“To be bitter is to attribute intent and personality to the formless, infinite, unchanging and unchangeable void. We drift on a chartless, resistless sea. Let us sing when we can, and forget the rest.”
(Why pessimists are typically happier than optimists.)
Most of my stories arise from an image I can’t get out of my head. The only relief is to transform that image into a story, and that process inevitably taps into deep-seated concerns. When I recently re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s classic Nyarlathotep, one vivid scene stuck in my imagination:
And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the wise men almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of cities might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky.
“Social Network“ imagines a malignant presence just as frightening as the one Lovecraft described, though in the form of a technological pandemic no vaccination can stop.
One of the few writing books I keep on my desk is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s really two separate works. The second half offers one of the most concise and useful guides to clear, lively writing ever written.
But it begins with a short bio of the author, a life story I was not previously aware of. Despite (because of?) his success, Mr. King grappled with both alcohol and drug addiction. Though he didn’t overcome these problems until a forceful intervention by fed-up friends and family, he did deal with his addictions the best he could. As he puts it, a part of him recognized the problem: “It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters.” (On Writing, p. 96)
The Shining and The Tommyknockers express how that part of his psyche regarded his addiction. But Misery, in my opinion, is a more profound and revealing image of addiction. Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse who both idolizes and tortures the protagonist, symbolizes cocaine, which makes you feel good at first but extracts a heavy toll.
Notice that the protagonists in all three novels are writers. Hmm.
Other authors have imagined monsters as symbols for their deepest wounds. In The Recognition of H.P. Lovecraft, a marvelous account of Lovecraft’s posthumous rise to celebrity, S. T. Joshi observes that Lovecraft’s monsters “were not to be taken literally but as symbols for the philosophical conceptions he sought to convey.” (p. 283) Lovecraft’s gods and demons have no regard for puny humans. A self-described man of “extreme sensitiveness,” Lovecraft long nursed an aching nostalgia for lost innocence and shattered ideals, victims of an impersonal, cold universe. His tales of isolation, despair, and creeping terror reflect his view of the uncaring forces that control human destiny.
A similar dynamic is evident in Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s classic. Levin did not believe in devils, but his most famous novel uses Satan as a symbol of the real evil people commit out of greed. Rosemary is not only lied to by people she trusts, but is betrayed by her own husband, who allows her to be raped for his own personal gain. Treachery is the ultimate evil, which Dante believed to merit punishment in the ninth circle of hell. I imagine Levin would have agreed.
Hippocampus Press sent me a copy of S. T. Joshi’s The Recognition of H. P. Lovecraft in return for an honest review. The pristine, shiny book with the magnificent cover they sent is now dog-eared with numerous underlined passages.
Which is my way of saying it is a book I will reread and refer to often.
The Lovecraft Riddle
When Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in March 1937, he was known to only a handful of readers, writers, and editors. He had published during his all-too-brief lifetime, but only in small-circulation magazines, notably, Weird Tales. Not one collection of his stories had been published in book form.
Today, Lovecraft’s tales are available world-wide in multiple languages. Famous writers and film makers acknowledge his profound influence. He even has an HBO series named after him.
What accounts for Lovecraft’s world-wide popularity? How did an author of fringe stories not only continue to be read, but win over new readers over the years and become a figure of pop culture? Only an ardent admirer and scholar of Lovecraft’s work such as S. T. Joshi could pull together an account of this unparalleled posthumous ascent to fame.
Lovecraft’s Long March
Lovecraft’s readers and fellow writers mourned and celebrated him after his death, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and Kenneth Sterling. It fell to August Derleth to keep Lovecraft’s work in front of the reading public by printing or reprinting the late author’s greatest works in Weird Tales, some of which had been previously rejected. Later, Derleth founded Arkham House to put those stories and others into book form.
Derleth also had a hand in Lovecraft being featured in the 1945 Armed Forces Edition of paperback books. (It was his father’s copy of one of these books that introduced young Stephen King to Lovecraft.) Here’s a picture I took of some of those books, which includes The Dunwich Horror and a letter requesting more of Lovecraft’s works:
Other paperback editions including Lovecraft trickled out in the 1950s. By the 1960s, his stories made their way into attractive and beautifully illustrated volumes, such as 3 Tales of Horror in 1967. Lovecraft’s reputation was boosted by the roaring success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. By this time, the obscure scribbler from Providence was regarded on many campuses as “a sort of counter-cultural figure, along the lines of Nietzsche, Camus, [and] Dalton Trumbo,” no doubt partly due to his appearance in textbooks.
Lovecraft-inspired films, including “Die, Monster, Die!” and “The Shuttered Room,” while not true to the original, nor of sterling quality, did keep the author’s legacy alive.
The Scholars Weigh In
The engine that slowly but inexorably propelled Lovecraft to global recognition was his artistry. Long denigrated as an interesting but flawed scribbler of scary stories, Lovecraft is now appreciated as a gifted craftsman. Shortly after his death, fan publications discussing his work popped up and flourished. As early as 1949, Lovecraft was getting serious scholarly treatment as a literary talent. Graduate-level theses emerged from Ivy League colleges and universities, and by the late 1990s were almost routine. In 2012, Graham Harman, a professor of philosophy at American University in Cairo, could proclaim that Lovecraft’s work “brushes against several of the most crucial philosophical themes of our time.”
His writing style, once considered turgid, even shrill (an opinion I will admit to having once believed) gradually won over critics. In Joshi’s view, Lovecraft’s work inspired other authors, filmmakers, and graphic artists because “there is such an abundance of striking visual effects and compelling dramatic action in some of Lovecraft’s scenarios that they can be manipulated into a wide array of media.”
The Final Word
Joshi’s passion for Lovecraft shines through on every page. That enthusiasm complements vast research to produce an enjoyable voyage of discovery for either the HPL fan or any lover of good writing. Unpretentious and straightforward, this overview of the world’s gradual recognition of an underappreciated talent is entertaining and enlightening. (Don’t miss chapter 9, “Dissemination and Controversy,” which includes Joshi’s thoughts on why a materialist like Lovecraft wrote about ghosts and demons.) That recognition will continue to grow, because, as Joshi concludes, “H. P. Lovecraft has proven himself a man and writer of the ages. His fame has expanded so far beyond what he could have imagined as itself to constitute a ‘weird tale’ of the most spectacularly bizarre sort.”
Lovecraft aficionados will appreciate this mask and its backstory. I snapped the image this weekend at the Seattle Art Museum. It was so delightfully gruesome that I couldn’t pass it by, and when I saw its name — “The Ancient One” — I knew I had to sneak a picture.
The mask is an artifact of the Ivory Coast. It’s a striking example of a “gela” mask, a disguise that supposedly transforms its wearer. The peoples of the Ivory Coast and Liberia believe a gela mask has the power to create a new being composed of the mask, the person wearing the mask, and the costume. The name of the mask, “The Ancient One,” suggests it’s a traditional design dating back many centuries. And no wonder — almost every culture recognizes a shadowy, shifting realm linking the human and animal worlds. This mask is a vivid and imaginative variant of that tradition.
The mask, made of wood, cloth, teeth, horn, feathers, hair, shells, mud, and natural pigments, deliberately combines human and animal features. It’s believed to have the power to absorb the feral passions in a community and redirect them back into the wild — where they belong.
Carter found it fascinating that Lovecraft, a thorough materialist, could enthrall the world with his terrifying tales of “evil and fallen gods.” Carter’s take was that Lovecraft utilized his firm grasp of science and materialist outlook to craft stories made believable with concrete details and methodical precision.
Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and Veronica’s Room, used an approach similar to Lovecraft’s. Like HPL, Levin was an atheist, yet his horror tales make supernatural evil seem frighteningly real, even palpable. In both the novel and Roman Polanski’s excellent screen adaptation, Rosemary’s Baby draws you in with odd but apparently mundane details. The realtor who helps Rosemary and her husband Guy find an apartment is missing fingers. When Rosemary and Guy move a dresser from the wall, they realize it hides a secret room — but it’s only an empty closet.
Nothing to see there, right?
As the truth about these seemingly innocent details slowly comes out, you’re fascinated by the inescapable conclusion that there’s something sinister going on, and it’s impossible to turn away. Like Rosemary, you’re in this thing now and there’s no turning back.
So why are confirmed materialists such as Lovecraft and Levin drawn to supernatural subjects? And what enables them to be so convincing?
Both men knew that writing depends on exaggeration and metaphor. I like the way Flannery O’Connor put it: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Of course, O’Connor was a traditional Catholic who aimed to make readers perceive supernatural evil by vividly presenting earthly evil.
“My own rule is that a story cannot produce terror unless it is devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith
“Lovecraft was, as the cliché has it, a living bundle of contradictions. A rationalist, an absolute materialist, without a trace of superstition or a flicker of interest in religious matters, he based his entire life work on the supernatural, on evil and fallen gods and sinister magic and hierarchies of transmundane demonic intelligences. It is perhaps because of his complete atheism that he was able to make his malign and imaginary Great Old Ones so convincingly real to his readers. Uninvolved with supernaturalism himself, he could be coldly objective –and he calculated with exquisite finesse the means of rendering his hellish pantheon both credible and terrifying.” — Lin Carter, from “Farewell to the Dreamlands”
A secret that fans of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft have known for years is that the works of these authors were much more than mere ghost and adventure stories. In the past couple of decades, a number of serious studies have confirmed that insightful and profound world views animated these tales, making them not only entertaining, but thought-provoking.
Jason Ray Carney is the latest scholar to analyze their enduring appeal. Carney, who teaches Literary Theory and Creative Writing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, also writes speculative fiction, and is the chair of the Pulp Studies section of the Popular Culture Association.
Weird Tales of Modernity examines Howard and Lovecraft, as well as the lesser-known Clark Ashton Smith, and considers their stories as critical reactions to modern art and the transience of life. While this study rewards the reader with a number of well-argued insights into the mindset and artistry of the three authors, it is not aimed at the general reading public. It is instead a highly technical analysis aimed at academics. While it lacks the conversational tone of Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder, or the rollicking wit of Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft, it marches along with forceful logic and a careful mobilization of facts, backed by citations of numerous works from sixty-four notable authors and critics, including Jose Ortega y Gasset, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.
Carney argues that Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith were united not only by their frequent appearance in the speculative fiction magazine Weird Tales, but also shared a common vision of art and life. A common theme in their stories was their rejection of modernism, and specifically, modern art, with its abandonment of traditional forms and the classical view of man. All three authors contemplated with disgust the creeping conformity that erased both individual and regional personalities. Robert E. Howard, for example, feared that “in a few generations all the United States will present one uniform pattern, modeled on the mechanized fabric of New York.” Such conformity, they warned, would not lead to global democracy, but to a dehumanized, soulless world.
Pulp fiction offered the “Weird Tales Three” a vehicle for expressing, and perhaps reclaiming, basic human experiences that modern life had taken from them. Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith crafted fiction that was, in Carney’s words, “sensational, often ineloquent or excessively ornate in style, and concerned with inciting raw emotions in readers – such as wonder, joy, excitement, and cosmic dread.”
Differing somewhat in style and theme, all three sought to rediscover those fundamental, ancient, and human emotions. Howard evoked them in his energetic tales of action and danger; Lovecraft showed us protagonists whose pursuit of esoteric knowledge forced them to confront inescapable cosmic horror; and Clark Aston Smith described characters desperately seeking lost joy, innocence, or love. All three conjured the frightening and the fantastic to focus the reader’s imagination on the ephemeral beauty and wonder that live in the ordinary.
Carney’s evaluation of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith as a distinct subgroup provides an eye-opening and challenging appraisal that will help their readers to further appreciate their unique vision and artistry.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.