The Magazine

The Horror, the Horror!

H.P. Lovecraft enters the American canon.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Just so, in Lovecraft story after story, a character gradually detects an unsuspected pattern behind various oddities, folkloristic rituals, or ancient legends--and this dossier of anomalies brings him to the abyss as surely as it brought Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. After horrible imaginings the scholar-scientists finally arrive at even more horrible certainties. Those unlucky enough to survive drag out their broken lives, crushed by ghastly knowledge or the memory of unwholesome rituals, vainly hoping to dismiss their discoveries as nightmares, insanity, or delusion. Alas, as one of them admits, "no madness of mine could account for all the evidence."

AT ITS MOST AMBITIOUS, Lovecraft's supernatural horror aims to create in the reader a spiritual vertigo akin to that experienced by his racked protagonists. Could all history be, in fact, a sham, with the Earth's true masters hidden from us? Are we the playthings of a Great Race from beyond the solar system? Is our very identity uncertain and friable? Lovecraft answers yes to all these questions, even while recognizing that humankind cannot bear very much reality. Old Ones and crab-like fungi from Yuggoth may lurk in backwoods New England. Somewhere under the waves Great Cthulhu lies dreaming in his nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh, patiently waiting for the stars to come right again. There are doubtless things at the South Pole that don't belong there. Some unfortunate souls have even seen, to their dismay, the pit of the Shoggoths.

Peter Straub's selection from Lovecraft for the Library of America could hardly be bettered, though it does contain one or two weak pieces, such as the amusingly macabre serial "Herbert West--Reanimator." Straub excludes Lovecraft's more lyrical fantasies, influenced by the singing prose of Lord Dunsany, and you will look in vain for such an evocative, if minor, tale as "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" or the shambolic novel The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Some space should surely have been allocated for Lovecraft's miscellaneous nonfiction--in particular "Supernatural Horror in Literature." That is the essay in which he traces his genre's history, lingering over the dark splendors of Poe, the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially in The House of the Seven Gables (which he judged American literature's finest novel of the supernatural), and the achievements of his own magnificent contemporaries.

In fact, Lovecraft often borrows or builds on his predecessors' themes and ideas. Surely there are touches of Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo" in "The Dunwich Horror," of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland in "The Whisperer in Darkness," of Arthur Machen's "Novel of the Black Powder" in "Cool Air"--even of Arthur Conan Doyle's humorous "Great Keinplatz Experiment" in Lovecraft's terrifying "The Thing on the Doorstep" and of M.R. James's "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" in the final lines of "Pickman's Model." But all these borrowings are transmuted by Lovecraft's own dark artistic alchemy.

MOST PEOPLE discover H.P. Lovecraft through such anthology standards as "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Colour Out of Space." But some of his greatest admirers eventually come to prefer his nonfiction, especially his correspondence. Anyone who reads even selections from Lovecraft's letters (it's said that fifteen thousand survive) discovers a clear, vigorous prose and a wide-ranging intellect--together with a solid chunk of racism and anti-Semitism.

A descendant of early American settlers, Lovecraft believed in what he felt were sturdy Yankee virtues (especially abstemiousness and self-control). He also admired eighteenth-century Britain for its aristocratic elegance and enlightened deism, and he shuddered at the teeming lowlife of New York. Immigrants, he felt, should assimilate and model their comportment after that of proper white, Anglo-Saxon Americans. Many critics have pointed out that "Arthur Jermyn" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"--some of whose characters are not entirely human--may be interpreted as warnings about the supposed horrors attendant upon miscegenation.

BORN IN 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft grew up in a well-to-do family, learned to read very early, and composed his first work of prose, "The Noble Eavesdropper," at the age of seven--unsurprisingly, it concerns "a boy who overheard some horrible conclave of subterranean beings in a cave." Lovecraft's salesman father died young from syphilis, and soon thereafter the family fortune disappeared. Nonetheless, this skinny, horse-faced intellectual, with a high piping voice, a love for astronomy, and no regular income, managed to devote his entire life to writing. He earned a pittance revising other people's stories and proofreading articles and books (most notably, A History of Dartmouth College).

Along the way, he corresponded regularly with scores of lively, original thinkers and writers, including Robert E. Howard (of Conan the Barbarian fame), fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (whom he called "Klarkash-Ton"), Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), and the versatile Fritz Leiber, arguably his only real, and very different, rival among night's black agents. Through a poet friend, Lovecraft met Hart Crane, and he once ghostwrote a story for Harry Houdini called "Under the Pyramids."

More surprising than any of this may be the fact that Lovecraft--under-sexed, neurasthenic, a Mama's boy--actually got married in 1924, to a Jewish woman who described him, mirabile dictu, as "an adequately excellent lover." The couple resided in hated New York City for two years, until the marriage broke up and Lovecraft happily moved back home to Providence. In his later years, this once wholly introspective voyager traveled all around eastern America, from Quebec to New Orleans, from Cleveland to Key West.

He actually competed in an ice-cream eating contest and was reportedly offered the editorship of a periodical called the Magazine of Fun. He remained an almost literally starving writer, however, with so little income at one point that he ate his suppers out of cans, being unable to afford a stove. A typical dinner might consist of cold hot dogs, biscuits, and mayonnaise. Lovecraft died from cancer in 1937: forty-six years old and apparently doomed to be forgotten.

Except that he wasn't. His circle of admirers proved to be fanatically devoted. August Derleth founded Arkham House to publish his hero's works in hardcover and in 1939 produced a mammoth collection, The Outsider and Others. Following upon the example of Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos," other writers quickly began to add their own stories set in the fictional universe Lovecraft had created (which became known, somewhat incorrectly, as the "Cthulhu Mythos").

Continuations and pastiches of Lovecraft have proliferated ever since. Most recently that influence may be glimpsed in spooky television shows and antiquarian gothics about global conspiracies, accursed manuscripts and secret brotherhoods. Scholarship has also flourished. Over the past quarter century, the tireless and meticulous S.T. Joshi has established definitive texts for the stories, written Lovecraft's biography, edited various compilations of his nonfiction and correspondence, and annotated almost everything. Through such efforts, and those of specialty publishers and university presses, nearly everything Lovecraft ever scribbled is in print or soon will be.

In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward we are given a warning: "Doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe." With the appearance of this Library of America volume, it is clear that H.P. Lovecraft has been called up and can no longer be put down. This once little-known horror writer has reached out from beyond the grave to claim his rightful place as a grand master of visionary fiction.

Michael Dirda, a longtime columnist for the Washington Post's Book World, is the author of Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books.