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The most influential horror writer you’ve never heard of: Introducing H.P. Lovecraft

CW: racism, antisemitism, anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft

In March 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was nearing the end of his days. Solitary and impoverished, he subsisted on expired tins of food, having never earned enough from his stories to edge a comfortable existence. Cutting himself off from society had facilitated Lovecraft’s most prolific writing period, and yet it also enabled his so-called “grippe” (undiagnosed cancer) to strengthen its hold. When he died at the age of forty-six, Lovecraft may have resigned himself to his inevitable obscurity. His most beloved tales centred on dreams, the insignificance of man, and the chaos of the human experience. Why should his story be any different?

After his death, Lovecraft’s stories experienced a resurgence, chiefly due to his friend and publisher, August Derleth. His poems, novellas, and short stories were exhumed from the forgotten pages of contemporary pulp magazines, collected, compiled, and, finally, connected. Astoundingly, Lovecraft’s fragmented fictions were found to form a coherent whole, and these have since been divided into two vaunted collections: the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Dream Cycle. As Lovecraft’s work was rediscovered, so too were the prodigious quantity of letters he wrote during his lifetime (approximately 100,000). Some of these revealed a somewhat unsavoury side to the elusive figure. Living in the predominantly immigrant Red Hook community in New York, Lovecraft had this to say of his neighbours: “The population is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority…” Such was his revulsion, that Lovecraft later wrote The Horror at Red Hook, combining oblique references to latent occultism with blatantly racist remarks about “the blackest and most vicious criminals”, “nameless and unclassified Asian dregs”, and “a very unusual colony of unclassified slant-eyed folk.” Some scholars have viewed much of Lovecraft’s fiction as an expression of these views, with similar remarks recurring throughout the Dream Cycle and Mythos. 

Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle is a set of stories and poems centred around the Dreamlands, a mirror image of the “real” universe, but which humans can only access through dreams. In the Dreamlands, time is flexible and intangible, with years passing in just a few seconds of “real” time. Lovecraft’s characters often succumb to paranoia and madness as they attempt to navigate the Dreamlands, unable to determine which version of the universe they are inhabiting. The Dreamlands are also populated by strange hybrid creatures, governed by Godlike beings known as “Great Ones”.

Perhaps even more culturally significant than the Dream Cycle is Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The tales of the Mythos are characterised by the latent presence of the “Great Old Ones”, an assemblage of old gods from outer space. Once rulers of the universe, they have since fallen into a state of dormancy, lying beneath the Earth and sea, while exerting sway over the minds of men. Lovecraft’s characters are the playthings of these indifferent deities, often encountering strange forgotten cults, dedicated to reawakening their masters.

The real value of the Cthulhu Mythos lies in its collaborative format, with subsequent writers adding to the lore of the Mythos, and crafting new tales featuring Lovecraft’s cults, creatures, and deities. Beginning with Lovecraft’s contemporaries, such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch, later authors were also inspired by the cosmic terror of Lovecraft’s work. Stephen King’s It, for instance, is a Lovecraftian, godlike creature from another plane, feeding on human terror as it assumes the form of that which most terrifies the onlooker. Indeed, Stephen King said that “Lovecraft… opened the way for me,” continuing, “it is his shadow (…) which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.” 

Lovecraft’s influence is everywhere, even reaching George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, home to his bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin’s references to Lovecraft are too numerous to count, but one obvious example is the Drowned God, worshipped by House Greyjoy. Lying beneath the waves, this is an obvious tribute to Lovecraft’s god Cthulhu. If there was any doubt over this, House Greyjoy’s words, “What is dead may never die,” are a play on a Lovecraft quote, “That is not dead which can eternal life, And with strange aeons even death may die.” Lovecraft’s influence has even penetrated the film and video game industries, with Eldritch horrors featuring prominently in games like Bloodborne and Amnesia, alongside films like Alien and the first season of True Detective

Like the insidious cosmic entities that predominate the Lovecraftian universe, the influence of this obscure writer can be seen in much of our favourite horror content of today.

Image depicts the frontispiece of the Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft

Image: Wikimedia Commons