Lovecraft's major inspiration and invention was cosmic horror, the basic premise of which is that the true workings of the universe are beyond human comprehension and that humanity's place in the cosmos is terrifyingly insignificant. A key feature of many of his stories is the existence of powerful, extraterrestrial or supernatural entities that influence or threaten the human world in subtle ways, and whose mere perception by human observers often drives the latter to madness.
Lovecraft has become a cult figure for his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of loosely interconnected fictions featuring a pantheon of human-invalidating entities, as well as the famed Necronomicon, a grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore. His works were deeply pessimistic, fabricating a mythos that challenged the values of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Christianity.
Although Lovecraft's readership was limited during his life, his reputation has grown over the decades, and he is now commonly regarded as one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th Century, exerting widespread and indirect influence, and frequently compared to Edgar Allan Poe in the tone of his writing style.
Lovecraft was born on the 20th of August 1890, at 9:00 a.m. in his family home at 194 (now 454) Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The house would be torn down in 1961. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman of jewelry and precious metals, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, a woman who could trace her ancestry in America back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. His parents married, the first marriage for both, when they were in their thirties. This was unusually late in life given the time period. In 1893, when Lovecraft was three, his father became acutely psychotic in a Chicago hotel room while on a business trip. He was brought back to Providence and placed in Butler Hospital where he remained until his death in 1898. Lovecraft was informed that his father was comatose during this period but it is now almost certain that Winfield Scott Lovecraft died from tertiary syphilis.
Indeed his earliest surviving literary work, “The Poem of Ulysses” (1897), is a paraphrase of the Odyssey in 88 lines of internally rhyming verse. But Lovecraft had by this time already discovered weird fiction, and his first story, the non-extant “The Noble Eavesdropper,” may date to as early as 1896.
Lovecraft thereafter was raised by his mother, his two aunts (Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips), and his grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. All resided together in the family home. Lovecraft was a child prodigy, reciting poetry at age two and writing complete poems by six. His grandfather encouraged his reading, providing him with classics such as The Arabian Nights, Bulfinch's Age of Fable, and children's versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey. His grandfather also stirred young Howard's interest in the weird by telling him his own original tales of Gothic horror. His mother, on the other hand, worried that these stories would upset him.
Lovecraft was frequently ill as a child, both physically and psychologically. Due to his sickly condition and his undisciplined, argumentative nature, he barely attended school until he was eight at the Slater Avenue School but was withdrawn after a year. He read voraciously during this period and became especially enamored of chemistry and astronomy. He produced several hectographed publications with a limited circulation beginning in 1899 with The Scientific Gazette. Four years later he returned to public school at Hope Street High School.
Whipple Van Buren Phillips' death in 1904 greatly affected Lovecraft's life. Mismanagement of his grandfather's estate left his family in such a poor financial situation they were forced to move into much smaller accommodations at 598 (now a duplex at 598-600) Angell Street. Lovecraft was so deeply affected by the loss of his home and birthplace he contemplated suicide for a time. In 1908, prior to his high school graduation, he suffered a nervous breakdown and consequently never received his high school diploma. S. T. Joshi suggests in his biography of Lovecraft that a primary cause for this breakdown was his difficulty in higher mathematics, a subject he needed to master to become a professional astronomer. This failure to complete his education (he wished to study at Brown University) was a source of disappointment and shame even late into his life.
Lovecraft wrote some fiction as a youth but from 1908 until 1913 his output was primarily poetry he wrote while living a hermit's existence and having almost no contact with anyone but his mother. This changed when he wrote a letter to The Argosy, a pulp magazine, complaining about the insipidness of the love stories of one of the publication's popular writers. The ensuing debate in the magazine's letters column caught the eye of Edward F. Daas, President of the UAPA, who invited Lovecraft to join in 1914. The UAPA reinvigorated Lovecraft and incited him to contribute many poems and essays. In 1917, at the prodding of correspondents, he returned to fiction with more polished stories such as "The Tomb" and "Dagon". The latter was his first professionally published work, appearing in Weird Tales in 1923. Around this time he began to build up a huge network of correspondents. His lengthy and frequent missives would make him one of the great letter writers of the century. Among his correspondents were Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan the Barbarian series ).
In 1919, after suffering from hysteria and depression for a long period of time, Lovecraft's mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to Butler Hospital like her husband before her. Nevertheless, she wrote frequent letters to Lovecraft, and they remained very close until her death on May 21, 1921, the result of complications from a gall bladder surgery. Lovecraft was devastated by the loss.
A few weeks after the death of his mother, Lovecraft attended an amateur journalist convention in Boston where he met Sonia Greene. Born in 1883, she was of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry and seven years older than Lovecraft. They married in 1924, and the couple moved to the borough of Brooklyn in New York City. Lovecraft's aunts may have been unhappy with this arrangement, as they were not fond of Lovecraft being married to a tradeswoman (Greene owned a hat shop). Initially Lovecraft was enthralled by New York but soon the couple was facing financial difficulties. Greene lost her hat shop and suffered poor health. Lovecraft could not find work to support them both so his wife moved to Cleveland for employment. Lovecraft lived by himself in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn and came to intensely dislike New York life.
A few years later he and Greene, still living separately, agreed to an amicable divorce, which was never fully completed. He returned to Providence to live with his aunts during their remaining years. Due to the unhappiness of their marriage, some biographers have speculated that Lovecraft could have been asexual, though Greene is often quoted as referring to him as "an adequately excellent lover".
Back in Providence, Lovecraft lived in a "spacious brown Victorian wooden house" at 10 Barnes Street (the address given as the home of Dr. Willett in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) until 1933. The period after his return to Providence—the last decade of his life—was Lovecraft's most prolific. During this time period he produced almost all of his best-known short stories for the leading pulp publications of the day (primarily Weird Tales) as well as longer efforts like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. He frequently revised work for other authors and did a large amount of ghost-writing, including "The Mound", "Winged Death", and "The Diary of Alonzo Typer".
Despite his best writing efforts, however, he grew ever poorer. He was forced to move to smaller and meaner lodgings with his surviving aunt. He was also deeply affected by Robert E. Howard's suicide. In 1936 he was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine and he also suffered from malnutrition. He lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937 in Providence.
Lovecraft was listed along with his parents on the Phillips family monument. That was not enough for his fans, so in 1977 a group of individuals raised the money to buy him a headstone of his own, on which they had inscribed Lovecraft's name, the dates of his birth and death and the phrase, "I AM PROVIDENCE," a line from one of his personal letters. Lovecraft's grave in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence is occasionally marked with graffiti quoting his famous phrase from "The Call of Cthulhu" (originally from "The Nameless City"):
"That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die."
H. P. Lovecraft’s name is synonymous with horror fiction; his writing, particularly the “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements may be found in novels, movies, music, comic books and cartoons. For example, the insane villains of Gotham City in the Batman stories are incarcerated in Arkham Asylum - Arkham being an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
Lovecraft himself, though, was relatively unknown during his own time. While his stories might have made it into the pages of prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales (often eliciting letters of outrage from regular readers of the magazines), not many people knew his name. He did correspond regularly with other contemporary writers such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even if they never met in person. This group of correspondents 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 gods such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places such as Miskatonic and Arkham — for use in their own (with Lovecraft’s blessing and encouragement). It’s been suggested that it was the efforts of the Lovecraft Circle — particularly August Derleth — that prevented Lovecraft’s name and fiction from disappearing completely into obscurity.
After Lovecraft’s death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. August Derleth was probably the most prolific of these writers, and added to and expanded on Lovecraft’s vision. Derleth’s contributions have been controversial, to say the least; 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 “Elder Gods” (such as Cthulhu and his ilk) and the “Outer Gods”, and went on to associate different gods with the traditional four elements. Not every fan of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian horror has approved of these additions, since they seem to contradict Lovecraft’s own vision of a universe without order or plan, with beings that weren’t so much malevolent as they were just uninterested in the goings on of humanity. Would Lovecraft have approved of Derleth’s expansions? It has been said that Lovecraft was a good sport about this sort of thing, so he probably would have welcomed Derleth’s own take, but he certainly wouldn’t have taken it on himself. If there can be said to be a “Lovecraft Circle”, then Derleth’s version would be an interesting take on the circle, but not part of the circle itself.
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 my Lovecraft pieces?"
- Macabre stories (approximately 1905–1920)
- Dream Cycle stories (approximately 1920–1927)
- Cthulhu Mythos/Lovecraft Mythos stories (approximately 1925–1935)
Some critics see little difference between the Dream Cycle and the Mythos, often pointing to the recurring Necronomicon and subsequent "gods". A frequently given explanation is that the Dream Cycle belongs more to the genre of fantasy, while the Mythos is science fiction. Also, much of the supernatural elements in the Dream Cycle takes place in its own sphere or mythological dimension separated from our own level of existence. The Mythos on the other hand, is placed within the same reality and cosmos as the humans live in.
Much of Lovecraft's work was directly inspired by his nightmares, and it is perhaps this direct insight into the unconscious and its symbolism that helps to account for their continuing resonance and popularity. All these interests naturally led to his deep affection for the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who heavily influenced his earliest macabre stories and writing style known for its creepy atmosphere and lurking fears. Lovecraft's discovery of the stories of Lord Dunsany with their gallery 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.
Another inspiration came from a totally different kind of source; the scientific progresses at the time in such wide areas as biology, astronomy, geology and physics, all contributed to make the human race seem even more insignificant, powerless and doomed in a materialistic and mechanical universe, and was a major contributor to the ideas that later would be known as cosmicism, and which gave further support to his atheism.
Because of his love for his own heritage and because of the USA's relatively young age as a nation and therefore the need to create locations that would still give the feeling of something old and at the same time western, Lovecraft also added elements such as fictional New England towns and locations where the stories took place.
It was probably the influence of Arthur Machen, with his carefully constructed tales concerning the survival of ancient evil into modern times in an otherwise realistic world and his mystic beliefs in hidden mysteries which lay behind reality, that added the last ingredient and finally helped inspire Lovecraft to find his own voice from 1923 onwards.
This took on a dark tone with the 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 aeon-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".
His stories created one of the most influential plot devices in all of horror: the Necronomicon, the secret grimoire written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. The resonance and strength of the Mythos concept have led some to incorrectly conclude that Lovecraft had based it on pre-existing myths or occult beliefs. Faux editions of the Necronomicon have also been published over the years.
His prose is somewhat antiquarian. Often he employed archaic vocabulary or spelling which had already by his time been replaced by contemporary coinages; examples including electric torch (flashlight), Esquimau, and Comanchian. He was given to heavy use of an esoteric lexicon including such words as "eldritch," "rugose," "noisome," "squamous," "ichor," and "cyclopean," and of attempts to transcribe dialect speech which have been criticized as clumsy, imprecise, and condescending. His works also featured British English (he was an admitted Anglophile), and he sometimes made use of anachronistic spellings, such as "compleat/complete," "lanthorn/lantern," and "phantasy/fantasy" (the latter also appearing as "phantastic" and "phantabulous").
Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer. During his lifetime he wrote thousands of these letters, however the exact number of letters he wrote is still hotly debated. An estimate of 100,000 seems to be the most likely figure, arrived at by L. Sprague de Camp. Lovecraft inscribed multiple pages to his group of correspondents in small longhand. He sometimes dated his letters 200 years before the current date, which would have put the writing back in U.S. colonial times, before the American Revolution that offended his Anglophilia. He explained that he thought that the 18th and 20th centuries were the "best"; the former being a period of noble grace, and the latter a century of science.
In "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), Lovecraft wrote:
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age."
Lovecraft's protagonists are nevertheless always driven to this "piecing together," delving into aspects of the universe which humanity has not - or should not - tried to understand. When such vistas are opened, the mind of the protagonist-investigator is often destroyed. Those who actually encounter "living" manifestations of the incomprehensible are particularly likely to go mad.
Those characters who attempt to make use of such knowledge are almost invariably doomed. Sometimes their work attracts the attention of malevolent beings; sometimes, in the spirit of Frankenstein, they are destroyed by monsters of their own creation.
Nonhuman influences on humanity
The beings of Lovecraft's mythos often have human (or mostly human) servants; Cthulhu, for instance, is worshipped under various names by cults amongst both the Eskimos of Greenland and voodoo circles of Louisiana, and in many other parts of the world. Likewise, certain locales or groups of people owe their heritage or are influenced by nonhuman forces; Innsmouth, a town whose population has a history of interbreeding with Deep Ones and worshipping Dagon, is an example.
These worshippers served a useful narrative purpose for Lovecraft. Many beings of the Mythos are too powerful to be defeated by human opponents, and so horrific that direct knowledge of them means 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 temporary victories. Lovecraft, like his contemporaries, envisioned "savages" as closer to the Earth, only in Lovecraft's case, this meant, so to speak, closer to Cthulhu.
Another recurring theme in Lovecraft's stories is the idea that descendants in a bloodline can never escape the stain of atrocities committed by their forebears. Descendants may be very far removed, both in place and in time (and, indeed, in culpability), from the act itself, and yet blood will tell ("The Rats in the Walls," "The Lurking Fear," "Arthur Jermyn," "The Alchemist," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). An example of a crime that Lovecraft apparently considered heinous enough for this consequence is cannibalism ("The Picture in the House," and, again "The Rats in the Walls").
In some cases, this atavism manifests physically, with characters showing genetic traits that link them to nonhuman or inhuman ancestors, and thereby to the grotesqueries associated with them.
Inability to escape fate
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, as in "The Colour Out of Space". 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).
Civilization under threat
Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilization struggling against more barbaric, primitive elements. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly-educated men who are gradually corrupted by some evil influence.
In such stories, the "curse" is often a hereditary one, either because of interbreeding with non-humans (e.g. "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family" (1920), "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1931)) or through direct magical influence (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). Physical and mental degradation often come together; this theme of 'tainted blood' may represent concerns relating to Lovecraft's own family history, particularly the death of his father due to what Lovecraft must have suspected to be a syphilitic disorder.
In other tales, an entire society is threatened by barbarism. Sometimes the barbarism comes as an external threat, with a civilized race destroyed in war (e.g. "Polaris"). Sometimes, an isolated pocket of humanity falls into decadence and atavism of its own accord (e.g. "The Lurking Fear"). But most often, such stories involve a civilized culture being gradually undermined by a malevolent underclass influenced by inhuman forces.
Despite the unique and interesting nature of many of Lovecraft's works, several are marred by a racist streak deeply ingrained in the author's personality. A common dramatic device in Lovecraft's work is to associate virtue, intellect, elevated class position, civilization, and rationality with white Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, which he often posed in contrast to the corrupt, intellectually inferior, uncivilized and irrational, which he associated with people he characterized as being of lower class, impure racial "stock" and/or non European ethnicity and dark skin complexion who were often the villains in his writings.
Some of his most hostile racist views can be found in his poetry, particularly in "On the Creation of Niggers," and "New England Fallen" (both 1912). In "On the Creation of Niggers" in particular, Lovecraft takes this to an extreme, explicitly characterizing black people as sub-human:
“ When, long ago, the gods created Earth;
In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were designed;
Yet were too remote from humankind.In "The Call of Cthulhu" he writes of a captured group of "mongrel" worshippers of Cthulhu:
To fill the gap, and join the rest of Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger. ”
“the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattos, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetishism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with suprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.”
Lovecraft also expressed racist and ethnocentric beliefs in his personal correspondence. In a letter of January 23, 1920, Lovecraft wrote:
“ For evolved man -- the apex of organic progress on the Earth -- what branch of reflection is more fitting than that which occupies only his higher and exclusively human faculties? The primal savage or ape merely looks about his native forest to find a mate; the exalted Aryan should lift his eyes to the worlds of space and consider his relation to infinity!!!! ”
In "Herbert West - Reanimator," Lovecraft gives an account of a just-deceased African-American male. He asserts:
“ He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms that I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life - but the world holds many ugly things. ”
In "The Horror at Red Hook", one character is described as "an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth". In "Medusa's Coil," ghostwritten by Lovecraft for Zealia Bishop, the story's final surprise--after the revelation that the story's villain is a vampiric medusa--is that she:
“ was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe's most primal grovellers.... [T]hough in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress." ”
In "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," there is a somewhat more patronizing description of an African - New English couple: "The present negro inhabitants were known to him, and he was very courteously shewn about the interior by old Asa and his stout wife Hannah." In contrast to their apparently alien landlord: "a small rodent-featured person with a guttural accent"
In the short story "The Rats in the Walls," one of the narrator/protagonist's nine cats is named "Nigger-Man":
“ As I have said, I moved in on July 16, 1923. My household consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am particularly fond. My eldest cat, "Nigger-Man," was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts ..." ”
The narrators in "The Street," "Herbert West: Reanimator," "He," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Horror at Red Hook," and many other tales express sentiments which could be considered hostile towards Jews. Lovecraft married a woman of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, Sonia Greene, who later said she had to repeatedly remind Lovecraft of her background when he made anti-Semitic remarks. "Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York," Greene wrote after her divorce from Lovecraft, "Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind."
To some extent, Lovecraft's ideas regarding race reflect attitudes common in his era; racial segregation laws were enforced throughout much of the United States and many states had enacted eugenics laws and prohibitions against "miscegenation" which were also common in non-Roman Catholic areas of Europe. A popular movement during the 1920s succeeded in drastically restricting immigration to the United States, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which featured expert testimony to the United States Congress on the threat to American society from the assimilation of more "inferior stock" from eastern and southern Europe.
Lovecraft was an avowed Anglophile, and held English culture to be the comparative pinnacle of civilization, with the descendants of the English in America as something of a second-class offshoot, and everyone else below them (see, for example, his poem "An American to Mother England"). His love for English history and culture is often repeated in his work (such as King Kuranes' nostalgia for England in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath").
Lovecraft's ideas about eugenics often extended to his white characters. He showed greater sympathy for Caucasian and culturally European groups. The narrator of "Cool Air" speaks disparagingly of the poor Hispanics of his neighborhood, but respects the wealthy and aristocratic Spaniard Dr. Muñoz, for his Celtiberian origins, and because he is "a man of birth, cultivation, and discrimination." The degenerate descendants of Dutch immigrants in the Catskill Mountains, "who correspond exactly to the decadent element of white trash in the South" ("Beyond the Wall of Sleep", 1919), are common targets. In "The Temple," Lovecraft's narrator is a highly unsympathetic figure: a World War I U-boat captain whose faith in his "iron German will" and the superiority of the Fatherland lead him to machine-gun survivors in lifeboats and, later, kill his own crew, while blinding him to the curse he has brought upon himself. However, according to Lovecraft: A Biography, by L. Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft was horrified by reports of anti-Semitic violence in Germany (prior to World War II, which Lovecraft did not live to see), suggesting that Lovecraft was opposed to violent extermination of those he regarded as "inferiors".
Lovecraft's racism has been a continued focus of scholarly and interpretive interest. S.T. Joshi, one of the foremost Lovecraft scholars, notes that "There is no denying the reality of Lovecraft's racism, nor can it merely be passed off as "typical of his time," for it appears that Lovecraft expressed his views more pronouncedly (although usually not for publication) than many others of his era. It is also foolish to deny that racism enters into his fiction." In his book "H.P. Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life," Michel Houellebecq argues that "racial hatred" provided the emotional force and inspiration for much of Lovecraft's greatest works.
Lovecraft racist antagonism is a corollary of his nihilistic notion of biological determinism: At the Mountains of Madness, in which explorers discover evidence of a completely alien race (the Elder Things) who created human beings through bioengineering but who were eventually destroyed by their brutish shoggoth slaves. Even after several members of the party are killed by revived Elder Things, Lovecraft's narrator expresses sympathy for them: "They were the men of another age and another order of being... what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible... Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn — whatever they had been, they were men!"
These lines of thought in Lovecraft's worldview -- racism and romantic reactionary defense of cultural order in the face of the degenerative modern world -- have led some scholars to see a special affinity to the aristocratic, anti-modernism of Traditionalist Julius Evola:
“Certainly "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" with its grandiose portrayal of the onyx city respires the cool and elegant spirit of Tradition, arraigned against which in several stories is the sink of decadence, Innsmouth, an inbred population made up of the offspring of lustful mariners and sea monsters, the negative force of counter-Tradition. The eternal struggle between the Uranian power of light and the telluric forces of chaos is reflected in Lovecraft's work"”
Some have interpreted Lovecraft's racial attitude as being more cultural than brutally biological: Lovecraft showed sympathy to others who were pacifically assimilated into Western culture, to the extent of even marrying a Jewish woman whom he viewed as "well assimilated".
Women in Lovecraft's fiction are rare, and sympathetic women virtually non-existent; the few leading female characters in his stories — like Asenath Waite (though actually an evil male wizard who has taken over an innocent girl's body) in "The Thing on the Doorstep" and Lavinia Whateley in "The Dunwich Horror" — are invariably servants of sinister forces. Romance is likewise almost absent from his stories; where he touches on love, it is usually a platonic love (e.g. "The Tree"). His characters live in a world where sexuality is negatively connotated — if it is productive at all, it gives birth to less-than-human beings ("The Dunwich Horror").
In this context, it might be helpful to draw attention to the scale of Lovecraft's horror, which has often been described by critics as "cosmic horror." Operating on a grand, cosmic scale as his stories are, they assign humanity a minor, insignificant role. Consequently, it is not female sexuality to which the stories categorically deny a vital and positive role — rather, it is human sexuality in general. Also, Lovecraft states in a private letter (to one of the several female intellectuals he befriended) that discrimination against women is an "oriental" superstition from which "aryans" ought to free themselves: evident racism aside, the letter seems to preclude at least conscious misogyny (as does, indeed, his private life otherwise).
Risks of a Scientific Era
At the turn of the 20th century, man's increased reliance upon science was both opening new worlds and solidifying the manners by which he could understand them. Lovecraft portrays this potential for a growing gap of man's understanding of the universe as a potential for horror. Most notably in "The Colour Out of Space," the inability of science to comprehend a meteorite leads to horror.
In a letter to James F. Morton in 1923, Lovecraft specifically points to Einstein's theory on relativity as throwing the world into chaos and making the cosmos a jest. And in a 1929 letter to Woodburn Harris, he speculates that technological comforts risk the collapse of science. Indeed, at a time when men viewed science as limitless and powerful, Lovecraft imagined alternative potential and fearful outcomes.
Lovecraft was influenced by such authors as Robert W. Chambers (The King in Yellow) (of whom H. P. 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"), Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan), Lord Dunsany, (The Gods of Pegana and other Dunsany works), Edgar Allan Poe , A. Merritt (The Moon Pool, later a great liking and admiration of the original of The Metal Monster) and Lovecraft's friends Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.
Beyond direct adaptation, Lovecraft and his stories have had a profound impact on popular culture and have been praised by many modern writers. Some influence was direct, as he was a friend, inspiration, and correspondent to many of his contemporaries, such as Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Many later figures were influenced by Lovecraft, including author and artist Clive Barker, prolific horror writer Stephen King, film directors John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon, game designers Sandy Petersen and Keichiro Toyama, and artist H. R. Giger. H. P. Lovecraft’s name is virtually synonymous with horror fiction; his writing, particularly his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, movies, comic books, even cartoons. Batman’s nemesis “The Joker”, for example, is said to be incarcerated at Arkham Asylum; Arkham being an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, F. Paul Wilson, Bentley Little, Thomas Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges dedicated his pointedly Lovecraftian short story "There are More Things" -- a reference to Hamlet's "...in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" -- to the memory of Lovecraft. Contemporary French writer Michel Houellebecq wrote a literary biography of Lovecraft called H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Shades of Lovecraft surface throughout Houellebecq's work. Prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates wrote an introduction for a collection of Lovecraft stories. In 2005 Lovecraft was somewhat controversially given a volume in the Library of America series, essentially declaring him a canonical great American writer. While he's invoked as a godfather to fantastical genres, his thematics -- surely some of the bleakest "realism" ever conveyed -- have also sown strange offspring.
Other authors have written stories that are explicitly set in the same reality as Lovecraft's original stories. Lovecraft pastiches are common. Lovecraft's characteristic devices -- like the object that drives one insane upon seeing it -- are now eponymous.
He has also been held responsible for the invention of the philosophy "Cosmicism" which was reflected in many works beyond his own, including the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still.
A number of heavy metal bands, including Behemoth, Symphony X, Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Brown Jenkins, Electric Wizard, Dark Moor, Metallica, Morbid Angel, GWAR, Nile, Adagio, Philosopher, Aarni, Dragonland, Bal-Sagoth, Crypticus, 1349, Therion, Yyrkoon, Manticora, Azathoth, The Axis of Perditon and Vesania have been influenced lyrically by Lovecraft's work. One band chose its name from a chapter title in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, A Nightmare & A Cataclysm. British metal band Cradle of Filth released an album in 2002 entitled "Lovecraft and Witch Hearts." On the inside cover is part of a poem by H. P. Lovecraft, and reads as follows:
- For here, apart, dwells one whose hands have wrought
- Strange eidola that chill the world with fear;
- Whose graven runes in tomes of dread have taught
- What things beyond the star-gulfs lurk and leer.
- Dark Lord of Averoigne - whose windows stare
- On pits of dream no other gaze could bear!"
The British punk band Rudimentary Peni in 1987 released "Cacophony," an album wholly structured around H. P. Lovecraft and his works. The songs are alternatively pseudo-biographical (e.g. "Better Not Born," about the young Lovecraft's contemplation of suicide) or directly inspired from his works (e.g. "Nightgaunts," "Drinking Song from 'The Tomb'"). The spoken-word track "Twitch" in particular is a curious tribute to Lovecraft's work. It begins, "Howard Phillips Lovecraft, heaven knows, had a talent for writing which was of no means proportion: only what he did with this talent was a shame, and a caution and an eldritch horror," and becomes progressively more sinister. He is accused, for instance, of "rewriting (for pennies) the crappy manuscripts of writers whose complete illiteracy would have been a boon to all mankind... and producing ghastly, grisly, ghoulish, and horrifying works of his own as well." Parts of this was taken from Avram Davidsons 1963 review of "The Survivor or Others" in "Fantasy & Science Fiction".
The Live After Death album from Iron Maiden shows Eddie the Head on a stormy night rising from his grave. His gravestone has a quote from Lovecraft: "That is not dead, which can eternal lie. Yet with strange eons, even death may die", a quote also present in the lyrics of "The Thing That Should Not Be", by Metallica. The quote is also used in "Poet Laureate Infinity", a song by rapper Canibus.
A few non-metal bands have also used Lovecraftian sources, including The Fall, The Vaselines, Fields of the Nephilim, and The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. Australian hiphop group Nick Sweepah & Aux One include references to Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos on their self-titled EP of 2005. And the band "Living Colour" derives its name from "The Colour Out of Space".
"Mountains Of Madness" is a visual / musical stage-production with Alexander Hacke (German musician, long-time member of Einstürzende Neubauten), UK band The Tiger Lillies and Danielle de Picciotto (drawings), which is entirely based on Lovecraft's work. The Premiere took place in Berlin in 2005. A DVD also titled "Mountains Of Madness" was released in 2006. Tiger Lillies with Hacke & de Picciotto performed several live shows with this production in 2005 - 2007.
Lovecraft's style of horror has been implemented in Call of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games and many video games, including Clive Barker's Undying, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil 4, and more explicitly in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and the MMORPG Cthulhu Nation.
There have also been detailed references to the Cthulhu mythos in current and near current science fiction (for example, "Babylon 5 Thirdspace" and the Doctor Who new adventures novels.)
Lovecraft appears as himself in the television tie-in novel, "Stargate SG-1: Roswell", where he is credited for inspiring both Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis.
Survey of the work
For most of the 20th century, the definitive editions (specifically At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, The Dunwich Horror and Others, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions) of his prose fiction were published by Arkham House, a publisher originally started with the intent of publishing the work of Lovecraft, but which has since published a considerable amount of other literature as well. Penguin Classics has at present issued three volumes of Lovecraft's works: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, and most recently The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. They collect the standard texts as edited by S. T. Joshi, most of which were available in the Arkham House editions, with the exception of the restored text of "The Shadow Out of Time" from The Dreams in the Witch House, which had been previously released by small-press publisher Hippocampus Press. In 2005 the prestigious Library of America canonized Lovecraft with a volume of his stories edited by Peter Straub, and Random House's Modern Library line just released the "definitive edition" of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness (also including "Supernatural Horror in Literature").
Lovecraft's poetry is collected in The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft, while much of his juvenilia, various essays on philosophical, political and literary topics, antiquarian travelogues, and other things, can be found in Miscellaneous Writings. Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature", first published in 1927, is a historical survey of horror literature available with endnotes as The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature.
Although Lovecraft is known mostly for his works of weird fiction, the bulk of his writing consists of voluminous letters about a variety of topics, from weird fiction and art criticism to politics and history. S. T. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft wrote about 87,500 letters from 1912 until his death in 1937, including one 70-page letter from November 9, 1929, to Woodburn Harris.
Lovecraft was not a very active letter-writer in youth. In 1931 he admitted: "In youth I scarcely did any letter-writing — thanking anybody for a present was so much of an ordeal that I would rather have written a two hundred fifty-line pastoral or a twenty-page treatise on the rings of Saturn." (SL 3.369–70). The initial interest in letters stemmed from his correspondence with his cousin Phillips Gamwell but even more important was his involvement in the amateur journalism movement, which was responsible for the enormous number of letters Lovecraft produced.
Lovecraft clearly states that his contact to numerous different people through letter-writing was one of the main factors in broadening his view of the world: "I found myself opened up to dozens of points of view which would otherwise never have occurred to me. My understanding and sympathies were enlarged, and many of my social, political, and economic views were modified as a consequence of increased knowledge." (SL 4.389).
Today there are four publishing houses that have released letters from Lovecraft, most prominently Arkham House with its five-volume edition Selected Letters. Other publishers are Hippocampus Press (Letters to Alfred Galpin et al.), Night Shade Books (Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei et al.) and Necronomicon Press (Letters to Samuel Loveman and Vincent Starrett et al).
There is controversy over the copyright status of many of Lovecraft's works, especially his later works. For a detailed acount,see H.P.Lovecraft copyright status.
In the Mythos
There has always been a meta-narrative quality to many of even Lovecraft's earliest works, and this continued as the circle of Mythos authors grew. Lovecraft early on began including himself in the Mythos as a descendent of the Great Old Ones. So began Lovecraft becoming a part of his own stories.
But to further complicate the situation, subsequent writers, like August Derleth, would narratively place Lovecraft, the man, in their stories as a fictional character and writer. The Mythos Lovecraft, who had penned stories identical to the real-world Lovecraft works, had not written the stories as works of fiction, but documentary works based on his own experiences and as documentation of others' experiences.