H. P. Lovecraft & The Darkest Horror

 

LovecraftIt being Halloween week, we’ve had some fun discussing horror writing and film, from Edgar Allan Poe‘s horror of death to the theological horror of The Exorcist. I enjoy both genres immensely, but I’ve come to a late appreciation for H.P. Lovecraft (1890 -1936), who did as much to shape the genre in the 20th Century as Poe did in the 19th.

Lovecraft lived most of his life in Southern New England, with a short stint in New York City during his brief and profoundly unhappy marriage. Born into relative privilege of a 19th Century sort, he never really earned a living, getting by on his inheritance and the pittance his writing brought in. Introverted and unwilling to promote himself, he died in obscurity of stomach cancer in 1936, his work having never gained any attention outside of pulp magazines.

Like most horror writers, Lovecraft is extraordinarily uneven: many of his stories are incredibly derivative, some of them are outright silly, and there’s strain of racism throughout his work that would be more offensive if it weren’t so transparent, gratuitous, and dated (besides the regular derogatory comments about blacks, Lovecraft can never resist the opportunity to take a jab at the Portuguese). Moreover, Lovecraft’s characterizations are generally very weak — it’s unusual for a character from his stories to make much of an impression — and the number of named women in his work could likely be counted on a single hand.

At his best, however, Lovecraft creates a world of cosmic horror based around the premise that the Universe isn’t about us; that even our deepest, most heartfelt, and most profound struggles are — quite literally — beneath the notice of the true forces of space and time. Truth may set you free in Christianity, but it drives you mad in Lovecraft’s worldview. In the opening to the “The Call of Cthulhu” — his most famous story and, arguably, his best — Lovecraft’s narrator reflects on making just such a discovery:

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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

In contrast, one of the central conceits of the Abrahamic faiths — and Christianity in particular — is that God cares a great deal about us and that we are the focal point of physical Creation: we are uniquely made in His image; He speaks to us, either through prayer, in person, or through angelic messengers; through our actions the world was irrevocably damaged; through His taking our form and dying on the cross, it was restored, etc. God is subject of the Universe, but we are its object.

But while stories like the “The Call of Cthulhu” feature some knowable and named monster, god, or alien race — all, rather amusingly, with some connection to Massachusetts or Rhode Island — his “The Color Out of Space” features an utterly mysterious killer. The plot is minimal: a mysterious meteor lands in rural Massachusetts and something escapes from it. Within a year, not only has the landscape surrounding the impact site been corrupted and destroyed, so have the lives and sanity of the family who owned the nearby farm.

What makes the story so terrifying — besides the gruesome nature of the deaths — is how inscrutable whatever  got out of the meteor is: not only is its nature mysterious, it’s not even clear whether it has a will. The effects of its presence are consistent with something evil, but its lack of motive or evident gain from its actions are perplexing. It could be torturing intently, but it might just as well be unaware and uninterested in the lives it destroys.

The darkest form of atheism posits that — outside of the noises in our minds — the Universe is silent: there is no Purpose, no Plan, only matter and energy acting upon natural forces. In his fiction, Lovecraft goes further, suggesting that there may well be a cosmic song — only we’re not even part of the chorus, let alone carrying the melody.

Many of Lovecraft’s works are available for free online, and there are multiple free or near-free eBook versions. My first introduction to him was this superb reading of “The Call of Cthulhu.”

Image Credit: Lovecraft Wiki user Xardwen.

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  1. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:In contrast, one of the central conceits of the Abrahamic faiths — and Christianity in particular — is that God cares a great deal about us and that we are the focal point of physical Creation: we are uniquely made in His image…

    Well, a focal point of Creation. We’re the only beings we know of who are made in God’s image.

    Since we have no knowledge of other beings whose relationship to God is similar to ours, there’s no real harm in supposing our relationship is unique. But God’s relationship to man doesn’t preclude Him from having relationships with His other creatures. Believing that whether or not other creatures might bear His image, we do, and that God desires to reconcile all of creation to Himself (including parts perhaps unknown to us), strikes me as being within the realm of orthodoxy.

    • #1
  2. user_891102 Member
    user_891102
    @DannyAlexander

    This is an excellent post — thank you so much for contributing it.

    I’m actually from MA (born in Boston, raised in a “Metro West” suburb, and currently back in MA again), and it’s intriguing to learn that the occasional MA and/or RI setting turn(s) up in Lovecraft’s stories.

    Have you had any chance to obtain and/or peruse this volume, and if yes, what are your thoughts?

    http://www.amazon.com/New-Annotated-H-P-Lovecraft/dp/0871404532/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414783182&sr=1-1&keywords=klinger+annotated+lovecraft

    At risk of sounding like a troglodyte, I have to say that I’m hugely frustrated that there seem to be zero quality cinematic (and DVD-transferred) adaptations of Lovecraft’s oeuvre out there — unless I’ve overlooked something.

    Incidentally, I have the same feeling re cinematic (and DVD-available) adaptations of Poe — I don’t want to grit my teeth through the Vincent Price camp stuff, other live-action adaptations strike me as lacking any faithfulness to the originals either, and I’m not interested in animation versions.

    Have I overlooked any thing in this area too?

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Lovecraft endures, I believe, because he was really the first to popularize the idea of aliens from outside our own solar system.

    The aliens that came before Lovecraft were almost exclusively from our solar system (usually Mars).

    He was also (arguably) the first to popularize the idea of aliens being so far advanced that their technologies appear magical and godlike.

    He also popularized the (fictional!) idea of ancient “seeding” of the planet, later taken up by charlatans like Erich von Däniken.

    One might also argue that Lovecraft was the first to popularize a completely fictional pantheon, rather than merely writing new adaptations of the stories from Greek, or  Roman, or Norse, etc, mythology (though he did borrow several of the gods from some of the ancient pantheons), which was pretty common in literature.

    He may not have invented these things, but (in much the same way that Citizen Kane consolidated many film techniques that already existed on their own into one movie) he was the first to popularize many of the science fiction and fantasy tropes which we today take pretty much for granted.

    • #3
  4. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Danny Alexander: At risk of sounding like a troglodyte, I have to say that I’m hugely frustrated that there seem to be zero quality cinematic (and DVD-transferred) adaptations of Lovecraft’s oeuvre out there — unless I’ve overlooked something.

    You’re overlooking the fact that SO many movies, and tv shows, and comic books, have borrowed SO much from Lovecraft over the years, that virtually any cinematic adaptation of Lovecraft’s work would appear derivative of those which came AFTER him.

    The Thing. Aliens. Predator. Ghostbusters. Star Wars. Dune. The X-Files. Much of the Marvel Comics cosmology. Etc, etc, etc.

    (It was the same problem faced by the John Carter movie, which couldn’t use  words like “Jedi” or “Sith” even though they were used in Burroughs’ original stories.)

    • #4
  5. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Danny Alexander: Have you had any chance to obtain and/or peruse this volume, and if yes, what are your thoughts?

    I came across it on Amazon myself a while back; very curious to see a copy in the flesh. The coolest Lovecraft object for purchase I’ve ever heard of is a re-production of Dr. Angell’s box.

    • #5
  6. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Danny Alexander: Have I overlooked any thing in this area too?

    There is a 25-minute adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu made about 10 years ago and intentionally shot to look like a 1920s silent picture. It’s fun, though it’s not exactly amazing.

    http://youtu.be/-0aC-wuJVLU

    • #6
  7. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    If anyone’s interested, other works of his I’d highly recommend include:

    • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – A novella about a young man who discovers that he is descended from a New England wizard who may not be completely dead.
    • At The Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft’s other novella, this one about an expedition to Antarctica that discovers evidence of alien life.
    • The Thing on the Doorstep – My personal favorite (it actually has characters), it’s also about demonic possession and wizardry, but has a much bigger emotional punch than Ward.
    • #7
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Ah, the Mythos. Many an hour I have spent poring over lore Lovecraftian, pondering Secrets Man was not Meant to Know – Yog-Sothoth’s pet name for Shub-Niggurath, Cthulu’s cell phone number, stuff like that. I even had a “Property of Miskatonic University Philosophy Department” sweatshirt.

    Now I’m going to sit in a corner and freak out because spellcheck recognized “Niggurath” and “Cthulu.”

    • #8
  9. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    These are classic works, and I picked them up late in my high school years, but appreciate them all the same. The language can be tricky to overcome as he uses words such as “cyclopean” and the like, but it just adds to the story. “The Dunwich Horror” is another of my favorites, as it melds the supernatural and alien together and again, has characters. His antagonist, however, punches off the pages harder than the protagonists, but perhaps that is intentional. His protagonists represent humanity which in Lovecraft’s world are insignificant compared to things much greater and older than we.

    “Evil” takes a different meaning in his works. “Evil” is something that is so alien its motives and goals are incomprehensible to us, and at the same time so powerful that we are nothing more than insects — crushed not out of malice but merely because we happen to be underfoot.

    There’s a large number of work in Lovecraft’s universe, not just that written by Lovecraft himself. They follow a similar vein.

    • #9
  10. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    Fortunately, there’s now a remedy:

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Percival: … Cthulu’s cell phone number …

    Little known fact, Cthulhu always calls collect:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94-DqjR0b58

    (I love that there are still New Yorkers in the Ghostbusters universe that don’t believe in ghosts. One imagines them posting on the Internet, “Gozer was an inside job!”)

    • #11
  12. user_1030767 Inactive
    user_1030767
    @TheQuestion

    Thanks for all these insights into Lovecraft.  I’ve been reading him and Robert E. Howard lately.  They corresponded and influenced each other.  E.g. Bran Mac Morn, Howard’s Pictish hero, would use “Cthulhu” as a curse word, and knew enough “things Man was not meant to know” to release a Lovecraftian creature trapped under the Earth to take vengeance on his enemies.  Both of them died young, with Howard dying a year before Lovecraft.  Howard recognized Lovecraft as a genius before most others did.

    That’s a really nice picture of Cthulhu, by the way!

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Michael Sanregret: That’s a really nice picture of Cthulhu, by the way!

    Which illustrates how it’s really a poor depiction of Cthulhu, since no actual picture of Cthulhu could possibly be “nice”.

    ;-)

    • #13
  14. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Michael Sanregret: Howard recognized Lovecraft as a genius before most others did.

    Many consider the Conan stories to be the prehistory of the Cthulhu version of Earth.

    • #14
  15. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Michael Sanregret: That’s a really nice picture of Cthulhu, by the way!

    I thought so too, though there are too many people on the boat!

    • #15
  16. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Misthiocracy:

    Michael Sanregret: That’s a really nice picture of Cthulhu, by the way!

    Which illustrates how it’s really a poor depiction of Cthulhu, since no actual picture of Cthulhu could possibly be “nice”.

    ;-)

    Au contraire:

    18132_567703695749_2209932_n

    • #16
  17. user_1184 Inactive
    user_1184
    @MarkWilson

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: My first introduction to him was this superb reading of “The Call of Cthulhu.”

    The link is not working for me.  I can get to the page, but the download link for the mp3 doesn’t work.  Any suggestions?

    • #17
  18. user_432104 Member
    user_432104
    @MattHarris

    True Lovecraftian horror is Hello Cthulhu

    • #18
  19. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mark Wilson:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: My first introduction to him was this superb reading of “The Call of Cthulhu.”

    The link is not working for me. I can get to the page, but the download link for the mp3 doesn’t work. Any suggestions?

    Yikes! I found the correct link elsewhere on the site; it’s corrected above now, too.

    Enjoy; it’s remarkably well produced and read.

    • #19
  20. user_1184 Inactive
    user_1184
    @MarkWilson

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Enjoy; it’s remarkably well produced and read.

    Wow, what a soundtrack.

    • #20
  21. aaronl@hotmail.com Inactive
    aaronl@hotmail.com
    @TheLopez

    There aren’t always great characters in the Cthulhu mythos but you have to remember that in the grand cosmic scale, they aren’t important.

    Jumping right through the wall of suspension of disbelief you can find yourself as a casual observer to things that cannot be described because we not only lack the words but the context as well. Ordinary people muddle around the edges of forces beyond comprehension and are usually destroyed by them, physically or psychologically. As one does learn more about the cosmic all in his world, they not only go mad, they also garner the unwanted attention of those same great and terrible cosmic beings.

    It’s difficult to properly deliver that kind psychological horror on film. There are several movies going back to the 80s that have (barely) tried: Dagon, the Reanimator series, as well as Cthulhu (starring Tori Spelling).

    I love listening to them in audio form. The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company has a few works for free that are marvelous: http://www.artc.org/topic/lovecraft-3/

    You can also pick up a few good ones at Librivox.org. Just search for the name Lovecraft.

    My personal favorites are Call of Cthulhu, The Rats in the Walls, The Colour out of Space, Dreams in the Witch House and, the best of them all, The Shadow out of Time.

    • #21
  22. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:In contrast, one of the central conceits of the Abrahamic faiths — and Christianity in particular — is that God cares a great deal about us and that we are the focal point of physical Creation: we are uniquely made in His image…

    Well, a focal point of Creation. We’re the only beings we know of who are made in God’s image.

    Since we have no knowledge of other beings whose relationship to God is similar to ours, there’s no real harm in supposing our relationship is unique. But God’s relationship to man doesn’t preclude Him from having relationships with His other creatures. Believing that whether or not other creatures might bear His image, we do, and that God desires to reconcile all of creation to Himself (including parts perhaps unknown to us), strikes me as being within the realm of orthodoxy.

    C.F. The Space Trilogy.

    • #22
  23. user_56871 Thatcher
    user_56871
    @TheScarecrow

    Reanimator – good.  From Beyond – great.

    (Actually, Reanimator – pretty dagnabbed good.)

    Jeffery Combs = perfect.

    Barbara Crampton . . . . yow.

    • #23
  24. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Eh, Lovecraft doesn’t do it for me. He tells one story, over and over again.

    There exists evil beyond the comprehension of man. People are driven mad by this. The evil gets held in abeyance, for a time. The description of geometries as blasphemous comes up.

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like in his stories, he does atmosphere well, and the monsters are pretty good, at least the minor ones that manifest in our reality. The real thing is I don’t like stories where good doesn’t win in the end, and I don’t like unhappy endings. And it’s impossible in the Lovecraft Mythos to have a happy ending. It doesn’t make for good stories.

    • #24
  25. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Eldritch…eldritch…horror.

    Paul Theroux has an anecdote about being on a train where he’s reading a biography called Lovecraft and the other passengers think he’s reading a “book about sexual technique”.

    Waiting for the screen adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

    • #25
  26. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Cthulhu Calling? Wasn’t that a Falco hit from the 80s?

    • #26
  27. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Hartmann von Aue:Cthulhu Calling? Wasn’t that a Falco hit from the 80s?

    I thought it was by The Clash.  But I get confused easily.

    • #27
  28. Carey J. Inactive
    Carey J.
    @CareyJ

    Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Because someone had to say it.

    • #28
  29. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I love listening to them in audio form. The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company has a few works for free that are marvelous: http://www.artc.org/topic/lovecraft-3/

    You can also pick up a few good ones at Librivox.org. Just search for the name Lovecraft.

    I’ll have to look for those, Lopez. Thanks.

    • #29
  30. user_3130 Member
    user_3130
    @RobertELee

    In the spirit of the season…

    cthulhu for president

    • #30
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