“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
This opening from ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature‘ captures the motivation of H. P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction. A master storyteller of ancient and alien menace he was serious man who forbore his lack of formal education and created a monumental collection of modern gothic tales, embarking on a collaborative journey that drew in friends, associates and admirers, forging a mythic world that grew beyond his death.
“I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.”
Lovecraft forged this personal vision into that rare beast, a founding mythology, with Elder Gods, ancient travellers through space and time, in the form of vast creatures from another universe. Lovecraft spurned the gentle Christian pantheon, where even Satan’s red hot passion of an angel spurned offers identifiably human traits; Lovecraft’s equivalent, Nyarlathotep is a chilling evil, without any semblance of humanity.
Lovecraft was born to a well-heeled family in 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A. However the death of his father died in 1898, after several years of severe illness (possibly a nervous breakdown) set in motion a series of disasters that shaped Lovecraft’s methods and preoccupations. During this period his grandfather had read out loud the classic tales of Gothic literature: Frankenstein, The Monk, Dracula, Edgar Allen Poe and this formed a great effect on the young boy, especially when his grandfather passed away within a few years, in 1904, leaving him to mull over tales of dark terror and loss. Lovecraft had become a voracious reader, branching out from treasured versions of the Arabian Nights to a serious interest in chemistry and astronomy, later writing a series of articles for news and feature journals, including the local Providence Tribune.
In the following years money difficulties led to a move from the family home and, severely depressed during the years of 1908-1913, he continued to live with his mother, with whom he endured a brooding, difficult relationship. He suffered what is understood to have been a nervous breakdown that plunged him into a black despair for ten long years: he spoke to no-one but his mother, stayed in bed and read all day, allowing the weeks, months and years to slip by.
In May 1918, towards the end of this longeur he wrote to Alfred Galpin:
“I am only about half alive – a large part of my strength is consumed in sitting up or walking. My nervous system is a shattered wreck and I am absolutely bored and listless save when I come upon something which peculiarly interests me.”
Eventually he began to engage with a number of amateur writing organisations, including the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who encouraged his letter writing, articles and fiction. It was during this period of stasis that he had developed the habit of long correspondence, exchanging considered and wide-ranging letters with friends and associates, crafting his skill as a writer and observer on human affairs.
In 1919 his mother also suffered a nervous breakdown, the third inflicted on the family, and died 1921, a bitter-sweet conclusion to Lovecraft’s early years. Emerging blinking into the light he had begun to visit new places and soon met his wife-to-be, Sonia Greene at a journalism convention in Boston. Together they moved to Brooklyn, and Lovecraft’s first professional sale (the short story Dagon) was made soon after, to the new established pulp journal, Weird Tales in the October 1923 issue.
His marriage proved troublesome, partly because his wife, who supported him financially as he tried to succeed as a writer, lost almost all of her money in a financial crash, so Lovecraft attempted fruitlessly to find employment and, failing, began to live in ever-reducing circumstances. At this time he turned down the offer of editorship of Weird Tales (because it involved a move away from his home) and returned to Providence in 1926 where he spent the next ten years creating his best works of fiction: The Call of Cthulhu (1926), At the Mountains of Madness (1931) to The Shadow out of Time (1934–35).
Paradoxically his later, greater works became difficult to fit, in length, to the pulp magazine format that had first paid him so well and the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, had been the subject of some commercially ill-advised criticism by Lovecraft. His later years were a struggle and his published output was erratic, although he continued to write. The suicide of close correspondent Robert E. Howard in 1936 is said to have hit him hard, and a year later Lovecraft was claimed by cancer, dying in hospital in March of 1937.
Society and Politics
The period between and around the great wars of the 20th Century create the framework of the era. The loss of life, the crushing of the individual spirit, the cataclysmic economic consequences affected all of those who lived through them; with so many killed it raised questions of purpose and humanity that went beyond the brutal changes in society wrought by the lack of young men in Europe, it destroyed the power of the old order, the empires and colonies that had ruled the the mappable world for centuries. The kind God of Christianity, seemed to have abandoned humanity and his apparent absence had a profound affect on the action of the 20th Century.
America, an economic powerhouse that grew stronger with every breath, was still a young country, and free from the nuance of corruption and decay. Brash opportunism was celebrated and part of the myth-making that coursed through American society. Modernism, the break from traditional values and restrictions, explored through all forms of art, music and literature found a natural home in this America.
Lovecraft sought beyond the material world into a rational explanation of the existence of mankind and the universe, sought beyond the Christian and greek models of his fellows, and, rejecting the deference of his peers, explored the darker origins of the soul. His work reflected the wider rejection of traditional norms that brought modernism into music and art, but also the breaching of taboos and barriers in fiction, ranging from gender issues of D. H. lawrence’s Women in Love and Collete’s Chéri, to the anti-heroic gloom of Joseph Conrad, and vaulting ambitions of star seeking pulp stories in Astounding Fiction, Argosy, Weird Tales and others. The battle between individualism and collective responsibility was played out in literarature, with the psychological conflicts of decadent wealth of The Great Gatsby, the polite discourse of Edith Wharton’s devastating work, and E. M. Forster‘s powerful humanitarian novels, perhaps the greatest of which, The Passage to India, was published in 1926.
Such modernism saw the end of the gentleman explorer, so beloved of the late Nineteenth Century, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and H. G. Wells slipped into a conformist , past, overcome by the rage of rationalism and Nietzschean desolation. The new popular fiction climbed down from the top hats and coat tails of the Professor Challenger, and so began a flowering of science fiction and fantasy, a direct result of industrialisation, mechanisation, a yearning for escape for the stars and the apparent the possibility of reaching them. This was the era of Buck Rogers on the one hand, Conan of Cimmeria on the other; the pulps were the successors of the penny dreadful and reflected the excited passions of their readership, no longer the literate middle classes, but a wider readership, thirsty for adventure and escapism, and ready to make their own fate.
Lovecraft’s letter writing continued throughout the 1920s and he became more political as the Great Depression struck across the families and workplaces of America.
R’lyeh, Sarnath, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, these are the creatures that lurk through the best of Lovecraft’s work: The Call of Cthulhu (1926), The Colour Out of Space (1927), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, (1927), The Dunwich Horror (1928), The Whisperer in Darkness (1930), At the Mountains of Madness (1931), The Dreams in the Witch House (1932), The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1932), and The Shadow Out of Time (1934). Contrary to popular belief, the Necronomicon was not written by Lovecraft, rather it was a hidden history of the Old Ones, referred to in his stories, but later developed by others after his death, particularly August Derleth and H. R. Giger, who were fascinated by its concept of blasphemous terror.
Lovecraft also published the highly regarded ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature‘, published in journal The Recluse in 1927, establishing it as a standard work on the history and themes of the gothic, horror and dark fantastic.
An exhaustive letter writer of some 100,000 letters, many over 30 pages long, hundreds of poems, articles and a core of short story fiction, also Lovecraft nurtured the careers of younger writers, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, writing and encouraging them. He affected the career of Belknap Long, Lin Carter, Fred Chappell, E. Hoffman Price, Donald Wandrei, each of whom wrote collaboratively within the canon of Lovecraft, extending its reach, while spinning their own creations into print. His legacy was preserved specifically by the work of August Derleth, and Donald Wandrei, acolytes who became loving craftsman of their master’s canon. In 1939 they founded Arkham House, published his fiction, letters, poems and other writings and expanded the Cthulhu tales into a Mythos,
Lovecraft, along with Robert E. Howard also became an inspiration for a new form of illustration, fantasy art, with Frank R. Paul, Virgil Finlay, Frank Frazetta and others creating a vivid seam of intricate work for magazine and book covers, illustrating stories and one-off paintings that forced an indelible mark on the popular culture of the 20th Century.
Later too, Robert Bloch’s movie scripts for Hitchock’s classic movies, the iconoclastic horror novels of Clive Barker (Hellraiser), Comics such as Bernie Wrighton’s Swamp Thing and Batman’s Arkham Asylum, album covers (Darkane, Meatloaf, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer), H. R. Giger’s 1977 Necronomicon and Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus movies with their Giger designed sets bring Lovecraft’s dark rationalism into the brutal glare of the modern world. For all his pessimism the master of the weird work has become even more popular and shows no sign of slowing down, his fearful explorations of the unknown still as pertinent today as ever.
The text of this post will soon appear as H. P. Lovecraft: Life, Times and Works in a new paperback edition of At The Mountains of Madness, to be published by Flame Tree 451.
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