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I should preface this by saying that the title of the post is as much a genuine question as clickbait, and I welcome any and all opinions on the subject. As I’ve alluded to in the past, my sole qualification for talking about Lovecraft fiction is pretty much exclusively limited to having read a buttload of Lovecraft fiction. But I’m not a Lovecraft purist: I’ll read pretty much any horror story I come across, and one thing I often find myself wondering is whether or not what I’ve just read could be considered—intentionally or unintentionally—to be Lovecraftian in nature. (I say “unintentionally” because I’ve definitely stumbled across compilations of Lovecraft mythos containing stories by authors whom I’m fairly certain emulated Lovecraft’s style accidentally*.) So, here is a list I’m likely to revisit as I read more, discuss more, and widen my scope.

  • The obvious: Cthulhu, the Deep Ones, Wilbur Whateley, night-gaunts, ghouls in the grave-robbing, tomb-dwelling, meeping sense of the term: if the story you’re reading contains one or more of the previous terms, it’s Lovecraftian by default. This definition pleases me the least, even though it’s clearly the least arguable and most correct. I’ve read plenty of poor Lovecraft pieces whose drama and development hinged on the incorporation of Lovecraft’s characters and settings—while I don’t think anyone who considers themselves a Lovecraft cultist can or should be snobby about this sort of borrowing, defining Lovecraftian character in this way runs the risk of removing a key element of creativity. And furthermore, it tends to smooth over subtleties in a way that makes the genre less meaningful. Some of the works that incorporate Lovecraft’s monsters have such a unique tone or direction that I’m hesitant to lump them in with the rest of Lovecraft fiction. I’ve read plenty of fiction that feels like pure Lovecraft but lacks a single reference to one of these touchstones.
  • Complete indifference: I love love love Clive Barker. He’s one of my favorite authors of modern horror in existence, and he frequently writes stories of unspeakable abominations, hideous monsters beyond imagining, terror that spans beyond the world and into mysterious dimensions beyond. But I absolutely wouldn’t classify him as a writer in Lovecraft’s genre. His abominations are too involved in the lives of the hapless humans they terrify. In the opening to Books of Blood, a fraudulent young medium is mutilated beyond recognition by a swarm of spirits. This premise could easily be made to fit the Lovecraft cannon, but it doesn’t: the spirits are angry. They’ve been misrepresented by the medium for years, and they’ve finally found an outlet to wreak vengeance. Lovecraft powers are uninterested in vengeance. Even in cases where curiosity leads to disobedience leads to destruction (see the next principle), only in very rare instances do the powers themselves seem angered by human impudence. The punishment is not a product of vengeance, but of adherence to protocol. This indifference is tremendously frightening: if evil is personally invested in you, there’s room for error (play “You Find Yourself in a Room” as a great demonstration of this principle).
  • Compulsion and curiosity: In my opinion, older horror stories often seem to embody a highly frustrating trope.  It’s easier to give an example than to define it: there’s a character that knows he’ll be doomed if he does this one HIGHLY SPECIFIC THING, and he knows it, he knows it so well, everyone knows it, but despite literally everything goddamn if he doesn’t go and eat golden raisins while wearing a kilt on his 44th birthday exactly like the chain-rattling ghost told him NOT TO, and then he’s doomed to an eternity in hell. Or something. For no reason whatsoever. Lovecraftian protagonists suffer from the same foolhardy tendency, but there’s a key difference: our actions are not entirely under our own control. Maybe a relic exerts an incomprehensible pull, or maybe a god or a witch controls us in our dreams. Sometimes the culprit is our own greed or hubris, but more often than not, action in the face of everything screaming at us not to act is the product of intelligence and curiosity. A surprising number of the damned in Lovecraft fiction are professors: anthropology professors studying primitive races and their mysterious gods, engineering professors trying to make heads or tails of a strange dismantled machine, linguists studying old Arabic texts…the list goes on and on.
  • Heritage: Lovecraft was obsessed with the power of bloodlines. The sins of the father—his perversions, his unorthodox interests, his twisted racial heritage—would undoubtedly surface in the son, regardless of the son’s identity, interest, or choice. Abomination, to Lovecraft, was both massive—incomprehensible, traveling beyond the stars, skipping dimensions left and right—and unbelievably tiny, written indelibly on the genetic code. Even if you skip “Arther Jermyn” (which I’m sure I will rail about at some point in the future), it’s in virtually every Lovecraft story in some form or another: it’s the twist at the end of “Shadow over Innsmouth”, it’s the mysterious parentage of “The Dunwich Horror”, it’s the hideous crescendo and climax of “The Rats in the Walls”, it’s the strange history of the Martense family in “The lurking fear”. It’s a topic frequently embraced by modern mythos writers—if used well, it’s terrifying.
  • Doom: Compulsion, curiosity, heritage: all lead to one of two predictable ends: death or something worse. Some might argue that the same conclusion becomes easily tedious. I will admit that the “it was so scary I proceeded to lose my mind, and now I am crazy despite the fact that I just told you a wonderfully lucid story” element of Lovecraftian fiction is not a favorite, though it can be done brilliantly well. To me, though, the real horror arises from the fact that choice is never really a factor. While we might consciously struggle and rail against the powers that be, what makes us human—our intellect, our needs as people, our parents—damn us to the same predictable, awful fate. Sometimes we’re horribly aware of our fate and we run as far as we can. Sometimes we don’t recognize our doom until it’s upon us. Sometimes we might even escape (as indicated by the fact that we’re currently writing our memoirs in the first person)—but have we really?

That’s what I’ve got thus far, but I’m sure it’ll bear revisiting as time goes on. Feel free to leave your additions in the comments!

The Cultist

*Although, to be fair, I’m frequently surprised by how far-reaching Lovecraft’s influence really is. I’m in the midst of a Lovecraft compilation that included “There are more things”, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. I feel like most people (non-cultists) draw a pretty hard line between horror (pulpy, cheap tropes, cheap shots, too plot driven) and Real Literature (art! imagery! character development! noble!), and that Borges was always on the right side of that line. But, much to my amazement, a quick search revealed that the story bore the dedication “To the memory of H.P. Lovecraft”, a fact all the more impressive given that Borges was no real fan of Lovecraft, whom he considered to be “an involuntary parodist of Poe”. (Take THAT, Real Literature people…kinda.)

4 Comments

  1. This is a good list. I’ll have to think on it some more to see if I agree with everything (and I’ll have to reread some Lovecraft in the process – poor me). Anyway, as someone who occasionally pokes at writing things during long, slow Congressional recesses, it gave me something to think about.

    • Any input is definitely appreciated, as always! Let me know what you think, I feel certain that there’s more that I just haven’t come up with yet. (And I feel like witnessing the workings (or non-workings) of Congress could easily put one in the world-weary, existential state with which most Lovecraft fiction is best consumed.)

      • I’m jealous of your nifty title that comes with an article built in. So, now I have one too.

        Congress certainly can take on Lovecraftian properties:

        “As the terrible, all consuming monstrosity of the omnibus appropriations bill rose from the fetid pits, quivering gelatinously to the frantic chanting of the Appropriations Committee Chairman, I clutched my point of order close, knowing it was my only chance for salvation (for my pet program), miserably slim though said chance may be…”

        – Exercpt from the Diary of Congressman Carter (R-RI)

        I haven’t read many of Lovecraft’s letters and other writing about his horror fiction. I wonder to what degree he was conciously making these themes central to his writing. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

        • I approve of your title! It strikes me as very Randolph Carter-esque.

          I actually have read very little of Lovecraft’s letters and correspondence in general, and I do think they might be able to shed light on this question pretty effectively. S.T. Joshi wrote a very well-regarded biography about him, so I might give that a look in the near future. If you’re interested, I would check out Fear of the Unknown (will link to it on my must-read page): It’s a documentary that’s available on Youtube, and while it might not tell you anything terribly novel, it’s quite well-done.


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