That Was The Week That Was, Happy Birthday H P Lovecraft
20 August 1890
Horror author H.P. Lovecraft was born. Lovecraft’s guiding aesthetic and philosophical principle was what he termed “cosmicism” or “cosmic horror”, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally inimical to the interests of humankind. As such, his stories express a profound indifference to human beliefs and affairs. Lovecraft is best known for his Cthulhu Mythos story cycle and the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore.
Although Lovecraft’s readership was limited during his lifetime, his reputation has grown over the decades, and he is now regarded as one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. According to Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft—as with Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century—has exerted “an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction”. Stephen King called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” King has even made it clear in his semi-autobiographical non-fiction book Danse Macabre that Lovecraft was responsible for King’s own fascination with horror and the macabre, and was the single largest figure to influence his fiction writing.
The central theme in most of Lovecraft’s works is that of forbidden knowledge. Some critics argue that this theme is a reflection of Lovecraft’s contempt of the world around him, causing him to search inwardly for knowledge and inspiration.In Lovecraft’s works the search for forbidden knowledge drives many of the main characters. In most of his works this knowledge proves Promethean in nature either filling the seeker with regret from what they have learned, destroying them psychically, or completely destroying the person who holds the knowledge
The beings of Lovecraft’s mythos often have human (or mostly human) servants; Cthulhu, for instance, is worshipped under various names by cults amongst both the Eskimos of Greenland and voodoo circles of Louisiana, and in many other parts of the world.
These worshippers served a useful narrative purpose for Lovecraft. Many beings of the Mythos were too powerful to be defeated by human opponents, and so horrific that direct knowledge of them meant insanity for the victim. When dealing with such beings, Lovecraft needed a way to provide exposition and build tension without bringing the story to a premature end. Human followers gave him a way to reveal information about their “gods” in a diluted form, and also made it possible for his protagonists to win paltry victories. Lovecraft, like his contemporaries, envisioned “savages” as closer to the Earth, only in Lovecraft’s case, this meant, so to speak, closer to Cthulhu
Another recurring theme in Lovecraft’s stories is the idea that descendants in a bloodline can never escape the stain of crimes committed by their forebears, at least if the crimes are atrocious enough. Descendants may be very far removed, both in place and in time (and, indeed, in culpability), from the act itself, and yet, they may be haunted by the revenant past, e.g. The Rats in the Walls, The Lurking Fear, Arthur Jermyn, The Shadow Over Innsmouth,and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
Lovecraft’s works are ruled by several distinct pantheons of deities (actually aliens who are worshipped by humans as deities) who are either indifferent or actively hostile to humanity. Lovecraft’s actual philosophy has been termed “cosmic indifferentism” and this is expressed in his fiction. Several of Lovecraft’s stories of the Old Ones (alien beings of the Cthulhu Mythos), propose alternate mythic human origins in contrast to those found in the creation stories of existing religions, expanding on a natural world view. For instance, in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness it is proposed that humankind was actually created as a slave race by the Old Ones. Protagonist characters in Lovecraft are usually educated men, citing scientific and rationalist evidence to support their non-faith. Herbert West–Reanimator, reflects on the atheism common within academic circles.
Lovecraft himself adopted the stance of atheism early in his life. In 1932 he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.
Lovecraft was relatively unknown during his own time. While his stories appeared in the pages of prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales (eliciting letters of outrage as often as letters of praise from regular readers of the magazines), not many people knew his name. He did, however, correspond regularly with other contemporary writers, such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even though they never met in person. This group of writers became known as the “Lovecraft Circle”, since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft’s stories – the mysterious books with disturbing names, the pantheon of ancient alien entities, such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places, such as the New England town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University – for use in their own works with Lovecraft’s encouragement.
After Lovecraft’s death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. August Derleth in particular added to and expanded on Lovecraft’s vision. However, Derleth’s contributions have been controversial. While Lovecraft never considered his pantheon of alien gods more than a mere plot device, Derleth created an entire cosmology, complete with a war between the good Elder Gods and the evil Outer Gods, such as Cthulhu and his ilk). The forces of good were supposed to have won, locking Cthulhu and others up beneath the earth, in the ocean, and so forth. Derleth’s Cthulhu Mythos stories went on to associate different gods with the traditional four elements of fire, air, earth and water – an artificial constraint which required rationalizations on Derleth’s part as Lovecraft himself never envisioned such a scheme.
Lovecraft’s fiction has been grouped into three categories by some critics. While Lovecraft did not refer to these categories himself, he did once write, “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’ – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?”
H. P. Lovecraft is now noted as a significant figure in 20th-century horror fiction. His writing, particularly the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be found in novels, films, movies, music, video games, comic books (e.g. the use of Arkham Insane Asylum in The Batman comic book series), and even cartoons. Many modern horror and fantasy writers, including Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore, Junji Ito, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Neil Gaiman, have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences. Beyond direct adaptation, Lovecraft and his stories have had a profound impact on popular culture and have been praised by many modern writers. Some influence was direct, as he was a friend, inspiration, and correspondent to many of his contemporaries, such as August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. Many later figures were influenced by Lovecraft’s works, including author and artist Clive Barker, prolific horror writer Stephen King, comics writers Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola, film directors John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Guillermo Del Toro, horror manga artist Junji Ito, and artist H. R. Giger