WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 15, 2005
68 Years Dead and More Influential Than Ever
JOHN J. MILLER
For a man who didn’t believe in the afterlife, H.P. Lovecraft sure is having a remarkable one. Few people had heard of him when he died at the age of 46 on this date in 1937, and fewer still had read the stories he sold to tacky pulp magazines. Nowadays, however, Stephen King and just about everybody else in the know recognizes him as the 20th century’s most influential practitioner of the horror story — a claim he arguably clinched last month with the publication of his best works in a definitive edition.
If our country’s literary canon has a dress code, then surely it involves those shiny black jackets covering the volumes produced by the Library of America. Lovecraft’s new one runs for more than 800 pages and includes 22 novellas and short stories with titles such as “The Horror at Red Hook,” “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Thing on the Doorstep.” There are now 25,000 copies in print, which is an above-average number for the nonprofit publisher. (A book of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and other writings, released at the same time, has an initial printing of 19,000.)
As with so much genre fiction, Lovecraft’s oeuvre isn’t for everyone. Some people just can’t see past the wooden characters, overwrought prose, and fantastic speculations about the nature of the universe. The dialogue occasionally descends into Howard Dean-like howls of “Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah!” Edmund Wilson once quipped that the only horror in Lovecraft’s corpus was the author’s “bad taste and bad art.”
Yet it is difficult to deny his enormous importance in a field of literature whose roots stretch back to the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, the prescient nightmares of Mary Shelley, and the macabre mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Even the most respectable authors have taken advantage of the conventions these writers created and refined. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, after all, is a pretty good ghost story.
Lovecraft wrote in this dark and distinguished tradition, and much of his early work displays the influence of Poe and other predecessors. By the late 1920s, however, he was no longer a mere dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants but a genuine innovator whose lasting impact appears mainly in a set of stories known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” They begin with “The Call of Cthulhu,” written in 1926 and one of Lovecraft’s finest pieces. It’s about a young sculptor’s bizarre dreams, a hideous statuette he manufactures in his sleep, a dastardly voodoo cult, a shadowy book called the Necronomicon, and a menacing encounter in the Pacific Ocean with a monster that’s perhaps best described as a gargantuan alien octopus with wings (and owning the unpronounceable name “Cthulhu”).
This may sound silly and, at a certain level, it surely is. Yet “The Call of Cthulhu” is also strangely engrossing, and contains many elements that will be familiar to fans of “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown: The main character is an Ivy League professor determined to investigate ancient mysteries and their lingering effects on the present day. Readers who become accustomed to Lovecraft’s writing style may find that it possesses a florid eloquence.
They will also appreciate his skill at producing a sense of mounting dread. Lovecraft knew what to place onstage as well as what to leave inside the haunted imaginations of his readers. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” he once wrote, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” If Lovecraft had been a film director, he might have come up with a movie much like “The Blair Witch Project,” only scarier.
One of Lovecraft’s favorite pulp venues, Weird Tales, rejected “The Call of Cthulhu” upon its first submission. The editor clearly didn’t realize what he had in his hands, though by now its hall-of-fame status is obvious, having inspired so many subsequent authors of horror fiction to write pastiches in Lovecraft’s honor or confess their debt to a master. Stephen King has done it (see his story “Crouch End”), and the editor of the new Library of America book is Peter Straub, another best-selling horror writer. Even those outside the genre have tipped their hats to Lovecraft: One collection of his fiction was edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
Central to Lovecraft’s effectiveness was his personal philosophy, and this is what separated him from Poe and the others who came before him. He was a thoroughgoing materialist — a socialist in his politics and an atheist in his beliefs. “Now all my tales 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,” he wrote upon successfully resubmitting the original Cthulhu story. “One must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
That’s nihilism, of course, and we’re free to reject it. But there’s nothing creepier or more terrifying than the possibility that our lives are exercises in meaninglessness. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” says Gloucester in King Lear. “They kill us for their sport.” From Lovecraft’s perspective, this gives us far too much credit. In his grim milieu, we don’t even rate as insect pests, but we still manage to get ourselves squished.
So it’s a safe bet that Oprah Winfrey’s book clubs won’t be dipping into “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Dreams in the Witch House” this spring. Yet Lovecraft’s circle seems ready for ever more widening. On the Internet, it’s possible to take a virtual tour of Lovecraft sites in his hometown of Providence, R.I., or to shop for a Cthulhu plush toy. You can also buy a bumper sticker: “Cthulhu for President – Don’t settle for the lesser evil.”
Lovecraft almost never wrote a happy ending and he certainly isn’t known for his sense of humor, but perhaps by now even he would appreciate that it’s nice to have the last laugh.
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.