Today would have been the 123rd birthday of one of my very favorite writers, H.P. Lovecraft. The Gentleman From Providence is probably the most influential writer of the 20th century that most people have never heard of.
Lovecraft was the foremost practitioner of “weird fiction” in the early part of the last century. His stories specialized in atmosphere — atmosphere that would suck the oxygen right out of your lungs. Atmosphere that was truly terrifying and really could send chills through your bloodstream. (Read “Cool Air” for a truly chilling tale of… air-conditioning?)
Without Lovecraft, horror movies, books, games and comics would look very different. Perhaps someone eventually would develop the idea of beings from other planets worshipped as gods by primordial humans, and lurid tales of Piscean species interbreeding with centuries of townsfolk and ancient ruined civilizations in Antarctica and leaping, chittering things trapped in crypts — but in our universe, H.P. did that. His was the imagination that gave us an artist who painted ghouls from live models.
He can be a tough read, sometimes, as many of his stories are styled as long monologues or statements, and dialogue is a rarity. He also had pet words and favored turns of phrases that popped up with the annoying regularity of mad piping music amid crumbling cyclopean architecture. Some people even get upset over the near-absence of any female characters. And, of course, as a product of his time Lovecraft was a sometimes-brutal racist.
But oh, what an imagination. Just look at how he described a journey between worlds, from “The Dreams in the Witch House”:
“Gilman’s dreams consisted largely in plunges through limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound; abysses whose material and gravitational properties, and whose relation to his own entity, he could not even begin to explain. He did not walk or climb, fly or swim, crawl or wriggle; yet always experienced a mode of motion partly voluntary and partly involuntary. Of his own condition he could not well judge, for sight of his arms, legs, and torso seemed always cut off by some odd disarrangement of perspective; but he felt that his physical organization and faculties were somehow marvelously transmuted and obliquely projected—though not without a certain grotesque relationship to his normal proportions and properties.”
Or, consider this description of one of the most terrifying creatures in his oeuvre, Brown Jenkin, who “nuzzled people curiously in the black hours before dawn”:
“Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch’s blood, which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages.”
“The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”
To Lovecraft, the universe was far larger and more frightening that anyone could comprehend — and the universe didn’t care about Man and his petty concerns. Cosmic horror was Lovecraft’s stock-in-trade. Primitive humans may have worshipped Cthulhu, but the Old Ones did not even notice.
His own life was one scored with pain, both emotional and physical. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, R.I., on Aug. 20, 1890, and died in that city on March 15, 1937. A sickly child, he became a voracious reader and eventually started writing his own stories. He suffered a nervous breakdown before he could graduate from high school. His father suffered a psychotic break and was hospitalized until his death in 1898. His mother eventually suffered severe hysteria and was confined to the same hospital her husband had been in, and died of complications after gall bladder surgery in 1921. Lovecraft was devastated by the 1936 suicide of fellow author and correspondent Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan). Also in 1936, Lovecraft was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a form of cancer of the small intestine. Suffering from malnourishment, he lived in constant pain until he succumbed to the cancer in March of 1937.
Lovecraft said it best: “All of my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large.”