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The horror, science fiction, and fantasy writing of American author H. P. Lovecraft attracted little attention during his lifetime. Indeed, outside of a small circle of admirers and readers of the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1920s and 30s, few had ever heard of him. And yet today he is recognized as one of the most important horror authors of the twentieth century, with authors from Stephen King to Clive Barker to Neil Gaiman acknowledging his influence on them. Much of Lovecraft’s appeal to contemporary readers arguably derives from his pioneering of “cosmic horror,” a peculiarly modern philosophical belief system in which there is no controlling God or deity in charge of the universe, and human beings, regarded as especially insignificant in light of the vastness of time and space, are always just a hairbreadth away from being wiped out. The especially Lovecraftian twist on this apocalyptic premise is that it is not human arrogance or carelessness that is at fault; it is not atomic weapons or global warming that threatens human beings—we just aren’t that important. It is rather alien forces and powers at work in the universe, including Lovecraft’s “Elder Gods” and “Great Old Ones” (not actually gods but extraterrestrial monsters with powers far outstripping those of humanity), that possess the potential for the ultimate destruction of mankind. This volume collects together a sampling of Lovecraft’s earlier work, along with many selections from his “Cthulhu Mythos,” his stories that introduce his pantheon of alien “gods,” including his famous “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, a city that becomes the setting for several of this tales. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman for a silversmith company, 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 syphilis—it’s unclear if Lovecraft ever became aware of the actual nature of his father’s illness.
Lovecraft, a precocious but sickly child coddled by his overprotective mother, began composing poetry at age six and short horror tales and musings on science at age seven. Under the auspices of his maternal grandfather, the delightfully named Whipple Van Buren Phillips, Lovecraft was introduced to the classics (among them, children’s versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey), as well as to Gothic tales of his grandfather’s own invention. However, it was Lovecraft’s discovery at age eight of the work of Edgar Allan Poe that arguably marks his true entrance into the realm of tales of the uncanny. Later in his 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’s formal schooling was limited by ill health—to a large extent psychosomatic as he suffered his first “near-breakdown” in 1898 at age eight—but Lovecraft, who never finished high school, 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]
Lovecraft’s entrance into the world of publishing was facilitated by 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 his transition into professional fiction did not occur until 1922 (when he was thirty-one years old) with the publication of “Herbert West—Reanimator” 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 up an ever-expanding network of correspondents that led to his becoming one of the most prolific letter writers of the twentieth century—letters which Joshi speculates may one day be recognized as in fact his greatest achievement.[ii]
After a curious failed marriage to a Russian Jewish immigrant named Sonia H. Greene (given Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, his marriage to a Jewish woman is surprising) and 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 in 1926 to Providence, the place of his birth. His mother had died in 1921 as a result of complications from gallbladder surgery, so he moved in with his two maternal aunts. This transition touched off the most fertile period in Lovecraft’s creative life—in 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 Color Out of Space.”
Despite his best efforts, however, Lovecraft found it difficult to sell his increasingly lengthy and complicated later work and his revision efforts 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 then his Cthulhu Mythos (1925–1935). As preeminent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi has remarked, Lovecraft initially found in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe a model for both style and plot structure, and his early work, nearly devoid of dialogue, built around narration, and overloaded with adjectives, clearly reflects this influence.[iii] An example of one of Lovecraft’s Poe-inspired short horror stories included here is “The Terrible Old Man,” composed in 1920. In this brief tale, three thieves who intend to loot the home of a strange Old Man get their comeuppance through apparently supernatural means.
In 1919, Lovecraft discovered the work of Lord Dunsany, an Irish fantasy writer and dramatist, and for two years after, he did little but write Dunsany imitations. What Lovecraft found so captivating in Dansany’s fiction was the “remoteness” of his fantasylands—realms of pure fantasy without connection to the human world.[iv] 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 stories, including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926) and "The Silver Key" (1929), set in the Dreamlands, an alternate dimension that can be entered through dreams, as well as in stories set in other worlds such as “The Cats of Ulthar” (1920), “Celephaïs” (1920), and “The Other Gods” (1921).
Although Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories include some of his best writing, what he is most well known for are his Cthulhu Mythos, stories set in the contemporary world of twentieth-century America (often in New England), into which Lovecraft introduces monstrous extraterrestrial forces. Most familiar here is this collection’s title story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” Written in the summer of 1926, it was first published in Weird Tales in 1928 and is the only story written by Lovecraft in which the extraterrestrial entity Cthulhu himself appears. The story actually consists of three separate stories linked together by the narrator who discovers the notes of his deceased relative, and 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.
Collected in this volume are stories that tend to fall into the first and third categories of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. Observant readers will notice, however, that even in tales written as early as “Dagon” (1919) and “Nyarlathotep” (1920), Lovecraft is already beginning to introduce ideas and entities that will inform and populate his later Cthulhu Mythos tales, so these categories should not be considered as discrete or non-overlapping. Reprinted here are many of Lovecraft’s most famous works, including “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), “The Dunwich Horror” (1929), and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), as well as a handful of lesser-known gems, including “The Picture in the House” and “The Whisperer in the Darkness.” These stories will introduce readers to Lovecraft’s pantheon of “gods,” his characteristic themes, his fictitious New England geography and, of course, to the Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s famous invented book of occult secrets.
Despite the absence of any real critical acclaim during his lifetime, H. P. Lovecraft has come to be recognized as, in Stephen King’s estimation, “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale,” and the establishment of Lovecraft’s literary reputation counts among the most remarkable literary tales of the twentieth century—odder perhaps even than Lovecraft’s characteristic tales of evolutionary degeneration, grotesque alien entities, and forbidden knowledge. Indeed, if one takes his admirers at their word, Lovecraft, a man whose literary output consisted of less than seventy tales and who never saw a book of his stories published in his lifetime, is Shakespeare and Elvis rolled into one! Horror writer Robert Bloch, author of Psycho and a member of the “Lovecraft Circle” of authors encouraged and influenced by Lovecraft, argues not only that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos surpass in breadth and scope the worlds of both C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series and J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth series, but that Lovecraft may have had more influence on contemporary authors than anyone except Hemingway.[v] This is a remarkable claim about the work of a man who attracted little attention during his lifetime, whose ideas concerning race are hard to stomach today, and whose style has been described by those who are charitable as baroque and mocked by those who are not as florid and turgid. So what then is it about Lovecraft’s work that has led these authors—and other writers such as Clive Barker as well as film directors John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro and the artist H. R. Giger—to acknowledge and celebrate its influence?
The answer has to do with Lovecraft’s uneasy relationship with time. He was a man who simultaneously felt that he belonged to an earlier era, whose views (for better and worse) reflected those of his own time, and whose literary themes were ahead of their time in their anticipation of existentialism and post-modernism. Lovecraft as a product of the early twentieth century is most evident in his oft-remarked and notorious racism. He shared the commonly held view of the period that Anglo-Saxons occupied the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder and non-Anglos were simply biologically and culturally inferior. Despite marrying a Jew, Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism was frequently expressed in his correspondence, notably with Robert E. Howard, and Lovecraft’s suspicions about “foreigners” and extreme aversion to the idea of miscegenation is everywhere evident in his literature—from “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), which Joshi characterizes as a “a shriek of rage and loathing at ‘foreigners’ who have taken New York away from the white people to whom it presumably belongs,”[vi] to the mixed-race worshippers of Cthulhu, to the inbred fishmen of Innsmouth. Lovecraft everywhere associates non-European and mixed ethnicity with intellectual inferiority, physical deformity, and vice. Indeed, the French critic Michel Houellebecq makes the case that bigotry provides the motor force behind much of Lovecraft’s greatest work.
And yet, unpalatable as Lovecraft’s racial views are to most contemporary readers, what saves Lovecraft from simply parroting the myopic views of his times and attracts the modern gaze is that his racism is undercut—at least in his fiction—by his cosmicism, his philosophical position that, given the vastness of space and time, human civilization is wholly insignificant. Informing this cosmic view is Lovecraft’s mechanical materialism, his belief that the universe operates according to fixed laws and that immaterial essences such as soul or spirit do not exist. This belief feeds readily into atheism, a topic on which Lovecraft made his views explicit:
All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of rational evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.[vii]
Lovecraft was ultimately a scientific rationalist—a man who placed his faith in reason and science and who had little patience for religious dogma, superstition, and occultism.
What emerges from Lovecraft’s cosmicism, and what is arguably his true achievement and the reason for his popularity today, is a body of literature that, as opposed to the Western humanistic tendency to stress the centrality of human beings to the cosmos, instead emphasizes the insignificance of human beings in a godless universe. In the estimation of David E. Schultz, Lovecraft creates in his Cthulhu Mythos (a label, one should note, never used by Lovecraft himself) an “anti-mythology,” a “pseudomythology 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.”[viii] In Lovecraft’s fiction, the discovery of evidence of civilizations existing long before our own, glimpses of apocalyptic futures in which humanity as we know it no longer exists, and the presence of monstrous extraterrestrial races with powers that far outstrip those of humanity and that simply don’t care about us one way or another result in marginalization of human beings. Despite all pretensions to grandeur, we are simply the playthings of the Elder Gods who were here before us and who will outlast us.
Beyond simply his discomfort with his own moment, his sense that he truly belonged to a romanticized version of the eighteenth century evidenced by his Anglophilia and conscious antiquarianism, what Lovecraft’s stories replay repeatedly is thus the human confrontation with an expanded conception of time and the universe that reveals the limitations of the human race and invariably leads to madness. This motif is already evident in Lovecraft’s early tale, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921), which opens with the proclamation that “Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” It however receives its fullest expression in the famous opening to “The Call of Cthulhu” which contends that
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go made from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Forbidden knowledge in Lovecraft’s tales (often accessed through his invented book of occult lore, the Necronomicon) always concerns man’s own inconsequentiality, and the recognition of this fact invariably leads to insanity. Lovecraft’s cosmic leanings thus introduces a strange tension when considering his racist views because in his fiction human beings of all colors are shown to be ignorant of and impotent against the greater forces at work in the universe, and the much-vaunted achievements of Western civilization pale in comparison to the accomplishments of other, extraterrestrial civilizations. Or, to put it another way, the belief that Anglo-Saxons occupy the top of the evolutionary totem pole means very little when they can be squashed out of existence with very little effort on the part Cthulhu and his kin!
Connected to Lovecraft’s portrayal of the cosmic world in his fiction is also another characteristically Lovecraftian motif: evolutionary degeneration. As has been suggested in this introduction, much of Lovecraft’s fiction can be considered as thinly veiled screeds against miscegenation. In stories such as “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920), “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), and “The Dunwich Horror” (1929), human interbreeding with non-humans is figured as debilitating and monstrous. However, what qualifies this obvious racism is the fact that within Lovecraft’s fiction, barbarity always lurks just beneath the surface and is the eventual fate of even the “purest” and most refined characters and races. This evolutionary degeneration is most spectacularly demonstrated in the ending to “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), in which the protagonist Walter Delapore—a Virginian of British ancestry—is shown to possess a sort of linguistic race memory. Confronted with the horrific revelation of his ancestors’ cannibalistic atrocities, his language moves back in time ending with inarticulate noises as his behavior similarly regresses and he is discovered snacking on his friend Capt. Norrys. And the influence on Lovecraft of Oswald Spengler’s pessimistic thesis in The Decline of the West (1918) that Western culture is fading into the twilight is readily apparent in stories including At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and “The Mound” (1940) in which advanced civilizations become decadent and fall into decay.
As Joshi points out, Lovecraft—the scientific materialist—deserves castigation for his persistence in believing disproven theories concerning the biological inferiority and cultural incoherence of non-Anglo ethnic groups.[ix] However, while Lovecraft was a product of his historical moment and clearly reflects the racist views of his times, his racism—at least in his fiction—is undercut in a very interesting way by his treatment of the cosmos. And in an odd way, through his cosmic tales, Lovecraft—the man who wished to go back in time—was ultimately ahead of his time through his anticipation of the philosophical speculations of the existentialists who ponder the meaning of existence in a godless universe, and the playful meditations of the post-modernists who raise questions about ontology—about what the world is, if there are others, and what man’s place in the universe is in the absence of God.
Before turning to the stories, one word of warning: Readers coming to this volume of Lovecraft’s work having first encountered Lovecraft through his manifestations in contemporary popular culture, including video and roll-playing games and the work of his admirers such as August Derleth, who appropriated and elaborated upon Lovecraft’s fictional creations, will not find the sort of simplistic “good versus evil” opposition popularized in these works. As Joshi points out, there is no cosmic struggle in Lovecraft’s tales between protective Elder Gods and evil Old Ones.[x] Lovecraft’s vision is far more sophisticated and darker than this. His pseudomythology subverts the human tendency to consider ourselves as the center of the universe. And this, more than anything, explains the appeal of his fiction to minds possessing the necessary sensitivity, as Lovecraft puts it in his famous treatise on supernatural fiction, to “tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars.”[xi] Lovecraft’s fiction reveals a universe that is vaster, darker, and stranger than anything previously imagined.
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] See Joshi, A Life, 152–53.
[iv] Joshi, A Life, 215.
[v] Carter’s comments are found in the introduction to his edited collection of Lovecraft’s stories, The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories (New York: Del Rey, 1971) on page xii. Bloch’s are found at the start of The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (New York: Del Rey, 1963) on pages 7–8. Gaiman, who also characterizes Lovecraft as a “resonating wave,” is the author of the introduction to The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (New York: Del Rey, 1995), x.
[vi] Joshi, A Life, 366.
[vii] H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, v. IV (Eds. August Derleth and James Turner. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1971), 57. Also quoted in H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (Ed. S. T. Joshi. New York: Penguin Books, 1999), xiv.
[viii] 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 Tales, xvii.
[ix] See Joshi’s A Life, 370 and passim.
[x] Joshi, A Life, 404.
[xi] H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973), 14.