H.P. Lovecraft may seem an odd subject to discuss here rather than on the fantasy page, considering that his whole career consisted of writing horror fiction for a number of pulp magazines, most notably Weird Tales, but readers have decided that before I ever considered writing about Lovecraft by coining the term, "Cthulhu Mythos" for the subject matter of a large part of Lovecraft's writings. I checked my Cyclopedia of World Authors for Lovecraft, but did not find him listed, though the book (date missing, though probably from around 1960) is quite large, though neither is Robert Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apparently, at that time, and probably still to a great extent Lovecraft is not classes as LITERATURE. In spite of his large and fanatical following, he is still not a household name, though he is no doubt more widely known now than at the time of his death in 1937, and is often mentioned in conjunction with Poe as a master of horror. Hollywood too has come to recognize Lovecraft, and numerous movies have echoed his stories and themes, and even more have allusions to him. There is a computer game based on his mythos, and his imaginary book of arcane secrets, the Necronomicon is probably the best know non-existent book in the language.
I became acquainted with Lovecrafts work in the best possible way. My father had a number of copies of Weird Tales from the thirties and forties stored in the basement where they lay in a crumbling, moldering condition like so many of the manuscripts and book in Lovecraft's stories. Part of their condition was due to the fact that Weird Tales was a pulp magazine in the literal sense of the word. It was made of cheap, high acid, pulp paper. The acid continues to work even after the pulp becomes paper, so that eventually the paper devours itself--a process oddly appropriate for horror fiction. At this point, however, the pages were merely crumbling, and yellow-brown with that odd vanilla wafer smell that high acid paper takes on. Many good artists worked for the pulps, and the actual quality of their work was in an odd way enhanced by the fact that the inferior paper was highly porous, giving their carefully drawn lines a heavy, brutish quality that gave them a quality of menace beyond the artist's intention. As an early adolescent sitting in the dimness of a basement with these moldering texts, I fell easy victim to a literature of cosmic, unspeakable horror, only glimpsed through nightmare, or hinted at by those who knew, but were too circumspect to speak. The first story I read, I think, was something by August Derleth, a weak pasitche of Lovecraft material that would leave me unmoved today, but which then opened up unimagined vistas of cosmic horror previously undreamt. And, the story was headed by a picture of an unearthly, swampy waterscape from which rose weird tentacled entities unlike anything I had imagined before. I was a strange and imaginative child, but not this strange.
But first a few basic biographical facts. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, RI in 1890 and died there or intestinal cancer in 1937--on March 15, my birthday. He was from an old and prosperous New England family, but his father's death when he was still a young child set back the family fortunes. A further blow came with the death of his grandfather when he was fourteen. His mother lost the family mansion and from this time until his death his financial condition slowly declined. As an adult his sporadic income from ghostwriting and the sale of short stories to magazines was never quite enough to make up for the shortfall in the income from what little was left of the family fortune. He was married for a short time and lived during that period in New York, but then returned Providence and the two maiden aunts who had helped raise him. His mother had died a few years earlier.
As a child he was precocious, learning to read very early, and reading voraciously. In spite of his poverty, he found time to write a huge number of letters, some of them quite long. A more worldly person might have thought the time better spent on paying projects, but for someone as reclusive as Lovecraft the interchange of ideas with people like Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and others doubtlessly widened his perspective. This is not much of a biography, I admit, but there are others better qualified, and all this can be found easily elsewhere on the internet, and so I will move on to other matters.
Lovecraft's genius was quickly recognized by many of the readers and many of his fellow writers for Weird Tales, in which the greatest part of his work appeared during his lifetime. For all that, however, he was not the favorite with the magazine's readership. That was Seabury Quinn, who also edited a trade magazine for morticians. Quinn is now mostly remembered because of the fame of Weird Tales, which itself is largely remembered as the magazine that published Lovecraft, though it published many others whose names are still familiar--Robert Howard, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith. Unlike many writers who hoard their material, Lovecraft quite willingly shared the subject and manner of his "Cthulhu mythos" stories, sometimes even providing a sequel to another's Lovecraftian story, and so others contributed to the mythos with yet more strange entities and arcane, forbidden books. One of these admirers and imitators was August Derleth, a writer of great energy and limited talent. Derleth wrote a huge amount of fiction of all sorts, and wrote very rapidly. He was caught up by the mythos tradition, however, and upon Lovecraft's death he and Donald Wandrei gained copyrights from the magazine and from Lovecraft's heirs, claims apparently exaggerated and still in dispute. It was a property of dubious value, for though Lovecraft still had a cult following, it was too small to make the works very commercially viable. Nonetheless he and Wandrei founded a publishing company, Arkam House, to preserve and publish Lovecraft's works.
Several limited editions of Lovecraft's works were brought out during the next couple of decades, but merely knowing of Arkam House's existence was practically a piece of arcane knowledge. Still, Lovecraft's fame grew slowly, and the publishing company expanded the size of its editions. Further, Lovecraft became known outside the English speaking world, and was read with serious respect. And in England and America a few stories of the "Cthulhu Mythos" continued to be written, especially by Brian Lumley. I even had my own brief, inglorious moment as a member of the movement. A high school friend named Bob Jacobs, a semi-professional magician and fellow college student had begun exchanging letters with August Derleth, and the next obvious step was to contribute a story to the tradition. Jacobs was an English major and something of a poet, though not a really talented writer in spite of his interests and other considerable abilities. I was probably the only other person in the area who knew who Lovecraft was, and I was also interested in writing, so he drafted me to collaborate on the story. I had not developed a readable prose style at the time, and I quickly showed that I had less aptitude for writing horror than I did for reading it. So we plodded ahead with glacial slowness. The story seemed to me turgid and not very coherent, but I can't say I did much to cure either problem. It was finished at last, however, and sent to Derleth, who claimed ownership of the mythos at the time. He vetoed our effort, probably rightly. I do not remember the story line, the title, or a single phrase, and am content not to. Since then I have been satisfied to admire Cthulhu from a distance without feeling the need to embrace him.
Lovecraft actually wrote a variety of stories. Some were mystic little fables in the manner of Lord Dunsenay, some were dreamy and evocative prose-poems, for Lovecraft was a poet as well as a writer of fiction, some like "The Picture in the House" were straight horror, and some, like "Herbert West: Reanimator" were more or less in the field of science fiction. What fascinated readers most at the time, and ever since, however, were those stories that made up the Cthulhu Mythos. At the heart of these stories is the idea of an ancient, nonhuman race that inhabited earth before mankind, before any other life-form, in fact. These entities, partially material, though not in the same sense as we are or entirely subject to the same physical laws somehow lost their hold on earth. Most survey earth from their foothold at the edge of the solar system, a dark, yet undiscovered planet called Yuggoth, though their ultimate home is somewhere beyond even our dimension. One, perhaps the most powerful of these entities, Cthulhu, a huge, winged, squid-like creature lies dead and sleeping in his city of R'lyeh. Or, in the ritual terms used by his worshippers, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn," which translates as, "In his house at R`lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." When the stars are right, the city will rise from the depths of the ocean and Cthulhu will wake to weak unspeakable horrors on the earth. In the meantime he reaches out to his worshippers through vision and dream, especially when there are earthquakes or other natural disturbances. His followers, aside from some solitaries, are dark cults scattered about dark and neglected corners of the earth that worship small, incredibly ancient stone statues of Cthulhu and perform blood sacrifices to him.
Aside from Cthulhu, the Great Old Ones include Yog Sothoth, Hastur the Unspeakable, Azatoth, Nyarlathotep the messenger of the Great Old Ones, and Shub-Nigguroth the black goat of the woods, the goat with a thousand young. (not truly a goat, of course, but a huge, tentacled creature). There is in indefinite number of other entities as well, though how many, what their relationship to the others is, or just what they are like remains vague. One reason for this vagueness is that Lovecraft did not work out a clearly outlined mythology. Actually, this is probably a good thing. For one, it allowed the mythos to grow organically with Lovecraft's various inspirations over time, and to be enriched by the contributions of others. For another, these beings are unknowable and utterly alien, not to mention the fact that knowledge of them is said to have been surpressed, so it would be highly unconvincing if we really did have the whole picture. As it is, like Lovecraft's characters, we have vague and frightening hints of things unutterably vast and strange, and catch glimpses of a partial outline, but we can never know the full horror--mercifully so, since those in the stories who grasp too much of it go mad. By they way, if you are doubting your pronunciation of these names and phrases, don't worry--you are doing it wrong, and always will. It is to be understood that these transcriptions into the Roman alphabet can only feebly represent sounds never meant for the human tongue..
Most of humankind's knowledge of the Great Old Ones comes from rare and ancient texts. Foremost among these is the Necronomicon of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. Lovecraft provides us with a long history of this book, from it's origninal writing in the eighth century a.d. through it's translation into Greek and then Latin, the few editions centuries apart, and the copies largely destroyed by government and church. The original Arabic is now lost, though a rare and moldering Latin copy turns up now and then in the houses of old, half-crazed families. Lovecraft's complex publishing history was made even more convoluted by copies in stories of his various imitators. The most quoted lines of the Necronomiconare these:
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death can die.
Over time, other titles of hideous and forbidden works were added to the canon, some by Lovecraft, some by others: The Pnakotic Manuscriptsof distant and frozen Lomar, the forbidden Book of Eibon,Unaussprechlichen Kulten by von Junzt, Cultesdes Goules, Ludvig Prinn's De Vermis Mysteriis. The listing of these evocative titles became one of the most characteristic pieces of decor for mythos stories, moreso by his imitators than by Lovecraft himself.
The forbidden book(s) is an archetypal theme that oddly no modern writer before Lovecraft had ever fully exploited. It reaches back to a time when books were rare and expensive and few could read. To such a person seeing someone take up a book and draw all kinds of unexpected knowledge from it must have seemed like a mysterious, even a magical activity. The mystery of the book could be called the sorcerer's apprentice theme, and it's history goes back very far, perhaps to the middle ages, the story of the sorcerer's apprentice who borrows his master's book and summons up a demon to carry out his chore, usually bringing water. The summons works, but the apprentice then cannot find a spell to make the demon stop. Christopher Marlowe uses this theme in a comedy scene of Dr. Faustus. Much more recently is was used by Disney in Fantasia. But Lovecraft also taps into a more modern idea--the restricted library collection. Some libraries have collections not open to the general public because the books are too obscene for the merely curious reader as opposed to the serious scholar. Then why not suppose that there are also collections of books too evil and dangerous for the merely curious reader? If a library did have such a collection, it would probably not be general knowledge. There is something oddly believable, at least in a superficial way, about this conception. Books today are so numerous, so cheap, and so much a disposable item one might suppose that the archetypal fear of the book could no longer be activated, but apparently it can. For years the Necronomicon was one of the most sought after books in the world, in spite of the fact that it did not exist. Finally some inspired writer and publisher realized that there was a market, and produced a version which hardly anyone would take seriously, but which many who know better handle with a certain uneasiness.
In the mid-1970's Robert Bloch wrote an introduction in which he describes Lovecraft as having finally arrived in terms of recognition. In some sense he was premature in that assessment and now, thirty years later, Lovecraft still has not entirely arrived. He is not commonly mentioned as one of the significant writers of the 20th century, even as one of the significant short story writers, and college anthologies seldom if ever include anything by Lovecraft, though they do include a great deal of soon-to-be-forgotten prose. On the other hand, Lovecraft has taken on many of the trappings of a great writer. There are several biographies. There are several editions of his letters, though letters are hard to market even if they are by a major writer. Over a dozen movies have been made of his works, and allusions to him or his works appear in many more. There are role-playing games based on the mythos. He has been translated into other languages, and so formidable a writer as Borghes has praised him. He has been the subject of dissertations. Somehow, without ever being recognized as even a good writer he has joined the company of great writers.
So, is Lovecraft a good writer? The small following he had at his death has grown to a large one in the nearly seventy years since; that is unusual. Most writers, and nearly all negligible ones are at their most famous in their own lifetime. One the other hand, most of the charges raised against Lovecraft's style and content are true. He wrote pulp fiction, and he largely followed the conventions of such fiction. He certainly did not follow the various critical dicta that have developed for "serious" fiction over the past two centuries. He is not a realist, a minimalist, and is not above going for what might be considered a cheap effect. Still, the kind of expectations that have been established for "serious" writing are not eternal truths; most are not even that old. What is expected or valued in the arts is always changing. Rather than measuring a writer against some contemporary idea of what is good, it might be better to consider how well he fulfills the expectations of his audience. Consider the end of one of his more compact stories, The Picture in the House. This is the story of an old man with an obsession about the woodcut pictures of African cannibals in a very old book he owns. The story is highly atmospheric, leading up to a drop of blood that has leaked through the ceiling from the room above and dropped onto the page of the book showing the cannibal butchershop. The story is almost pure impressionism, and at the point when the visitor seens the drop of blood land, it is essentially over, and every sentence after is a dilution of the effect. Lovecraft has lightening strike and destroy the house and the old man. In most fiction this deus ex machina would be totally unacceptable, but by using it, and by foreshadowing it in a sentence before the climax, he manages to get out of the story in only two more sentences. Thus he has very good artistic reasons for such an ending. Nothing really matters after this point, so would it truly be a better story if he had extended it to provide a more respectable conclusion?
I really don't think so. Another charge against Lovecraft is that he is campy. Yes, he is, and he knows it, and so do his fellow writers of horror. For instance, one of his characters is the Atlantean priest, Klarkash-ton, whose name is obviously a play on that of his fellow writer, Clark Ashton Smith. There is a real element of play in the whole Cthulhu mythos. But that is the nature of myth. When the poet in Homer's Odyssey finds the subject of human struggle too heavy for his audience, he lightens up by telling a mythic story of the gods. It is not until priests and theologans (and literary critics) get ahold of it that myth becomes solemn and humorless. Some people do not have the mental flexibility to laugh and be serious at the same time.
Another feature of the Lovecraft decor is the vocabulary. Lovecraft used a number of fairly uncommon words with great frequency, mostly words dealing with the strange, the mysterious, or the terrible, such words as eldritch, cyclopian, abyss, abysmal, aeons, abhorrent. He also uses adjectives heavily, especially ones that are loaded with suggestiveness, along with verbs of a similar sort: lurking, creeping, desolate, furtive, accursed, unhallowed, grotesque, hideous. Sometimes he adopts are word and seems to give it a sinister suggestiveness it did not have before--nameless, for instance. Such hyped up language and such a heavy reliance on adjecties are the very mannerisms that creative writing workshops tell us to avoid. Yet Lovecraft's extensive and distinctive vocabulary helps create the atmosphere of a Lovecraft story as sure as "once upon a time" sets the stage for a traditional fairy tale. It tells us we are entering a world in which only the most extreme language can even hint at the horrors the author is trying to express. Of course, unless the author then delivers on the promise, it all falls flat. It is surprising how seldom Lovecraft fails; he is less often guilty than Poe is of hyping words while delivering very little substance. Check out the overheated language of Poe's William Wilson, then see if Lovecraft ever uses language this atrociously.
But what is it that Lovecraft does deliver? Something that is largely his own creation, cosmic horror. I really do think that I coined the term myself, before I discovered that it was already in use to describe Lovecraft's work. It is simply the right term. The real horror in Lovecraft is not so much the monstors, the rats, the madmen, and fanatics, but a full realization of our own insignificance and helpless in the face of an unimaginably vast cosmos of space and time about which we know next to nothing, and which we can only hope is indifferent to us, and not actively hostile. What a goldfish in a bowl understands of a house and those beings who live in it is vastly more than we can know of the cosmos that surrounds our comforting little goldfish bowl. Lovecraft is forever attempting to describe the undescribable, and succeeding surprisingly well. One can never quite visualize the unimaginable, but like such artists as Bosch and Breugal he sometimes creates impossible hybrids to express it. In all this, Lovecraft is quite modern. The nineteenth century saw with growing unease all the comforting beliefs of with which they had grown up falling away. Darwin destroys Eden, Malthus destroys brotherhood, astronomy expands the vastness of space, though the compact little earth-centered universe of the ancient world and middle ages had already been destroyed. Mankind is leaving its childhood. Of course there is a parallel development in the life of the individual human--one enters adolescence and all the intimate assumptions of childhood are lost. Lovecraft lost his father-figure, his family home, and his family's financial security all as he was entering adolescence, but it is a hard time for all of us, and it is adolescents who respond most strongly to Lovecraft, as they do to Poe. Cthulhu and his bretheren, or something like them may lurk out there, but even if they do ont, the mere vastness of space and time adds up to much the same thing.
I have one reservation left about Lovecraft's work, but it seems to me a serious one. I can no longer read him with the same sense of wonder and horror that I did in adolescence. He was so powerful an experience that I moun the loss almost like Wordsworth mourns the loss of his visionary childhood in Intimations of Immortality. And, I think this is a common thing. Lovecraft is far more a writer for adolescents and young adults than for anyone else. This is one serious limitation.