"One can't write a weird story of real power without perfect psychological detachment from the human scene, and a magic prism of imagination which suffuses them and style alike with that grotesquerie and disquieting distortion characteristic of morbid vision. Only a cynic can create horror—for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving daemonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them."
- H.P. Lovecraft
LIKE ONE OF THE CYCLOPEAN entities he so often wrote about, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) towers over the landscape of 20th century horror fiction. None of us, who work in the genre, can escape his shadow. He is just that big.
He changed the entire game. Before Lovecraft, we had ghosts and demons and vampires, witches and werewolves, goblins and revenants. Horror was rooted in the old supernatural models of the ancient and medieval worlds. It came from curses by God(s), the sins and transgressions of man, the wickedness of devils after the human soul. As horrible as the vampire is, for example, he is also comforting. The fact that he is repelled by all that is holy proves the existence and superiority of God. Before Lovecraft, horror was a moral fable, a test of man's courage and goodness by eternal evil.
And Lovecraft dropped the H-bomb on it all.
You have to put yourself in his place, in the places of all those living in the dawn of the 20th century. Everything they knew was turning out to be wrong. Sure, they knew the sun didn't go round the Earth, but they thought the Milky Way galaxy was the entire universe. Then it became just one of billions of galaxies. The entire human race was reduced to a status smaller than microbes on a tiny speck of dust. Classical physics were being shattered by things like Einstein's theory of relativity, making the Enlightenment notion of God the Clock Maker look like a bad joke. And paleontology proved the world wasn't five thousand years old, wasn't created for us. It was millions of years old, and dominated by many other species before us. They came, they went extinct. Was there any real reason to believe we were destined for anything else?
If you can understand the psychic trauma of those decades between the Victorian and Cold War eras, then Lovecraft is easy to get.
His early fiction played around with the supernatural, but he rapidly discarded such causes for science fiction ones. You may never have read a Lovecraft tale, but if you saw Ridley Scott's Alien, you have experienced the kind of Horror Lovecraft created. In his fiction, there is no God, no cosmic forces of good and evil. Man is just a life form in a cosmic full of beings larger, older, and nastier.
And it wasn't just the scientific odor surrounding his creations; Lovecraft was a master of documentary fiction. He knew how to make you swallow it. He created texts, towns, and beings that showed up in dozens of tales, ideas that he freely allowed his imitators to borrow. He gave them rich and detailed histories. His infamous black book, the dread Necronomicon, appeared in so many tales, but so many authors, that people were looking for it in library card catalogues just a few decades after his death. Indeed, starting in the seventies, people started publishing what they claimed to be "real" copies of the book.
He died young. He died in poverty. He died alone. No one paid him any serious attention during his lifetime, except for a circle of ardent fans and imitators who understood the sheer--and pardon my French--fucking genius of what he was doing. His life was miserable and short, his fiction confined to weird tales magazines. By the end of the century though, his books sat alongside Twain, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck in collections of great American literature. And it belonged there. HPL changed the entire game.
There is a superb episode of Doctor Who in which the time traveling protagonist takes Vincent Van Gough to a museum in the 21st century to show the painter--who also died scorned and penniless--his legacy. I can't help but wonder how HPL would react to his. His new cosmic horror is everywhere, but what would he think of the affection his horrors are held in? What would he make of plush-toy Cthulhu (Lovecraft's Cthulhu here)?
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