Friday, January 9, 2015

A Very Brief Introduction to H.P. Lovecraft

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
--H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

Whether you care for his works or not, Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937) remains one of the most important figures in world horror fiction. Though still not widely accepted among "serious" literature critics, his fame and influence are insidiously creeping outward--much like the power of his Great Old Ones. HPL has been a major influence on today's horror writers, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice.

Lovecraft spent his life struggling to find and perfect his own writing style. Like many hopeful writers, he passed through periods of slavishly mimicking his literary heroes, of writing embarrassing polemics on topics he knew little about, and of despairing about his perceived lack of talent and audience. At times he was just a painfully bad writer, but at other times, he could elevate the genre of the "weird tale" to new heights of perfection.

HPL left two legacies, the most obvious being his several dozen horror tales, few of which saw print before his death. The other, and perhaps more enduring, legacy is the number of friends he made in the amateur writing world, the loyalty and confidence he inspired in these fledgling writers, and the vast correspondence he left behind to chronicle these relationships.

Lovecraft's stories have been collected in hardcover by Arkham House and reprinted in paperback by Ballantine/Del Rey; these can be found in most large bookstores). In addition, Necronomicon Press is a small press dedicated to printing rarer works by and about Lovecraft, while Chaosium publishes Mythos fiction in addition to the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. The best collection to start with is either The Dunwich Horror and Others (Arkham House) or The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (Del Rey), both of which contain almost exactly the same set of stories.

I have not rated Lovecraft's works individually, but the following holds true for nearly all of his work: The violence in Lovecraft's stories is fairly restrained compared to modern fantasy, SF or horror novels, and the majority of it takes place "off stage." Sexual content in Lovecraft is virtually nil. HPL is most "adult" in the complex philosophical underpinnings of the "cosmic horror" he writes. Readers familiar with Edgar Allan Poe will find a very similar sensibility in Lovecraft's work.

The Cthulhu Mythos

The label "Cthulhu Mythos" has been applied to certain stories by HPL (and his imitators) which deal with a common theme of "cosmic horror." In most of these stories, an intellectual man (often a scientist or academic) stumbles across evidence (forbidden books, family secrets, hidden temples, etc.) of pre-human gods or aliens and the cults who worship them. As the protagonist pieces together the clues he finds, he uncovers increasingly uncomfortable truths about the nature of the universe, which erode his sanity. The opening of "The Call of Cthulhu" (which starts with the line quoted at the top of this page) neatly summarizes the philosophy behind this type of horror.

The best introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos are the following short stories: "The Call of Cthulhu" (the first story to articulate this philosophy), "Pickman's Model," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Haunter of the Dark." Lovecraft's best works, however, are his short novels: At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Shadow Out of Time. These works show Lovecraft at the peak of his mature writing, in a format substantial enough to fully develop his central ideas.


Forming a distinct body of work from Lovecraft's other work are his "Dreamlands" stories, tales largely inspired by Lord Dunsany's Pegana myth cycle. These fantasies take place in the collective dream-world of mankind. Some are fairy tales involving beings who belong wholly to the dream-world, while others are epic quests by powerful dreamers seeking answers from the gods themselves. The best place to start with these would be "The Cats of Ulthar," "The White Ship" and "The Doom that Came to Sarnath," then to read HPL's single dream-story novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Other Weird Tales

Lovecraft also wrote more conventional supernatural stories. Many are consciously modeled after his idol Poe. Some of these may contain the trappings of the Cthulhu Mythos (such as the names of certain entities and books) but the plots do not involve the "cosmic horror" of those stories, or they rely more on black magic than "scientific" horror. (Some definitions of the "Cthulhu Mythos" would include any reference to its fictional mythology; the term is nebulous at best.) The best of the non-Mythos, non-Dreamlands stories are "The Outsider" and the short novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Other Writings

Lovecraft was a prolific poet, but the quality of his poems was even more erratic than that of his prose. The best selection of his poetry is probably Fungi from Yuggoth, a loosely-connected series of 36 sonnets. These poems touch on many of the themes to which HPL repeatedly returned: ancient buildings, books of forbidden lore, sinister astronomical events, degenerate cults, and the like.
HPL also wrote numerous essays, ranging from erudite scientific articles to histrionic polemics, as well as occasional humorous pieces. These pieces are harder to locate than his prose or poetry, but many of these have been published in Miscellaneous Writings by Arkham House. "Supernatural Horror in Literature," one of his longest nonfiction works, is an impressive survey of the "weird tale" genre, and has been reprinted in Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (Arkham House) and other places.

The rest of Lovecraft's output pales beside the volume of his letters. The John Hay Library at Brown University holds the majority of his extant letters. Arkham House has published five volumes of Selected Letters, and Necronomicon Press has published booklets of HPL's letters to specific correspondents, but these cover only a small fraction of the total. Lovecraft may very well be the most significant American letter writer of this century. (Personally, I have yet to read any significant number of his letters, except for those excerpted in the handful of biographies and scholarly articles that I have read. The letter collections are more difficult to acquire, and difficult for casual readers of HPL to appreciate.)

Further Investigations

H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, by S.T. Joshi (Necronomicon Press, 1996): The only previous full-length biography of H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraft: A Biography) was written in 1975 by L. Sprague de Camp. S.T. Joshi is known as the top HPL scholar, and is responsible for correcting the texts of the Arkham House collections of Lovecraft's work. (He still considers this his most important contribution to Lovecraft scholarship.) Joshi's long-awaited biography is indebted to de Camp's work, but is vastly superior due to Joshi's more careful and exhaustive research. This biography is long and complex, and devotes much attention to the following facets of Lovecraft's life and work:
  • Basic biographical data, as culled from legal records, correspondence, memoirs by friends, etc. Poorly understood sections of his life, such as his failed marriage and his final illness, receive careful treatment.
  • Information about Lovecraft's friends and major correspondents, and their impact on his life and ideas. His enormous correspondence may overshadow even his fiction in its importance to his legacy.
  • The history of HPL's literary efforts, showing the progression of his story ideas, his working methods and aesthetic sense, and his attempts at publishing his work.
  • The development of HPL's world-view. When dealing with the less "comfortable" parts of his philosophy (such as his racism), Joshi does not try to excuse, only explain. His analyses of how the various facets of HPL's personality interacted is impressive. Among other things, they show that his flaws should not be taken as excuses to deny him serious treatment as a writer and thinker.
The last chapter summarizes how Lovecraft and his works have fared since his death--his imitators, media adaptations, publishing history, literary reputation, etc. I was fascinated with Lovecraft and his works before I read this book, and I think now that perhaps I find the man even more interesting than his stories. (One of the many memoirs about Lovecraft, by Winfield Townley Scott, is appropriately titled His Own Most Fantastic Creation.)

The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: This collection of articles on HPL's life, writings, creations and interests, the popular culture his works inspired, and internet resources is the most comprehensive and professional online guide to Lovecraft that I have found.


Historical note: This article is a lightly edited version of a review that I posted many years ago on a friend's book review site (which is no longer available). I feel that this piece still stands as a good starting point for exploring HPL and his work, so I offer it again here.
--Tim Emrick