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Category Archives: Introductions to Lovecraft

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.)

Scene 1: I learn of the existence of H.P. Lovecraft on my 15th birthday party. I am handed a package containing both Dreams of Terror and Death and The Road to Madness. They are a gift from my recently ex-boyfriend (with whom I am still desperately in love and grieving the tragic demise of our freshman romance). I raise an eyebrow, but thank him and try really hard not to read anything into it. (In the days that come, I read a lot into it.) As I fret and mope and occasionally sob into my pillow, I pick at the stories. I conclude the following:

  1. Lovecraft really liked cats. A lot. Perhaps too much.
  2. Eldritch is a word. Tenebrous is too. So is diarite, regardless of what Spellcheck claims.
  3. Arcane rituals require Saltes. A buttload of them. Gotta get those Saltes.

Slowly but surely, I make my way. I read it all, even “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which (to my uneducated, plebian eyes) is Lovecraft writing Lovecraft fan fiction. A few months later, I borrow Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre from a friend. I read “The Picture in the House” while babysitting, which turns out to be a terrible mistake. I’m a wreck until I hear the dad’s car entering the garage.

Scene 2-2.5: I am a sophomore in college when I celebrated H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday. I still re-read Lovecraft. I have a new boyfriend who loves Lovecraft too. He has a DVD of short films based on Lovecraft stories, and let me watch them when I was sick with the worst cold I’ve ever had. Sitting amidst a pile of used Kleenex and cough drop wrappers, I was amazed. I was enthralled. I had never imagined that the ponderous, Victorian-sounding imagery and unbelievably pompous vocabulary could be translated into something so compelling, so viscerally gripping.

It’s a year after we met. We’ll break up in another year, but right now, it’s Lovecraft’s birthday. We walk to a local bookstore, me in the Miskatonic baseball cap he had bought me, him with a Cthulhu plushie in his shirt pocket. We eat ice cream in Lovecraft’s honor and take our seats to listen to a reading. A professional story-teller will perform “The Colour out of Space”.

A brief word about “Colour”. In On Writing, Stephen King discusses the need to know your strengths as an author. He cited Lovecraft as an example: he avoided dialogue as much as possible, and you only need to read “The Colour out of Space” to understand why. Take, for instance, the freakin’ half-page-long monologue from the dying, plagued farmer as proof: “…can’t git away…draws ye…ye know summ’at’s comin’ but tain’t no use…I seen it time an’ agin senct Zenas was took…” Jesus fucking Christ.

I agree wholeheartedly with King’s assessment, and I’m pissed that this story (of literally all of Lovecraft’s stories) has been chosen. I mentally steel myself against snickering.

30 minutes later, I walk out of the bookstore, silent and amazed. A living voice had lent the story terror that I had never encountered before. How was it possible?

Scene 3: I am in graduate school. I am a biologist. I have a few books of Lovecraft mythos—I’ve learned something about the writers of Lovecraft’s time, how he corresponded and encouraged them, and how they built off what he created. I find it endearing. I find it beautiful. I love to read a story about some imagined god, or cult, and then read another story building off the first. A correspondence that takes years, decades to create, free of competition or judgment. There is no plagiarism, there is only a shared desire to build.

It is, if I’m being honest and I’m in one of my more self-pitying moods, everything I had hoped science would be. And I’ll spare you my thoughts on this, because if you wanted to read about how graduate school is terrible you would read one of the other thousand rant-laden blogs currently in existence. Suffice it to say: the creativity, the curiosity, the open sharing free of ego and judgment that I imagined…they’re not there. Maybe they don’t exist, maybe they never did. Or maybe I just got unlucky, or maybe I just have a bad attitude. Who knows. But Lovecraft fiction fills that void.

I take up running. I’m very slow. I have bad feet, I probably shouldn’t be running, but it helps my mood, it makes me feel accomplished. I run a half-marathon. I fly with my husband to Seattle to run a full marathon. The day afterward, as I stagger around and imagine that this is what it feels like to be 90 (not truly sore, really, but stiff, oh my god so stiff, my muscles can’t react to changes quickly, I stumble and flail and fall easily), we visit a huge bookstore. I make my way (as I do automatically, anymore) to the horror section, and oh my god. I have never seen such riches. I choose one. I choose another.

20 minutes later, I stumble to the register with a comically-large pile of Lovecraft books. The total comes to three digits. I don’t even blink. My husband smiles but does not scold. I am tremendously grateful for this.

Conclusion: I now have a bookshelf of Lovecraft mythos. I’m always on the lookout for new additions. As I read more and more, my tastes are honed. I won’t call them refined, because that suggests some level of expertise that I don’t have. I’m not a Lovecraft devotee. I’ve never read any of his biographies, I’ve seen one documentary on his life that was available on Youtube. But I love these stories. I love to read them, to think about them, to wonder about what makes some amazing, what makes others fall flat. Even the ones I don’t like draw my fascination, because why am I so irritated? This blog represents a distillation of these thoughts. I’m not a writer, but I hope other Lovecraft and mythos fans read this and respond…if only because I want in on that dialogue. I love this community. My hope is for this website to be a contribution, however paltry.

The Cultist