Happy Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,

And with strange aeons, even death may die.”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have been 122 years old today, had he not died of intestinal cancer on March 15, 1937.

Long neglected by the public, but appreciated by a cabal of aficionados and most writers who came after him, Lovecraft was easily one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His moody, atmospheric stories set the standard for the extreme mind-bending terror that many subsequent authors would essay, but few would approach and none have ever matched.  Lovecraft’s field was known as weird fiction, and that description could not be more fitting. He wasn’t about the scare — although there are plenty of those — it was about creating unease in the reader. He worked hard to generate the feeling that if you were reading one of his stories at night, you mustn’t — no, DON’T! — don’t look behind you!

There were plenty of awful, hideous deaths in Lovecraft’s tales, but his terror was all in the language, and the horror in your mind. If you really imagine a doglike ghoul, isn’t it much more scary than a clear description in Pickman’s Model would be?

In fact, as horror writing and especially horror movies sank into a miasma of gore and ultraviolence, one could see them move away from Lovecraft, whose work was much more about fear and creating a sense of dread than grossing out teen moviegoers. In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft wrote,“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Lovecraft pioneered the idea of cosmic horror of the unknown, positing a universe that was far larger and more frightening that Man could dream. And, worse, that universe did not care one whit for Man. To me, the sense of aloneness that he created reminded me of swimming in the ocean at night; the sea is vast and unknowable as it is, but even moreso in the dark. One could imagine anything lurking beneath the surface of a body in which a human doesn’t even count as a speck. Think about it — you’re nothing compared to the ocean, and shark or some other predator could sneak up on you in the dark, and you’d never know what hit you. But — and this is somehow worse — the sea would not care that you were just devoured.

Lovecraft expressed this isolation horror through his Old Ones — ancient and powerful beings like Cthulhu, an ex-patriot of the star Xoth, who could not possibly care less for the insignificant humans that worshipped him out of ignorance. The joke among fans has always been that when Cthulhu rises, he will reward his most loyal followers by eating them first, thus sparing them the horror of his reign.

Lovecraft was the master of using precise language to evoke a feeling of primal fear in the reader. And, yes, he did tend to rely overmuch on certain words — try to get through a piece without encountering, say, “cyclopean,” or “nameless” — those words served him well.  (One of my favorites, “squamous,” was only used once!)

Read this passage from “The Shunned House” (1924), and tell me Lovecraft doesn’t describe the ultimate haunted house:

“In my childhood the shunned house was vacant, with barren, gnarled and terrible old trees, long, queerly pale grass and nightmarishly misshapen weeds in the high terraced yard where birds never lingered. We boys used to overrun the place, and I can still recall my youthful terror not only at the morbid strangeness of this sinister vegetation, but at the eldritch atmosphere and odour of the dilapidated house, whose unlocked front door was often entered in quest of shudders. The small-paned windows were largely broken, and a nameless air of desolation hung round the precarious panelling, shaky interior shutters, peeling wallpaper, falling plaster, rickety staircases, and such fragments of battered furniture as still remained. The dust and cobwebs added their touch of the fearful; and brave indeed was the boy who would voluntarily ascend the ladder to the attic, a vast raftered length lighted only by small blinking windows in the gable ends, and filled with a massed wreckage of chests, chairs, and spinning-wheels which infinite years of deposit had shrouded and festooned into monstrous and hellish shapes.”

Can you picture it, clear as day, in your mind’s eye? I can.

The master was a big believer that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing. Especially when it came to forbidden knowledge. Possessing a little knowledge about demons always gave his characters just enough rope to hang themselves. Scientific inquiry often fell under his spotlight, as he asked just because one can do a thing, does that mean one should do it? What if a scientist took a telephone down into an ancient crypt and described what he saw? What if a brilliant medical student could reanimate dead flesh? What if you knew there was a book out there packed with all the forbidden knowledge of ancient lost cultures?

Whatever it was — a book, a legend, a cemetery, the Dream Lands, or a Silver City — it was bigger than you, than if you could comprehend it with your tiny mind, surely madness would follow.
Let’s leave dear departed H.P. as he would want to be remembered…

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” Or, in English, “In his house at R’lyeh, Cthulhu waits, dead but dreaming.”

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