I think, when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft a couple statements can safely be made. 1. Lovecraft is one of the most influential and important horror writers of all time. 2. Lovecraft is both vilified and acclaimed in equal measure. 3. Lovecraft as a person had some deeply problematic views. I think some commonly held notions of Lovecraft have been undeservedly cemented in critical thought and I would like to offer some divergent viewpoints to the debate.
Writing in the early twentieth century, Lovecraft was a very well-read person who seems to have had some personal demons and emotional damage, he had a passion for science, namely astronomy, and was a rabid reader of genre fiction. Lovecraft as a writer took what I would call almost proto horror, gothic fiction, the ghost story, the early science fiction tale, and transformed them into what I would call the first self-aware horror fiction as its own genre, which Lovecraft would call weird fiction. Arguably Lovecraft’s greatest strength as a writer was in the horror tradition, his small number of fantasy pieces are very minor and uninspired works. But he will be known as long as horror fiction is being read as one of the great horror writers.
It has been said that Lovecraft’s most important achievement was the invention of ‘cosmic horror’ or horror that shows mankind to be insignificant in the face of the black nothingness of outer space. I don’t know how much I buy into that notion. Lovecraft is not any more “cosmic” than Machen, and I think Well’s is certainly more deserving of recognition of a kind of cosmic horror. Here let me present my view of Lovecraft’s place in the tradition of horror fiction. I would place Poe as the progenitor of the horror genre, the father of the literature of bleak and beautiful corruptions. Poe, in my view, took the things which assailed him, the blackness of life, the death of loved ones, madness and drunkenness, guilt and sin, and made a poetry of them. He made a poetry of the things toxic and destructive in his life. A poet of the things that were killing him. Lovecraft, on the other hand, seemed to be interested, maybe even obsessed, in the notion that the self is unknowable and alien to oneself. He was interested in the secret self, the inner subconscious, and what lurks under our masks. In story after story, Lovecraft writes of secret ancestries, malevolent undead forefathers, secret human/nonhuman matings, civilizations deep under the black earth that predate mankind. His stories are just full of subversions of the self. The very notion of what is human is questioned. I guess maybe the dark and unknowable cosmos is discovered in Lovecraft to lay at the heart of what is called human. Lovecraft looked at the human heart with as much or maybe more horror than the outmost tenebrous and unknown worlds.
It is also interesting how closely Lovecraft’s work reads like some strange cousin to Noir fiction. Both show the world as shadowy with deeply hidden secrets that usually destroy the protagonists when the reveal hits. Both are certainly focused on the inner world of the author. Full of barely subconscious paranoias and fears. But while most classic Noir fiction focuses on a kind of sexual paranoia, a world full of gorgeous but duplicitous femme fatales who lead you on with sexual desire and passion, only to destroy you utterly. In Lovecraft’s work, there is a kind of racial and antisocial fear being explored in a lot of his work. Now to be clear, certainly not all his work, but it is a major theme in his writings. He seems to fear that the supposed upward trajectory of the human race is an illusion and that there is an inescapable savagery and trend toward unreason that lay at the heart of the human race that will be its undoing. And unfortunately, he seems to feel that is based in racial terms. Upper-middle-class white culture as the thing that should be seen as the goal and every other culture as something deviant and dangerous to the status quo. It would seem that Lovecraft believed that belief in and the enforcement of polite culture, in civility, should take precedence over any kind of close examination of the actual human condition. Lovecraft believed that humans, at heart, were dark and dangerous things. I don’t think Lovecraft was a hateful racist, as much as he was fearful of the human race, and anything outside of proper white culture was teetering on the edge of corruption and baselessness. But he also felt that white culture could also easily devolve into darkness and ruin. His notions of race and culture are wildly unfounded and sometimes just plain ignorant. But a lot of this was Lovecraft projecting onto the outer world thoughts and feeling he secretly harbored about himself. And his brilliance was in basing his writing on an exploration of these fears he did not want to face up to consciously. He explored his inner fears and self-doubts in his horror fiction.
Lovecraft’s work seems to have three phases. And I know I am in the minority in liking his early and middle-period works over his more famous late works. Why Lovecraft’s critics focus on his most hackneyed works while ignoring his most innovative and poetic work baffles me. Stories like The Music of Erich Zann, He, The Hound, The Festival, and The Haunter of the Dark all have surprising depth, a deft poetic touch, and offer the reader many different interpretations and readings. Lovecraft set the groundwork for future cutting edge horror writers like Ligotti or Evenson, who themselves are innovating and changing the face of horror literature. Lovecraft’s best work seems to be overlooked while his most uninspired work gets all the acclaim from fans and all the mockery from his detractors. Stories like The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow out of Time have brilliant structures and start off strongly but fall into repetition and self-parody. In his first phase, you see a writer struggling with finding his own voice. You see imitations, sometimes rather able ones, of Poe, Machen, and Blackwood, but you also see some of Lovecraft’s most personal and daring work. His early work was full of enthusiasm for the genre, you could just feel the fun he was having writing these works. These stories were strongly modeled after works that Lovecraft admired, but I don’t think that is a negative. By using some already formed notions of plot and style it allowed him to freely delve into his imagination and come up with such dark wonders. His middle period, which I mark as the works he made after he moved to New York City are extremely problematic and extremely interesting. He had learned to write in his own style, and his New York City stories are full of paranoia, disgust, disappointment, and fear. This was in a lot of ways, his purest writing. Like some of the greatest works of horror fiction, Lovecraft’s New York City stories are Lovecraft trying to express and explore deep seeded internal problems and ideas he was struggling with. His place in society, what exactly is society, the nature of marriage, the needs of the body both his own and others and how he compares in the competition of life. Then in his third phase, you see a writer question himself, after some hardships financially and socially, Lovecraft tries to be more marketable, writing some of his most acclaimed writing of his career, but also some of his least inspired and formalistic. These later stories are works he wrote in a concentrated effort to make a name for himself and prove after the disastrous New York City experience that the writer's life he chose for himself was a correct decision. These stories tended to have high concept plots, with tons of fan service thrown in to please the magazine editors he was submitting to. Lots of repetitive references to the Necronomicon, the naming of various fan-favorite monsters in every story like Shub-Niggurath and Cthulhu, all become a bit too much in these late stories. These are the works Lovecraft wrote after returning to his home of Providence Rhode Island after deserting his botched New York City attempt at branching out with his then wife. While a lot of these stories have interesting ideas, they tend to be overwritten, long, and repetitive. His early work was just so full of vitol, full of excitement, full of an earned poetic vision. For instance, The Shadow Out of Time starts off actually pretty dread-inducing, with its notions of alien mind control and the taking over of one’s body. Like a lot of later Lovecraft works, it starts off as a full-on horror story but then decides mid telling to turn into some febrile science fiction fantasy story. It’s like he wants to write it as a horror tale but knows it has a better chance at being sold if it lightens up and becomes more watered down light fantasy. The Shadow Out of Time starts off menacingly and with a deep-seeded feeling of nebulous dread, but then it shifts into just badly written science fantasy with references to the Cthulhu Mythos for no good reason, it is a huge disappointment to such a strong opening. It’s like he started with a great idea, went to write it, then got nervous about selling it. He would take the story and just write it to death and throw as many fan-pleasing references as he could. He stopped writing for himself and started writing for his editors and his fan base, which is always death to any author. Now I don’t want to seem too harsh about his late work, there are a couple which I do feel are masterpieces, I do love The Shadow over Innsmouth and I also love The Haunter of the Dark. But while these stories are great, they do lack the poetic simplicity and transparent joy in writing genre work that his early works effortlessly have.
But is Lovecraft’s work racist, would be the next question wouldn’t it? I don’t believe it is. I think he explores racial themes in his work. But I think he explores such themes in mostly good taste and genuine interest. Now obviously Lovecraft had infamously written some private works that are unabashedly racist, and those works are not worthy of being read or remembered. But in his public work, I feel he does explore racial issues from all angles, sometimes, he actually wrote against himself and explored what it was to be the “other”. To be clear, in my opinion, Lovecraft was a man with some deeply racist views, alongside other fears and phobias that made him an inwardly damaged man. And none of this made him happy. I think besides his obvious love of horror literature, he saw it as a means to explore his own private demons in an honest way. He had some horrible beliefs, but I think he knew that and wished he was not so damaged and scared. Now I don’t know any of this as concrete fact, and I may well be off base. But this is the impression I get from his writings. And I think the personal world he reveals in his fiction may actually speak louder to the type of person he was then some of his more public statements. A lot of time, how we really are isn't something we broadcast out into the world. All of us have secret fears, secret hurts, and I think the horror genre should be a safe place to explore fears, obsessions, phobias, desires, and things that are taboo in our everyday lives. It must be said, there is a difference between honest exploration in art and actual racism. An example of a story that I hold to be actually disgustingly racist would be H.G. Wells’s story The Lord of the Dynamos. In this story, a black man comes to England to work as a stoker at a power station. While there he comes to believe that the Dynamo that runs the station is an actual god, and goes to worship it, and ends up killing for it. This story is frankly disgusting and almost wholly of virulent racism. The difference between Lovecraft’s and Wells’s approach? Lovecraft is exploring his own racial phobias, Wells’s is expressly stating racial phobias as fact. What does Lovecraft’s work have to offer on modern-day issues of racism and prejudice? Honestly, I don’t think he has much to offer. His work is so personal and internalized, he is dealing with dream worlds and personal obsessions, not social issues.
What makes Lovecraft still talked about and relevant today? He basically defined modern horror literature. Horror fiction is the literature of exploring one's inner secrets and hurts. Horror fiction deals with the socially taboo and the personally harmful. Horror literature is a poetry of the abject and the fearfully unknown. Horror fiction is a realist fiction that deals with truths other modes of literature simply can not deal with in such an honest and direct manner. Poe laid the groundwork for what horror fiction was to become, but Lovecraft gave it focus and intent. Lovecraft was extremely experimental with the different tropes and styles he used to tell his tales. He was an explorer in the inner realms, his work often mirrored what the Surrealists were doing at the time. Plunging into the darkest wells of the inner mind. From first-person accounts of the unnameable to full-on horror show with inhuman daemons and intelligences from other universes, to sinister dark magic and family curses, to paranoia ridden tales of city life, to strange fantasies of inner turmoil and dread, from those who desire damnation to those who are fated to it, Lovecraft’s work would influence horror fiction from his immediate successors to modern-day authors. The shadow of Lovecraft is still felt to this day.