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Multi-eyed protoplasmic entities, flesh-eating ghouls, animate corpses, time-traveling body snatchers, and, yes, huge albino penguins. These are but some of the bizarre creatures that populate the universe created by early twentieth-century American horror author H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s strange worlds have enthralled countless readers around the globe and influenced many of today’s most famous writers and artists, including master of contemporary horror fiction Stephen King, Academy Award-nominated director Guillermo Del Toro, and artist and Alien set-designer H. R. Giger. While Lovecraft is undoubtedly best known for his Cthulhu Mythos, his cycle of stories involving a pantheon of powerful extraterrestrial monsters referred to as “gods,” his horrific vision is both more expansive and at times more whimsical. This collection, while including all the chilling “cyclopean vistas,” monstrous abominations and appalling transformations that readers have come to expect from Lovecraft, also showcases his fantasy writing in stories such as “The Cats of Ulthar,” “The Silver Key,” and notably The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. These and the rest of his under-appreciated Dream Cycle stories, which are set in an imagined world of lost cities and fantastic creatures that we can visit only in our dreams, form the heart of this volume and allow for a fuller and more nuanced impression of Lovecraft’s peculiar genius.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, a city that would become the setting for several of this tales. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, who could trace her ancestry back to colonial New England. In 1893, when Lovecraft was three, his father suffered a psychological breakdown and became delusional while on the road in Chicago and was admitted to Butler Hospital (an insane asylum) in Providence where he died five years later of what was most likely tertiary syphilisit is unclear if Lovecraft ever became aware of the actual nature of his father’s illness.
The void in Lovecraft’s life left by his late father was ably filled by his maternal grandfather, the delightfully named Whipple Van Buren Phillips, who introduced Lovecraft to the classics (among them, children’s versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey), as well as to Gothic tales of his own invention. A precocious, sickly child coddled by his overprotective mother, Lovecraft began composing poetry at age six and short horror tales and musings on science at age seven. However, it was his discovery of the work of Edgar Allan Poe at age eight that truly initiated him into the realm of tales of the uncanny. Later in life, the works of the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany and Welsh fantasy writer Arthur Machen would also exercise considerable influence on his artistic development. Lovecraft suffered his first “near-breakdown” in 1898 at the age of eight, and poor health (largely psychosomatic) limited his official schooling. However, he compensated for his lack of formal education by his voracious reading and, in the assessment of preeminent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, became “one of the most prodigious autodidacts in modern history.”[i]
What brought Lovecraft out of his shell and introduced him to the world of publishing was his association with the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), a relatively small group of amateur journalists who published journals and circulated them among themselves in the 1910s and 1920s. Lovecraft contributed poetry and essays to UAPA journals and published thirteen issues of his own journal, the Conservative, a periodical that reflected his own conservative cultural views. His first published story, “The Alchemist,” appeared in the United Amateur in 1916, but it wasn’t until six years later (at the age of thirty-one) that he broke into professional fiction with the publication of “Herbert WestReanimator” in a crude professional publication called Home Brew. Then, at the urging of colleagues, Lovecraft began to submit his tales to the celebrated pulp magazine Weird Tales which was founded in 1923 and which included the early work of notable authors such as Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, and Theodore Sturgeon. Weird Tales became the principle publication venue for Lovecraft. In the early 1920s, Lovecraft also began to build an ever-expanding network of correspondents that led to his becoming one of the most prolific letter writers of the twentieth centuryletters which Joshi speculates may one day be recognized as in fact his greatest achievement.[ii]
Given Lovecraft’s notorious anti-Semitism, his romance and then failed marriage with a Russian Jewish immigrant named Sonia H. Greene is surprisingthe only explanation critics have been able to suggest is that Sonia was secular and acculturated enough to allow Lovecraft to overlook her religious background. She also seems to have done the pursuing. In any case, the marriage did not last. After several years of attempting to subsist in New York through a combination of writing, ghostwriting, and editing the work of others, and unsuccessful stints working for firms including a collection agency and a lamp-testing company, Lovecraft returned to Providence in 1926. His mother had died in 1921 as a result of complications from gallbladder surgery, so Lovecraft moved in with his two maternal aunts. This transition touched off the most fertile period in Lovecraft’s creative lifein a nine-month period between 1926 and 1927 Lovecraft produced several of his best-known and most-celebrated works: “The Call of Cthulhu,” The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and “The Colour Out of Space.”
Despite his best efforts, however, Lovecraft found it difficult to sell his increasingly lengthy and complicated later work, and his editorial work for others brought in diminishing returns. His last years were lamentably plagued by poverty and hardship. In 1936, he was saddened by the suicide of his correspondent Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan the Barbarian stories, and Lovecraft himself succumbed to cancer of the intestine on March 10, 1937, at the age of forty-seven, having never seen a true book publication of his work.
Lovecraft’s body of fiction is often divided up into three roughly chronological categories: his early Poe-inspired horror stories (roughly 1905–1920), his Lord Dunsany-inspired “Dream Cycle” stories (1920–1927), and his Cthulhu Mythos (1925–1935). Central to this collection are Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle fantasy tales. In 1919, Lovecraft discovered the work of Lord Dunsany, an Irish fantasy writer and dramatist, and for two years after, Lovecraft did little but write Dunsany imitations. What Lovecraft found so captivating in Dunsany’s fiction was the “remoteness” of his imaginary landsrealms of pure fantasy without connection to the human world.[iii] The stories in Dunsany’s first two books, The Gods of Pegana (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906), and in part of his third book, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908), are set in his invented world of Pegana, complete with its own gods, geography, and history.
Dunsany’s influence is clearly evident in Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories, his sequence of interconnected tales that shift the reader out of the familiar world of day-to-day reality and into an alternative universe accessible through dreams. The delightfully macabre “The Cats of Ulthar” (1920) not only makes it clear that Lovecraft was a cat fancier, but also why to kill a cat in mythical Ulthar is forbidden. “The Quest of Iranon,” written in 1921, expands the geography of this alternative universe as the title character quests for the lost city of his youth, Aira, and remains eternally young as long as the dream to find Aira remains in his heart. One of Lovecraft’s most wonderful stories, “The Silver Key” (1926) introduces readers to two of Lovecraft’s characteristic themes, the importance of dreams and the quest to get outside time, as well as to his recurring character Randolph Carter. Carter at age thirty discovers that he has “lost the key to the gate of dreams.” Disenchanted with the insipidness of daily life, Carter is, in a dream, directed by his grandfather to a silver key that allows him to travel back in time to when he was ten.
Carter is an especially interesting character who is arguably a thinly disguised alter ego for Lovecraft himself and appears in several of Lovecraft’s stories. He first appears in “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), one of Lovecraft’s Poe-inspired stories, in which Carter and his friend Harley Warren investigate an apparently abandoned crypt. It may or may not be the same Carter who appears in “The Unnamable” (1923) (the first name of the Carter in this story is never provided), a similarly Poe-esque horror story in which Carter and another palagain in a cemeteryencounter some monstrous creature. Carter is at the center of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926–27) as he ventures through the Dreamlands, and it is an older Carter who is the protagonist of “The Silver Key,” having lost access to the Dreamlands. He then appears one last time in "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" (1933), written in collaboration with Lovecraft admirer E. Hoffman Price and generally regarded as an inferior tale, which details Carter's adventures in another dimension.
All of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories ultimately flow into and out of one of his true masterpieces, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. This 43,000-word novella, unpublished in Lovecraft’s lifetime, chronicles the epic journey of Randolph Carter through the Dreamlands, and in the process, illustrates the breadth and originality of Lovecraft’s literary vision. Carter, in this Dunsany-inspired story, resolves to quest in his dreams for Kadath, the city where the gods live, to question them concerning the location of another, majestic city he has dreamed of three times. His dream-quest takes him from the Enchanted Woods populated by sentient rodents to the town of Ulthar, where he speaks with Atal, a character featured in Lovecraft’s story “The Other Gods.” Carter is captured by turbaned men and flown to the moon, but the cats of Ulthar rescue him and return him to Earth. While climbing the treacherous peaks of Ngranek, he is carried off by winged humanoid monsters called night-gaunts to the underworld, where ghouls, including the transformed Pickman from the story “Pickman’s Model,” Rescue him. In the city of Celephaïs, Carter meets his old friend Kuranes, the king of the cityand a character featured in Lovecraft’s story “Celephaïs”who tries to deter Carter from his dangerous quest. Undaunted, Carter forges on, and after a series of other adventures, finally arrives at Kadath, where he is confronted by none other than Lovecraft’s emissary of the gods, Nyarlathotep himself.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath combines fantasy and horror with a delicious touch of whimsy that is lacking in much of Lovecraft’s better-known fiction. More important though, it acts as a sort of central node for much of Lovecraft’s writing, connecting one story with another and building out of these connections a complete world. Indeed, by bringing together characters including Randolph Carter, Atal, Pickman, and Kuranes; locations such as Ultar, Celephaïs, Ngranek, and the Plateau of Leng; and the “gods” Nyarlathotep and Azathoth (the former the mouthpiece of the gods, the latter an entity of chaos), Dream-Quest arguably is the central text of Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre, linking his early Poe-inspired stories with his Cthulhu Mythos in the land of dreams.
Although Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories include some of his best writing, what he is most well-known for are the Cthulhu Mythos, his stories set in the contemporary world of twentieth-century America (often in New England) that introduce monstrous extraterrestrial forces into that world. Most famous is his “The Call of Cthulhu,” which has spawned not only legions of devotees who have made their own contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, but also a popular role-playing game, a video game, and more than a few Lovecraft-themed rock songs, including “The Call of Ktulu” by Metallica. Written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in Weird Tales in 1928. “The Call of Cthulhu” actually consists of three separate stories linked together by the narrator, who discovers the notes of his deceased relative; it culminates with the characteristically Lovecraftian realization that human beings are not the center of the universe and it is only our ignorance of our true insignificance that keeps us from going mad.
This collection includes three selections from the Cthulhu Mythos: the novella At the Mountains of Madness, which is often considered Lovecraft’s masterpiece; “The Thing on the Doorstep”; and “The Shadow Out of Time.” In keeping with the theme of man’s insignificance in the universe emphasized in “The Call of Cthulhu,” all three of these stories showcase humanity’s relative powerlessness and inevitable decline. Both At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time” chronicle the rise and fall of alien races far more sophisticated than humanity, while “The Thing on the Doorstep” demonstrates the existence of powers at work in the universe that humankind does not comprehend. These stories thus participate in what critic David E. Schultz has referred to as Lovecraft’s “anti-mythology,” a “pseudo-mythology brutally show[ing] that man is not the center of the universe, that the ‘gods’ care nothing for him, and that the earth and all its inhabitants are but a momentary incident in the unending cyclical chaos of the universe.”[iv]
At the Mountains of Madness, written in early 1931, is in Joshi’s estimation Lovecraft’s “most ambitious attempt at ‘non-supernatural cosmic art’.”[v] In this 40,000-word novella, Lovecraft provides his richest and most sustained elaboration on his extraterrestrial pantheon, focusing on the lost alien race known as the “Old Ones.” As a team of Antarctic explorers survey an enormous deserted stone city, they learn that it was constructed by an alien race some fifty million years ago with the assistance of shoggothsamorphous masses of protoplasm held in check by mind control. The history of the Old Ones also details contests for control of territory between them and other extraterrestrial races, including a sentient fungoid race from the planet Yuggoth and the spawn of Cthulhu.
Of particular importance in this novella is the recognition by the narrator, William Dyer, of the bond that connects the Old Ones and human beings. Dyer realizes that the Old Ones were not simply good or evil. Rather, they “were the men of another age and another order of being.” Their decline signals the inevitable rise and fall of all civilizationsincluding humanity. Indeed, that a race so much more advanced than humanity should disappear bodes poorly for the future of humankind.
Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” written in 1933 but not published until 1937 in Weird Tales, is a very different sort of story from the atmospheric and slow-moving At the Mountains of Madness. Rather than an anthropologically oriented exposé of the Old Ones, this tale of mind control and identity switching fuses themes from a number of Lovecraft’s other works, including the possibility of post-mortem sentience in “Cool Air” and mental projection from Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Astute readers will observe frequent references to elements from other Lovecraft stories, including places such as Miskatonic University, Arkham, and Innsmouth; books including Lovecraft’s invented volume of occult lore, the Necronomicon; and entities including Lovecraft’s god of chaos, Azathoth, and shoggoths. Thus this story further develops the connections among Lovecraft’s tales and presages his return to the idea of mind transference in the much more accomplished “The Shadow Out of Time.”
Written between November 1934 and February 1935, “The Shadow Out of Time” combines the anthropological impulse of At the Mountains of Madness with the theme of mind transference introduced in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The story is told from the perspective of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, an American living in the early 1900s who trades bodies with a member of an extraterrestrial species known as Yithians who possess the ability to move through space and time. His consciousness transferred into the distant past, Peaslee discovers that the Yithians died out on Earth eons ago, their civilization destroyed by a rival, pre-human race. Peaslee’s hold on his sanity is shaken when he discovers proof that the remains of the Yithians’ past civilization still exist on Earth.
Although this collection obviously emphasizes Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle and Cthulhu Mythos stories with his two great novellas, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and At the Mountains of Madness, as focal points, it also includes a taste of Lovecraft’s Poe-inspired tales in the form of “The Outsider” (1921) and the brilliant “Cool Air” (1926). The former, which in setting recalls the deserted haunted dreamscapes of Poe works such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia” and involves a characteristically Poe-esque ironic reversal, compels a reconsideration of just what makes a monster, while the latter, which could almost be considered an homage to Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” sets up shop at the eerie crossroads between life and death. Straddling the line in this volume between stand-alone horror stories and Cthulhu Mythos contributions are “Pickman’s Model” (1926) and the celebrated “The Music of Erich Zann” (1921). In the former, the naïve narrator has his eyes opened to the horrors that actually inhabit our world, while in the latter the equally naïve narrator catches a glimpse of the chaotic madness at the heart of the universe itself. (The character Richard Upton Pickman from “Pickman’s Model,” it should be noted, returns in a transfigured state in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and assists that story’s protagonist, Randolph Carter, on his journey.)
Taken together, all these stories reflect the development and refinement of Lovecraft’s cosmicism, his philosophical position that, given the vastness of space and time, human civilization is wholly insignificant. And this indeed is Lovecraft’s unique achievementthe pioneering of what has come to be known as “cosmic horror.” In a famous passage from the introduction to his treatise on horror fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft asserts that “Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.”[vi] What presses hideously in At the Mountains of Madness, “The Shadow Out of Time,” and Lovecraft’s other Cthulhu Mythos is the realization of human inconsequentiality in the midst of a godless universe populated by irresistible alien forces. However, whether turning inward in dreams or outward toward the far reaches of time and space, all Lovecraft’s fiction inspires “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.”[vii] The fiction of H. P. Lovecraft testifies to the powers of the imagination to expand the boundaries of our known universe into uncharted regions.
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock is associate professor of American literature and culture at Central Michigan University and has written extensively on uncanny fiction, cult film, and popular culture.
[i] S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1996), 61.
[ii] Joshi, A Life, 654.
[iii] Joshi, A Life, 215.
[iv] On Schultz’s conception of an “anti-mythology” see “From Microcosm to Macrocosm: The Growth of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Vision” in S. T. Joshi’s An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H. P. Lovecraft (Rutherford [NJ] : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991). The quotation comes from Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, xvii.
[v] Joshi, A Life, 489.
[vi] H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973), 14.
[vii] Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror, 16.