Lovecraft’s novels are quite short they are usually collected with his other works but if you’re going to buy them on their own start with ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. If you’re buying a short story collection of his make sure that it has ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in it, as this is a fairly central tale in the Cthulhu Mythos. Hope this helps!

      • Julio Angel Ortiz September 22, 2011 at 4:27 am #

        I was partial to his Dream Cycle of stories (collected in Dreams of Terror and Death.

  2. Steve Baldwin September 22, 2011 at 2:08 am #

    Great post! I’ve always considered Lovecraft and Poe to be the Grandfathers of American horror fiction.

    Another great Lovecraft story that I would also recommend is “The thing on the doorstep”.

  3. Genki Jason October 30, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    About a month late with a reply but I like your post and I have just finished reading two Machen novels, The Great God Pan and The Three Impostors. I came to Lovecraft in my late teens and I found his works enjoyable if overcooked and sometimes subject to nasty bouts of racism that actually undercuts the horror. The three novellas you recommend are his best works. You can see Machen’s influence on Lovecraft.

  4. Bobbie April 9, 2014 at 2:03 am #

    I don’t recall ever reading that his sexuality was in question. He was happily married for a number of years to entrepreneur Sonia Greene (a woman, obviously), who had been an admirer of his work, and moved with her to New York City (where her business interests were located). He was unable to assimilate himself to such a melting pot of races and ethnicities (owing, as you indicated, to his racism and paranoia), and when the failure of her business forced her to travel extensively, he tired of living on his own (especially after his apartment was burglarised) and returned to Providence. They never actually divorced. His reclusive existence since childhood gave him very little opportunity to pursue sexual activity, but that’s really not what is meant by the term “asexual” (lack of opportunity is not the same as lack of desire). I don’t see any evidence that he was either Oedipal or gay. His only documented sexual relationship was with a woman he married and never divorced, a relationship about which she wrote a memoir and several essays; he had definite socialisation issues, but I see no basis here for a claim of “endless speculation about his sexuality”.

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