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I've never been a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft.  Although I loved monster movies as a kid, that love didn't really translate over to horror fiction.  I read "The Colour Out of Space" in high school and later borrowed a collection of Lovecraft stories from a friend who was a Cthulhu fan, but I didn't really get into them.  I found Lovecraft's prose to be dense and his characters not terribly engaging.  Most of all, I found Lovecraft's over-riding theme that Humanity is but a meaningless speck in a vast, uncaring (if not outright hostile) cosmos, unappealing.

But recently, I've been reading through a couple volumes of Lovecraft edited and annotated by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi that have been making me look at his work in a different light.  I hadn't really thought of Lovecraft as a science fiction writer, but actually his Cosmic Horror springs as much from his understanding of Science as it does from a sense of the Supernatural, and Lovecraft took great pains to check his stories against the science of his day.  Although I've read little of Lovecraft's work before, the truth is that all my life I've been reading stories that were influced by him.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 to a prosperous upper-class family in Providence, Rhode Island.  As a boy he had an intense love of reading and a burning curiousity about science.  His favorite authors were the great Victorian authors of imaginative literature, like Arthur Machan, Lord Dunasy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe.  Raised to privilage, he tried to model himself as a gentleman.  But with the death of his grandfather and the subsequent mis-management of his grandfather's estate, the family fortune dwindled.  His family's lack of money and an illness which prevented him from finishing high school kept him from attending college.  He found himself an unemployed gentleman with no marketable job skills, except his imagination.

What saved him was blogging.  The Internet, of course, did not exist in 1914, but something else did:  Amateur Publishing ssociations.  These early fanzines were publications in which amateur journalists could write about things that interested them and distribute them.  Lovecraft had already earned a small reputation writing to the letters columns of magazines such as Argosy, and was invited to join once such APA.  

This proved to be a perfect outlet for Lovecraft's self-expression because it allowed him to find an audience for his writing and make friends.  The lack of pay did not bother him, because he felt that a gentleman ought not to stoop to writing for hire; he believed in Art for Art's Sake.  The contact and correspondence with other views also allowed him to somewhat broaden the insular outlook his sheltered childhood had given him.

One of his friends was starting a humor magazine and asked Lovecraft to contribute a series of stories for it.  The resulting serial, "Herbert West -- Reanimator", was a broad parody of the horror genre and Lovecraft detested it.  Still, it was an entrance into the world of Commercial Fiction.  

In 1923 the magazine Weird Tales was founded, considered by many critics to be the first Pulp Magazine.  Lovecraft's circle of friends urged him to submit to it.  Although many of his stories were published in the pulps, Lovecraft never considered himself a pulp writer.  He distained writers who cranked out verbiage by the yard according to formula and tried to hold himself to the artistic standards of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.

By this time, Lovecraft's life had undergone dramatic upheavals.  His mother had died after a lenghty illness.  Sometime afterwards, he met a woman named Sonia H. Greene, a widow seven years his senior, at an amateur journalism convention.  She persuaded him to move to New York and they married.  Sonia was a businesswoman who owned a hat shop; but shortly after their marriage, the shop failed.  She was able to find a new job in Cleveland, but her husband stayed in New York.

Life in the Big City did not suit Lovecraft.  He found it threatening and impersonal.  In addition, he had difficulty finding work.  About the only good thing about his "exile", as he called it, was that it gave him greater contact with the friends he had made through his correspondence.  His circle of friends became known as "The Kalem Club", because most of it's members had names starting with the letters "K", "L" or "M".

After a few years, his aunts in Providence invited him to move in with them.  He welcomed the chance to escape the hated metropolis.  The invitation did not extend to Sonia.  She was, after all, in Trade, and the idea of her opening a shop in Providence was unthinkable.  And the fact that she was a Russian Jew probably had a lot to do with it too.  Lovecraft acceded to his aunt's demands.  He rarely saw his wife any more anyway; now he saw her even less, and they divorced in 1929.

His return to Providence marked a burst of output, and here he wrote what are considered some of his best stories, including the stories associated with what later became known as the "Cthulhu Mythos".  Many of these stories were set in upstate Massachusets near a fictional town called Arkham where the fabled Miskatonic University was located and many referenced a nebulous body of lore found in that unspeakable tome, the Necronomicon.

Lovecraft is sometimes regarded as a man born in the wrong century, because of his outdated notions of gentility and his pre-Victorian mannerisms, but in many ways he was very much a man of his time, the early Twentieth Century.  He had an abiding interest in science, but his philosophical interest led him to make connections that others might not have.  For him the great revelation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity was not in physics, but in metaphysics; by demonstrating that Matter and Energy are interchangeble, Lovecraft felt that Einstein had demolished the ancient duality of Matter and Spirit.  On a broader theme, mankind has known since Copernicus that he was not the Center of the Universe; but most people didn't think much about what that really, really meant.  Lovecraft did.

Lovecraft died in 1937 of intestinal cancer.  After his death, one of his friends August Derleth started a publishing company, Arkham House, to keep his works in print.  He also appointed himself a sort of keeper of the flame, organizing and expanding upon Lovecraft's stories into a kind of continuity, codifying the amorphous, non-Euclidian lore of Old Ones and Elder Gods into organized pantheons.  Derleth's "Cthulhu Mythos" is controversial among Lovecraft fans, but he did much to keep Lovecraft's stories alive.

Since Lovecraft wrote mostly shorter works, instead of discussing a single story of his, I'll be looking at a few of his short stories and a novella, which are collected in The Annotated H.P Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi.  I intended to start on the first one this week, but my biographical sketch would up a bit long; so next week we'll find out what's with "The Rats in the Walls" and experience the terror of "The Colour Out of Space."

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Comment Preferences

  •  Eldritch Tip Jar (39+ / 0-)

    In case you missed it before, I also recommend Spenser Troxell's diary H.P Lovecraft: Honest Theologan for a closer look at Lovecraft's world-view.  I don't necessarily agree with all of Spenser's assessments, but as he says of Lovecraft, they are honest ones.

    Oh, and I live for feedback.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 06:00:09 PM PDT

  •  Thanks q (10+ / 0-)

    I may not always leave a note, but I appreciate these diaries.

  •  I had heard of Lovecraft for years before starting (9+ / 0-)

    to read him at some point in my teens.  I had come across some of Derleth's mythos works prior to that and they had stimulated my interest.  At that time (the 1970s) finding Lovecraft books was not super easy, at least not where I lived.  Our public library had an Arkham House first edition of 'At the Mountains of Madness' on the shelf.  If they still have it, it must be worth a small fortune by now.  I was very struck by the title novella in the book and avidly pursued more of Lovecraft's work.

    Eventually I discovered Clark Ashton Smith who remains my favourite weird tales writer.

    "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

    by matching mole on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 06:51:51 PM PDT

  •  Back in the day.... (8+ / 0-)

    I was thinking back to the '70s when Lovecraft and the Illuminati were in-jokes for the in-the-know insiders of fandom. The Illuminati kind of got dissipated in the sea of tin-foil hattery that came since. But Lovecraft kind of osmosed into popular culture so that even Cartman is hanging with Cthulhu.

    OT: BTW, here's my latest achievement in Atom Punkery.

    Or is it Diesel Punkery because of how that engine sounds?

    "If this Studebaker had anymore Atomic Space-Age Style, you'd have to be an astronaut with a geiger counter!"

    by Stude Dude on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 07:08:08 PM PDT

  •  Lovecraft was a weird man (11+ / 0-)

    Brilliant writer of the macabre, but a very strange man.  And he was flawed as a writer. As you mentioned, he has dense prose and often underwhelming characters, but he was also a very lousy dialogue writer (and he seemed to know it too; there's not much dialogue in his works). As Stephen King (who considers Lovecraft one of his literary idols) mentions in On Writing:

    Lovcraft was by all accounts both snobbish and painfully shy (a galloping racist as well; his stories full of sinister Africans and the sort of scheming Jews my uncle Oren always worried about after four or five beers), the kind of writer who maintains a voluminous correspondence, but gets along poorly with people in person - were he alive today, he'd most likely existent most vibrantly in various Internet chat rooms.
    Lovecraft's greatest writing abilities were his concepts. I mean, the Cthulhu Mythos is a deeply imaginative and unsettling notion; the idea of these insanely powerful and horrific godlike entities who could drive a person to madness with a single glance and could destroy mankind like we step on ants. Think of all those who have followed in his footsteps, from Robert Bloch to the creators of Alien (Geiger's creation is straight out of Lovecraft) and you can see how influential he's been.
  •  I'm a fan of HPL (5+ / 0-)

    Even though he and his works are quite famous these days, I'm still glad that quarkstomper references him in a diary, if only because there are probably still people who haven't tried to read his stories about Cthulhu.  

  •  For Your Delectation (4+ / 0-)

    The full story in ninety seconds

    The White Race can not survive without dairy products - Herbert Hoover (-8.75,-8.36)

    by alain2112 on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 07:59:11 PM PDT

  •  I think you guys are a bit unfair to Lovecraft's (10+ / 0-)

    style and prose.  Style and prose are about all he had and they are what made him stand out, because his stories don't have a lot of plot or character development.  

    My worst problem with Lovecraft is that his stories are REPETITIVE.  The first Lovecraft story I read in high school, the novella The Whisperer in Darkness, scared the holy crap out of me in a way no book had ever done, maybe no book ever since then.  However, later Lovecraft books that I collected didn't have the same oomph because a big part of the effect is in the style; once you've been exposed to it, subsequent stories have to be compared to that first one.

    I agree with those that criticize Derleth for trying to make sense out of the "Cthulhu mythos."  That just ruins the whole thing.  It was never meant to be put together in a clear, concise way.  It was meant to be a device of scattered half-understood and ominous sounding things that SHOULD have some connection, but whatever connection existed was beyond the scope of the story.  As a tone-setting device, it was excellent.  Actually trying to make sense out of it ruins the effect.

    One of my pet peeves with science fiction is that it so often has very bad prose writing.  The only genre worse, on average, is adventure fiction.  The prose (and only the prose) of the average scifi story is a couple of stages lower on the food chain than that of horror.  Horror writers tend to depend more heavily on prose and style.  Lovecraft himself seems to have taken E.A. Poe as his model.  He's not nearly in the same class as Poe, but Poe left a lot of room for imitators.

  •  I recommend Munchkin Cthulhu for a fun take on (7+ / 0-)

    all this (linky here).  

    Also, here's a little "Mountains of Madness" fan trailer which has some fun with scenes from two very Lovecraftian movies, Alien and The Thing:

    And here is a fine and effective animated feature from Italy:


    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 08:46:34 PM PDT

  •  Nice shout out for Lovecraft. (5+ / 0-)

    I'm a sucker for Wierd Tales era pulp. I've been on the lookout for some decent collected editions of both Lovecraft's and Howard's work. I think Robert E. Howard is under appreciated due to the rubbish films that have been released loosely based on his stories. His "historical"/horror fiction managed to capture the pessimism of civil society and what he witnessed with the boom/bust oil towns throughout east TX.

  •  Lovecraft was a snitch (10+ / 0-)

    Never kept phonecalls secret even after putting his hand on a stack of Necronomicons this high.  Biggest blabber-mouth since that Abd Al-Azrad piker.

    (o0)
    //|\

    We haven't met but you're a great fan of mine

    by Great Cthulhu on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 09:41:10 PM PDT

  •  Lovecraft had great ideas, but poor execution. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ahianne, MT Spaces, Aunt Pat, quarkstomper

    Lovecraft had very imaginative and interesting ideas, but was an awful writer, his love of the words cyclopean, bactrachian and stygian are obvious to pretty much anyone who read more than two of the stories.  I think one of those words appear at least once in every one of the mythos stories.

    One thing I liked about the mythos in general was the idea that it could all sort of fit together in some unexplained way.  There was no magic, save what people chose to call magic based on poor understanding.  Many of the alien beings could be understood as if they were people.  Many of the horrors that existed in the universe were simply other beings which were so uniquely peculiar that they were difficult to describe as anything but monstrous when a human looked at them.

    Then there were other things in the universe.  Entities that weren't exactly people, whose existence was pre-ordained by the natural laws of the universe, and yet, were ultimately alien.  We had no idea such things existed simply because of the depths of our own ignorance.

    I really do like the idea of the writings and the concepts behind them.  I suspect 'Blindsight' is probably very heavily influenced by Lovecraft, as well as Pontypool.  There's probably countless other influenced works, but those are a couple that just sprang to mind.

    It seems to me that the single most important concept that Lovecraft wrote about was that our perception of reality and actual reality are two different things.  Sometimes it's very easy to forget that.  The fact that our perceptions could be violently inaccurate is where true horror begins.

  •  What lurks ...? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aunt Pat, fuzzyguy, quarkstomper

    Illustration by Hugh Rankin from Weird Tales (1927)

    ... my income falls because you’re spending less, and your income falls because I’m spending less. And, as our incomes plunge, our debt problem gets worse, not better. -- P. Krugman

    by MT Spaces on Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 06:49:28 AM PDT

  •  Check out Cthulu 2000 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, MT Spaces

    A collection of short stories -- some scary, a few very funny. I can't remember what collection I found it in, but I read a short story a few years ago about a frustrated writer who ended up being hired to write Cthulu fanfic, as it was one of the only things that kept Cthulu happy.

    I first came across Lovecraft at the tender age of 14 during a roll-playing game with friends. Ah, happy times. And do google Plushie Cthulu!

  •  Re: Quarkstomper's comment... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, kurt
    On a broader theme, mankind has known since Copernicus that he was not the Center of the Universe; but most people didn't think much about what that really, really meant.  Lovecraft did.
    Many people, even in this day and age, still don't. In much of modern science fiction, we still have a Earth-centric bent. I love the Traveller role-playing game for this reason - not only is Earth kind of off the beaten path in their core universe, but Terrans become the bad guys in the far future! (Our Terracentric ways turn into totalitarian, militaristic racism.)

    I should give a hearty recommendation to the fine folks at Chaosium, Inc., and their Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I run the game on occasion, and find it an excellent introduction to the Lovecraftian mythos, while you don't have to wade through HPL's purple prose, nor do you have to put up with his occasional racism. (He was still a man of his era;  it's something you have to put up with in pulp writing from this time. IIRC, he's better than some, though. Try wading through L. Ron Hubbard once - go on, I dare ya!)

    `Ideology offers human beings the illusion of dignity and morals while making it easier to part with them.'- Vaclav Havel

    by Black Brant on Sun Oct 07, 2012 at 04:12:11 PM PDT

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