The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. –from “The Call of Cthulhu”
But how on earth does someone who can compose the wonderful simile of the ruins “protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave” manage to let themselves write, not a page later, that the “brooding ruins … swelled beneath the sand like an ogre under a coverlet”? —Kenneth Hite on Lovecraft
The BBC recently broadcast a radio show examining the life and continuing influence of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is the early 20th-century writer of weird fiction who invented the Cthulhu Mythos and penned many stories of “cosmic horror.”
I am extraordinarily fond of Lovecraft’s writing. In fact, I’d certainly place him amid the crowd of writers whose work has inspired or influenced me throughout my reading life. One thing that intrigues me about Lovecraft is that he’s not a terribly good writer in any traditional sense of the word: his recognizable-from-a-mile-away writing style is often clumsy and obsessed with clunky words like “cyclopean” and “squamous” (for a challenge, fit those into your next everyday conversation); his characters are often poorly developed (and there’s pretty much one female mentioned–once–in the entire body of his work, and she’s a centuries-old undead witch); and he consistently sidles too close to Goofiness when he’s trying to evoke Creepiness.
But he’s got one thing that more than compensates for any technical failing of his writing: sheer, unadulterated vision. You can see it lurking behind every awkward, adjective-laden phrase, in every earnest description of a monster that’s supposed to be horrifying but instead comes across sounding like a hippopotamus-headed tentacled frog. And every great now and then, his vision breaks out of the cheesiness of his writing style and knocks you over with its pure brilliance. Occasionally, amidst all the mad scientists and squid-faced flying ooze monsters, you catch a sanity-shattering glimpse of what Lovecraft is really scared of: a universe that doesn’t care, in which mankind and all he’s accomplished is just an unnoticed aberration of evolution. Lovecraft throws all that overwrought prose at you to keep you distracted, and then when your attention is diverted, he punches you in the gut with the existential awfulness of his vision.
At the risk of turning him into a cheesy inspirational figure, I like Lovecraft because he’s an example of somebody whose ideas were so compelling that his writing deficiencies simply didn’t matter. In fact, the strength of his vision and the earnestness with which he pursued it actually took that sometimes-awful prose and made it a work of art in its own right. In religious terms, his ideas redeemed the clumsy way in which he communicated them.
My own introduction to Lovecraft came in the form of a computer game, actually–Infocom’s The Lurking Horror. In college I found a collection of Lovecraft stories and, one spring, I spent many a sunny Michigan afternoon reading almost everything he’d written. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “At the Mountains of Madness” were my instant favorites, along with some of his lesser-read, dreamlike short stories. Then followed the superb Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (a must read for Lovecraft fans, even if you’ve no intention of playing it) and the realization that some of my other favorite horror stories (Stephen King’s It, for instance) were essentially Lovecraft fan fiction.
All this to say: if you’ve not had the joy of reading Lovecraft, you really ought to head down to your local library and check out a collection of his stories. And a few links if you want to delve a bit deeper:
- Ken Hite, writer of excellent roleplaying books, has been reflecting on each of Lovecraft’s stories (the good ones, the bad ones, and the mind-shatteringly awful ones) at his Livejournal. (See his commentary on “Mountains of Madness,” for instance.)
- Neil Gaiman wrote a spectacular Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes crossover story called “A Study in Emerald”, which impresses me anew each time I re-read it. (It’s the third story down on the page.)
- Lots of information about Lovecraft’s life and works.
- “A Colder War” by Charles Stross, adding the Cthulhu Mythos to the Cold War.