I’ve just finished playing a cute little game called Cthulhu Saves the World (from Zeboyd Games) in the last few weeks. It’s over-stuffed with goofy in-jokes and word plays based on the writing of the great H.P. Lovecraft, and so it has put me in mind to blog a bit on him. The man himself (rather, his effigy) has also been in the news recently, so it seemed timely to add my voice to his chorus of admirers.
My early exposure to Lovecraft was through pop culture references, movies, and role playing games (especially Palladium stuff). Hunting down the screwball screen adaptations was my next phase; I still have fond memories of late night Dagon and Necronomicon. Finally, the blessed internet gave me his complete works for $0.99 (Thanks, Nook!).
Lovecraft’s actual writing is nothing like any screen or pop culture adaptation I have ever seen. His approach is varied but the central motif is bringing dreams and their insane causality to life. It takes about two seconds to realize that Stephen King has been riffing on him for his entire career (which is doubly amusing, since King adaptations to the screen also fail to deliver his magic).
Unlike with Poe, I cannot think of a single instance of a dead story I flipped through just to be done with it. It’s been a few years so I can’t summon every story and its details, but the impressions remain. He knows exactly how to touch the nerves that make us shudder and he plays a lot of them. He does not hammer one scare over and over, even if there are definite themes.
His most notable feature in my opinion is how skillfully he leaves things unexplained. I was surprised, once I got through the corpus, how little page time Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones and the like actually get. His chthonic gods remain underground and lurking at the limits of our consciousness. His recurring muse is the vastness of space, undetected and unimaginable, and who knows what fills it–and he never wastes breath or horror-capital telling us. He just makes the reader know that it is. No effort to capture Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep or Azathoth in art–event deviant art!–can possibly succeed in comparison.
Similar to my post on Poe, here’s an eclectic list of some of my favorites–by no means exhaustive. I’ve deliberately avoided the core-famous ones like Mountains or Innsmouth:
The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath
The Cats of Ulthar
The White Ship
The Doom That Came to Sarnath
The Picture in the House
The Music of Erich Zann
The Other Gods
The Dreams in the Witch House
The opening of The Cats of Ulthar, which I re-read every year ’round Halloween time:
It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.
Like all horror fiction, and hypnotism too, Lovecraft’s writings require a certain level of reader buy-in. Anyone can read a master’s work and not be afraid, should she set out to do so. But Lovecraft’s greatness is far-reaching; with even minimal commitment on the part of the reader to being led, his enchantment is strong and sure. And it is always a pleasure, at least for me, to pull back the curtain and realize where contemporary authors get their ideas. Many masters owe him much, if not all.
And now we come to a sad but I think necessary finale. Lovecraft was a vicious racist, so much so that I hesitate to list a few of those works above for their more-than-questionable racist content. But I think people have been a little too quick to say his racism was extreme even by the standards of the day. That’s not really true, based on my experience as a research assistant into the sociology and economics of the 1920s. He’s fairly unremarkable in comparison to academia, literati, and the upper crust. That’s not to excuse him–it scarcely need be said that I find his views appalling–but just to caution a focused response. Whether it was common or not, it was (and is) evil.
As to the frenzy surrounding the WFA, I am of the opinion that the award should not be a bust of any artist (a similar view is shared by the Furious D and many others). Lovecraft is a master, and he should be read in spite of his terrible racism, but I don’t think he represents all fantasy very well as some sort of progenitor (I’m curious to know how he initially came to be the prize). His racism just strengthens the case that another icon should be chosen. Against my own character, I’d probably suggest something modern and abstract.