Monday, October 6, 2008

Exposure: H.P. Lovecraft


"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

The first line of H.P. Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature" shows why he is arguably one of the most influential contributors to fantastic fiction. I could probably just stop here because that line describes the themes of his works better than I'd ever be able to, but I feel like some of you out there who haven't heard of him or haven't read any of his work need a little more convincing.

Strangely enough I was introduced to Lovecraft from a fictional newspaper that was included with the PC game, "Alone in the Dark." That was back when you got cool shit with video games and didn't have to pay 20 bucks extra for it. This first iteration of the series was inspired by writings of Lovecraft, and is easily the best installment in the series. They pretty much went downhill after the sequel. For some reason the themes in this game really hooked me: people driven mad by ancient texts, tentacled demi-gods of the cosmos who desire to enslave the human race, and dark and dank sanitariums. All of this set in the low-tech early twentieth century seals the deal. Sometimes I ask myself why I'm so compelled by his work, but when I do I always remember that first line of his essay.

So with fake game newspaper in hand I made my way to my local Waldenbooks where I found a collection of his short stories. Being in Junior High, I found his writing style a little difficult to digest. It was long winded, used a lot of archaic vocabulary, and really didn't have much action in it. It took me a few attempts to really get into it, and some of his stories such as "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are a little more accessible to the casual reader. The previously linked collection is probably the best way to go if you're interested in getting a feel for his work or if you don't feel like paying (recently his copyright expired) you can read some of it free. It holds all of his most noteworthy and classic stories that were written toward the end of his career when he really had his mythology established.

Just like Poe, Lovecraft barely scraped by with his writings being published in early fiction magazines like "Weird Tales." Now he is a cult icon with film festivals held in his name, horror awards, and feature films based on his work; albeit not very good ones. The only director to really capture Lovecraft is Stuart Gordon. Although he is a low budget film director he manages to capture the spirit of the Lovecraftian tale. Hopefully Guillermo del Toro will get his "At the Mountains of Madness" adaptation in the works so we'll finally get a faithful wide release of a true Lovecraft film.

While Lovecraft inspired films are scattered about the B-movie circuit, I wouldn't recommend starting there mainly because most of them don't do his work justice. And I should also mention his work isn't for everyone. If you're into slasher or action packed horror fiction, then you probably will get bored quickly with his work as it's not a leisurely read. So I guess I should get to the gist of his work already.

Lovecraft created a huge mythology revolving around these ancient cosmic beings called the "Old Ones" or the "Elder Gods." There is a huge hierarchical relationship as to how it all works out, but I won't go into detail here. Cults who worship these "gods" are constantly trying to bring them to earth with ancient spellbooks like the Necronomicon. Just like any mindless cult, their wish is only to be enslaved by these entities while they rule the Earth. So these stories are always revlolving around the fragility of the human psyche and how unimportant and small we really are in the scheme of things. Man tends to think of himself as all powerful and the dominant lifeform and these stories address that notion to show just how insignificant we really are when you're looking from the outside in.

This is to me why Lovecraft works. He understands fear, he understands what truly makes us afraid. When we are faced with something that we have absolutely no way to control we are afraid. Knowing that there is a force out there that we can do absolutely nothing about scares us. The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability is really the core of fear and thats how he approaches his work. Not everyone is afraid of spiders, ghosts, or cemetaries, but everyone fears being helpless.

So while Lovecraft isn't as easy of a read as say Dan Brown or other mainstream fiction authors, they are stories that you'll come back to again and again and wonder why so few horror writers really "get it."

Lovecraft resources:

The H.P. Lovecraft Archive

Amazon books

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

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