How does one talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft?
You can judge him by his fans. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro have all cited Lovecraft as a formative influence. You can see him in the Arkham Asylum of the Batman comics and the album covers of Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden. Borges dedicated a short story to him. Joyce Carol Oates wrote the introduction to a collection of his stories. The Library of America published a volume of his stories. Each week, thousands of gamers roll dice in his honor.
You can likewise judge him by his prejudices and his contradictions. Lovecraft fetishized historical places and speech, yet found astrophysics fascinating. He was racially bigoted toward minority groups, yet yearned for the immigrants he saw to assimilate to American culture. (An older, more extreme version of the “Why Can’t My Waiter Speak Good English?”/”Immigrants Are Stealing Our Jobs!” crowd we see today.) Though his thoughts and stories were profoundly steeped in antisemitism, he married a Ukrainian Jew and had multiple Jewish friends. Truly, one of the tragedies of Lovecraft’s life was that, for a man who rose above so many literary conventions, his everyday philosophy remained mired in old-fashioned racism that poisoned his friendships and hobbled his fiction. One wonders what Lovecraft could’ve accomplished had his “cosmic” view of humanity extended to the foreigners and minorities he so maligned.
Still, we must take Lovecraft as he was, not as we would like him to be. Though many of his stories are problematic and some even repulsive to modern readers, any historian will tell you that a figure can be historically significant and worthy of study despite being an enormous dirtbag.
For me, the real lesson of H.P. Lovecraft is that writers have to dig deep. Yes, Lovecraft’s greatest addition to the literary canon was the Mythos – the notion that vastly powerful interstellar beings are always a hair’s breadth from destroying us – but that’s not what made his stories scary. What make Lovecraft sing is that every horror, every fear, every clawing unnamable thing he put on the page originated deep within his psyche.
When Lovecraft was three, his father had a psychotic break while on a business trip. He died five years later in a psychiatric hospital… so Lovecraft wrote about madness and asylums.
Lovecraft thought he was ugly, a view his mother seemed to instill in him when he was young… so Lovecraft created The Outsider and the abhuman faces of “The Innsmouth Look.”
Lovecraft had intense dreams where he stayed lucid… so he wrote about Randolph Carter in the Dreamlands.
A lifelong fear of the sea – and a visceral reaction to seafood – made Lovecraft write about tentacled monsters and human-fish hybrids.
He had overwhelming feelings of family obligation and legacy, which gave us Arthur Jermyn, The Rats in the Walls, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Lovecraft felt small, and powerless, and isolated – so he imagined a universe where all of humanity was the same, whether they knew it or not.
The reason Lovecraft frightens us isn’t because of his cosmic monstrosities, the titanic inhuman behemoths of which he was so proud. Actually, it’s the small, human concerns that frighten us. It is the fear that our lives are meaningless, that our bodies will be corrupted, that we are being manipulated or worse, that the house we live in or the person residing next door conceal a sinister past. In Lovecraft’s world, we are always living with our backs to the cliff with our heels just over the precipice. We are never as safe – or as sane – as we think.
These are all things that H.P. Lovecraft feared. Through his writing he managed to pass on his terrors, his helplessness, his flat-out dysfunction onto his readers. Connections like that are the hallmark of a good writer.
Many academics talk about how Lovecraft’s stories are divorced from emotion and humanity, with paper-thin protagonists serving as detached narrators.
That’s not the case at all. Lovecraft is all over the pages of his work. He’s there in the crawling dread of insanity, the gnawing feeling of something outside mankind’s vision, the revolting rubberiness of a sea god, and the intricate impossibility of the Dreamlands. These things are the humanity in his work, and the emotion too. They’re a conduit straight to a human mind buckled by dread and constrained emotion. The protagonist in Lovecraft stories is – sometimes literally but always figuratively – Lovecraft himself.
HPL put himself all in, and you should too.
So, in honor of that massively-head-screwed genius: Write. Squeeze your soul. Hold it above the page and ring it out like a dish sponge.
Write about things that scare you.