Howard Phillips Lovecraft
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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937), of Providence, Rhode Island, was an American author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction.
H. P. Lovecraft’s name is synonymous with horror fiction; his writing, particularly the “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements may be found in novels, movies, music, comic books and cartoons. For example, the insane villains of Gotham City in the Batman stories are incarcerated in Arkham Asylum - Arkham being an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
Lovecraft himself, though, was relatively unknown during his own time. While his stories might have made it into the pages of prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales (often eliciting letters of outrage from regular readers of the magazines), not many people knew his name. He did correspond regularly with other contemporary writers such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, people who became good friends of his, even if they never met in person. This group of correspondents became known as the “Lovecraft Circle”, since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft’s stories — the mysterious books with disturbing names, the pantheon of ancient alien gods such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places such as Miskatonic and Arkham — for use in their own (with Lovecraft’s blessing and encouragement). It’s been suggested that it was the efforts of the Lovecraft Circle — particularly August Derleth — that prevented Lovecraft’s name and fiction from disappearing completely into obscurity.
After Lovecraft’s death, the Lovecraft Circle carried on. August Derleth was probably the most prolific of these writers, and added to and expanded on Lovecraft’s vision. Derleth’s contributions have been controversial, to say the least; while Lovecraft never considered his pantheon of alien gods more than a mere plot device, Derleth created an entire cosmology, complete with a war between the “Elder Gods” (such as Cthulhu and his ilk) and the “Outer Gods”, and went on to associate different gods with the traditional four elements. Not every fan of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian horror has approved of these additions, since they seem to contradict Lovecraft’s own vision of a universe without order or plan, with beings that weren’t so much malevolent as they were just uninterested in the goings on of humanity. Would Lovecraft have approved of Derleth’s expansions? It has been said that Lovecraft was a good sport about this sort of thing, so he probably would have welcomed Derleth’s own take, but he certainly wouldn’t have taken it on himself. If there can be said to be a “Lovecraft Circle”, then Derleth’s version would be an interesting take on the circle, but not part of the circle itself.
Lovecraft's fiction has been grouped into three categories by some critics. While Lovecraft did not refer to these categories himself, he did once write, "There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' — but alas — where are my Lovecraft pieces?"
Some critics see little difference between the Dream Cycle and the Mythos, often pointing to the recurring Necronomicon and subsequent "gods". A frequently given explanation is that the Dream Cycle belongs more to the genre of fantasy, while the Mythos is science fiction. Also, much of the supernatural elements in the Dream Cycle takes place in its own sphere or mythological dimension separated from our own level of existence. The Mythos on the other hand, is placed within the same reality and cosmos as the humans live in.
Much of Lovecraft's work was directly inspired by his nightmares, and it is perhaps this direct insight into the unconscious and its symbolism that helps to account for their continuing resonance and popularity. All these interests naturally led to his deep affection for the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who heavily influenced his earliest macabre stories and writing style known for its creepy atmosphere and lurking fears. Lovecraft's discovery of the stories of Lord Dunsany with their gallery of mighty gods existing in dreamlike outer realms, moved his writing in a new direction, resulting in a series of imitative fantasies in a "Dreamlands" setting.
Another inspiration came from a totally different kind of source; the scientific progresses at the time in such wide areas as biology, astronomy, geology and physics, all contributed to make the human race seem even more insignificant, powerless and doomed in a materialistic and mechanical universe, and was a major contributor to the ideas that later would be known as cosmicism, and which gave further support to his atheism.
Because of his love for his own heritage and because of the USA's relatively young age as a nation and therefore the need to create locations that would still give the feeling of something old and at the same time western, Lovecraft also added elements such as fictional New England towns and locations where the stories took place.
It was probably the influence of Arthur Machen, with his carefully constructed tales concerning the survival of ancient evil into modern times in an otherwise realistic world and his mystic beliefs in hidden mysteries which lay behind reality, that added the last ingredient and finally helped inspire Lovecraft to find his own voice from 1923 onwards.
This took on a dark tone with the creation of what is today often called the Cthulhu Mythos, a pantheon of alien extra-dimensional deities and horrors which predate humanity, and which are hinted at in aeon-old myths and legends. The term "Cthulhu Mythos" was coined by Lovecraft's correspondent and fellow author, August Derleth, after Lovecraft's death; Lovecraft jocularly referred to his artificial mythology as "Yog-Sothothery".
His stories created one of the most influential plot devices in all of horror: the Necronomicon, the secret grimoire written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. The resonance and strength of the Mythos concept have led some to incorrectly conclude that Lovecraft had based it on pre-existing myths or occult beliefs. Faux editions of the Necronomicon have also been published over the years.
His prose is somewhat antiquarian. Often he employed archaic vocabulary or spelling which had already by his time been replaced by contemporary coinages; examples including electric torch (flashlight), Esquimau, and Comanchian. He was given to heavy use of an esoteric lexicon including such words as "eldritch," "rugose," "noisome," "squamous," "ichor," and "cyclopean," and of attempts to transcribe dialect speech which have been criticized as clumsy, imprecise, and condescending. His works also featured British English (he was an admitted Anglophile), and he sometimes made use of anachronistic spellings, such as "compleat/complete," "lanthorn/lantern," and "phantasy/fantasy" (the latter also appearing as "phantastic" and "phantabulous").
Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer. During his lifetime he wrote thousands of these letters, however the exact number of letters he wrote is still hotly debated. An estimate of 100,000 seems to be the most likely figure, arrived at by L. Sprague de Camp. Lovecraft inscribed multiple pages to his group of correspondents in small longhand. He sometimes dated his letters 200 years before the current date, which would have put the writing back in U.S. colonial times, before the American Revolution that offended his Anglophilia. He explained that he thought that the 18th and 20th centuries were the "best"; the former being a period of noble grace, and the latter a century of science.
Lovecraft was influenced by such authors as Robert W. Chambers (The King in Yellow) (of whom H. P. Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith: "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans - equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them"), Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan), Lord Dunsany, (The Gods of Pegana and other Dunsany works), Edgar Allan Poe , A. Merritt (The Moon Pool, later a great liking and admiration of the original of The Metal Monster) and Lovecraft's friends Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.
He also cited Algernon Blackwood as an influence, quoting "The Centaur" in the head paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu.
Beyond direct adaptation, Lovecraft and his stories have had a profound impact on popular culture and have been praised by many modern writers. Some influence was direct, as he was a friend, inspiration, and correspondent to many of his contemporaries, such as Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Many later figures were influenced by Lovecraft, including author and artist Clive Barker, prolific horror writer Stephen King, film directors John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon, game designers Sandy Petersen and Keichiro Toyama, and artist H. R. Giger. H. P. Lovecraft’s name is virtually synonymous with horror fiction; his writing, particularly his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, movies, comic books, even cartoons. Batman’s nemesis “The Joker”, for example, is said to be incarcerated at Arkham Asylum; Arkham being an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, F. Paul Wilson, Bentley Little, Thomas Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges dedicated his pointedly Lovecraftian short story "There are More Things" -- a reference to Hamlet's "...in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" -- to the memory of Lovecraft. Contemporary French writer Michel Houellebecq wrote a literary biography of Lovecraft called H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Shades of Lovecraft surface throughout Houellebecq's work. Prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates wrote an introduction for a collection of Lovecraft stories. In 2005 Lovecraft was somewhat controversially given a volume in the Library of America series, essentially declaring him a canonical great American writer. While he's invoked as a godfather to fantastical genres, his thematics -- surely some of the bleakest "realism" ever conveyed -- have also sown strange offspring.
Other authors have written stories that are explicitly set in the same reality as Lovecraft's original stories. Lovecraft pastiches are common. Lovecraft's characteristic devices -- like the object that drives one insane upon seeing it -- are now eponymous.
He has also been held responsible for the invention of the philosophy "Cosmicism" which was reflected in many works beyond his own, including the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still.
A number of heavy metal bands, including Behemoth, Symphony X, Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Brown Jenkins, Electric Wizard, Dark Moor, Metallica, Morbid Angel, GWAR, Nile, Adagio, Philosopher, Aarni, Dragonland, Bal-Sagoth, Crypticus, 1349, Therion, Yyrkoon, Manticora, Azathoth, The Axis of Perditon and Vesania have been influenced lyrically by Lovecraft's work. One band chose its name from a chapter title in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, A Nightmare & A Cataclysm. British metal band Cradle of Filth released an album in 2002 entitled "Lovecraft and Witch Hearts." On the inside cover is part of a poem by H. P. Lovecraft, and reads as follows:
The British punk band Rudimentary Peni in 1987 released "Cacophony," an album wholly structured around H. P. Lovecraft and his works. The songs are alternatively pseudo-biographical (e.g. "Better Not Born," about the young Lovecraft's contemplation of suicide) or directly inspired from his works (e.g. "Nightgaunts," "Drinking Song from 'The Tomb'"). The spoken-word track "Twitch" in particular is a curious tribute to Lovecraft's work. It begins, "Howard Phillips Lovecraft, heaven knows, had a talent for writing which was of no means proportion: only what he did with this talent was a shame, and a caution and an eldritch horror," and becomes progressively more sinister. He is accused, for instance, of "rewriting (for pennies) the crappy manuscripts of writers whose complete illiteracy would have been a boon to all mankind... and producing ghastly, grisly, ghoulish, and horrifying works of his own as well." Parts of this was taken from Avram Davidsons 1963 review of "The Survivor or Others" in "Fantasy & Science Fiction".
The Live After Death album from Iron Maiden shows Eddie the Head on a stormy night rising from his grave. His gravestone has a quote from Lovecraft: "That is not dead, which can eternal lie. Yet with strange eons, even death may die", a quote also present in the lyrics of "The Thing That Should Not Be", by Metallica. The quote is also used in "Poet Laureate Infinity", a song by rapper Canibus.
A few non-metal bands have also used Lovecraftian sources, including The Fall, The Vaselines, Fields of the Nephilim, and The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. Australian hiphop group Nick Sweepah & Aux One include references to Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos on their self-titled EP of 2005. And the band "Living Colour" derives its name from "The Colour Out of Space".
"Mountains Of Madness" is a visual / musical stage-production with Alexander Hacke (German musician, long-time member of Einstürzende Neubauten), UK band The Tiger Lillies and Danielle de Picciotto (drawings), which is entirely based on Lovecraft's work. The Premiere took place in Berlin in 2005. A DVD also titled "Mountains Of Madness" was released in 2006. Tiger Lillies with Hacke & de Picciotto performed several live shows with this production in 2005 - 2007.
Lovecraft's style of horror has been implemented in Call of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games and many video games, including Clive Barker's Undying, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil 4, and more explicitly in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and the MMORPG Cthulhu Nation.
There have also been detailed references to the Cthulhu mythos in current and near current science fiction (for example, "Babylon 5 Thirdspace" and the Doctor Who new adventures novels.)
Lovecraft appears as himself in the television tie-in novel, "Stargate SG-1: Roswell", where he is credited for inspiring both Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis.
Survey of the work
For most of the 20th century, the definitive editions (specifically At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, The Dunwich Horror and Others, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions) of his prose fiction were published by Arkham House, a publisher originally started with the intent of publishing the work of Lovecraft, but which has since published a considerable amount of other literature as well. Penguin Classics has at present issued three volumes of Lovecraft's works: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, and most recently The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. They collect the standard texts as edited by S. T. Joshi, most of which were available in the Arkham House editions, with the exception of the restored text of "The Shadow Out of Time" from The Dreams in the Witch House, which had been previously released by small-press publisher Hippocampus Press. In 2005 the prestigious Library of America canonized Lovecraft with a volume of his stories edited by Peter Straub, and Random House's Modern Library line just released the "definitive edition" of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness (also including "Supernatural Horror in Literature").
Lovecraft's poetry is collected in The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft, while much of his juvenilia, various essays on philosophical, political and literary topics, antiquarian travelogues, and other things, can be found in Miscellaneous Writings. Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature", first published in 1927, is a historical survey of horror literature available with endnotes as The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature.
Although Lovecraft is known mostly for his works of weird fiction, the bulk of his writing consists of voluminous letters about a variety of topics, from weird fiction and art criticism to politics and history. S. T. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft wrote about 87,500 letters from 1912 until his death in 1937, including one 70-page letter from November 9, 1929, to Woodburn Harris.
Lovecraft was not a very active letter-writer in youth. In 1931 he admitted: "In youth I scarcely did any letter-writing — thanking anybody for a present was so much of an ordeal that I would rather have written a two hundred fifty-line pastoral or a twenty-page treatise on the rings of Saturn." (SL 3.369–70). The initial interest in letters stemmed from his correspondence with his cousin Phillips Gamwell but even more important was his involvement in the amateur journalism movement, which was responsible for the enormous number of letters Lovecraft produced.
Lovecraft clearly states that his contact to numerous different people through letter-writing was one of the main factors in broadening his view of the world: "I found myself opened up to dozens of points of view which would otherwise never have occurred to me. My understanding and sympathies were enlarged, and many of my social, political, and economic views were modified as a consequence of increased knowledge." (SL 4.389).
Today there are four publishing houses that have released letters from Lovecraft, most prominently Arkham House with its five-volume edition Selected Letters. Other publishers are Hippocampus Press (Letters to Alfred Galpin et al.), Night Shade Books (Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei et al.) and Necronomicon Press (Letters to Samuel Loveman and Vincent Starrett et al).
There is controversy over the copyright status of many of Lovecraft's works, especially his later works. For a detailed acount,see H.P.Lovecraft copyright status.
In the Mythos
There has always been a meta-narrative quality to many of even Lovecraft's earliest works, and this continued as the circle of Mythos authors grew. Lovecraft early on began including himself in the Mythos as a descendent of the Great Old Ones. So began Lovecraft becoming a part of his own stories.
But to further complicate the situation, subsequent writers, like August Derleth, would narratively place Lovecraft, the man, in their stories as a fictional character and writer. The Mythos Lovecraft, who had penned stories identical to the real-world Lovecraft works, had not written the stories as works of fiction, but documentary works based on his own experiences and as documentation of others' experiences.