Monday 16 June 2014

For The Love Of Lovecraft...

“I could not help feeling that they were evil things-- mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething , half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial; and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world.” 

The above passage from the short story/novella 'At The Mountains Of Madness (1931), is typical of Lovecraft's writing style. It's dense, occasionally clumsy, with a penchant for arcane language and seemingly old-fashioned even by his contemporary standards. Yet H.P. Lovecraft, a New England writer who died in 1937 and was largely unrecognised in his own lifetime has had a profound influence on horror and science fiction ever since. His influences can be seen in the works of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Guillermo Del Toro, H.R. Giger and Ridley Scott.

Arguably out of all the individual monsters and occult horrors that spilled from Lovecraft's mind, the greatest is the collected mythology, the tentacles of which have spread into the public consciousness and continue to grow thanks to his ever growing fan-base. What is it about the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft that endure and resonate with modern audiences? After all in was nearly a century ago when the New England native began penning his weird and macabre tales of unimaginable cosmic horrors. Yet the mythology he created around primordial galactic gods and foolish mortals driven to madness has become a staple of modern popular culture with nods to his work found everywhere from films to cartoons.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” — 'Supernatural Horror in Literature' (1925 1927) 

Born on 20th August, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island into an old family by US standards. When Lovecraft was only three-years-old, his father suffered a nervous breakdown in a hotel room in Chicago before being brought back and committed to Butler Hospital, where he remained for five years before dying on 19th July, 1898 from what is suspected to be paresis, a form of neurosyphilis. Lovecraft was subsequently raised by his mother, his two aunts, and grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips.

Lovecraft was an avid reader from an early age and became obsessed with Arabian Nights, even adopting an Arabic pseudonym for himself in “Abdul Alhazred,” to whom he would later attribute as the writer of the mythical Necronomicon.

Lovecraft was a sickly child and suffered from a number of psychosomatic ailments, which would lead to him infrequently attending school. Despite this Lovecraft was an advanced reader and developed an aptitude for chemistry and astronomy, indeed some of his earliest published works were in scientific journals. Lovecraft would ultimately suffer a nervous breakdown of his own shortly before graduating high school and as such never received his diploma. Lovecraft would retreat from the public and develop a love/hate relationship with his mother, who never got over the death of her husband, Lovecraft's father. His mother would later have a breakdown and ultimately die from botched gall bladder surgery in 1919. It was during this time however that Lovecraft began to see his letters and poetry published in various journals.

Lovecraft's writing style was heavily influenced by writers and poets such as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Alexander Pope, Lord Dunsany as well as the macabre gothic horror of Edgar Allen Poe. This gave Lovecraft's prose an archaic but authoritative air that instilled even his contemporary-set fiction with a sense of blurred time that complimented his weird themes. His stories slowly began to be circulated and his first published story, 'The Alchemist' would appear in United Amateur in 1916. However it wouldn't be until 1922 that Lovecraft would see his first commercially published work.

Lovecraft's unique blend of science fiction, horror and the occult stood out amongst his peers at the time. Reoccurring motifs such as the unseen hand of ancient powers and races influencing modern man, horrors not fully comprehensible, deep time, madness and forbidden knowledge drew his readers in and slowly unveiled a world that forced them to draw on their own subconscious fears.

“I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions.” — 'Notes On Writing Weird Fiction' (1937) 

The Simon "Necronomicon"

It is perhaps fare to say that Lovecraft is a writer for the scientific age. Gone are the supernatural horrors, ghosts, ghouls, and demons of the horror fiction that preceded him. In their place are indifferent creatures from the depths of time and space. Evil looking down from the stars that science continues to yearn to reach. They are older than man, older than the Earth itself. In the same way explorers wrote 'Here Be dragons' on the unexplored portions on the slowly expanding maps of the world, so Lovecraft looked into the depth of time and vastness of the cosmos and filled the gaps with his own monsters.

Many of Lovecraft's stories would feature a character (or characters) who, usually against sound judgement and woefully unprepared, would endeavour to push beyond the realms of human endeavour spiritually, scientifically or simply out of idle curiosity. Often meeting a terrible fate at the hands of some unknown horror.

Although Lovecraft's works were populated with monsters, cults and occult he let the reader do a lot of the work and avoided the mistakes of over explaining every detail to give everything a back story. Instead these horrors simply existed, ambivalent towards mankind. Even the contents of the occult tools he imagined, such as the legendary Necronomicon were never explored in depth. This suggestiveness was slowly built upon until it formed a mythos, thinly threaded together and open to interpretation and addition. 

“The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” Supernatural Horror in Literature' (1925 1927) 

Lovecraft spent the majority of his life in Providence Rhode Island, aside from a period where he moved to New York City with his wife Sonia Haft Greene who was a Russian Jew and several years older than him. They moved to Borough of Brooklyn where initially Lovecraft began to get a foothold as a professional writer, while Sonia ran a hat shop on Fifth Avenue. However soon things took a disastrous turn and before long Lovecraft found himself in an apartment near Red Hook. It was a bleak period that was reflected in his writing. Stories such as 'He' and 'The Horror At Red Hook' is unequivocal in his disdain for New York and the growing immigrant population.
My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.” 'He' (1925) 

Lovecraft harboured a deep sense of identitarianism in his writings and his views even at the time were deemed distasteful. They came forward in his work from his earliest amateur journalism in his own publication The Conservative, and more so in the form of disparaging remarks and descriptions of not only of those of a non-northern European origin, but in the humanoid creatures he envisioned in his fiction. Even though Lovecraft's later correspondence with friends would see him engage in discussions about race and creed that would serve to soften his views, the xenophobia of his youth continues to be a main source of reticence for his detractors.

“He had a narrow head, bulging, watery blue eyes that seemed never to wink, a flat nose, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly undeveloped ears. His long, thick lip and coarse-pored, greyish cheeks seemed almost beardless except for some sparse yellow hairs that straggled and curled in irregular patches; and in places the surface seemed queerly irregular, as if peeling from some cutaneous disease. [...]
“His oddities certainly did not look Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine, or negroid, yet I could see why the people found him alien. I myself would have thought of biological degeneration rather than alienage.” — 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' (1936) 

“Examined at headquarters after a trip of intense strain and weariness, 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 mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult.” — The Call Of Cthulhu (1928) 

Although the themes and ideas of Lovecraft's work appeal to the modern era's existential obsession with the unknown and the fear of what lurks there, his writing style was heavily set in antiquated eighteenth century literature he grew up with. A major criticism of Lovecraft that is often brought up is his use of baroque description and heavy use of convoluted adjectives, with words such as “Cyclopean” and “Eldritch” regularly featuring in his work. He also had a tendency to write stories from a first person perspective which, while providing a deep psychological insight into the horror the narrator was experiencing, did often mean that the stories were wrapped-up in a somewhat clumsy manner with something hideous and out of sight coming for the narrator while he is writing his experiences down and making no attempts to save himself.
“The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!” — 'Dagon' (1917) 

One of Lovecraft's greatest literary achievements though was in a very different use of language. Names such as Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth are almost Sumerian in their construction and imply lineage that has walked, unseen besides mankind. There are also small snippets of ancient, unpronounceable languages hint at a greater truth that has been all but lost except to a few pockets throughout the globe.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. (In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.)” — 'The Call of Cthulhu' (1928) 

Yet for all of Lovecraft's personal foibles, often clumsy, dense and anecdotal writing style. His grip on the modern imagination has not waned. Although there was a danger that it may have been forgotten altogether if it hadn't been for the dedication of his friends to set up the publisher Arkham House to produce hardback collections of his work posthumously. His writing has influenced some of the greatest works in horror and science fiction that have come since with 'At The Mountains Of Madness' reflected in Ridley Scott's 'Alien' and the body horror of 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'  in 'The Thing', and the aesthetics of the Lovecraftian bestiary are plain to see in the menagerie of creatures prominent in the films of Guillermo Del Toro. Even in children's cartoons such as Maxwell Atoms' 'Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy' creatures such as Cthulhu making an appearance.
“There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets momentarily suggest.” — 'Notes On Writing Weird Fiction' (1937) 

The wider Cthulhu Mythos was added to, under the encouragement, of Lovecraft himself during his lifetime by his friends such as Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, and with every new generation of writers with the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joanna Russ and J. Ramsay Campbell, more and more continue to add to the collective tapestry of the mythos. It has almost become a rite of passage for aspiring horror/sci-fi writers to imitate Lovecraft and add their spin to the mythos with even yours truly having penned a few Lovecraftian horrors while undertaking Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Perhaps the best of which 'The Devil In The Crypt' – a story of a malignant horror discovered after some ill advised exploration of an old church on the Yorkshire coast – still remains locked away on an old floppy disk yearning for revision.

Lovecraft died st the turning point of his career from intestinal cancer. His work finally looking like it would start to bring him commercial success. Today Lovecraft's work has been translated into different languages, his most famous creature Cthulhu has become a merchandising favourite with toys and games bearing its likeness. His works have been transferred (with varying degrees of success) to the big screen. Even his Necronomicon has been fleshed out and produced as a pseudo grimoire for the ever growing masses with an interest in occult studies. His work has continued to grow after his death and as long as humanity continues to push unfettered into the unknown of science, so to will his creations remain all the more relevant.

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.” — 'The Nameless City' (1921) 

Beyond Lovecraft: 

'The Mist' by Stephen King 
'A Study In Emerald' by Neil Gaiman 
'The Shadow From The Steeple' by Robert Bloch 
'Beyond The Threshold' by August Derleth
'The Courtyard' by Alan Moore 
'My Boat' by Joanna Russ 
'Alien' Directed by Ridley Scott 
'Hellboy' Directed by Guillmo Del Toro
'Re-animator' Directed by Stuart Gordon 
'Alone In The Dark' (series) by Infogrames
'The Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy' Created by Maxwell Atoms (Season 4, Episode 13)

For more information on H.P. Lovecraft please visit The H.P. Lovecraft Archive.

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