The latest in a series about influences from my childhood
When I tell you that author H.P. Lovecraft was a big influence on me, I imagine that hardcore horror-, sci-fi-, and fantasy fans reading this can only reply, “DUH!” Lovecraft casts a HUGE shadow over those genres, especially the first, but many casual fans, as well as the general public, are unaware of him.
So what’s the big deal about Lovecraft? Well, there’s this:
Hint: Not the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Lovecraft mostly wrote short stories (and some longer pieces), the most notable of which concern his “Cthulhu mythos” (note that some aspects were devised by other writers he corresponded with). The “mythos” was an overarching background that posited that primeval Earth was found and claimed by alien beings (the “Great Old Ones”) of immense power and pure evil: Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and Hastur are only a few, though often mentioned in Lovecraft’s works.
Served by various alien races and primitive humans, these godlike beings from beyond time and space ruled for many ages until they were weakened and defeated by the Elder Gods (of whom little is known). Exiled from Earth or locked away in eldritch chambers, the Great Old Ones, still attended by secret cults, wait for the day when the “stars are right” and they may rise again to enslave mankind in a never-ending reign of terror.
Lovecraft’s protagonists usually stumbled upon a mysterious artifact of the Great Old Ones or some of their hideous servants (the fish-men Deep Ones, the Mi-go from “far-flung Yuggoth“). Often, these encounters ended with said protagonists going irreversibly insane, dying horrible deaths, or both. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” a group of sailors finds Big C’s island home, R’lyeh, and accidentally release the god from his slumber. Oops. They win a footrace back to their ship, but are sure to be hunted down by Cthulhu’s human minions.
Central themes in Lovecraft’s works are that there are secrets man was not meant to know; that monsters and horrors beyond imagining lurk at the edges of our world and our dimension; and that there can be no victory over them. It is only a matter of time before the Great Old Ones break their bonds, shrug off our feeble attempts at resistance (“Nuclear weapons: how cute”), and use us as food, slaves, or—gulp!—mates.
Characterization? Yeah, right. Dialogue? Child, please. Lovecraft was all about setting and tone. Settings were often isolated villages (such as Dunwich and Innsmouth) in New England; or exotic islands or ruins at the ends of the earth. Tone was one of uneasy “wrongness,” building steadily into creepy weirdness, and then to straight out, pure horror. Lovecraft wouldn’t always show the monsters at the end of his books: sometimes he only allowed the narrator to catch a glimpse, mentioning a few details and leaving the reader to fill in the rest with their imagination.
Other times, he dropped the monsters right in the reader’s lap, squirming with loathsome details:
Above the waist it was semianthropromorphic; though its chest…had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, thought, it was the worst, for here all human resemblance left off…. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply…. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; while in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular marking, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat. The limbs, save for their black fur, roughly resembled the hind legs of prehistoric earth’s giant saurians; and terminated in ridgy-veined pads that were neither hooves nor claws.
….And that description from “The Dunwich Horror” goes on in even more gruesome detail, if you can believe it. As you might have gathered from that passage, Lovecraft was also all about a distinctive, florid style with lots of adjectives and uncommonly-used words. No one would ever mistake any of his writing for Ernest Hemingway’s.
His creatures were almost always chimerical monstrosities, vile combinations of other lifeforms: Cthulhu, as you saw in the first image, is a titanic, vaguely man-shaped being with claws and wings and the head of an octopus. Other beings—like Yog-Sothoth, in the second image—are chaotic tangles of tentacles and feelers and eyes and…. Possibly the worst are the bizarre, repulsive crossbreeds of monsters and humans.
When I was a teenager, I was very much into horror: Stephen King’s Danse Macabre pointed the way to Lovecraft (that, and the 1st Edition AD&D Deities & Demigods book: I’m not going to lie to you). What Lovecraft taught me about writing was to think outside—waaaaaaay outside—the box when it came to creating fantastical creatures. That one ought NOT to go overboard with descriptions, or to affect vocabulary not one’s own: Lovecraft’s style was his alone, and though he could get away with it (most of the time), no one else should try it.
And that often, it is most effective to give the reader the hint of what they are seeing, and to let them do the rest. I used this in DTD 2, when the dragontamer Thad Anerson encounters a dread skinwalker:
He dropped the lantern and its glass shattered and the light went out and he fired again and again and again, the rifle louder than thunder in the cave, and in the flashes from the muzzle he saw something huge and fanged and covered with fur loom over him….
For many, many decades, most critics sneered that Lovecraft was nothing more than a “pulp” writer; writers and fans of speculative fiction have long proclaimed his genius. His “Cthulhu mythos” has been taken up and expanded by many authors, developed as games (notably Chaosium’s effort), and made into a handful of films, most of them forgettable.
Like Michael Moorcock in fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft forever altered horror but is little-known or regarded by those outside the genre. A shame, methinks. If you’ve never read Lovecraft (and have the courage to try), I suggest you visit your local public library and find a compilation that includes at least some of the following short stories:
- “Pickman’s Model“
- “The Call of Cthulhu“
- “The Colour Out of Space“
- “The Dunwich Horror“
- “The Haunter of the Dark“
- “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“
- “The Whisperer in Darkness“
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”
(“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming”)