There was a time long ago when my spiritual path took me through occult ways for about two years. It was a rather intense period, virtually all of which I now reject, but I learned a lot, chiefly about how human psychology is of greater power than most people realize. By now I have forgotten much of the occultism that I used to think I knew. One thing I still retain is an interest in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. I have several guides on that subject and still occasionally dabble with the cards, often surprised at them, always entertained from a strictly intellectual perspective – as I am with most any system that stakes a claim to insight.
It was around this time that I started reading the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I found most of his tales highly entertaining and still do. My original mass-market paperbacks from that earlier time are on my bookshelf, appropriately filled with notations made through the years. The paperbacks have become rather atmospheric in themselves, the yellowed pages and slightly torn backings aid in the semblance and spirit of ancient, forbidden texts.
Since those days hardly a winter has gone by that I haven’t enjoyed at least two or three Lovecraft stories. Most are quick reads, requiring a half hour or less though Lovecraft’s best yarns need a more extended effort. There is a brooding, melancholic, and anxious aspect to my Being that connects with these classic horror and quasi-science fiction tales from Lovecraft’s bizarre and luminous mind.
Lovecraft’s distinctive brilliance is definitely tinged with strangeness to anyone who knows anything about him as a human being. As a child he was raised by an overly protective mother. He was sickly and never graduated from high school, being self-taught and becoming quite accomplished on his own at reading, writing, astronomy, history, and science (biology and chemistry particularly). He harbored several phobias, including neophobia and xenophobia.
He was a cat adoring, atheistic scientific materialist; a snobbish, anti-modernist antiquarian who staunchly supported Prohibition; a racist who was asexual (though he married once, briefly). Even though he was born to a fairly well-to-do family, he lived an adult life of borderline poverty, never able (or willing) to find a job, while approaching life with the basic attitude of an eighteenth century “gentleman.” As I said, somewhat strange. But, this certainly was not a detriment to his stories, which won him considerable renown within the amateur press and pulp fiction communities of his day.
You don’t read Lovecraft to be inspired. Or, at least, the inspiration he affords is limited to a sheer appreciation for his often exquisite prose and twisted plots. Rather, you read him to breathe in weird and creepy things imbibed within a thick, moist, odor. That’s the essential experience of it. Actually, horrid smells are often featured in his fiction, along with vast depth, vast height, the feeling of the gigantic, and at times an overwhelming indifference by things beyond our comprehension that tragically and often shockingly affect human lives.
One of his longer stories is the roughly 50,000 word The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which I reread recently for the first time in probably a decade. I finished it over three reading sessions and had forgotten what a splendid story it is. On top of being a rewarding trip into a distinctive form of classic horror, this short novel is of interest because it is a first draft only. Incredibly, feeling that the work was inadequate, Lovecraft never polished it nor did he attempt to get it published. Kenneth Hite calls Ward “one of the best horror novels of all time.” How could Lovecraft be so mistaken about it?
Lovecraft was notoriously critical of his own work and often submitted stories for several friends to read and critique before he considered publication. These critiques never resulted in rewrites or reworking anything. Lovecraft just took any negative comments by his friends to be signs of failure, of his own inability to attain a lofty goal. He desired to create a kind of fiction (he called it “weird fiction”), largely atmospheric in nature, but relevant to our times and touching the disquieting aspects of modernity (and I would argue post-modernity even more so) while exposing horrors largely created out of moods and associations in the reader’s mind which took the form of pervasive existential jeopardy and suspicion.
Lovecraft touches your Being both poetically and horrifically. Here’s a short sample of his style, it will take you less than five minutes to read, being somewhat of a fragment though complete in itself.
The Lovecraft section of my library is rather modest. Only a fraction of the books I have on Tolkien, for example. I have the seven original mass market paperbacks containing 90% of his fiction. I purchased these along with L. Sprague de Camp’s biography on the writer. It is very characteristic of me to buy the man’s biography. I was in my early twenties then. For many years these were enough Lovecraft for me. After all, I didn’t read him all the time, just once or twice most years when the urge struck me for a few days usually in cold, grey winter.
As we move into the 21st Century, Lovecraft has a worldwide cult following not as large as Tolkien’s, but perhaps rivaling C.S. Lewis, for example. Lovecraft is a hot postmodern commodity. Well-known genre writers like Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Anne Rice and Peter Straub pay homage to Lovecraft more than even Edgar Allan Poe. King, for example, says “Lovecraft is yet to be surpassed” as the “greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” Straub said Lovecraft was so original “he created his own genre.”
Indeed, after his death something known as “The Cthulhu Mythos” (not Lovecraft’s term) was immediately extended to other writers beginning in the 1940’s and it grew. It continues with anthologies by 21st Century writers of horror published with regularity. I am not interested in any of their work, however, I am only interested in the original, essential Lovecraft.
In the course of the last decade I have added a bit to my Lovecraft collection. I bought Straub’s anthology of Lovecraft in 2005. It contains a few minor revisions to some stories based on recent research. Also in 2005, the “definitive” edition of At The Mountains of Madness came out and I bought that. I personally rank at Mountains above Ward, though both short novels are excellent reads. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has written the most authoritative biography on Lovecraft which he recently expanded. I added it to my collection sometime since 2004. Joshi also recently came out with an annotated Ward, which I plan to acquire soon.
But the greatest addition to this little fetish of mine has been my discovery of the vibrant world of Lovecraft on the internet. After I read Ward, one thing led to another as it often does with me, and I curiously googled the web for what Lovecraft resources might be out there. It seems the Lovecraft niche is alive and thriving online. Several sites are noteworthy but in particular I am enjoying two podcasts that I found.
One podcast is of a literary bent. Each podcast features an analysis of a story by Lovecraft as illuminated by two bright, young, and humorous well-versed fans. They are taking each Lovecraft story in chronological order by when it was written (as opposed to when it was published). This is a cool way to approach Lovecraft’s body of work, as in later tales several of the major characters and places of his invention are either mentioned or reappear. The familiarity with them lends itself to the “realism” and “cosmic” intent with which the writer approached much of his fiction. William Faulkner, another favorite author of mine, also worked in this fashion, for example.
The other podcast is out of the United Kingdom and features news events, other readings, and songs from the 1920’s. It immerses you a bit in the “zeitgeist” of Lovecraft’s time. Unlike the prior podcast, this one attempts no literary analysis. Rather, it offers straightforward readings of Lovecraft. It took 14 podcasts to make it all the way through Ward, for example. Currently, Mountains is being read. There have been 8 parts as of this post.
I appreciate both these podcasts, particularly the hppodcraft guys. Their site has forums online to connect with other Lovecraftians out there. Since I don’t know any in my own life, just as with my fascination with Marcel Proust, I use cyberspace to share the social bond of literature. The exchange of ideas and “did you knows?” is a lot of fun, the humor being delightfully twisted.
I have several films based on Lovecraft stories, or inspired by them. Almost all of them are really bad B-grade horror, hardly watchable, usually bastardizing the original story. Lovecraft is extremely difficult to translate into film. With some notable exceptions, there is very little action in his stories, rarely a women to speak of, no dialog usually, and the terrible things that happen are rarely described directly and certainly never explained. They are, instead, captured atmospherically. You’d have to just read Lovecraft to know what I’m talking about. He creates a visceral sensation.
Some good films have been produced that are rather Lovecraftian in spirit though not in actual story. The most successful two are John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Both films are worthy of any personal collection. But, there is hope we might see a first-rate rendering of actual Lovecraft yet. Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron have announced their intent to make At the Mountains of Madness into a film by 2013. Being something of a Lovecraft purist I am skeptical this can be pulled off while remaining sufficiently faithful to the spirit of the great horror story’s author. But if anyone can pull it off these two guys might.
Like I said, in the postmodern world, Lovecraft is a hip, current, hot literary property relatively speaking. What makes his stories so special? I’m running a bit long here so that analysis will have to wait for the next post.