Tue
Aug 20 2013 6:00am

The Eldritch Horrors of H.P. Lovecraft

H P LovecraftHoward 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.

17 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
@Mordicai: There are a couple of other birthdays as well: George Griffith, author of A Honeymoon in Space, The Angel of the Revolution and several other early SF novels was born on this day in 1857. Greg Bear turns 62 today and Greg Egan is 52.
jon meltzer
2. jmeltzer
Uh, "Phillips."

And there must still be copyeditors at Tor. Just saying.
Jack Flynn
3. JackofMidworld
A couple of weeks ago, my daughter's BFF asked me who Cthulhu was (this was because I redecorated and there are now a half-dozen plush eldritch horrors keeping watch over the game room) and the conversation evolved to me trying to explain HPL to a seventeen-year old who's never read him, or anything similar, apparently. I'll be sending her a link to this page :)

Random side note, speaking of the purple prose, one thing that has saddened and disappointed me for years (and this is in addition to how many movies that are supposed to be "Lovecraftian" and instead just, well, suck) is how many people try to write like HPL and instead try to write as if they were HPL. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll be the first to admit that I used to do the exact same thing, but there's a not-so-fine line between " inspired by" and "copying."
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
2. jmeltzer

Mortifiying! OR DID YOU DREAM IT ALL ALONG? No, no, I just...I blame a brain cloud!

Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
1. SchuylerH

Happy birthday to everybody! I don't know anything about this George Griffith personally; I'll look into it. What is the elevator pitch?

3. JackofMidworld

You know, that topic has been on my mind, because I just finished Shadows of the New Sun, where the best stories evoke Wolfe's stories & themes without really going for tone. I should point out that pretty much all of the stories in there are "the best ones," too, because it is a really nice tribute collection...& no one just apes the style. & yep, Lovecraft is an easy one to copy. Did you ever read the comic by Alan Moore, The Courtyard? A really good not-knock-off Mythos tale.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@5: The Angel of the Revolution is a pre-Wells story of aerial war which inspired Michael Moorcock's A Nomad of the Time Streams (indeed, Griffith gets a more-positive-than-most mention in the infamous "Starship Stormtroopers") while A Honeymoon in Space is one of the most significant precursors to the space operas and interplanetary adventures of the 20's and 30's.
Mouldy Squid
7. Mouldy_Squid
Happy Birthday Cthulhu
Happy Birthday Cthulhu
Happy Birthday Mr. Lovecraft
Happy Birthday Cthulhu
Mouldy Squid
8. Mouldy_Squid
Oh, and "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" is a kick-ass song.
Lianne Burwell
9. LKBurwell
I've really enjoyed making my way through the episodes of the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, which went through every Lovecraft story in order of writing (with excellent dramatic readings from the stories, and a few complete readings that are really worth listening to).

But eventually they ran out of stories, so they've book working through stories that Lovecraft mentioned in his essay on supernatural fiction. And like Lovecraft's work, some are better than others.
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
6. SchuylerH

Sold!

8. Mouldy_Squid

Yeah, yeah it is! I didn't think to put it in, some wise editor at Tor.com, but I am a Darnielle fan big time.

9. LKBurwell

I don't really "do" podcasts, sadly. I just don't have a "slot" for them in my life; I read on my commute & don't like having ear buds in at work. I get paranoid!
Jack Flynn
11. JackofMidworld
5. mordicai

You know, that topic has been on my mind, because I just finished Shadows of the New Sun, where the best stories evoke Wolfe's stories & themes without really going for tone. I should point out that pretty much all of the stories in there are "the best ones," too, because it is a really nice tribute collection...& no one just apes the style. & yep, Lovecraft is an easy one to copy. Did you ever read the comic by Alan Moore, The Courtyard? A really good not-knock-off Mythos tale.

I'll have to check The Courtyard and Shadows of the New Sun. I just read Neomancer last night and had to laugh - the opening section especially is pretty much an HPL story written over comic artwork, all the way down to the prose and the, uh, un-PC attitudes of the viewpoint character towards anybody who's not a straight, white male.

Some of the newer short story collections seem to have gotten away from the copycats, which makes me very happy. My personal favorite is probably Shadows over Baker Street.
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
11. JackofMidworld

Yeah, Courtyard is a better one than Neomancer, I think, because the weird facist stuff is explicitly internal to the story in a...well, a weird way. Did you read Tor's Tales of the Dying Earth, the Vance homage? Also really fantastic, & an example of how you can use or not use style as long as you use the right themes.
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
@12: Do you mean Songs of the Dying Earth? Tales is the omnibus of Vance's original stories.

Alan Moore is working on another interpretation of Lovecraft, which I believe is called Providence.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
13. SchuylerH

Yeah I do! I got confused, my fingers are more used to typing "Tales."
Jack Flynn
15. JackofMidworld
In fact, I haven't, no...will add it to my (ever-growing) list of books to pick up, though!
Jack Flynn
18. JackofMidworld
I saw In Space No One Can Hear You Scream here and picked it up Tuesday. I'm only half-finished, but I get a sense of HPL - or at least the Mythos - in lots of what I've read so far. Good stuff.

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