Why Do We Love HP Lovecraft?

Cthulhu Mythos

Some have described HP Lovecraft as the most significant US writer of horror fiction between Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King. His ideas have featured in at least several recent TV series (True Detective Series 1 and Lovecraft Country,) and more films (Reanimator, In the Mouth of Madness, Annihilation, Color Out of Space, Underwater). And this is even though his stories are notoriously difficult to capture visually. 

So, why do HP Lovecraft’s stories work? They really shouldn’t. There is no single novel or trilogy that acts as a central text, drawing everything together. The language is weird, dated, and esoteric. And let’s not even start on the lack of political correctness! 

I’m not an HP Lovecraft specialist or a scholar of American literature. I’m just a humble reader and someone who appreciates Lovecraft’s tales. What I write here is just my own opinion. Here are my personal top six reasons why HP Lovecraft works so well for me. 

  1. His stories differ in size and nature from each other. Some are short stories. Others are novellas. There are even a few poems thrown into the mix. Some are gothic, while others have more of a sci-fi, mystery or adventure feel about them. In fact, much to my own amazement, I’ve started to see some of the key texts as detective stories. This is why True Detective works so well as a conveyer of the Lovecraftian mood. There are science/supernatural and this world/otherworld shifts between his stories too. As you read though Lovecraft’s stories, in terms of context and setting, despite the stereotypes and similar language, there is little sense that you’re reading the same old, same old.  
  1. His stories share a single underlying grand theme or metaplot, despite their seemingly scattered character. They are part of one mythos, a single world in which they all cohere together. Some are central to that mythos and add to it greatly, while some are peripheral to it and add little beyond a good yarn. For example, one of my favourite short stories is The Terrible Old Man, which works well on its own, but gains another level of terror within the mythos. Yet, somehow, all these stories fit together. Part of the fun when reading them is figuring this puzzle out by relating each story to the others, and the parts to the whole. This is how you as a reader are drawn in not merely to observe but to participate. 
  1. And, speaking of puzzles, Lovecraft’s mythos is mysterious and open-ended. Most events are neither explained nor even explicable. In fact, they are deliberately left unknowable – that’s the point! In this, he differs from Tolkien, whose own myths place a high value on coherence and classification, origins and order. Sometimes, at a structural level, it feels like Tolkien plans in schematic diagrams, whereas Lovecraft employs ancient, half-ruined mosaics, more in keeping with his subject matter. Tolkien’s is an order of scheme, whereas Lovecraft’s is an order of theme.
  1. I’ve already mentioned Lovecraft’s flexibility in terms of genre, but I need to say more. One of the most delightful reading experiences I’ve ever had was that moment I realised Lovecraft’s mythos was a form of sci-fi rather than supernatural horror. Technically, it’s an amalgam of the two genres called ‘cosmic horror’. But it made me look at everything before and after differently. It’s more than genre switching within a work, since the switch isn’t with Lovecraft, it’s with you. It’s genre-switching within the mythos itself! (Perhaps there’s a technical name for this but if there is I can’t find it.) 
  1. And I’ve already mentioned that Lovecraft’s stories all take place in one world, cohering as one mythos. To take it further, the Lovecraftian mythos forms one worldview, which you experience for a moment as you read his stories. Lovecraft was a materialist and an atheist, certainly a pessimist, and some sort of racist. You may share none of these values with him – I don’t – but there is a strange delight in looking out on the world through his uncanny eyes. He made it clear in his correspondence and other writings that his personal beliefs on many issues from science to society were expressed in his stories. He even outlined a literary philosophy called Cosmicism to encapsulate the views expressed in his stories. In my opinion, this is inevitable with any writer. As Nietzsche and Donald M Murray have pointed out, all writing is autobiographical. So, weird tales require weird tellers. And you don’t get weirder that Lovecraft!
  1. Interacting with Lovecraft’s stories is primarily a literary experience. The strange words he often employs – ‘abnormal’, ‘accursed’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘cyclopean’, ‘eldritch’, ‘nameless’ – have become almost synonymous with the entire mythos. There are also words that he used only a few times, but possess such a power that fans associate them strongly with Lovecraft – ‘gibbous’, ‘stygian’, ‘non-Euclidean’, ‘squamous’, ‘fungous’, and ‘nitrous’. No wonder directors have found it difficult to capture the linguistic feeling Lovecraft on film! They create a mood that is hard to express in visual form, and when attempted, most often results in the shattering and spoiling of that mood. Once the monster is revealed, the spell is broken. But when you read about his monsters in a story, it remains an unfinished work within your own head.

I’d love to know what you think of HP Lovecraft, his stories and his world. Did they grow on you or have you grown past them? I’d especially like to know if anyone else has experienced the same sensation of giddy genre switch that I did, that moment you realised it’s sci-fi rather than supernatural horror.

Photo by Robert Coelho on Unsplash

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