Howard Phillips Lovecraft is the paradox of “kill your darlings” given form. Oh sure, in the true meaning of the phrase he falls short, which is the part that makes it cognitively dissonant. He loves the same handful of words, the same few tricks, and he uses them liberally. Heck, he’s probably single handedly responsible for the word “eldritch” not becoming extinct in the English language. So in that sense, the true and accurate sense, sure, no, Lovecraft didn’t heed Faulkner’s advice—and maybe that is a good thing. He sure has a distinctive flavor.
But “Kill your darlings,” as in, “come on Howard Phillips, you’ve got to do something terrible to your protagonist, conflict drives narratives!”—or something like that? Well, our buddy Lovecraft is great at that. In fact, through the second-hand influence of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, that is how I learned that sometimes the most interesting thing about a character is that they don’t win. From a literary standpoint, writing and reading, that is a lesson worth learning. Of course, what really makes it all the more bleak is the fact that H.P. Lovecraft also ironically embodies the Mary Sue. How many of his protagonists are just idealized versions of a autodidactic, letter-writing New Englander whose previously wealthy family has fallen on hard times? Well, Howard Phillip, you sound like you are wrestling with some dark stuff, there.
Of course, the measure of the man is his contributions to the genre of horror. His horror is of two kinds, two hands reaching across the aisle to shake: external and internal. One of the cruxes of Lovecraft’s writing is that there are things far, far worse than evil. Evil, with its quaint little cackling red horned men, pitchforks and brimstone, how adorable. No, Lovecraft knows far darker things are out there, because ultimately, the universe doesn’t care that you exist. There is no war for the human spirit, because humans are an insignificant bunch of squabbling apes on an insignificant ball of mud that whirls around an insignificant nuclear furnace. No one cares, nothing cares—and there are things.
It’s a big universe, it is only reasonable to suppose that there are aliens out there—creatures who can travel the stars and might as well be gods when compared to the muck covered primates on this rock. Aliens who are truly alien, who aren’t forehead of the week little green men, but instead creatures fundamentally unknowable. They aren’t evil, they are indifferent; if they seem malevolent, well, that is just because it is the only use they have for mankind (gender relations not being something H.P. Lovecraft is good at).
Is it any wonder, then, that psychological conflict is the other major theme that feeds into his work? “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents,” and all that. Oh sure, Lovecraft’s work is full up with tentacled monsters, piscine horrors, time-traveling body-swappers, brain-stealing mushrooms and radioactive colors. But it isn’t like your biggest concern for the hero of the tale is that he’s going to be scooped up by a lobster claw and deposited into some kind of digestive pouch. No, no, that might be the fate of the stevedores that went along with the protagonist—another thing Lovecraft is not good at is race relations—but the main character, no, we don’t expect that they’ll be picked up by a horse-bat and dropped from a great height.
Rather, we know that their mind is going to shatter. Which isn’t to say that the monsters that will make you crazy. No, you could read the wrong book, or have the wrong parents. Or you could buy a haunted house. Sanity is a fragile thing! At first the cracks will spider-web out, like tendrils spider-webbing across fine china, little by little, but by the end, the whole thing will be in pieces. “At last, I can live the rest of my life as a horrifying incestuous fish-ape, hooray!”
So thanks, H.P. Lovecraft. Thanks for the purple prose, because it gave us the Mythos. Thanks for the author insertion, because it gave us a glimpse of real horror. Edgar Allen Poe would be proud. So long, and thanks for all the fish monsters.
This article was originally published August 20, 2013 on Tor.com
Mordicai Knode is more of a Kadath and Leng kind of guy, when you get down to it, and his favorite little side-reference in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was when Moore explicitly linked Randolph Carter and John Carter of Mars.