Exploring HP Lovecraft’s Gothic roots

Lovecraft bent the Gothic to his obsessions with degeneration and the world beyond human perception

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937): has risen steadily from cult pulp writer to canonical author

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937): has risen steadily from cult pulp writer to canonical author

 

The ascent of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) from cult pulp writer to canonical author throughout the twentieth century and, in particular, in the new millennium is noteworthy, if not entirely surprising. Lovecraft’s fleshing out of “cosmic horror”, already present in the work of Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, is his most significant contribution to supernatural fiction.

Cosmic horror is based around the fear generated by encounters with numinous beings that hint to the existence of unknown forces lying outside of human time and space. Lovecraftian fiction, with its potential to redefine the role of humanity within the universe and its promise of great monsters from beyond, has been incredibly influential for writers the world over (Simon Strantzas, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti, John Ajvide Lindqvist and Emilio Bueso, among many others), who have further developed and expanded its main ideas.

The role of Lovecraft has also been thoroughly reassessed in both histories of the Gothic mode and of the horror genre, with his output, especially the invention of the Great Old One Cthulhu, being celebrated as foundational to the development of the weird tale in the Anglo-American world.

Although always a master and model for horror writers like August Derleth or Ramsey Campbell, Lovecraft’s reputation and readership grew exponentially after he began to be included alongside heavyweights such as William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor in the catalogues of prestigious publishers such as the Library of America, Oxford University Press and Penguin (in their Penguin Classics series, no less) in the late 20th century and early 21st century. His stories and novellas have now been thoroughly annotated by key critics such as ST Joshi, Leslie S Klinger and Roger Luckhurst. Joshi has himself dedicated quite a significant part of his long career to the meticulous research of Lovecraft’s life, fiction, essays, letters and legacy, laying the groundwork for further study of this once overlooked writer.

Evidence of the relevance of Lovecraft to the present day, explored in Carl H Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Age of Lovecraft (2016), can be seen in a strong popular interest in adapting and developing his imagination through media like film, video games, role playing games or music. It is hard to think of another writer whose impact and vision have been quite as thoroughly re-evaluated and mainstreamed over such a short period of time.

Certain of the creatures in his tales (Cthulhu, Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath) have been consistently appropriated and refashioned by fans and businesses in the form of balaclavas, toys, knitting patterns, shirts and even a variation on the famous American board game Monopoly, testifying to the multifarious appeal of Lovecraft’s fiction and its adaptability. The latter quality is particularly unexpected, given that Lovecraft’s work foregrounds the limits of human consciousness and the incapacity of our senses and language to accurately capture unnameable nightmares that defy representation.

Lovecraft’s contemporary revival has understandably tended to rely on his monstrous pantheon, as this was his most original contribution to the field of supernatural fiction. For this reason, those who have not read him can be forgiven for thinking that this is all there is to his oeuvre. However, fans of the more traditionally Gothic writings of MR James or Edgar Allan Poe may make a similar mistake and assume that Lovecraft’s science fiction and fantasy leanings position him outside of more archetypical horror writing.

The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft seeks to prove that, contrary to this popular perception, there is a strong strain of Gothic concerns emerging from both Lovecraft’s lesser-known works – The Alchemist (1916), The Moon-Bog (1926), The Festival (1925) – and some of his more regularly anthologised tales – The Lurking Fear (1923) or The Dreams in the Witch House (1933).

Lovecraft was himself aware of what he borrowed from his predecessors. In a 1929 letter to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, he referred, anxiously, to his “‘Poe’ pieces” and wondered where his “‘Lovecraft’ pieces” were. For some, Lovecraft’s Gothic experiments may be little more than early artistic or stylistic exercises, necessary in terms of paving the way for more polished and intrinsically Lovecraftian gems such as The Colour Out of Space (1927), The Call of Cthulhu (1928) or The Dunwich Horror (1929).

But to take such a stance would be to ignore the fact that Lovecraft’s fascination with the Gothic was a sustained one and that he returned to tales with a strongly Gothic flavour throughout his career. Rather, it seems more appropriate to suggest that Lovecraft nurtured a significant and particular vision of the Gothic that drew on sources like Poe and, before him, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, and which, in his most memorable work, merged with his other interests in fantasy and science fiction.

Astonishingly, given that the Gothic has experienced a sustained revival in critical interest since 1980 and the publication of David Punter’s The Literature of Terror, this is one of the first collections to concentrate on Lovecraft’s Gothic tales. The reason for this neglect is connected, as I have hinted at, to a question of generic purity. Critics and readers have tended to understand Lovecraft’s work as a crucial exponent of the “weird” and therefore downplayed the relevance of stories that do not help paint a portrait of the author as innovator.

There is logic and merit in such an encapsulation: the essence of Lovecraft’s originality may be more clearly delineated through a study of his more obviously weird output; his influences may be neatly separated from what he personally contributed to horror; the preoccupations of his writings, hybrids of sorts, can be aligned to broader philosophical and materialist concerns that resonate with an increasingly secular society reassessing its role within the universe.

Lovecraft himself, in fact, noted the differences between the Gothic tradition and that of weird writing in his study Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). In this long essay, Lovecraft defended the value of the tale of “cosmic fear”, which he compared to the “type of fear-literature” of writers such as Charles Dickens, Henry James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marion Crawford or WW Jacobs. For him, the true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

It is precisely all these characteristics that make Lovecraft’s writing stand out as its own unmistakably distinct product. And yet, Lovecraft’s reaching out for the truly unknown is very compatible with a more traditional Gothic machinery that tends to manifest at the level of setting (decaying castles and mansions, derelict churches, graveyards, a manifestly dark projection of Europe and, especially, of England and Ireland), characters (protagonists haunted by evil ancestors, vengeful alchemists and their modern counterparts in the shape of the mad scientist in Cool Air (1928)) and themes (family curses, the fear of atavism, a pervasive interest in the occult and in arcane and forbidden lore).

In other words, it is just as important to acknowledge the weird aspects of Lovecraft as it is to underscore the complexity of his Gothic production. Importantly, his Gothic tales rarely ever simply rehearse well-trodden plots and situations, but refract them through Lovecraft’s own obsessions with degeneration, the world that lies beyond human perception, dreams, the life-altering capacity of science and the limitations of organic life.

Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft, edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes, British Library Publishing

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