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The Tricky Terrors of H.P. Lovecraft

A little racist, sometimes a bit dull, but undeniably influential and wholly original.
by Bill Ryan
October 13, 2022
The Tricky Terrors of H.P. Lovecraft
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

There’s a song by The Mountain Goats called “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” The lyrics describe an extremely paranoid and mentally ill young man who finds the fast-moving New York City borough far too impressive, not just because of the speed of life there, but because of the mass of humanity the moment he steps outside. But of course, it’s still more than that. The last verse goes like this:

Woke up afraid of my own shadow
Like, genuinely afraid
Headed for the pawnshop
To buy myself a switchblade
Someday something’s coming
From way out beyond the stars
To kill us while we stand here
It will store our brains in Mason jars
And then the girl behind the counter asks
“How do you feel today?”
And I say “I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn.”

This turns out to be an excellent metaphor for the mindset of a paranoid schizophrenic on one side, and for Lovecraft on the other, although I suppose in his case it becomes somewhat more literal. A part of Lovecraft’s legacy—and it is an immense, sprawling legacy—are charges of racism, of which he is absolutely guilty. Worse than simply being a personal failing, one that in any case would not have been especially uncommon in the era in which he worked (the 1920s and ’30s), he put it in his stories, the ones about giant beasts who created the Earth and created mankind, either as a kind of prank, or a mistake. So there’s no possibility of separating the art from the artist, if that’s your thing (it’s not mine, either the art is the work of this specific individual artist, or a machine made it, and a machine never makes it; I just don’t think the art should be banned or removed from canons or considered bad or useless).

In his notorious story “The Horror at Red Hook,” authored during his time living in Brooklyn, Lovecraft writes:

The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma: Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill.

If Lovecraft is an important writer for you, and you’re, for example, Syrian, what are you supposed to do with this?

And Lovecraft is an important writer to many. Though I doubt he could be described as a household name, I would say more people have heard of him than have read him. For those who have, Lovecraft has had an influence on the (often insular) horror genre and community that is almost impossibly large. It seems as though just about every writer who has worked long in the genre has nodded towards Lovecraft at one time or another, either thematically or by straight-up putting Cthulhu in there; or by inserting a reference to Miskatonic University, from which many an occult researcher has made their professional life before setting out for their doom; or by merely mentioning Providence, R.I., that being the city of his birth. (He once wrote “I am Providence” in a letter, and the phrase is now the title of more than one biography of the writer, and is also on his gravestone.)

There are a handful of stories that are mostly responsible for this legacy, though of course he wrote dozens more. I’m thinking of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Colour Out of Space,” At the Mountains of Madness, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and a couple others. For my money, of these long stories, “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror” are the best. Lovecraft himself is at his best when quoting from that ancient evil text the Necronomicon, written, and compiled, by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. This is fictional creation so expertly and economically used by Lovecraft that some still wonder if the man, and the book, were real. From “The Dunwich Horror,” Alhazred describes the Old Ones, who will come back to the planet they created to destroy us all:

Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. … As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where they ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.

Apart from the curious quaintness that comes with thinking of Cthulhu as somebody’s cousin, I love this kind of thing, and Lovecraft was an expert at it. He was not an expert when it came to other kinds of writing, however. He couldn’t write dialogue, and he used certain words—words like “eldritch” and “gibbous,” “squamous” and “Stygian”—with alarming frequency. There are writers who would, just before writing down “squamous,” think, “This is your one chance to get ‘squamous’ right,” but Lovecraft used it like a thoughtless film critic pulling “eye-popping action” from his back pocket. And some degree of this is fine, even good; reading At the Mountains of Madness recently, I encountered the word “nefandous.” I looked it up and it means “bad.”

Speaking of At the Mountains of Madness, I finally got around to reading it for this piece. One of Lovecraft’s longest works, it’s truly beloved among fans—filmmaker Guillermo del Toro regards it as his dream project, and has been trying to get it made for decades now. I however believe it is a crushing example of Lovecraft at this worst, a novella that displays his greatest weakness (other than the racism), which is that he is often terribly boring. There are no characters in At the Mountain of Madness—there are people, primarily the unnamed narrator and fellow explorer Danforth, both having come from Miskatonic U—but there’s nobody with a personality or emotion, other than fear. Pretty much the whole novella is spent watching these two walking through, and into, an ancient Antarctic city, where they deduce quite a lot about the history of the Old Ones. They do this primarily through their study of ancient art. I’ll admit the notion that the Old Ones had a powerful sense of aesthetics and took art seriously is a very intriguing one, but Lovecraft seems to use this idea simple as a means or explanation for how the two researchers were able to figure out so much, and in so much detail. There’s not much going on by the end of the story either, other than the be-tentacled penguins, a phrase I realize won’t exactly dissuade anyone from reading At the Mountains of Madness. Anyway, I suppose the penguins are the readers’ reward for all those degrees of longitude and latitude your eyes have to skip past.

As far as I’m concerned, Lovecraft’s best stories are his much shorter ones, which is most of them, so that’s a pretty good average. An early story, “The Outsider,” is tremendously effective, even now, despite the fact that it’s been ripped off countless times since its publication. Another, “Pickman’s Model,” is ingenious in its very concept: The unnamed narrator (a common trope with Lovecraft) meets a painter named Pickman, who is working on a new portrait, one of some grotesque figure. It is initially assumed by the narrator that this painting is simply the product of Pickman’s imagination. And yet …

But my favorite Lovecraft story is “The Music of Erich Zann.” I love the idea of haunted or evil texts, or art, as a horror concept—hence, I guess, why I love the quoted passages from the Necronomicon so much—and “The Music of Erich Zann” is one of the most striking I’ve read. There is no explanation for the mysterious, sinister music of the title composer, and thank God for that. Zann’s music acts as a physical force, blowing out candles, rushing through rooms like a wind, and, naturally, fascinating the student narrator who lives in the same building as Zann. It’s a story that fully succeeds in Lovecraft’s quest to depict the weird and mysteriously evil.

The great horror writer Thomas Ligotti has talked at length about the influence Lovecraft has had on his life and work. In this interview for The Teeming Brain he said:

The work of writers such as Malamud, William Styron, Saul Bellow, et al. not only says nothing to me about my life, but it says nothing to me about what I’ve experienced or thought of life broadly speaking. By contrast, writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, H. P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Bernhard say plenty of things about both my life in particular and life in general as I have experienced and thought of it. I can take an interest in the writing of these authors because they seem to have felt and thought as I have. William Burroughs once said that the job of the writer is to reveal to readers what they know but don’t know that they know. But you have to be pretty close to knowing it or you won’t know it when you see it.

This is a terribly depressing thing to consider, or to experience in one’s own life. Great writer though he was, I’d hate to think, “I’m just like Thomas Bernhard.” But elsewhere in the interview, Ligotti says:

I read Poe and Lovecraft for the first time and found what I didn’t know I was looking for: writers who put themselves on every page of their work, who wrote like personal essayists and lyric poets. Every fiction writer I’ve ever admired wrote in this manner. I say “wrote,” in the past tense, because they’re all dead now. Any other type of fiction writer doesn’t exist for me.

I can say what I want about the quality of Lovecraft’s writing, but that is the way he wrote. And when I pick up a book, that’s what I, too, want to find.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.