Category Archives: Lovecraft

Blood & Thunder: A Review

I’ve just finished Blood and Thunder, Mark Finn’s literary biography of Robert E. Howard. It’s one of those books I hated to see end. Blood & Thunder is an entertaining and inspired introduction to one of the greatest fantasy writers who ever lived.

Finn stresses throughout this biography that Texas was a life-long influence on Howard. Finn, also a native Texan, knows what he’s talking about.

Howard’s unique voice has been described as robust, vivid, and dark. The sizable Anglo-Celtic population throughout the South, including Texas, accounts for much of this. As Howard wrote in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

“But no Negro ghost-story ever gave me the horror as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a substratum of slave legends.”

Another major but often overlooked influence on the future writer was the Western tall tale. The young man listened intently to his father, a small town doctor, who spun entertaining yarns for patients, family members, and friends. The chapter dedicated to the fine Texan tradition of the tall tale is titled “Authentic Liars,” a perceptive acknowledgement of the writer’s most crucial talent, the ability to tell a believable lie the audience will happily swallow.

The Texas young Robert E. Howard grew up in was barely a generation removed from the Wild West, and the boy was spellbound by first-hand accounts of Comanche raids and attacks by the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, undoubtedly the inspiration for the bandits, kozaki, and Picts who brawled and stormed throughout the Hyborian kingdoms. Even Texas-sized rattlesnakes found their way into Howard’s stories (“The Scarlet Citadel,” for example.) As Finn puts it, “Conan, then, is much closer to the American frontier tradition than epic fantasy.”

The Texas oil boom not only overturned the state’s once-agrarian economy, but jolted the culture, and not in a good way. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil whole-sale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers, and gangsters in a matter of months.”

Howard’s recurring theme of civilizational rot and downfall were not abstract notions; he experienced these things first hand. Like his friend and fellow writer H. P. Lovecraft, Howard viewed industrialization as a destructive, de-humanizing force.

It’s impossible to discuss Robert E. Howard without considering H. P. Lovecraft. The two masters corresponded extensively, and clearly influenced each other’s work. Howard set Conan in a Lovecraftian universe, complete with a number of Cthulhu mythos deities. But it was a reciprocal – and beneficial – relationship. Finn points out how Howard’s action-oriented style inspired Lovecraft, whose fiction tended toward the psychological, to include the well-done nighttime chase scene in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” one of Lovecraft’s greatest tales.

I cannot agree with all of Finn’s conclusions. For example, I winced at his assertion that Yasmina from Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle” is a “more fully realized” character than Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast.” C’mon! I applaud Finn’s rejection of L. Sprague de Camp’s unfair and uninformed opinion that Howard was a suicidal paranoid with Oedipal tendencies. However, to rebut de Camp by asserting Howard had no choice but to commit suicide is simply ridiculous.

All in all, though, this is a well-researched, intelligent, and sympathetic evaluation of Robert E. Howard’s life and legacy, one I highly recommend for both newcomers and seasoned fans.

The Timeless Appeal of H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft

How is it possible that the feverish works of a writer who died in poverty and obscurity more than 80 years ago still matter?

And yet they do matter, and to a growing number of fans and admirers. Here are three recent takes on Lovecraft’s continuing popularity, all from vastly different points of view, though they agree Howard Phillips Lovecraft has something to say to modern audiences.

Cosmic Horror: A Study of the Unknowable, by B.K. Bass

Many modern authors have found inspiration in Lovecraft’s fiction. B.K. Bass, who writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror, acknowledges Lovecraft as a “primary influence.” What distinguishes Lovecraft’s “Cosmic Horror” from other genres, says Bass, is

that it plucks at the strings connected to two fears that arguably every person shares: fear of the unknown and fear of insignificance. Lovecraft himself may have said it best when he said that “it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage…without laying stress on the emotion of fear.”

The Emotional Rise of Cosmic Horror, by Mary Beth McAndrews

After giving due recognition to Lovecraft’s profound role in crafting and defining Cosmic Horror, Mary Beth McAndrews explores the best cinematic homages to the Cosmic Horror tradition. Her comments about Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s 2017 film The Endless perfectly capture the existential possibilities of the genre. (Here’s my review of The Endless.) McAndrews argues the genre is not nihilistic, but instead opens our eyes to a world where we forge our own meaning and love in an unfeeling and severe universe.

Well put. I would add that like Albert Camus’ absurdist fiction, Lovecraft’s works proclaim that the terrors and uncertainties of this world require us to discover and hold tight to whatever ties and aspirations that give our lives meaning. As Lovecraft himself once wrote, “All one can logically do is to jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him. He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.”

Toward a Theory of the New Weird, by Elvia Wilk

The enduring truth and vitality of an art form is reflected in how successive generations adapt it to their own experiences and worldviews. Elvia Wilk says this of Lovecraft’s all-too-relevant insights:

That discomforting implication of the limits of the human mind and the potential dissolution of the category Humanity makes Lovecraft’s fiction seem like a precursor to the contemporary awareness of the Anthropocene age. In an era defined by the planetary catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change, discussions of Lovecraft have come into prominence in philosophy, literature, and the arts. The horror of the archaic sea creature coming back to claim its due is a narrative (too) easy to map onto our current moment.

After all, it was Lovecraft who warned that the sciences, rather than ushering in Utopia, would open up “terrifying vistas of reality” upon us. Judging by our current predicament, I’d say he had a point.

H.P. Lovecraft: A Titan of Terror

This video is an excellent introduction to the life, work, and legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. As much as I’ve read about this tragic, talented man, it managed to surprise me with both biographical and career tidbits.

Here’s something I didn’t know: August Derleth, the editor chiefly responsible for publicizing Lovecraft after the writer’s death, had his stories translated and published overseas. Post-WWI French intellectuals, already admirers of Edgar Allan Poe, practically devoured everything Lovecraft had authored. That, of course, is how Michel Houellebecq “discovered” Lovecraft.

I’m definitely looking forward to future videos from Biographics. Confession: It’s the first YouTube channel I’ve subscribed to.

Quote of the day

Bad boys of literature

“The argument that we should judge a work by the sins of its creator reeks of puritanical righteousness and moral certitude. No work of art exists that wasn’t created by some complicated creature. When forming our literary, cinematic, and artistic canons, it’s important to remember that if you want a canon of saints, you’ll end up with a canon of zero.” Tyler Malone

Some bad boys of literature pictured above: Pablo Neruda, H. P. Lovecraft, Ezra Pound

Michel Houellebecq and The Lovecraft Legacy

Lovecraft Houellebecq
My entire (hard copy) Lovecraft library!
Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, launched his tumultuous career with the publication of H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.

A rogue’s views on a rogue. How fitting.

The edition pictured above (cool cover, huh?) includes a useful and knowledgeable introduction by Stephen King, who regards Lovecraft as both mentor and muse. In this, King is not alone — he notes other accomplished writers who, in King’s words, “have been touched by Lovecraft and his dreams,” such as Harlan Ellison, Kingsley Amis, Neil Gaiman, Flannery O’Connor, Fred Chappell, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Houellebecq’s compact work uses Lovecraft’s biography as a springboard for a lively introduction to weird fiction, Lovecraft’s unique contributions to that sub-genre, and as a well-argued case for a greater appreciation for Lovecraft as an author. Few can deny Lovecraft’s livid, overflowing imagination, but many dismiss him as a second-rate writer and craftsman. This, declares Houellebecq, is simply wrong. Lovecraft’s style perfectly matches his subject matter and worldview.

In Houellebecq’s view:

Lovecraft has never been rivaled in this. His way of using mathematical concepts, of precisely indicating the topography of each location of a drama, his mythology, his imaginary demoniac library, have all been borrowed; but no one has ever attempted to imitate these passages where he sets aside all stylistic restraint, where adjectives and adverbs pile upon one another to the point of exasperation, and he utters such exclamations of pure delirium such as “Hippopotami should not have human hands and crazy torches…men should not have the heads of crocodiles…” And yet this is the true aim of the work. p. 88

I must admit that though I have long admired Lovecraft’s story-telling abilities and shocking inventiveness, I considered him only a so-so writer. Monsieur Houellebecq has convinced me otherwise.

The sizable volume on the left (also sporting a great cover!) is another recent acquisition. All the HPL works I’ve read over the years were either borrowed from the library or downloaded from the ‘net — Lovecraft’s fiction is in the public domain. I am now the proud owner of The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft — with one glaring exception. Despite its title, it does not include “In the Walls of Eryx,” one of my favorite HPL stories. It’s one of his few sci-fi works, and I cannot understand why it wasn’t included.

As Monsieur Houellebecq would put it, “C’est la vie.”

Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography

Robert E. Howard Whether you’re a fan of fantasy fiction in general, or of Robert E. Howard in particular, or if you’re an aspiring writer who wants to learn what makes successful writers tick, you will enjoy David C. Smith’s Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography.

David C. Smith is a prolific writer himself. In his latest work, he focuses on the complex and rich relationship between Howard’s life and thought and the spell-binding tales he gave the world. One of the strengths of this literary biography is the fact-filled account of Howard’s inspirational, yet tragic, development as a young man and author. Note: This is not a pseudo-psychological analysis, but an insightful and sympathetic exploration of an important literary figure backed by thorough research and genuine understanding.

Smith draws upon his own experience as a writer to flesh out the intellectual and emotional forces that shaped Howard and his works. Of Howard, the man, Smith observes:

His work is shot through with a relentless awareness of time, hurtfully so. This tragic appreciation is exhibited as powerfully in his writing as his acute awareness of the body — the weight of time, its passage and its cost to us. He grew up, of course, listening to recollections of the immediate past, frontier tales in which “the past is never past,” in Faulkner’s famous phrase. … Thus, what we get from Howard is not merely a story. Howard reports the facts. Right down to every bloody detail, each emotional pitch, all of the colors and moods — he reports the facts. Howard reminds us who we are. pp. 191-2

The portrait Smith creates sheds light on the enduring appeal of Howard’s most famous character, Conan:

Let enemies come, even demons and sorcerers; he will confront them and defeat them or go down trying. He is the natural man, ourselves begun again, reborn in a world as we secretly know our own world to be beneath its layers of hypocrisy and pretense. Conan is nothing if not honest in this regard and has no patience with the nonsense most of us accept as a matter of course. p. 134

The chapter examining the correspondence and resulting relationship between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft is itself worth the price of the book. Not only does it add to our understanding of Howard, it’s also a useful introduction to Lovecraft.

This is no hagiography. Smith does not close his eyes to Howard’s literary and personal stumbles. While Smith clearly admires Howard’s accomplishments, he constructs his case for a new appreciation of Howard out of a solid and broad body of research, with observations and critiques from friends, editors, and other writers who knew the man and the artist. The only fault I can detect in this otherwise remarkable and entertaining book is in the final chapter, “Legacy,” in which Smith slips into an over-the-top tone of wounded offense toward critics who dismiss Howard as a hack.

Having read Smith’s previous chapters, the reader will already be convinced how wrong those critics are.

The Pioneers of Pulp

Science Fiction and Fantasy, once despised by the creators of popular entertainment as well as literary scholars, have not only risen in the eyes of serious students of literature but among the general public. What accounts for this sea-change? We could point to the surprising success of both Star Trek (soft sci-fi) or Star Wars (sci-fan), but the origins of the near-dominance of sci-fi/fantasy in popular entertainment today goes back a little further, as this must-read from Open Culture argues:

Do we start with The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, which opened the door for such books as Dracula and Frankenstein? Or do we open with Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre short stories and poems captivated the public’s imagination and inspired a million imitators? Maybe. But if we really want to know when the most populist, mass-market horror and fantasy began—the kind that inspired television shows from the Twilight Zone to the X-Files to Supernatural to The Walking Dead—we need to start with H.P. Lovecraft, and with the pulpy magazine that published his bizarre stories, Weird Tales.

I have to agree. Lovecraft’s the man!

Don’t miss the article’s treasure trove of links to the letters of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as links to classic editions of Weird Tales featuring stories by Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy Quick, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Sturgeon. What a great way to get ready for Halloween!

This day in history

H. P. Lovecraft was born on this date in Providence, Rhode Island. A self-taught science and astronomy buff, Lovecraft built upon the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe to pioneer and define what is now known as weird fiction and cosmic horror.

In addition to his many works of fiction, he was a prolific correspondent, notably with Robert E. Howard. His works continue to inspire both writers and moviemakers. Writers who acknowledge Lovecraft’s influence include China Miéville and Joyce Carol Oates. Lovecraft has also inspired indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, as well as Guillermo del Toro.