I have a new friend on Facebook who I think is an HP Lovecraft fan, so I’ll take this occasion to post my thoughts on the old gentleman from Providence. I first became curious about Lovecraft while in High School, when I read a favorable description of his work in the New York Times Review Of Books. I remember the author of the piece referred to the stories Pickman’s Model and Cool Air. At the time it was difficult to find any of Lovecraft’s stories; the only books were published by the obscure publisher Arkham House. When I got to college in the 1970s however there was a resurgence of interest in fantasy works, triggered by the wild popularity of the reprints of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the late 60s, and most of Lovecraft’s stories came back into print. At the time Lin Carter, who was a very derivative science fiction/fantasy writer (whose books are virtual Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard pastiches) but who was at the same time an excellent fantasy editor, was instrumental in the reprinting of tons of great fantasy works, including books by James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and, of course, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. During my college days I bought each release in the Ballantine Books “Adult Fantasy Series,” as it was somewhat naively named. This included the Lovecraft canon (or most of it). I remember one of my favorite spots to read was the Dartmouth Cemetery, which is really a lovely wooded idyllic spot, replete with scary 18th century crumbling tombstones — a perfect spot to read Lovecraft! I read through all those stories, then some of the August Derleth additions to the Cthulhu Mythos. The latter books I also enjoyed, though some purists really come down hard on Derleth for his distortions of Lovecraft. I understand that, but we also have Derleth to thank for Lovecraft’s work surviving the author’s death. Later I read the Collected Letters (all 5 volumes) and HPL’s poems. Over the years I think I have read almost everything he ever wrote that made it into print. De Camp’s Biography and the more up-to-date Joshi Lovecraft: A Life were also consumed in due course, as well as lots of fan literature. Lovecraft’s work and his life with all it’s contradictions, are equally fascinating.
In 1976 I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft spent nearly his whole life. I got to wonder around College Hill, see where he had lived, see his various haunts. My wife and I rode our bikes to the beautifully peaceful Swan Point Cemetery, where Lovecraft was interred after living a short 46 years, dying in obscurity, not ever seeing any of his works published in book form in this lifetime. There was no headstone at that time. He was buried in his family plot, and only a few years later (while we still lived in Providence) a headstone with the quote “I am Providence” appeared, apparently funded by some Lovecraft appreciation society. Visiting the site again a few years ago, the headstone is surrounded by candles, icons, images of Cthulhu, and written notes with ink faded from moisture, attesting to the continued popularity of the greatest American fantasy writer since Poe. At the library at Brown University I examined some of the Lovecraft collection first hand. It was a thrill to hold the typescript of The Dunwich Horror in my hands, with corrections written in ink by the master himself.
Lovecraft is important for at least two reasons. One is that he took the horror genre, which at the time was stuck in a rut of ghost and vampire stories, up a notch and introduced the notion of cosmic horror. In a sense it was like the Copernican revolution on the Church: suddenly man was no longer the center of the Universe. If one divorces oneself from religious considerations and just looks at the Universe with a coldly scientific eye, mankind becomes insignificant and could be snuffed out at any time by a wandering asteroid or destroyed by Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones.” Bluntly put, the Universe doesn’t care about you or me. This at least is the traditional analysis of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I think there is also an anti-technological strain in his work. As much as he had a scientific mind, he was also someone who missed the 18th century and would dress up and spell words anachonistically (like divers for diverse, or shewn for shown). His protagonists are constantly reading things they shouldn’t be, and unleashing forces they shouldn’t be playing with, with invariably dire consequences. Although Lovecraft died before World War II and the atomic bomb, we can retrospectively read into his work this theme: that playing with the forces of nature can awaken the sleeping Cthulhu deep in sunken R’lyeh, which is not a good thing. When I hear about the Large Hadron Collider, with its ability to generate micro-black holes, it does remind me a little of one of Lovecraft’s somewhat naive professors from Arkham University opening up the forbidden Necronomicon and not understanding what madness lies within…
The other major importance of Lovecraft is his influence on other writers. He corresponded with other fantasy writers of his time, including Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) , Clark Ashton Smith, and even a very young Ray Bradbury. Stephen King cites HPL as a major influence on his writing. Lovecraft’s writing has been criticized for its overuse of adjectives, stilted dialog (when there even is dialog), tendency to hold back the climax the very last sentence (which is usually italicized), and other eldritch flaws. On the other hand, at his best (The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, At The Mountains of Madness and others) he is successful in achieving a true sense of cosmic horror on a grand scale. Cthulhu fhtagn!