I’ll have to start this in a similar way to a lot of these Wordsmith Wednesday posts – I’m aware of the issues with Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly his overt and despicable attitude towards race. Again, I think it’s important to acknowledge these things, but I don’t think it means we should dismiss his work immediately. If nothing else, we experience a perspective outside of our own, and we become better equipped to understand and combat awful bigotry. In the case of Lovecraft though, I believe we get a lot more that this.
Howard Philips Lovecraft was a writer who contributed significantly to the horror genre, so much so that a sub-genre was named after him, that of Lovecraftian horror. This is defined as horror that deals with the ‘fear of the cosmic unknown’, something that is clear as soon as you begin reading any of Lovecraft’s work. Perhaps the most famous of his short stories, The Call of Cthulhu, is the archetype of this. The story follows the narrator’s descent into despair as he uncovers a cult conspiracy to call forth one of the Great Old Ones, Cthulhu, and ultimately meets this terrifying being. Escaping with his life at the end, he realises he is being hunted by Cthulhu’s cult followers, ending the story on a very ominous note.
This is often typical of Lovecraftian short stories – I’ve learned not to expect closure. They often focus on the gradual understanding that there are larger, incomprehensible forces out there. The conflict that arises from attempting to understand the incomprehensible always ends in madness; this is how the fear of the unknown is fostered. My favourite collection of his short stories is The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death. In dreams, Lovecraft can more easily illustrate the maddening twists and turns that occur in the psyches of his narrators.
“I wish I could believe that doctor. It would help my shaky nerves if I could dismiss what I now have to think of the air and the sky about and above me. I never feel alone or comfortable, and a hideous sense of pursuit sometimes comes chillingly on me when I am weary. What prevents me from believing the doctor is this one simple fact – that the police never found the bodies of those servants whom they say Crawford Tillinghast murdered.”
– H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond
While I enjoy the psychological aspect of Lovecraft’s horror, for me, this is merely a convincing way of conveying the real horror. We need narrators who teeter on the edge of sanity to show us how fragile our perspective of life really is. Those who have seen things that we should not see, who know things that we should not know, are qualified to challenge what we believe. And this is where the truly terrifying monsters appear. All it requires is the short suspension of belief in what we know is physically possible, and then you tumble down the Lovecraftian rabbit hole, filled with tentacular tendrils and shrieking shadows.
Instead of rendering the familiar terrifying, Lovecraft explored the extremes of time and space, numbers that we can barely imagine or measure. You could switch off for one second whilst reading these stories and wonder to yourself whether this might not be fiction after all. In fact, it’s common knowledge amongst the community of strange folk who read Lovecraft that the Great Old Ones merely used Lovecraft as a conduit to prepare us for their return. That this belief can be entertained, regardless of how tongue-in-cheek it might be, is a testament to the man whose stories have entered the lofty realms of mythos.