by Jay O’Connell
I have this t-shirt, pictured below, which says “Hey Cthul-Aid,” with this colorful squid-pitcher thing busting through a wall yelling, “R’Lyeehh!”
People love it. They stop me on the street and say, Hey! Cool shirt!
I’m guessing maybe one in ten of them have read a single word written by H.P. Lovecraft.
I’m fiftyish. I could bore you about rotary dial telephones and three channels of TV and walking miles to the comic book store, about 2001 in cinemascope and my wondering what my job would be when I worked on the moon… I won’t, but you need that background for what’s to follow.
I found myself recently in a Facebook discussion on former Weird Tales editor Darrel Schweitzer’s wall, where people were discussing the rise and fall of deceased grand masters, mostly Heinlein, because of the recent biography, and it emerged that pretty much anything with Lovecraft’s name on it has held its collector value.
While Heinlein’s star is gently eclipsed, his doorstop-thick, overly-sexual novels now eyed with disdain by many, H.P Lovecraft, the far less prolific, far more sexist, racist and generally phobic, remains even more fixedly glued into the genre firmament.
Odd, no? His bust, sculpted by Gahan Wilson, is the World Fantasy Award. (Though this has become controversial. You can see the petition to change the award to a bust of Octavia Butler here.)
First fandom is passing into memory, my father’s generation who read the pulps in their teens or twenties, the first to buy hardcover and softcover SF, and with them fades the generation who have read The Book that is our genre cover to cover. Our genre is about a century old, and people rarely last longer than a century. Of course folk tales are older than the written word, but when I say genre, I mean that thing we point at when we say it: SF, fantasy, and horror with supernatural elements, with a coherent, systematic core of internal logic.
When we overhear the two Orc guards in the Lord of the Rings referring to each not by name, but by number, we understand that from Tolkien on, even Fantasy quivers in the shadow of a mechanized, rationalized post-Enlightenment world. You can run from modernity but you can’t hide.
Of course, you can try — which brings us back to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Lovecraft is a bridge between many worlds. His work blends fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Unlike Tolkien or Dunsany, he tips his hat to the primacy of science, but instead of looking forward to Disney’s World of Tomorrow, of lawful Asimovian robots and the heady joys of Galactic Empire, he cowers before the Horrible Truth of Cosmicism.
The Horrible Truth in UFO conspiracy theory resembles Lovecraft: humanity is a transitory speck awash in a vast, violent cosmic sea. Our science is on the verge, always, of revealing to us just how tiny and pathetic we are, and how easily and quickly we will be swept away, should something important wake up and take notice. In the Horrible Truth, the bad news isn’t that there is no God — there are Gods… but they are monsters.
Naturally, this message is immensely popular, and is the basis of endless books, films, role playing games, video games, card games, and t-shirts. What? Say that again? How the hell did that happen?
Cosmicism opposes a religious world view which puts mankind at the center of a sane creation, and, also, repudiates any secular vision of humanity ascendent in a rational universe. Regardless of what you think of HPL’s prose or politics, the notion that this vision could be compressed into the solid bedrock of so much of popular culture stands as incontrovertible testimony to the man’s peculiar genius.
When H.P. Lovecraft gets into your head, he never, ever, leaves.
We live surrounded by a generational echo of HPL, his works reflected through the creations of those who grew up on him, but he still resonates, whistling and vibrating like an extra-dimensional squid god in the universe just next door. More often than not, when we feel a thrill of cosmic fear, whether from a book, movie, comic, or video game, Howard Phillips stands in the shadows, just off stage, nodding his big, gaunt head at us.
Every giant, tentacled monstrosity you have ever seen, that threatened, somehow, everything; that was worshipped by some preposterous sect seeking to help bring it back to life, is an homage to Lovecraft. From the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the video game Borderlands.
His work spawned what came to be known as the Cthulu Mythos, one of genre fiction’s first shared worlds, with story elements shared by a group of writers including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard of Conan the Barbarian fame, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, and Fritz Lieber.
Nobody but Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Barsoom novels. Nobody wrote sequels to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. The Mythos was a shared world a generation before Asimov franchised the Foundation and Larry Niven rented out the Ringworld; decades and decades before Dune begat its never ending series of ever-attenuating prequels. (Oz predates the Mythos, but that’s a story for a different time.)
Somehow, Lovecraft’s world, or more accurately his worldview, was shared by a generation of horror writers. The Mythos was never a static pantheon of Gods or a set or rules — it was a state of mind. His fictive book within a book, the dread Necronomicon, apocryphal tome of forbidden secrets, is the most famous book never written. People believe in the mythos, and the Necronomicon, like they believe in the Rapture or compassionate conservatism. Lovecraft had to remind his fans that it was all make-believe.
Unlike L.Ron Hubbard of Scientology, or Ray Palmer of the Shaver Mystery, Lovecraft never embraced solipsistic narcissism or Blair Witch style hucksterism.
I recall reading Lovecraft in the 70s in a series of paperbacks, which, for me, are the canonical ones, the covers forever engraved in my minds eye. He wasn’t an easy read. Not to put too fine a point on it, but for the modern reader, Lovecraft can be a tough row to hoe. Even older fans, used to workman-like transparent prose, a la Asimov, Clarke, or Heinlein, were bogged down in the adjective-laden, polysyllabic ululating weirdness of Lovecraft. But the feeling of having read him was worth it. Lovecraft makes you feel weird, deep down in your bones.
Rereading At the Mountains of Madness recently, after listening to a National Public Radio program on the allure of the arctic in the time before we’d mapped every square inch of the globe by satellite, I was transfixed by a line which leapt off the page to smack me squarely between the eyes.
“South Station Under — Washington Under — Park Street Under — Kendall — Central — Harvard” The poor fellow was chanting the familiar stations of the Boston-Cambridge tunnel that burrowed through our peaceful native soil thousands of miles away in New England, yet to me the ritual had neither irrelevance nor home feeling. It had only horror, because I knew unerringly the monstrous, nefandous analogy that had suggested it. We had expected, upon looking back, to see a terrible and incredible moving entity if the mists were thin enough; but of that entity we had formed a clear idea. What we did see — for the mists were indeed all too malignly thinned — was something altogether different, and immeasurably more hideous and detestable. It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s “thing that should not be”; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform — the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely colored lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder.
I live a quarter mile from Central Square, the Red-line station mentioned here. Moving from a small suburban hometown to a major metro region, I always found the subway experience transformative, definitive. I loved it. Lovecraft, however, did not. In a recent essay, China Mieville suggests that the urgency of the cosmic horror of Mountains derives from HPL’s discomfort in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic NYC subway system. The train-like, penile battering ram of disgusting amorphous protoplasm is a metaphor for race-mixing, miscegenation.
I know. Ick.
Which brings us to the greater evil of HP Lovecraft; his deeply ingrained racism, sexism, and anti-semitism. Others have written at length on Lovecraft’s deficiencies; I can’t hope to scratch the surface of that topic here.
Academia now wrestles with how to teach Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and its repeated use of the N-word, even though Samuel Clemens was progressive for his time and in generally is regarded as a decent fellow. How much harder it is to read the work of a man who wrote a poem titled “the n-word.” —which is exactly as bad as you might fear it would be. (The poem can be read at Nnedi Okorafor, PhD.)
Lovecraft is about fear, and his fears are honestly displayed, and racism is a kind of fear, like homophobia, a fear of the other. Lovecraft is a man of his time and place, and a man out of place, appalled by his time, wishing himself somewhere, somewhen else, but knowing, in his heart of hearts, that there is no escape from the modern. His fears tell us more about his time, about our genre’s racist underbelly, than any amount of academic reflection.
Some biographers find evidence of Lovecraft’s moderating his racist and anti-semetic views over time, but others don’t. In general, I think our community of readers and scholars do a good job of not whitewashing the work or the man, or minimizing the deeply troubling stuff embedded in the Mythos, ineluctably, like flies in amber.
Like DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film which singlehandedly creates much of the vernacular of modern film (he pioneers moving camera shots, for example; before DW Griffith movies looked like filmed stage plays) Lovecraft sits near the beginning of three genres, squat, ugly, glorious and immovable. You can’t study film history without watching Birth of a Nation, whose other title, by the way, is The Clansman.
In the same way, one can’t fully understand genre fiction without reading Lovecraft.
I had a great professor in college, who ranted at us on the value of a liberal arts education; he showed us famous works of art and the various take-offs on them in novels, film, music, cartoons, editorial illustrations; he discussed recurring Jungian archetypes in a lecture which blew my mind wide open. I’d never noticed, somehow, that Superman was also Moses, was also Romulus and Remus; that Forbidden Planet was Shakespeare’s The Tempest or that The Stars my Destination was also The Count of Monte Cristo.
My professor said that you could ignore the classics, you could ignore roots culture, but that culture wouldn’t ignore you; you would be manipulated by these images and stories, recycled endlessly, through advertising and other derivative works behind a thousand different masks.
You owed it to yourself to know something of the original. To be educated was to see a thing completely; to dig into its roots, to get to the bottom of things. I don’t think everyone has to read everything by HP Lovecraft; but I do think there’s a lot to be gained in slipping, if only briefly, into his astonishingly fearful mind. A good place to start is Call of Cthulu, a short story.
Afterwards you can say, in all honesty, that you’ve been there, done that, and have the t-shirt.
Wilder books sells the complete works of HP Lovecraft in various ebook editions, click here to see the catalog of titles. Buying Wilder books helps support Fantastic Stories.
Jay O’Connell reads and writes and makes things in Cambridge, MA. His fiction reappeared after two decades of ominous silence in 2012 in the first Fantastic Stories of the Imagination Anthology, and he is now publishing regularly in Asimov’s. His first story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction will be on the stands in September 2014, as will his first story in Interzone.