Science Fiction

The Uncanny Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft

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Edmund Wilson, then one of America's top literary critics, took to the pages of The New Yorker in 1945 to denounce a dead horror writer named H.P. Lovecraft. "The only real horror in most of these fictions," Wilson sniffed, "is the horror of bad taste and bad art." Wilson was outraged at the thought that Lovecraft, who had died, broke, in 1937, might enjoy posthumous success thanks to the recent publication of his collected writings. These stories, Wilson declared, "were hack-work contributed to such publications as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, where, in my opinion, they ought to have been left."

Wilson was a big deal in his day, the sort of critic whose reviews could help make or break an author's career. But he was simply no match for Lovecraft, who would enjoy the last laugh from beyond the grave. Today, Wilson is largely forgotten and Lovecraft is practically everywhere, his DNA spread far and wide throughout American popular culture.

Perhaps you're familiar with Lovecraft's most enduring creation, the towering, tentacle-faced elder god Cthulhu, who lies slumbering deep in his oceanic tomb, waiting for the day when "the stars are right" so that he may rise again and wreak havoc on humanity. The modern cult of Cthulhu is a capitalist success story of epic proportions. Retailers now offer Cthulhu-themed shirts, hats, socks, costumes, toys, coffee mugs, Pez dispensers, board games, video games, role-playing games, novels, short stories, comic books, coloring books, and much else besides. The heavy metal band Metallica has written two songs in Cthulhu's honor. The Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro has found all sorts of clever ways to reference Cthulhu in his films. A popular "Cthulhu for President" bumper sticker asks, "Why vote for the lesser evil?"

Another Lovecraft signature is the obsessive researcher whose fixation on weird science unleashes an interdimensional evil that threatens to wipe out the planet. Sound familiar? In the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, shadowy government research involving children with psychic abilities rips open a portal between Hawkins, Indiana, and "the Upside Down," a spooky parallel dimension that just happens to be crawling with Lovecraftian creatures. Yes, the mad scientist trope has been around at least since Frankenstein, but the vast, eldritch terrors of the Upside Down are pure Lovecraft. So too is the tentacled monster known as "the mind flayer" who stalks our intrepid young heroes.

Academics can't seem to get enough of Lovecraft either. A database search will turn up hundreds of scholarly articles discussing the author and his work, in such serious-minded publications as American StudiesMath HorizonsCultural Geographies, and the Journal of Folklore Research. In the words of Alan Moore, author of the acclaimed graphic novels Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Lovecraft has enjoyed "a posthumous trajectory from pulp to academia that is perhaps unique in modern letters."

Not everybody is a fan. In 2014, the writer Daniel José Older launched a campaign to have Lovecraft's likeness removed from the World Fantasy Award, a prestigious genre prize that had taken the form of a Lovecraft statue since its inception in 1975. While Lovecraft "did leave a lasting mark on speculative fiction, he was also an avowed racist," Older argued. "Many writers have spoken out about their discomfort with winning an award that lauds someone with such hideous opinions….It's time to stop co-signing his bigotry and move sci-fi/fantasy out of the past." The World Fantasy Convention ultimately agreed, dropping the statue in 2015.

Lovecraft really was an avowed racist. His stories, essays, and correspondence are filled with all sorts of ugly statements about blacks, Jews, and immigrants. He particularly hated New York City, where he briefly lived, complaining in a 1924 letter of its "Asiatic hell's huddle of the world's cowed, broken, inartistic, & unfit."

Still, the horror/fantasy world was not uniformly pleased about the change. The scholar and editor S.T. Joshi, who has written numerous books about Lovecraft, returned his two World Fantasy Awards in protest. Getting rid of the Lovecraft statue, Joshi declared, "seems to me a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness."

Seven decades after his death, Lovecraft shows no signs of going away. He has scaled the commanding heights of pop culture, influencing some of the biggest names in the game while continuing to sell tons of his own books to new generations of readers. How many authors can claim a posthumous success like that?

Haunting the Dark

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. In 1893, his father, likely suffering from an advanced case of syphilis, was committed to the nearby Butler Hospital for the Insane. He would die there five years later. Lovecraft's mother, who suffered from depression, would be confined to that same facility in 1919, dying within its walls two years later.

These are not the only episodes from the writer's life that sound like plot points from a horror story. At the age of 46, Lovecraft began keeping a sort of death diary, recording his daily sufferings and terrors as he slowly expired from stomach cancer. "Pain—drowse—intense pain—rest—great pain," he wrote in one typical entry. It was an eerie echo of his 1936 short story "The Haunter of the Dark," in which one of the protagonists continues to write in his journal even as the dreadful monster closes in on him. "I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye…." That's the final sentence of the story.

Lovecraft wrote for the pulps, cheaply printed magazines that specialized in the sort of sensational material—monsters, lost cities, aliens—that more respectable outlets would not deign to print. He never made any real money as a writer, though he was sometimes able to pay the bills by hiring out his services as an editor and rewrite man. The most famous of his clients was Harry Houdini, for whom Lovecraft ghostwrote the 1924 short story "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs."

Lovecraft's first major book, The Outsider and Others, which collected some of his best stories, did not appear until two years after his death. His second book—Beyond the Wall of Sleep, another story collection—appeared four years after that. They were both published by Arkham House, an independent press founded by Lovecraft acolytes August Derleth and Donald Wandrei for the sole purpose of keeping their hero's work in print.

It did the trick. Readers have been devouring Lovecraft's macabre tales ever since.

What explains this extraordinary afterlife? Why do so many of us still read his stuff today? "When Lovecraft was on the money," the writer Stephen King has argued, "his stories packed an incredible wallop. The best of them make us feel the size of the universe we hang suspended in and suggest shadowy forces that could destroy us all if they so much as grunted in their sleep."

King ought to know, having successfully borrowed a page or two from the Lovecraftian playbook himself over the years. In It, King's blockbuster 1986 novel about a small town terrorized by a bloodthirsty, shape-shifting clown, the big reveal at the end (spoiler alert) is that the monster is actually an ancient cosmic entity that crashed to Earth millions of years ago and has been periodically rising up to feed on human fear (and flesh) ever since. In The Mist, his 1980 novella about a small town under siege after secret government experiments unleash monsters from another dimension (hello again, Stranger Things!), King gives Cthulhu himself a sort of uncredited cameo appearance.

Lovecraft revealed the key to his own personal vision of horror in the opening sentences of his signature story, "The Call of Cthulhu": "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." Pretty much any one of Lovecraft's 70 or so tales could begin like that.

A Political Horror Show

Modern critics have sometimes struggled to make sense of Lovecraft's worldview, particularly when it comes to where he might fall on the political spectrum. For many, the answer has been to label Lovecraft a conservative, pointing to his undeniable record as a racist, xenophobe, and Anglo-Saxon supremacist. "It's safe to say that if Lovecraft were alive today," The A.V. Club's Joshua Alston declared in 2016, "he'd have a 'Make America Great Again' bumper sticker on the wall of his remote cabin."

Maybe so. But Lovecraft also hated capitalism, praised socialism, and staunchly defended President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal against "the plutocrats and their apologists," as he once put it. "I am one for whom the spectre of 'socialisation' has no terror," Lovecraft wrote in a 1933 essay. "The older I grow and the more I reflect, the more I am convinced that no industrial civilization can continue to exist except through the artificial government control and distribution of resources." The real problem with the New Deal, Lovecraft added, was that it did not go far enough "toward the probably inevitable socialisation of large-scale industry and finance."

Lovecraft's combination of racism and statist economics was not exactly unusual at the time. In fact, many of the day's leading progressive figures harbored outright racist opinions. Take Woodrow Wilson. In his 1901 book, A History of the American People, the future president voiced his disgust at the new immigrants then arriving in the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe, attacking them as "men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland." Far more to Wilson's taste were the "sturdy stocks of the north of Europe." Socialist leader Eugene Debs struck a similar note. "The Dago…lives more like a savage or a wild beast than the Chinese," Debs complained, allowing him to "underbid the American working man." Progressive hero Theodore Roosevelt argued that it was "a mistake" to give black men the right to vote via the 15th Amendment because blacks on the whole were "altogether inferior to the whites."

Without ruling on the question of where Lovecraft might land on today's political spectrum, it seems clear that his racist and xenophobic views were in step with much left-wing thought of his own time.

Cut from the Cosmic Horror Opus?

Lovecraft's racism has inspired two interesting young anti-racist writers now working in the fields of horror and dark fantasy. In his captivating Lovecraft Country (Harper), Matt Ruff chronicles the adventures of a black family as it navigates the horrors—both ordinary and supernatural—of Jim Crow America in the 1950s. It's both a welcome addition to the Lovecraftian canon and a sharp critique of it. Jordan Peele, director of the acclaimed 2017 thriller Get Out, is currently producing an HBO series based on Ruff's novel. Meanwhile, Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor.com), which he dedicates to Lovecraft "with all my conflicted feelings," takes the critique a step further—essentially rewriting one of Lovecraft's most blatantly racist stories, "The Horror at Red Hook," from the vantage point of a new black protagonist.

In his introduction to 2019's The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham (Liveright), a lavishly illustrated collection edited by the cultural historian Leslie Klinger, LaValle discusses his complicated relationship with Lovecraft's work. One option he considered was to "cut [Lovecraft] from the Cosmic Horror opus," he acknowledges. But then he thought twice about all the great stories that would necessarily be sacrificed as a result.

So what can be done about Lovecraft and his tainted creations? "I'm not saying the fiction is so worthwhile that we just have to shrug our shoulders and live with the rest," LaValle writes. Rather, "you can love something, love someone, and criticize them. That's called maturity." As far as LaValle is concerned, "Lovecraft will never be cancelled." He's right: The ghoulish writer has sunk his teeth far too deep into the body of American popular culture for that.