H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, where he spent most of his life. His father was confined to a mental institution when Lovecraft was 3 years old. His grandfather, a wealthy businessman, enjoyed storytelling and was an early influence. Intellectually precocious but sensitive, Lovecraft had begun composing rudimentary horror tales and had begun to be overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety by the age of 8. He encountered problems with peers in school, and was kept at home by his highly-strung and overbearing mother for illnesses that may have been psychosomatic. In high school Lovecraft found his contemporaries were accepting and he formed friendships. He also involved neighborhood children in elaborate make-believe projects, only regretfully ceasing the activity at 17 years old. Despite leaving school in 1908 without graduating—he found mathematics particularly difficult—Lovecraft’s knowledge of subjects that interested him was formidable.
Although he seems to have had some social life, attending meetings of a club for local young men, Lovecraft in early adulthood was established in a reclusive ‘nightbird’ lifestyle without occupation or pursuit of romantic adventures. In 1913 his conduct of a long running controversy in the letters page of a story magazine led to his being invited to participate in an amateur journalism association. Encouraged, he started circulating his stories; he was 31 at the time of his first publication in a professional magazine. Lovecraft contracted a marriage to an older woman he had met at an association conference. By age 34, he was a regular contributor to newly founded Weird Tales magazine; he turned down an offer of the editorship.
Lovecraft returned to Providence in 1926, and over the next nine months he produced some of his most celebrated tales including “The Call of Cthulhu“, canonical to the Cthulhu Mythos. Never able to support himself from earnings as author and editor, commercial success increasingly eluded him in this latter period, partly because he lacked the confidence and drive to promote himself. Lovecraft subsisted in progressively straitened circumstances in his last years; an inheritance was completely spent by the time he died at the age of 46.
Several themes recur in Lovecraft’s stories:
|Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.|
|— H. P. Lovecraft, in note to the editor of Weird Tales, on resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu.”|
Forbidden, darkly esoterically veiled knowledge is a central theme in many of Lovecraft’s works. Many of his characters are driven by curiosity or scientific endeavor, and in many of his stories the knowledge they uncover proves Promethean in nature, either filling the seeker with regret for what they have learned, destroying them psychically, or completely destroying the person who holds the knowledge.
Some critics argue that this theme is a reflection of Lovecraft’s contempt of the world around him, causing him to search inwardly for knowledge and inspiration.
Non-human influences on humanity
The beings of Lovecraft’s mythos often have human servants; Cthulhu, for instance, is worshiped under various names by cults amongst both the Greenland Inuit and voodoo circles of Louisiana, and in many other parts of the world.
These worshippers served a useful narrative purpose for Lovecraft. Many beings of the Mythos were too powerful to be defeated by human opponents, and so horrific that direct knowledge of them meant insanity for the victim. When dealing with such beings, Lovecraft needed a way to provide exposition and build tension without bringing the story to a premature end. Human followers gave him a way to reveal information about their “gods” in a diluted form, and also made it possible for his protagonists to win paltry victories. Lovecraft, like his contemporaries, envisioned “savages” as closer to supernatural knowledge unknown to civilized man.
Another recurring theme in Lovecraft’s stories is the idea that descendants in a bloodline can never escape the stain of crimes committed by their forebears, at least if the crimes are atrocious enough. Descendants may be very far removed, both in place and in time (and, indeed, in culpability), from the act itself, and yet, they may be haunted by the revenant past, e.g. “The Rats in the Walls“, “The Lurking Fear“, “Arthur Jermyn“, “The Alchemist“, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Often in Lovecraft’s works the protagonist is not in control of his own actions, or finds it impossible to change course. Many of his characters would be free from danger if they simply managed to run away; however, this possibility either never arises or is somehow curtailed by some outside force, such as in “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Dreams in the Witch House“. Often his characters are subject to a compulsive influence from powerful malevolent or indifferent beings. As with the inevitability of one’s ancestry, eventually even running away, or death itself, provides no safety (“The Thing on the Doorstep“, “The Outsider“, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, etc.). In some cases, this doom is manifest in the entirety of humanity, and no escape is possible (“The Shadow Out of Time“).
Lovecraft’s works are ruled by several distinct pantheons of deities (actually aliens who are worshiped by humans as deities) who are either indifferent or actively hostile to humanity. Lovecraft’s actual philosophy has been termed “cosmic indifferentism” and this is expressed in his fiction. Several of Lovecraft’s stories of the Old Ones (alien beings of the Cthulhu Mythos), propose alternate mythic human origins in contrast to those found in the creation stories of existing religions, expanding on a natural world view. For instance, in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” it is proposed that humankind was actually created as a slave race by the Old Ones. Protagonist characters in Lovecraft are usually educated men, citing scientific and rationalist evidence to support their non-faith. Herbert West–Reanimator reflects on the atheism common within academic circles. In “The Silver Key“, the character Randolph Carter loses the ability to dream and seeks solace in religion, specifically Congregationalism, but does not find it and ultimately loses faith.
Lovecraft himself adopted the stance of atheism early in his life. In 1932 he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.”
Influences on Lovecraft
Some of Lovecraft’s work was inspired by his own nightmares. His interest started from his childhood days when his grandfather would tell him Gothic horror stories.
Lovecraft’s most significant literary influence was Edgar Allan Poe. He had a British writing style due to his love of British literature. Like Lovecraft, Poe’s work was out of step with the prevailing literary trends of his era. Both authors created distinctive, singular worlds of fantasy and employed archaisms in their writings. This influence can be found in such works as his novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth where Lovecraft references Poe’s story ‘’The Imp of the Perverse’’ by name in Chapter 3, and in his poem “Nemesis”, where the “…ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber” suggest the “…ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” found in Poe’s “Ulalume”. A direct quote from the poem and a reference to Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is alluded to in Lovecraft’s magnum opus At the Mountains of Madness. Both authors shared many biographical similarities as well, such as the loss of their fathers at young ages and an early interest in poetry.
He was influenced by Arthur Machen‘s carefully constructed tales concerning the survival of ancient evil into modern times in an otherwise realistic world and his beliefs in hidden mysteries which lay behind reality. Lovecraft was also influenced by authors such as Oswald Spengler and Robert W. Chambers. Chambers was the writer of The King in Yellow, of whom Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith: “Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans – equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them”. Lovecraft’s discovery of the stories of Lord Dunsany, with their pantheon of mighty gods existing in dreamlike outer realms, moved his writing in a new direction, resulting in a series of imitative fantasies in a “Dreamlands” setting.
Lovecraft also cited Algernon Blackwood as an influence, quoting The Centaur in the head paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu“. He declared Blackwood’s story “The Willows” to be the single best piece of weird fiction ever written.
Another inspiration came from a completely different source: scientific progress in biology, astronomy, geology, and physics. His study of science contributed to Lovecraft’s view of the human race as insignificant, powerless, and doomed in a materialistic and mechanistic universe. Lovecraft was a keen amateur astronomer from his youth, often visiting the Ladd Observatory in Providence, and penning numerous astronomical articles for local newspapers. His astronomical telescope is now housed in the rooms of the August Derleth Society.
Lovecraft’s materialist views led him to espouse his philosophical views through his fiction; these philosophical views came to be called cosmicism. Cosmicism took on a dark tone with his creation of what is today often called the Cthulhu Mythos, a pantheon of alien extra-dimensional deities and horrors which predate humanity, and which are hinted at in eons-old myths and legends. The term “Cthulhu Mythos” was coined by Lovecraft’s correspondent and fellow author, August Derleth, after Lovecraft’s death; Lovecraft jocularly referred to his artificial mythology as “Yog-Sothothery”.
Lovecraft considered himself a man best suited to the early 18th century. His writing style, especially in his many letters, owes much to Augustan British writers of the Enlightenment like Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift.
Among the books found in his library (as evidenced in Lovecraft’s Library by S. T. Joshi) was The Seven Who Were Hanged by Leonid Andreyev and A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille.
Lovecraft’s style has often been criticized by unsympathetic critics, yet scholars such as S. T. Joshi have shown that Lovecraft consciously utilized a variety of literary devices to form a unique style of his own – these include conscious archaism, prose-poetic techniques combined with essay-form techniques, alliteration, anaphora, crescendo, transferred epithet, metaphor, symbolism and colloquialism.
Influence on culture
Lovecraft was relatively unknown during his own time. While his stories appeared in the pages of prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales (eliciting letters of outrage as often as letters of praise from regular readers of the magazines), not many people knew his name. He did, however, correspond regularly with other contemporary writers, such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even though they never met in person. This group of writers became known as the “Lovecraft Circle”, since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft’s stories – the mysterious books with disturbing names, the pantheon of ancient alien entities, such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places, such as the New England town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University – for use in their own works with Lovecraft’s encouragement.
After Lovecraft’s death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. August Derleth in particular added to and expanded on Lovecraft’s vision. However, Derleth’s contributions have been controversial. While Lovecraft never considered his pantheon of alien gods more than a mere plot device, Derleth created an entire cosmology, complete with a war between the good Elder Gods and the evil Outer Gods, such as Cthulhu and his ilk). The forces of good were supposed to have won, locking Cthulhu and others up beneath the earth, in the ocean, and so forth. Derleth’s Cthulhu Mythos stories went on to associate different gods with the traditional four elements of fire, air, earth and water – an artificial constraint which required rationalizations on Derleth’s part as Lovecraft himself never envisioned such a scheme.
Lovecraft’s fiction has been grouped into three categories by some critics. While Lovecraft did not refer to these categories himself, he did once write, “There are my “Poe” pieces and my “Dunsany pieces” – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?”
- Macabre stories (c. 1905–1920);
- Dream Cycle stories (c. 1920–1927);
- Cthulhu / Lovecraft Mythos stories (c. 1925–1935).
Lovecraft’s writing, particularly the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, has influenced fiction authors including modern horror and fantasy writers such as Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore, Junji Ito, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Neil Gaiman, have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences. Beyond direct adaptation, Lovecraft and his stories have had a profound impact on popular culture. Some influence was direct, as he was a friend, inspiration, and correspondent to many of his contemporaries, such as August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. Many later figures were influenced by Lovecraft’s works, including author and artist Clive Barker, prolific horror writer Stephen King, comics writers Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola, film directors John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Guillermo Del Toro and artist H. R. Giger. Japan has also been significantly inspired and terrified by Lovecraft’s creations and thus even entered the manga and anime media. Chiaki J. Konaka is an acknowledged Lovecraft disciple and has participated in Cthulhu Mythos, expanding several Japanese versions. Aside being writer, he is an anime scriptwriter who tends to add horror elements and is credited for spreading the popularity of Lovecraft among anime base. Manga artist Junji Ito is also inspired by Lovecraft.
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote his short story “There Are More Things” in memory of Lovecraft. Contemporary French writer Michel Houellebecq wrote a literary biography of Lovecraft called H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates wrote an introduction for a collection of Lovecraft stories. The Library of America published a volume of Lovecraft’s work in 2005, essentially declaring him a canonical American writer. French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to Lovecraft in A Thousand Plateaus, calling the short story “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” one of his masterpieces.