Why HP Lovecraft Is More Popular Than Ever

Lovecraft1934A favorite of many a disinfonaut, cult author HP Lovecraft is profiled in the Guardian as being more popular than ever although “[he had] one of the bleakest worldviews ever committed to paper, was racist – and could be a terrible writer”:

Not only was the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft uniformly bleak, but what he did write was sometimes execrable. Take this random passage from a 1985 HP Lovecraft omnibus: “But oddly enough, the worthy gentleman owned himself most impalpably disquieted by a mere minor detail. On the huge mahogany table there lay face downward a badly worn copy of Borellus, bearing many cryptical marginalia and interlineations in Curwen’s hand.”

The American writer, who died in 1937, is also widely considered today to have had unacceptable racist views. And yet, despite his prejudices and stylistic shortcomings, his work remains insanely popular. AKickstarter appeal to fund a life-sized bust of the writer – for the Athanaeum Library, in his hometown of Providence in Rhode Island – roared past its target of $30,000 in a couple of days, closing at $55,000.

Meanwhile, the British graphic novel company Self Made Hero will this month publish the latest of many comic adaptations of Lovecraft’s novels and stories. Called The Shadow Out of Time, this 1936 story, one of Lovecraft’s last, tells of university professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, who collapses one day in 1908 and doesn’t come to his senses until 1913 – though in the intervening five years, his body has certainly been active, powered by agencies from beyond our world. “In 1909,” says the professor, “I spent a month in the Himalayas, and in 1911 roused much attention through a camel trip into the unknown deserts of Arabia. What happened on those journeys I have never been able to learn.”

Ian Culbard, who also adapted At the Mountains of Madness (which won him a 2011 British Fantasy award), ably transforms Lovecraft’s somewhat lumpen and info-dumpy prose into a taut, chilling read, well-paced and illustrated with a suitably muted palette. It’s a prime example of how Lovecraft’s original ideas and concepts are all the more fascinating when placed in the hands of storytellers with a more contemporary narrative approach.

But perhaps the strangest Lovecraftian legacy is the range of stuffed “Cthulhu” toys and children’s books based on his work…

[continues in the Guardian]

  • The Well Dressed Man

    Last scion of antiquated and curious colonial bloodline, Lovecraft cloistered his gaunt person beneath mouldering peaked gambrel roofs, eking out just enough salary penning weird fiction to purchase postage and stationary called for by his habit of voluminous and frequent correspondance. His depiction of the yawning, cyclopean chasms of terror rent by the seeds of rapid globalization already evident in that Edwardian time speak to the uncertainty underpinning our own era.

    • http://just-john.com just john

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s early works.

  • Pete Chapman

    His writings are in the public domain and even when he was alive he encouraged other writers to use elements of his “mythos”. In a sense, he was, despite his antiquated mind-set, very “open source”. That pretty much explains his continuing popularity.

  • http://just-john.com just john

    Don’t forget Charles Stross’ Laundry series, in which he follows the exploits of a British secret agent / civil servant in a Lovecraftian universe.

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    It’s not encouraging to see his wordsmithing referred to as sometimes execrable…in an era that looks on such literary tragedies as 50 Shades Of Grey and calls them literature. Apparently Lovecraft’s great crime was a working fluency in English and a vocabulary that wasn’t thoroughly ruined by twitterspeak and misspelled hashtags.

    • chinagreenelvis

      Stupid people often look down on those who are demonstrably smarter than they.

      • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

        It was Lovecraft that broadened my vocabulary more than any other single writer. For all that I may disagree with some of his antiquated views, I’ve never had the nerve to knock his prose skills. I suppose some people get angry or frustrated, because it’s way over their level and they need a thesaurus to keep up…but shit…so did I at first…and that didn’t upset me…it fascinated me. Where the hell else are you going to see the word squamous used in ideal context? Still, it’s a Guardian article, so a little snark and meaningless wind is kind of par for the course.

        • Hadrian999

          if you never read over your level, your level never rises

        • InfvoCuernos

          or antediluvian. It isn’t a Lovecraft story till you see that, gibbous, or squamous.

          • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

            See…that’s what I’m talking about, Antediluvian…it just rolls across the tongue and into the ear. It’s almost a one word poem.

          • Adam’s Shadow

            Let’s not forget eldritch and cyclopean.

        • Donald Bradley

          The criticism of his writing has nothing to do with the fact that he uses big words, it’s because he uses them as crutches to hide a lack of descriptive inventiveness. Anyone could write with the same language if they turned to a thesaurus at random intervals and found a more obscure adjective to replace the word that they were going to use, but that doesn’t make them a wordsmith of any sort. I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and I think in terms of ideas he was brilliant. But you shouldn’t get caught up in particular words because the word-set chosen doesn’t determine the skill of an author any more than the tools used determine the worth of a builder.

    • http://just-john.com just john

      So you’d put him above Ambrose Bierce or even Henry James?

      • Adam’s Shadow

        I know I was not privy to this conversation (“I’m not asking you…”), but I personally would put him above Henry James, as I find James boring and tedious, and I’ve been a Lovecraft fanatic since I first read “The Dunwich Horror” at twelve. I’ve never been one for the “novel of manners”; I had to write a senior thesis on “Daisy Miller,” and I started out trying to turn her into some kind of proto-feminist, but I… I just couldn’t do it. I spent the rest of paper arguing that even though Henry James was a technically outstanding writer, his subject matter and themes were inane bullshit. To each his or her own, of course.

      • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

        Not entirely above, but certainly among them as a peer in skill…the article doesn’t do him justice.

        • $24170503

          One who is carrying the torch in my opinion is a gent named China Mieville.

    • Guest

      So you put him above Ambrose Bierce or even Henry James?

      • http://just-john.com just john

        (This was a double post because it seemed Disqus wasn’t posting the first one. Dunno why it turned it into “Guest” when I tried to delete it.)

        • echar

          That’s how disqus does it. Perhaps a feature to make sock puppetry more difficult?

    • Haystack

      I’d hold him as an example of how original ideas and great storytelling trump clever prose.

  • Michael Rudas

    I have always felt that Lovecraft’s racism was due to simple ignorance. Many white people of his time were racist, and I doubt that HPL came in contact with many people of color. I’m not trying to justify it, merely pointing out that it was common then.

    Remember, too, that HPL was paid by the word by publications that paid relatively small sums for each of those words—it was to his economic advantage to pad his stories. I’m sure he had no idea he was writing for the ages; he was just trying to eke out a living.

    On a related note, I hope that “Pacific Rim” is enough of a success that del Toro can make the “At The Mountains Of Madness” movie he’s wanted for years.

    • The Well Dressed Man

      As a fan, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt on this as well. These attitudes were fairly common at the time. However, I feel it’s more likely that HPL’s racism was deeper than mere ignorance. He was very isolated, reclusive, and much at odds with modernism. I suspect the literary themes of decay and mental illness reflect his personal life as well. Apparently his time in Red Hook, Brooklyn was especially difficult as he was exposed to a great deal of ethnic diversity. For many of us, sudden contact with the “other” can be very stressful if we’re not accustomed. I think HPL was hypersensitive to the point that he simply couldn’t get past that primitive emotion.

  • Haystack

    Lovecraft’s work has become so synonymous with “cosmic horror” that he has come to define it. If you write a story that involves an awesome, malefic entity, incomprehensible to mere humans, then you’re described as “Lovecraftian;” which is to say, derivative. When an author owns an idea like that, their name will never die (and with strange aeons…).

    Cosmic horror also makes Lovecraft’s work (or, at least, his better stuff) categorically different from the mainstream of science fiction and horror, which always lets you down at the end. The strange phenomenon that draws you in at the beginning of the book eventually turns out to be a ghost or an alien or something, and, by virtue of being solved, no longer inspires wonder. Lovecraft’s stories always hint at even greater mysteries, so they don’t “wear off” like conventional genre fiction.

    Personally, though, I have to argue for Arthur Machen over Lovecraft. Machen’s “holy terror” was the major inspiration for Lovecraft’s cosmic horror (as he repeatedly acknowledges in his stories), and strikes at the more deeply ingrained, religious fears that were inculcated into a lot of us as children. Lovecraft sometimes let his monsters become too prominent in the story, to the extent that they come off as cheesy comic book aliens (e.g., the Dunwich Horror), whereas Machen was better at keeping his monsters at the periphery of the narrative.

    • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

      Interesting…i’ll try to track down some Machen. As for old HPL, yeah, he truly did bring to life a genre that is now firmly marked by his work…all who come after are weighed and measured by the standard he set. That alone is a form of well deserved immortality.

  • Branden William

    I saw this article somewhere else… and again I’ll say that the author is obviously not familiar with Lovecraft’s works, by any means. This is written like a book report for sixth-grade English class.

  • Aluenvey Weaver

    I’m not understand thje relevance of him being rascist. It has has nothing to do with how good his work with, even if it is unacceptable.

  • InfvoCuernos

    I like some of Mel Gibson’s movies, but he’s a total racist shit too. Sometimes bad people are capable of works of Art. Its unfortunately part of the human experience that we haven’t learned to escape yet.