What discussion of horror can be complete without going into the works of HP Lovecraft? Second only to Edgar Allan Poe in helping create the cornerstones of modern horror (Poe will be getting his own post later this week), HP Lovecraft’s stories have been the basis of countless horror and science-fiction movies, books and video games. Even if you don’t know it, you have read, watched or listened to something that was inspired or based off of the works of HP Lovecraft. Did you enjoy watching The Thing featuring Kurt Russel? A movie about a strange alien of an unknown origin and unknowable motives suddenly appearing on Earth and killing humans? Yeah, that has HP Lovecraft all over it. The Dead Space series of video games features strange alien forces and the insane humans who worship them, both primary themes in all of Lovecraft’s works. An even closer adaptation is the more recent Amnesia: Dark Descent, a game so god damn scary I didn’t even make it past the title screen.
So what makes Lovecraft stand out? What made his stories so different from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, HG Wells War of the Worlds or my forebear (okay not really, but shut up, I can dream if I want to!)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?
Where as so many horror movies focus on creatures or people actively hating and hunting the protagonist or humanity as a whole, HP Lovecraft’s monsters were often completely indifferent to human life. Don’t get me wrong, people die or lose their minds by the truckload in Lovecraft’s stories, but it was rarely ever driven by malevolence or cruelty. Take Cthulu for example, he (she? it?) would undoubtedly destroy the world if ever he were released from R’lyeh, but it’s not because Cthulu has a bone to pick with humanity, quite the opposite. Humanity is just so insignificant, so utterly unimportant in the cosmic scheme of things, that Cthulu wouldn’t even think twice about sweeping us away to make room for whatever plans he had. Do construction workers take any notice of the anthill they swept aside and buried under three feet of concrete? No they don’t. Do you take any time to consider how many millions of bacteria you heartlessly kill every day when you wash your hands, or bleach your dirty clothes? Of course not.
That’s what sets Lovecraft apart from the multitudes of horror writers, he was one of the first modern writers to tap into one of our darkest and most secret fear: the fear of being unimportant, of being insignificant. We all want to matter, it’s why we have friends and form relationships, and fall in love. It’s why people go into politics, and forge multibillion dollar companies. It’s also why some people go on a shooting spree or become serial killers. We want to be remembered, to be important, to know that our time here wasn’t just a huge cosmic joke. It’s a fear that is very rarely discussed, and that’s not a surprise. Our delusion of importance is really the only thing that keeps us sane, because if we were to acknowledge just how utterly insignificant we are in the grand scope of the universe, we’d all curl up in the fetal position and cry until we starved to death.
And you’ll notice that’s exactly what many of Lovecraft’s characters do, they simply lose their minds and die of shock. Whereas many horror stories rely on straight up murder and mayhem, Lovecraft took a much more subtle approach. Oh you occasionally get the gruesome, turned-inside-out bodies of unfortunate souls, but more often than not, the characters simply lose their minds and their will to live. In The Call of Cthulu many of the sailors that look on Cthulu immediately lose their minds and leap into the ocean or fall into a catatonic state. Cthulu doesn’t need to kill them, all he has to do is show his face and they do the job for him.
Of course Lovecraft’s work wasn’t without its faults. He often said he thought he should have been born in the 18th century, and was a huge fan of authors like Jonathan Swift and, obviously, Edgar Allan Poe. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, I love Mark Twain and Charles Dickens’s work myself, but unfortunately his admiration for Swift and Poe translated into using the same vocabulary and cadence as them in his writing. That’s part of what made his stories so good, his narrative voice is extremely unique and the often archaic terminology lends a great sense of “otherness” and oldness to the story. Unfortunately that doesn’t come across so well in his dialogue, which is perhaps the worst you’re likely to find outside of Hollywood horror movies.
Frequently in Lovecraft’s work the main character will come across someone who knows about whatever horror is lurking in the darkness, and then go about trying to describe it. The problem here is often that the people don’t sound authentic, like I can’ t imagine anyone speaking like Lovecraft’s characters do. If I had just looked upon the face of a twisted elder god bent on destruction, I wouldn’t be getting all flowery with the descriptions. I’d be saying something more along the lines of “ARRRRGGGHHH! MMOOOMMMMMYYY!” along with a lot of whimpering and crying. Lovecraft often had the bad habit of abusing the ellipsis as well, especially when his characters were dying or losing their minds. You’ll see this quite a bit on the internet nowadays, unfortunately, people…using…those…three…little…periods…to…make…their…statements…seem…more…intelligent. As you can see though, actually reading something with that many ellipses makes for a stilted and stuttering experience. An ellipses is a strategic weapon for writers, something to be used sparingly and only when the time is right. Lovecraft carpet bombed his dialogue with the little bastards, making all of his dying, insane or whispering characters seem like a group speech-therapy session.
None of this is to say that HP Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, however. He’s one of the best, one of the great writers of the 20th century and reading his stories is like reading the origin of species of horror writing. You can see the beginnings of writers like Stephen King and Phillip Pullman, who built their own great stories on top of the foundations laid by Lovecraft. If you like something scary, you can thank HP Lovecraft’s twisted imagination for thinking it up. He loved scaring people, and that was something he was exceedingly good at.
Later this week I’ll be covering the scary, sexy topic of sex and its paradoxically close relationship with horror. Safe for work as always. Keep your eyes peeled!