Authors: H.P. Lovecraft
H. P. L
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the visionary writer generally regarded as the mastermind of modern horror fiction, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. The precocious only child of an ill-fated marriage, he endured a cloistered and traumatic upbringing. Lovecraft never knew his father, a traveling salesman of English ancestry who was institutionalized with syphilitic dementia in 1893. He was raised in his birthplace, the Victorian mansion of his maternal grandfather, by an overprotective mother and two maiden aunts. At the age of eight he discovered the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, whose aesthetics marked him forever.
Frequent illnesses disrupted the boy’s formal schooling, but he devoured books on astronomy and Greek mythology and was enthralled by the poetry of Dryden and Pope. Financial reversals occasioned by his grandfather’s death in 1904 forced the family to sell their ancestral home and seek lodgings in a nearby duplex. The move intensified an already claustrophobic relationship with his mother, who instilled in Lovecraft a profound conviction that he was different from other people.
Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908 and over the next five years became as reclusive as any of his eccentric fictional narrators. He gradually emerged from his depression through membership in the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), a group of fledgling writers who published their own magazines. In addition to contributing poetry and essays to various journals, he put out thirteen issues of his own paper,
(1915–23), and began a prolific correspondence with colleagues. The five volumes of his posthumously issued
(published 1965–76) represent some of Lovecraft’s most substantial prose and reveal him to be an artist and philosopher of wide-ranging intellect. “Lovecraft [was] one of the most exhaustively self-chronicled individuals of his century,” says his preeminent interpreter, S. T. Joshi. “His letters are the equivalent of a Pepys diary in the exhibition of the fluctuations of his mind and heart.”
In 1921, while attending a convention of the UAPA in Boston, Lovecraft met Sonia Greene, a widowed Brooklyn milliner seven years his senior. Their brief, disastrous marriage took him to New York City for two years; his return to Providence in the spring of 1926 prompted the greatest creative outburst of his short career.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” observed Lovecraft in his pioneering essay
Supernatural Horror in Literature
(1925–27). Guided by this dictum, he produced a relatively small body of fiction: some sixty stories, most of which appeared in the newly founded pulp magazine
Three of them—
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
At the Mountains of Madness
(1931)—are generally classified as short novels. Many of Lovecraft’s early pieces are innocuous, dreamlike creations heavily influenced by the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany. In stark contrast are his harrowing tales of terror set against a meticulously described, historically grounded New England landscape. Lovecraft’s most acclaimed stories are those in the cycle known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Combining elements of horror and science fiction, they are an extended elaboration of Lovecraft’s recurring fantasy that an entire alien civilization lurks on the underside of our known world. Included in the cycle is
At the Mountains of Madness
, in which an unsuspecting expedition uncovers a city of untold terror buried beneath an Antarctic wasteland. “
At the Mountains of Madness
ranks high among the horror stories of the English language,” said
Joyce Carol Oates reflected: “There is a melancholy, operatic grandeur in Lovecraft’s most passionate work, like
At the Mountains of Madness;
a curious elegiac poetry of unspeakable loss, of adolescent despair and an existential loneliness so pervasive that it lingers in the reader’s memory, like a dream, long after the rudiments of Lovecraftian plot have faded.”
H. P. Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer in Providence on March 15, 1937. Fame accrued to him posthumously, owing chiefly to the efforts of Arkham House Publishers, which brought his writings to a wider audience. Beginning with
The Outsider and Others
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
(1943), the firm issued numerous collections of Lovecraft’s work. Within a decade of his premature death,
Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft
(1945) would sell more than sixty-seven thousand hardcover copies in a single year.
“Lovecraft’s fiction is one of the cornerstones of modern horror . . . a unique and visionary world of wonder, terror, and delirium,” said Clive Barker. “[Lovecraft is] the American writer of the twentieth century most frequently compared with Poe, both in the quality of his art [and in] its thematic preoccupations,” observed Joyce Carol Oates. “[He has] had an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction.” And Stephen King concluded: “H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”
HIS INTRODUCTION DISCUSSES KEY ELEMENTS OF THE NOVEL’S PLOT.
In a much-quoted homage, Stephen King once described H. P. Lovecraft as the twentieth-century horror story’s “dark and baroque prince.” And this is a prince who wields old-school, feudal power: like few other writers before or since, Lovecraft fundamentally defined the shape of his chosen literary field. If anything, in fact, the label “prince” is inadequate. When one considers the canonical nature of Lovecraft’s texts, the awed scholasticism with which his followers discuss his cosmology, and the endless recursion of his ideas and his aesthetics by the faithful, an alternative analogy presents itself: Lovecraft is horror’s pope.
But without diminishing the man’s peculiar genius, we must see Lovecraft as a product of his time. We can make sense of him, and his astonishing visions, only to the extent that we understand him as defined by the specific horrors, concrete and psychic, of the early twentieth century.
1. THE SURRENDER TO THE WEIRD
Genre writers, it is often claimed, are uninterested in characterization, theme, or nuance, and instead vulgarly subordinate everything to the exigencies of plot. This, of course, is nonsense. In fact, many genre writers don’t do plot either.
H. P. Lovecraft is the towering genius among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point. For Lovecraft, the point is the weird. Nowhere is this more clear than in the outstanding
At the Mountains of Madness,
described by one preeminent Lovecraft scholar as “a triumph in almost every way.”
The question concerning Lovecraft is not whether he can or cannot do plot, but whether or not plot and narrative arc are the elements that drive his art.
This is not to say that Lovecraft’s stories are clumsy in their craft. Some, like “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” move tightly and precisely, evoking growing foreboding as the protagonist listens to radio reports from a companion penetrating the horrors of a tomb; others, like the canonical “The Call of Cthulhu,” deploy the technique of cut-and-paste in a pulp bricolage, aggregating a sense of dread and awe precisely out of the
of overarching plot. The exposition of a monstrous cosmic history, of hateful cults, of the misbehavior of matter and geometry, is all the stronger for being gradually, seemingly randomly, uncovered.
In the case of
At the Mountains of Madness,
the initially sedate unfolding of the story, in its careful scientific tone, builds pace brilliantly, inexorably hooking the reader in. But though what story there is emerges with astonishing power, Lovecraft’s is not a fiction of carefully structured plot so much as of ineluctable unfolding: it is a literature of the inevitability of weird.
“My reason for writing stories,” Lovecraft says, “is to give myself the satisfaction of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy. . . .”
Story is not the point: the point is wonder, which for Lovecraft goes hand in hand with horror, because, he claims, “fear is our deepest and strongest emotion.”
He believes this because in his “mechanical materialist” vision, humans mean nothing. The wonder of the vastness is inextricable from the horror of our own pointlessness. “[A]ll my tales,” he once wrote, “are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”
Paradoxically, it is precisely this bleak atheist awe that makes Lovecraft a kind of bad-son heir to a religious visionary tradition, an ecstatic tradition, which, in distinction to the everyday separation of matter and spirit, locates the holy in the everyday. Lovecraft, too, sees the awesome as immanent in the quotidian, but there is little ecstasy here: his is a bad numinous.
The wonder and dread are achieved by his career-long depiction of an indifferent universe in which humans are, at most, inquisitive grubs, powerless next to the pantheon of monstrous deities: Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and their kin. In
it is somewhat less godlike creatures—the Old Ones—whose remains have been found beneath the ice. Next to those other behemoth powers, even the Old Ones are pygmies, although they are still effortlessly able to dispatch humans.
Traditionally, genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo—one which the protagonists frantically scrabble to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft’s horror is not one of intrusion but of realization. The world has always been implacably bleak; the horror lies in our acknowledging that fact. It is the sheer truth of this universe, concretized in the existence of its monstrous inhabitants, which explains why Lovecraft’s protagonists are so unheroic: there is no muscular intervention that can save the day. All we can do—as the narrator and Danforth do in the Antarctic mountains—is turn and run.
makes it uniquely plain that Lovecraft’s interest in the weird subordinates the bagatelles of simple “events.” In narrative terms, the story is astonishingly straightforward, and such “revelations” as it contains are telegraphed fairly clearly. In place of narrative intricacies, we are treated to an astonishing several-page description of the Old Ones that are dug up from under the ice, creatures which mock the Linnaean schema and the preconceptions of history. In this obsessive act of description, Lovecraft deploys the childish passion for making up monsters to depict a scientific methodology presiding over the collapse of its own predicates.
This is taxonomy as horror.
2. THE GREAT WAR AND THE (UN)REMEMBERED TENTACULAR
The psychotic chimerism of Lovecraft’s monsters is well known—his creatures are described by reference to gorillas and octopuses, to fungi and insects, to starfish and barrels and beetles and rotting cadavers in endless combination. As often as not, they are described as “undescribable.” This is more than sheer teratological exuberance, however: it is an assault on conventional reality. Usually, this impossible physiology is barely glimpsed, by characters who sensibly flee the scene. It is in
At the Mountains of Madness
that, uniquely in Lovecraft’s canon, one of his monsters actually submits to the scientist’s gaze (and the vivisector’s scalpel).
The specifics of this grotesquerie were, in the day, utterly new to the genre. Lovecraft resides radically outside any folk tradition: this is not the modernizing of the familiar vampire or werewolf (or garuda or rusalka or any other such traditional bugbear). Lovecraft’s pantheon and bestiary are absolutely
There have never been any fireside stories of these creatures; we have neither heard of nor seen anything like them before. This astonishing novelty is one of the most intriguing and important things that can be noted about Lovecraft, and about the tradition of weird fiction in general.
Crudely, one might point to the early twentieth century’s sudden literary proliferation of the
a limb type largely missing from western mythology, as symptomatic of this sea change in the conceptualization of monsters. There are partial precursors in some of H. G. Wells’s creatures and in the cowled hunter of M. R. James’s story “Count Magnus,” and later superb examples in the works of William Hope Hodgson, E. H. Visiak, and others. Of these writers, however, Lovecraft remains utterly preeminent.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this shift to new imaginary fauna, and of the change it brought about in fiction of the fantastic. To understand the efflorescence of what must be thought of as a “revolutionary monstrous” (and without understating the originality or genius of Lovecraft and his contemporaries), it must be understood as a phenomenon of its time.
The fantastic has always borrowed enthusiastically from premodern folklore, fairy tales, and myth, of course. Fantasy as a genre is a modern literature, however, born primarily out of the Gothic, a kind of bad conscience of the burgeoning “instrumental rationality” of capitalist modernity. “The dream of reason,” as José Monleón persuasively points out (quoting the title of Goya’s famous picture), “brings forth monsters.”
In essence, for fantasy to be fantasy, to break down the barriers that were keeping the irrational at bay, society first had to construct those barriers and thoroughly embrace the supposedly “rational.”
Yet at the beginning of the twentieth century, belief in the rational suffered a massive blow on the charnel fields of the First World War. Here were the rational, modern, capitalist powers, expressing their supposedly rational interests with an eruption of mechanized human butchery unprecedented in history. The scale of the psychic and cultural trauma of the First World War is vast—perhaps even “undescribable.” The war smashed apart the complacencies of “rationality” and uncovered the irrationality at the heart of the modern world with a savagery that eclipsed any fantasist’s nightmares. How, then, could the genre known as fantasy present anything that could compare with such horror? Certainly, its stock of werewolves and effete vampires were utterly inadequate to the task.
Fantasy responded nevertheless. At the low end of culture, in the pulp magazines (such as
), weird fiction shared with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that was in fact saturated with the uncanny.
This new “scientific” uncanny informs Lovecraft’s attempt to embed his horrors in an accurate (or at least plausible) cosmology, chemistry, geology, biology. He uses theories that were, at the time, cutting-edge (the discussion of plate tectonics, for example, was still very much a live issue). In this story and elsewhere, then, Lovecraft pilfered from science. (Science is now, in fact, repeating the favor: one recent nonfiction account of a paleontologist’s sojourn in Antarctica is titled
Mountains of Madnes
At the Mountains of Madness,
the core science of his materialist horror is biology, with that grotesque, meticulously reported anatomy lesson, that precise itemization of the impossible.
There is, however, a paradox in the weird bodies Lovecraft imagines. Though his conception of the monstrous and his approach to the fantastic are utterly new, he pretends that they are not.
“Arrangement reminds one of certain monsters of primal myth,” says the scientist Lake as he first examines the creatures he has found under the ice, “especially fabled Elder Things in
.” In fact,
is a book Lovecraft invented in his fiction, and in citing it, the author refers to a supposed body of folklore and literature that does not exist. In doing so, he actually seems to undercut the originality of his own creations. Given that it is precisely the implacable unfamiliarity of these monsters that is one of the most potent sources of their uncanny affect, this seems to be a perverse move.
There are, however, reasons for the maneuver. As his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” makes plain, Lovecraft is acutely conscious of the horror tradition, particularly the Gothic. A key technique of Gothic, with its revenants, skeletons, ghosts, antique places, and mythical monsters, is the notion of haunting. With the archaeological unearthing of the remains of the Old Ones, Lovecraft taps into that “traditional” horror, of the moment of unburial, the return of the repressed. This of course requires him to assert that something was buried in the first place. Hence Lovecraft’s peculiar maneuver of positing something profoundly, brilliantly new, then stroking his chin and saying “That reminds me of . . .”
Lovecraft is pulled to do this in part by the “scientism,” the materialist articulation, of his vision, which embeds horror in material reality. Though a key driver behind this new form of weird was the specific political/cultural apocalypse of the war, in its own aesthetics a materialist “scientific” weird implies a universe that has
been monstrous and implacable. Lovecraft’s uncanny, in other words, expresses this radically new crisis precisely by depicting an eternal and unsympathetic uncanny.
This is the paradox in this utterly new kind of fantasy. In expressing the “supernatural” in materialist terms, Lovecraft will not use the standard figures of supernature, with all their mythic baggage. But his materialism means it is not just in his creatures that horror lies, but in the material reality of which they are part—and that awe-ful reality is eternal. Lovecraft’s radical innovations must seem to have resonated for eons.
3. “GREAT GOD! THIS IS AN AWEFUL PLACE.”
Robert Falcon Scott (Scott of the Antarctic) recorded the sentiment above in his diary as a way of describing Antarctica. It may be that the misspelling is apocryphal, but it is nonetheless apt.
The Antarctic has long been an invaluable setting for not just the awful but the awe-f, and thus the awesome. Apart from its literary usefulness as a far-off, inhospitable place that isolates any and all visitors, it offers the stark symbolism of being a great blank space, a continent-wide white screen on which the human mind can project its fears.
From a young age, Lovecraft was fascinated by the Antarctic. As a child he avidly followed journeys of polar explorers, and he was an aficionado of Antarctic fiction. The most obvious of the influences on
At the Mountains of Madness
is the story he explicitly refers to throughout: Poe’s
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
(1850), a peculiar, rambling, brilliant work of maritime adventure and mythicized southern pole. Lovecraft takes from Poe his bizarre giant birds and the cry “Tekeli-li!,” which is incomparably more terrifying the second novel around.
However, we know that when he was very young, Lovecraft also read and enjoyed a vastly inferior polar work, W. Frank Russell’s
The Frozen Pirate.
This forgettable piece is interesting for one important reason: its narrative revolves around cryonics, freezing a pirate for fifty years. (He wakes, of course.) Add to the continent’s blankness this preserving power of the cold, thus allowing our supposed atavistic and repressed anxieties to be put on ice, and the Antarctic becomes almost vulgarly overdetermined as a site for psychically anxious fictions.