Does Lovecraft Matter? What Do the Critics Say?
Lovecraft, Howard Phillip (1890–1937)
‘Virtually unknown during his lifetime, the writer and critic Howard Phillips (H. P.) Lovecraft attracted a huge readership for cult science fiction, fantasy, and Gothic terror. According to the author and critic Joyce Carol OATES, the posthumous publication of his collected stories made the greatest impact on HORROR NARRATIVE since the writings of Edgar Allan POE. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, to a deranged mother and syphilitic father, Lovecraft developed verbal acumen in childhood and retreated into a fictive world of terror and extraterrestrial phantasms inspired by the fantastic Pegana tales of Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany.
Lovecraft created his own mythic cycle popu- lated with MONSTERS such as those that permeate “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), a murky nether world where titans speak an unknown language. Emphasizing perverse science, NECROMANCY, occultism, LYCANTHROPY, cannibalism, and demonology, he wrote a distinctive brand of horror for the pulp magazines Weird Tales and Astounding Stories. He took the time to admire a peer, poet Walter DE LA MARE, and to lavish encouragement and advice on a field of young, promising Gothic writers, including a contemporary, Clark Ashton Smith, author of “The Hashish-Eater” (1922). Lovecraft was also quick to single out the fakes and flakes, including the American horror writer Robert William Chambers, author of the play The King in Yellow (1895)*, which Lovecraft castigated for its lack of thought.
Like Poe, Lovecraft expressed his debt to ATMOSPHERE. In the critical volume Supernatural Horror in Literature (1945), he extolled the worth of surroundings above plot mechanics as the source of a sensation, a concept introduced by the Gothic master Ann RADCLIFFE in 1794.
As a result of Lovecraft’s control of setting and TONE, he produced unrelentingly pessimistic views of humankind in a world in which evil and savagery prevail, both in reality and nightmares, as found in “The Beast in the Cave” (1905), an early tale in which a tourist in Mammoth Cave kills an albino being resembling a prehistoric human. In a posthumous collection, The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (1995), his tales of urban dread fuse midnight phantasms with waking horror. In “Azathoth” (1922) and “The Descendent” (1926), his doomed characters cringe before threatening worlds where fearful, whirling phantasms reach beyond land into sky and sea.
In “The Rats in the Wall,” one of the tales collected in The Best of H. P. Lovecraft (1987), the author exploits the oldest human dread, fear of the unknown. His hapless protagonist digs into the tiled floor of Exham Priory to discover a horror—the remains of people who died in a state of panic: “and over all were the marks of rodent gnawing. The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom” (Lovecraft, The Best, 33).
The revelation suits a prevalent theme in Lovecraft sagas—the degeneracy of a family into crime, immorality, and madness. Underlying this and other nihilist views is Lovecraft’s atheism and the hopelessness for humanity, themes replicated in Fred Chappell’s Dagon (1968) and in the pessimistic urban Gothic of Leonard Lanson Cline’s The Dark Chamber (1927) and John Ramsey Campbell’s To Wake the Dead (1980) and New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980).’
*This is incorrect. “The King in Yellow” is a short story written by Robert W. Chambers, in which a play by the same name, when read, drives its reader insane. It is one of a very popular, critically lauded, collection of stories. “The [King in Yellow] is named after a play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories. The first half of the [collection] features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by esteemed critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural.” I cannot comment on Lovecraft’s opinion of Chambers/his work. See:
Clements, Nicholaus. “Lovecraft’s ‘The Haunter of the Dark,’” Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 98–100.
Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Lovecraft, H. P. The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. New York: Del Rey, 1987.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Telling Stories. New York: W. W. Nor- ton, 1998.
Price, Robert M. “H. P. Lovecraft: Prophet of Human- ism,” Humanist 61, no. 4 (July 2001): 26.
Wohleber, Curt. “The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King,” American Heritage 46, no. 8 (December 1995): 82–90.
(Source: Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature, 2005)