Inside H.P. Lovecraft’s Universe
Perhaps no 20th-century horror writer has had greater impact than H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer of the genre during the golden age of pulp magazines in the 1920s and ’30s. Though typically reclusive, Lovecraft maintained a broad creative circle through his voluminous correspondence, influencing many important fantasy, horror and sci-fi writers from his time through the present day. This map unearths the curious details of his life and the long-reaching legacy of his tales.
Demonic dreams. Indescribable eldritch horrors. Nameless cults. Unpronounceable ancient tongues. A slime-covered city of stone submerged in the South Pacific. Much of what fans associate with H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction appears in spades in “The Call of Cthulhu,” his most influential story. The plot follows a young man who bumbles into a web of terror simply by looking too closely into his dead uncle’s paperwork. A professor of Semitic languages at Brown University (academics are often heroes in Lovecraft), the uncle encountered a sculptor who, after a dream, fashioned a clay tablet of hieroglyphics that inexplicably resemble the uncle’s archaic studies. The narrator slowly learns about a secret cult determined to resurrect Cthulhu, a gigantic winged monster of “vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers.”
Although the story asserts the malevolent Cthulhu is beyond puny human comprehension, pop culture has adopted the creature with a gusto Lovecraft never could have anticipated. The beloved, tentacle-headed “squid-dragon” has spawned countless product homages (many purveyed by the inventive H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society), including video games, comic books, T-shirts, plush toys, role-playing games and even a nine-minute heavy-metal tribute by Metallica (“The Call of Ktulu”).
Born in his family’s ancestral home in Providence, H.P. Lovecraft spent the majority of his life haunting the old New England city. As a boy here, the eccentric writer pored over astronomy and chemistry textbooks. And here he grew into the spindly, lantern-jawed man whose image broods on the back covers of Lovecraft editions. Many Lovecraft landmarks can still be visited in Providence, including his grammar school; the Ladd Observatory, where he studied the stars; and Butler Hospital, where his father spent his waning years, suffering from tertiary syphilis.
More important, it was Lovecraft’s vision of Providence—a musty colonial town nestled at the twisting head of Narragansett Bay—that established the creepy, antiquarian settings for his stories. The aging churches, sloping streets and prominent universities of the city appear by name in Lovecraft’s fiction. It’s especially appropriate that Brown University’s John Hay Library houses Lovecraft’s papers, since his most famous story centers on a Brown professor uncovering the dark cult of Cthulhu. For other glimpses into Lovecraft’s Providence, check out “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “The Shunned House” and “The Haunter of the Dark.” So identified with the city was Lovecraft that his tombstone reads, “I am Providence.”
Much of H.P. Lovecraft’s most popular work first appeared in the bizarre little pulp magazine Weird Tales. Based in Chicago, Weird Tales published science fiction, sword and sorcery, ghost stories and generally anything steeped in the outlandish or macabre. Lovecraft avidly read the magazine from its first issue and, after encouragement from friends, sent five stories to the editor, who accepted them all. A few years later Lovecraft was offered the magazine’s editorship; much to his fans’ consternation he turned it down. His letter of refusal explains that he simply didn’t care to leave the familiar bounds of Providence, his hometown.
Without his oversight Weird Tales still went on to publish a slew of writers similar to Lovecraft, many of them his close friends. This literary cadre encompassed morbid California writer Clark Ashton Smith; Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian; and August Derleth, who famously wrote numerous stories based on “The Call of Cthulhu.” As for Weird Tales, the magazine shut down in 1954 because of budgetary constraints, only to be reanimated twice: once in the 1970s and again in 1988, in an updated incarnation that continues to publish.
As if to counter his physical reclusiveness, H.P. Lovecraft maintained an outrageously active correspondence. He churned out perhaps 100,000 letters, many to members of what scholars call the Lovecraft Circle, a group of like-minded writers (most of whom Lovecraft never met) who regularly borrowed elements of one another’s stories. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is laboring to compile all of Lovecraft’s letters into a complete edition—no small feat considering a staggering 20,000 may survive. In an interview with Weird Tales, Joshi admitted the letters may fill more than 25 volumes.
Certainly the most prominent of Lovecraft’s pen pals was Robert E. Howard, best known for inventing the muscle-bound, broadsword-wielding hero Conan the Barbarian. Another Weird Tales contributor, Howard first wrote to Lovecraft to praise his story “The Rats in the Walls.” When Lovecraft responded amiably, the two began an epistolary friendship that lasted until Howard’s suicide at age 30. One topic they repeatedly debated—sometimes bitterly—was the virtues of barbarism versus those of civilization: Howard espoused the former, while Lovecraft, whose sensibilities and social attitudes were rooted in the 18th century, defended the latter. Howard’s concern is apparent in the Conan stories; his primitive hero often confronts underhanded aristocrats.
Many members of the Lovecraft Circle tried their hand at weird fiction in the vein of “The Call of Cthulhu” by depicting monstrous entities from outer space that, like H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods and Great Old Ones, flew to Earth sans spacecrafts before the dawn of time. Lovecraft’s friend August Derleth named this larger body of work the Cthulhu Mythos. Unfortunately, fans agree that many of the contributions are uneven and portray Lovecraftian horrors in ways that don’t jibe with their originator’s vision.
Though more comfortable with gunslingers and barbarians, Robert E. Howard also attempted the Cthulhu Mythos. Take Howard’s 1931 story “The Black Stone”: Despite local warnings, a man visits a mysterious black monolith outside a Hungarian village and uncovers a cult that sacrifices victims to a putrid, toadlike god. Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos stories are collected in Chaosium’s anthology Nameless Cults, which takes its title from the mysterious German tome Unaussprechlichen Kulten, a book the hero of “The Black Stone” uses for research. Along with the Necronomicon, which has enjoyed a publishing life of its own, this book was made up by Lovecraft and appears in his and his imitators’ stories with the frequency of a running joke.
H.P. Lovecraft admired many writers of weird fiction (19th-century American horror icon Edgar Allan Poe was his lifelong idol) and wrote about them in his seminal long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1934). Among Lovecraft’s contemporaries, however, one author stands out as the object of his undying devotion: Algernon Blackwood.
In Lovecraft’s eyes, Blackwood—a Brit with a fixation on magic and pagan mythology—evokes the “weird atmosphere” masterfully in his tales, reaching his pinnacle with a story called “The Willows.” Lovecraft viewed it as pitch-perfect, extolling it as “without a single strained passage or a single false note.” The story follows a pair of men on a canoe trip through Austria, on the surging waters of the Danube during a summer flood. The men find themselves lost in a remote section of the river, amid a series of sandy islands within “acres and acres” of willow trees. Forced to camp there, the travelers soon discover the area is home to a menacing otherworldly force bent on their destruction. On nearly every page, the willows’ eerie, whiplike tendrils are described unnervingly, rendering the trees as “monstrous antediluvian creatures” that presage Lovecraft’s character Cthulhu.
In Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Willows,” the protagonists’ brush with a force beyond human comprehension resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror”: the idea that true terror results from being confronted with one’s insignificance amid the vast, indifferent cosmos. As in “The Call of Cthulhu,” characters in “The Willows” find their sanity crumbling once they slip outside the cozy illusion of human civilization. Events in both stories echo Lovecraft’s pronouncement, in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Fear takes a different cast for each writer: Blackwood loved the outdoors, and for him the overawing forces of nature provided the backdrop for cosmic horror. Nature held no interest for Lovecraft, whose terror concerns the unnatural, the aberrant, “that which should not be.” His tales evoke the sensation of encountering something not of this earth. As he wrote in the letter accompanying his submission of “The Call of Cthulhu” to Weird Tales, “When we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.”
Contemporary horror giant Stephen King claims H.P. Lovecraft remains the unsurpassed master of the horror tale and refers to him as the “20th century’s dark baroque prince.” As a boy, King found a box of pulp paperbacks his father had left in a crawl space. Among them he discovered his first volume of Lovecraft, which would forever leave its imprint upon him. In his nonfiction book about horror writing, Danse Macabre, King describes the moment he first saw that Lovecraft cover—an image of a green beast, replete with “long fangs and burning red eyes,” lurking beneath a tombstone. In an interview, King later remarked, “I knew I’d found home when I read that book.”
Though King’s work is much more directly stated—and gorier—than Lovecraft’s, the influence of the pulp writer is unmistakable. Another son of New England, King also draws on the history and tone of his native region, and he shares Lovecraft’s penchant for filling this landscape with ancient, demonic deities. King writes, “It is [Lovecraft’s] shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”
Though H.P. Lovecraft’s contemporaries began the Cthulhu Mythos stories, this shared universe has continued to provide grist for notable fantasy writers, including Roger Zelazny, Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman. Unsurprisingly, given his fondness for Lovecraft, Stephen King has also mined the Cthulhu bestiary. King’s works refer to Lovecraft’s alien gods (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, etc.) and mention Lovecraft’s fictional cursed New England towns (Dunwich and Arkham).
King’s most obvious Lovecraft tribute is the 1980 story “Crouch End,” in which two London police officers encounter a young woman raving about demonic monsters. The younger cop is incredulous, but the elder has heard similar stories about Crouch End, their London neighborhood. He begins to wonder if it may be a portal into another dimension and tries to explain to his younger partner, “Ever read Lovecraft...? Well, this fellow Lovecraft was always writing about dimensions. Dimensions close to ours. Full of these immortal monsters that would drive a man mad at one look.” The story reveals the woman did encounter such a monster: the indescribable Lovecraftian horror Shub-Niggurath, the “goat with a thousand young.” With Lovecraft’s godlike aberrations grafted permanently onto the popular imagination, such creatures, like his influence, do lurk around every corner.