From the Crypt: Lovecraft's Literary Legacy Lives!

Wow. Preparing a response to a Facebook post about H.P. Lovecraft, I found myself thinking that I had covered the topic in a post several years ago; however, I could not find the post anywhere on Hollywood Gothique's website, even with the help of a carefully worded Google search. It turns out the reason is that, somehow or other, the post never got transferred to the new website; in fact, it was, technically, never even on the previous version of this website. The post dates all the way back to the original incarnation of Hollywood Gothique, when it was a just a few static pages (with lists of haunts), and the blog element was a separate "web tool" offered by my web hosting service.

For quite a while, I have been thinking of permanently deleting that web tool, because all the old posts had supposedly been transferred. It's quite a shock to realize that I might have lost a piece that I think is pretty decent.

The article dates from March 15, 2005. It was written in response to the publication of the Library of America's 800-plus-pages hardcover collection of Lovecraft's fiction, edited by Peter Straub. Read it below:

Lovecraft Tales Library of America
Click to Purchase

H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most important American authors of the 20th century.

That statement elicited an adamant rejection from my sophomore English teacher when I made it in a book report decades ago. Consequently, I am extremely pleased to see that time has vindicated my opinion: last week, the Library of America(a non-profit publisher dedicated to "preserving the works of America's greatest writers in handsome, enduring volumes, featuring authoritative texts") published a hardcover edition collecting Lovecraft's horror fiction into an 800+pages volume.Edited by Peter Straub (the author of such literary and intelligent horror fiction as GHOST STORY and SHADOWLANDS), the book provides a sort of official seal of approval for Lovecraft, who is too often dismissed as little more than a cult writer.

Lovecraft's significance to genre literature is tremendous. He is sort of the missing link between classic and modern horror. Traditional horror stories and Gothic novels tend to be morality tales in which good and evil are clearly defined: evil causes lots of trauma and terror, but it is ultimately vanquished, and good prevails. Lovecraft, on the other hand (inspired by his interest in science, particularly astronomy), imagined a cold, indifferent cosmos, in which human consciousness and all that it entailed (including morality) is an insignificant blip. It was existential horror of the most profoundly disturbing sort, reducing humanity to a play-thing for cosmic forces beyond our control and ken.

Unfortunately, Lovecraft expressed this concept in stories written in dense, florid prose that turns off "serious" readers, which probably accounts for his low standing in critical circles. To be fair, one should point out two things: 1) Lovecraft usually wrote his stories in the first person, so that the breathless, overheated style represented the fevered state of mind of his protagonists, driven to mania by their realization of the disturbing nature of the universe; 2) in at least some case, there appears to be an element of self parody involved, with the author intentionally crafting long-winded sentences for the benefit of his own amusement (rather like a demented William Faulkner).

In any case you can get a good grasp of the attitudes toward Lovecraft by reading two articles written in response to the publication of the new Library of America volume: "Master of Disgust" by Laurie Miller in Salon (you need to watch a brief ad to access the article) and "H.P. Lovecraft's Afterlife" by Jonathan J. Miller (presumably no relation) in Opinion Journal, from the Wall Street Journals editorial page.1

Both articles address the good and the bad in Lovecraft's fiction, but Laurie Miller is clearly more critical and less astute in her assessment. She accurately describes much of the appeal and effectiveness of his stories, but she writes as if they were all the same. Apparently, she is unaware that Lovecraft's fiction evolved as he aged; he was only forty-seven when he died in 1937, but his work had matured significantly over the course of his relatively short career.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Lovecraft was a racist who bought into the (unfortunately still not completely abandoned) theory that white Ayrians represent the pinnacle of evolution. Much of his early work features swarthy ethnic types as the villains, and one recurring theme is the fear of de-evolution: i.e., sliding back down the evolutionary ladder into bestiality (for example, see "The Lurking Fear").

In his later fiction, however, Lovecraft moves away from pure horror toward science fiction.The fear of the unknown turns into a sense of wonder at the marvels of the universe. And the ugly monstrosities that lumber through the stories are revealed to be not gods or demons but aliens and inter-dimensional beings. Not only that, but once you look past their appearance, they often turn out to be sympathetic.

For instance, in "At the Mountains of Madness," the narrator proclaims of the ancient aliens that killed the research team that discovered their frozen bodies in the Antarctic: "They had not been even savages...Poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last -- what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence... Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn -- whatever they had been, they were men!"2

In effect, Lovecraft's early xenophobia gives way to a more enlightened view, and he no longer generates fear in response to the "horrible other" who frightens merely because he looks different from us. In effect, he leaves the horror genre behind and prefigures the STAR TREK approach to monstrous-looking aliens (e.g. "The Devil in the Dark"), who turn out to share a common humanity with us beneath their repulsive exteriors. It might be going too far to say that Lovecraft became a card-carrying liberal in his later days, but it is a mistake in Laurie Miller's article that she totally ignores this development in his later fiction.

The Library of America publication is only the latest step in the preservation of H.P Lovecraft's literary heritage. Arkham House collected all his fiction into a fine four-volume set edited by S.T. Joshi: THE DUNWICH HORROR AND OTHERS; AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS AND OTHER NOVELS; DAGON AND OTHER TALES; and THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM AND OTHER REVISIONS (featuring tales that Lovecraft anonymously rewrote for the credited authors).

There is also an ANNOTATED H.P. LOVECRAFT, with notes by S.T. Joshi. And esteemed literary author Joyce Carol Oates (who dabbles in horror fiction herself from time to time) contributed an essay for the 2000 anthology TALES OF H.P. LOVECRAFT. A search through Amazon will reveal numerous other collections as well, many of them affordable paperbacks. If you've never read his work before, now might be a good time to start.

Footnote:

  1. Unfortunately, the links to these articles are long dead.
  2. In retrospect, I should have mentioned "In the Walls of Eryx" as well. Though the story is a collaboration with Kenneth Sterling, and therefore we cannot attribute all its sentiments to Lovecraft, it ends with a dying astronaut, who had previously advocated genocide upon the inhabitants of Venus, making a plea on their behalf. In a sense, the astronaut's change of heart mirrors Lovecraft's own moderation of his earlier views.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.