To celebrate our screening of HP Lovecraft's The Whisperer in Darkness on Wed 13th Mar (7.15pm Stockport Plaza cinema), Steve Balshaw Grimm Up North's film programmer takes a look at the man himself.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one of American horror fiction’s most unique visionaries, and its greatest mythmaker. His work transcends its pulp and genre roots, influencing authors as diverse as Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Joyce Carol Oates, Jorge Luis Borges and even misanthropic French miserablist Michel Houellebecq. He has provided inspiration for a multitude of books, paintings, sculptures, films, music, comics and graphic novels, cartoons, and even role-playing and computer games. The Mythologies he created, with their weird mixture of folklore, both real and invented, gothic horror, exoticism, and science fiction have found their way into popular culture in myriad ways, many of which would have surprised and quite possibly appalled their reclusive and eccentric creator.
The effect of such widespread appropriation of his creations, one might expect, ought to be a dilution of their effect, and ultimately a reductio ad absurdium. For every effective and intelligent usage by others of Lovecraftian mythology and storytelling tropes, there are dozens which really have no connection with his work at all, beyond a little arcane name-dropping. It is these latter which have done much to harm Lovecraft’s reputation in certain quarters, to suggest, as his detractors have, that his stories are often little more than roll-calls of bizarrely named Elder Gods and forbidden texts, referenced with ever-increasing hysteria as each narrative progresses to its climax. But this is to entirely miss the purpose of Lovecraft’s created mythologies, and his often deliberately overwrought use of language.
Myths are generally created as a means of telling us things about ourselves and others. They are parables, serving a symbolic or illustrative purpose. They open a window into the unknown, and try to make it comprehensible. Lovecraft understood this clearly. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he begins by observing:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Not love, or hatred, or greed: Fear.
He goes on to point out how early man, confronted by a world that was largely inexplicable, would weave around those inexplicable phenomena: “…personifications, marvellous interpretations, and sensations of awe and fear…”
Lovecraft sees this instinct towards fearful myth-making not as a primitive instinct, but as a primal one: “though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs much of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful associations clings around all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained.”
We are still, at heart, primitives, afraid of the dark, and our own accumulated superstitions. The role of the writer of the supernatural, for Lovecraft, is to tap into the reader’s existing sense of “cosmic fear”. Here’s how he begins one of the most celebrated of his weird tales, the one in which so much of his unique mythology was given shape, The Call of Cthulhu:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
It is passages such as this that lead Michel Houellebecq, in his perceptive biographical and critical essay H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life to describe Lovecraft has having: “An absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by a particular disgust for the modern world.”
This is, I suspect, true. But behind the hatred and disgust lies Lovecraft’s “oldest and strongest emotion”, FEAR.
Detractors such as Michael Moorcock have emphasised the neurotic racism, misogyny and fear of sex that they see as permeating Lovecraft’s work, and it is true that such elements are there - but they are part of a larger, more general terror of existence. And it is this primal, crushing terror that drives his work, and gives it much of its visceral impact.
A little biographical information about Lovecraft might prove useful at this point.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, a place he very rarely left. His mother’s side of the family, the Phillips, could trace their ancestry back to the 1600s. His father, a travelling salesman was committed to an asylum when Lovecraft was only three years old. The cause of dementia was syphilis, though whether Lovecraft ever knew this is uncertain. Lovecraft was raised by his mother, grandfather and two maternal aunts, and he grew up with a strong notion of belonging to a grand family with a noble history. He was a sickly child, subject to night-terrors, during which he believed himself to be assaulted by horrific "night gaunts." His grandfather’s death when Lovecraft was 14 threw the family finances into disarray. They lost the family home, and Lovecraft had a nervous breakdown, with the result that he never completed his formal education to his own satisfaction. Recuperating, he lived what he described as “a hermit’s existence” with his increasingly depressive and unstable mother, who was herself finally committed to the same psychiatric hospital as her husband. Following his mother’s death, Lovecraft made his only real attempt to engage with the normal stream of life. By now an established author, he attended an amateur journalist convention in Boston Massachusetts, where he met Sonia Greene. They married in 1924, and moved to into her apartment in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. The marriage was not a success. Sonia was Jewish and “in trade”, which created hostility from Lovecraft’s aunts. Lovecraft could not find work in New York to support them both, and his wife was forced to move to Cleveland for employment. Alone and isolated in Brooklyn in the midst of a large immigrant population, finding himself utterly unemployable, Lovecraft became increasingly consumed by racial paranoia. He returned to Providence, to live with his aunts. He never returned to Sonia, and they finally agreed to an amicable divorce, though this was never finalised. He remained in Providence, a struggling writer in ever poorer health until his death, aged 47 from cancer of the small intestine.
The details of his life are significant, because in them we find the roots of all of Lovecraft’s literary obsessions: inherited guilt and degeneracy, racial anxiety, the grand family that is not what it seems, the continued, lurking terror of madness, of encroaching, mutating disease, of basic contact with others. Above all, the sense not simply of alienation, but of otherness, of outsiderdom.
True, Lovecraft was not entirely alone. Indeed, over time, he found himself the head of a kind of “literary circle”, with other writers who shared some of his obsessions, and whom he considered friends. But these were literary friendships, conducted by correspondence. And it is significant that the authors to whom he felt closest (neither of whom he ever met) were the manic-depressive mother’s boy Robert Ervin Howard, creator of Conan The Barbarian and other hyper-violent arrested-adolescent power fantasies, and the eccentric Clark Ashton Smith, who lived in the California dustbowl with his aged parents, writing purple-prosed, fin de siecle style decadent fantasies, filled with gaudy phraseology and exotic, gothic orientalism. All three men are remarkable, brilliant in their way. And all are equally odd; loners, existing in isolation both from the literary mainstream, and apparently from life itself. Yet Lovecraft is the most alienated of all. Even in his letters to those he feels kinship, he emphasises his difference, his distance, describing himself in letters written in his 30s as an old man, a “grandfather”, when he was actually only 3 years older than Ashton Smith.
This conscious emphasising of his own otherness, even when expressed humorously, is clearly not an assumed posture, but a reflection of his own deepest sense of self. It is pathological, and lies at the core of Lovecraft’s writing.
It is often seen as significant that so many of Lovecraft’s admirers, including Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Michel Houellebecq discovered him when young. This has led him to be dismissed as an essentially adolescent writer. Charles L. Grant has gone so far as to observe that: “when you grow up you discover that what attracted you when you were fourteen was his rococo style and very little else”. This is palpably untrue. The style is barely relevant at that age. What makes Lovecraft speak so strongly to adolescents is his overwhelming sense of alienation, something which every anxious, spotty teenager knows all-too-well.
To illustrate my point, I’ll end this posting with a personal anecdote. I discovered Lovecraft’s work at the age of thirteen. The first story of his I ever read was THE OUTSIDER - about as evocative a title as any lonely teenager could wish for. The subject, too, has particular resonance. The solitary, unhappy protagonist, seeking only human warmth and company is brought quite literally face to face with the reason he can never experience it: because he is a monster, a “ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity and dissolution.” He flees back into his darkened solitude, taking bitter consolation in that he has learned: “I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men”.
This is the fear of every neurotic, self-loathing adolescent writ large: I am not what I believed myself to be, I am not like others, I will always be alone. And these are not fears we ever truly grow out of. They do not leave us with age. They recur, in some ways they deepen over time.
I last read Lovecraft about three years ago. His stories disturbed and haunted me just as much as they did thirty years earlier.
That fear never goes away. Steve Balshaw