Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Most geeks know who Howard Philips Lovecraft is. In fact Lovecraft has lately had a resurgence in popular culture. Gone is the day, back when I was in college, and I was amazed that the hot suffer chick knew who he was. So why is he in Geek Obscura? Well yes most geeks and many non-geeks know who he is, I am finding very few people have actually read more than one or two of his short stories.
For those of you who are completely unfamiliar with Lovecraft, he wrote horror stories that were printed in the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties. He greatly influence many other writers of his time, sharing with them ideas about monsters, locations, and ancient tomes of lost knowledge. Although the term was never used in his lifetime we now collectively call these stories The Cthulhu Mythos. These stories tell of ancient alien intelligences, who are to people what people are to ants. These entities come down from time and space and swat us humans, away when we get in their way. Though rather popular when published they were never a huge commercial success, and Lovecraft died like he had lived most his life (At least after his moderately wealthy grandfather died with almost no estate to bequeath to his family) in poverty. But his influence on pop culture and especially geek culture is undeniable.
His writings are the genesis for the concept behind the movie Alien, here the eldritch horrors are not coming from space to us on Earth, but we are going out to meet them. Steven King among other modern horror writers is greatly influenced by Lovecraft, this is especially seen in the short stories the Mist and Jerusalem’s Lot. HPL’s creations have appeared in cartoons such as The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, The Real Ghost Busters and South Park. Hellboy is highly influence by Lovecraft and his writing circle. Lovecraft himself makes an appearance in the Supernatural episode Let it Bleed.
So if he is so influential on both mainstream and geek culture today, why are his core stores seldom read? A better question might be, how is it that anyone living now has even heard of Lovecraft? There where thousands and thousands of pulp writers. Arguably the most famous during their lifetime was Seabury Quinn. Right now unless you are like me a pulp lit glutton you are scratching your head trying to figure out who the heck he was. Almost all the pulp writers vanished into obscurity. There were a few pulp authors whose talent and style allowed them to escape into main stream stardom, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury come to mind. Robert E. Howard, though he wrote stories in many different genres such as horror, boxing stories and westerns is remembered mainly for his Conan the Barbarian tales. And L.Ron Hubbard is remembered less because he was a pulp writer and more because he founded a religion. So what allowed Lovecraft to escape the obscurity that domed so many of his compatriots?
The main answer is one man August Derleth. Many hardcore Lovecraft fans spit when they hear his name. But the truth is Lovecraft and the genre of horror are indebted to Derlerth. The ire comes because the other writer after Lovecraft’s death attempt to shoehorn HP’s mythos into an easy to categorize identification system based on the medieval concept of the elements, and turning the mythos stories into a conflict between good and evil. In addition to those literary crimes he would often publish stories after Lovecraft’s death under his and Lovecraft’s name, that were originally only an idea’s HP had come up with or something that Lovecraft had nothing to do with.
Derleth, who if it wasn’t for his involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos, would be best known for historical fiction about Wisconsin, is the reason that Lovecraft is remembered now at all. He preserved Lovecraft’s writing with a publishing house called Arkham House and kept Lovecraft works in print when so many others disappeared.
Derlerth unwittingly helped preserve Lovecraft popularity in another country too, France. Too old to fight in World War Two, he decided to help in the war effort another way. He had Arkham House publish a free armed services edition collection of Lovecraft’s writings called The Dunwitch Horror and Other Weird Tales. These books were given to soldiers during the war.. Many of these copies were left in France after the US forces departed. The gloomy angst of Lovecraft caught hold of the post-war French people’s imagination. This lead to Lovecraft becoming a phenomena in France. Much the way Edgar Allan Poe and Jerry Lewis did. Until Del Rey started mass publishing Lovecraft’s work in paperbacks it was easier to get HP’s writing in French than in English.
The next thing that helped popularize Lovecraft was role playing games. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Dungeons and Dragons was the pioneer and eighth hundred pound gorilla of RPG’s. If you wanted something other than sword and sorcery for your game your options where very limited. TSR (D&D’s publisher) had post-apocalyptic Gama World filled with mutant animals..there was rule heavy space opera Traveler, and a host of smaller less supported games that had to be special ordered. In the eighties The Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game became a relatively easy to get alternative to D&D.
At first glance CoC would seem like a rotten setting for an RPG game. Puny humans against outer alien gods, in a scenario where if half of your party isn’t driven mad or killed outright it was considered a victory. In the game combat was as dangerous to the characters as their opponents so it was usually avoided until the end. Combat and conflict was the main appeal to many people for D&D. The magic system in CoC was esoteric not as gratifying as the D&D system that allowed you to throw fire balls around with impunity. But thousands and thousands of gamers became aware of the writings of Lovecraft through this game. Even if they never played CoC or quit it after their initial party got killed off, they at least became aware of him through CoC and Lovecraft’s influence on other RPG a young generation became aware of the old man from Providence.
So we now know why Lovecraft is still known nearly eighty years after his death, but why are his actual works less popular than than the concepts they embody One reason is the writing style of Lovecraft himself. Let’s be honest Lovecraft’s prose is at best an acquired taste. Now many people once they get used to it love it. And I readily admit that his style defiantly adds to the mood of his pieces. Still his style is what one might charitably be called melodramatic.
I admit when I read I have AADD. I probably really at best take in eighty percent of a paragraph. Still I am able to retain most of a story that way. But with Lovecraft you get out of it what you put in to it. And he’s probably best read by structured disciplined minds. Recently I listened to The Dunwitch Horror and Call of Cthulhu on CD. I had read both stories a half a dozen times, but I realize just how many of the details and color I miss by my skimming method. It is hard for someone of my MTV generation to put in an enough effort into a short story to get the required payoff.
Another reason why HP’s short stories are seldom focused on is the rarity and low quality of the stories in movie format. Lovecraft doesn’t translate easily into movies. Now there are a ton of movies influenced by him and the rest of the Mythos Circle. Aliens, Hellboy, The Thing, Army of Darkness, and the French Buffy clone Bloody Mallory come to mind but very few direct translations of Lovecraft’s work and even fewer good ones. The Reanimator is based on Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Reanimator, has a strong cult following but it isn’t for everyone. The Dunwitch Horror the movie, is most famous not for being a cinematic masterpiece but for being the only movie that Sandra Dee went topless in. The best silver screen version of one of HP’s stories is probably The HP Lovecraft Historical Societies Call of the Cthulhu, which I think is brilliant but it is done in the style of a 1928 movie meaning it is silent and black and white, which is defiantly not for everyone.
The other reason that Lovecraft isn’t as popular as he might be the big ugly eight-hundred pound shaggoth in the room; his racism. Yes he was a racist, a misogynist and an anti-Semitic. It is true though he did not invent these terrible beliefs and they are reflective of the time he lived in. Also rural white people seem to get the largest proportion of his scorn. But no one can successfully argue that these deplorable world views are not at least part of his writing.
It is also fair to say that his racism is to some degree exaggerated. Yes he wrote letters with anti-Semitic content but was also married to a Jewish woman. Lovecraft is supposedly to have said that Hitler’s Mien Komph was his favorite book that he had ever read, but that is very unlikely true, since it wasn’t published in English until after his death. But again though the level of his racism in his writing may be exaggerated it is definitely there.
An honestly this is a legitimate reason to shy away from his stories if it offends a reader. For me I can find the racism and misogamy in his works regrettable and distasteful but I can separate it from his writings much the way I can with the works of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other great writers. This isn’t an acceptance of their beliefs, but a separation from their beliefs system and their work. If individual readers find that this bothers them and declined to read Lovecraft because of it I completely understand.
So though Lovecraft legacy will carry on for quite a long time, I fear that a true familiarity and understanding of his body of works is rare and undertaken by only a few hard core literature/horror geeks.