Happy Birthday, Lovecraft!

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Since it’s his birthday, this is a great time of year to reflect on H.P. Lovecraft. I know his name has higher currency these days, particularly in a pop culture; it’s certainly not like it was ten or twenty years ago when you said his name and people thought you were making a sexual proposition in the middle of a conversation on literature. The next thing you know, you’re covered with mace and there’s an attorney who’s suddenly taking an active interest in your life.

Ah, university days.

Now, a lot of people don’t believe this, but I discovered H.P. Lovecraft when I was a child because of my father. He used to read me stories at bedtime, and for whatever reason, he thought The Tomb and Other Tales by H.P. Lovecraft was perfectly suitable. The book he had was a 1973 paperback version (lower left). As he read the stories, the cover would usually be facing me and it scared the crap out of me. I hated that cover with those demented eyes staring at me. And then there was my father, who would say before reading a selected story, “It’s important that you’re asleep before I finish the story because you’ll go crazy if you hear the ending.”

H.P. Lovecraft

I tell this story when I introduce H.P. Lovecraft in my lectures at the university. Thankfully, students here in Poland appear to be much more aware of who Lovecraft was. His books are readily available at any mainstream book store, and I’ve seen people casually reading Lovecraft in public more so that I’ve ever seen in the States.

Here is a brief sample of what I’ve written about Lovecraft before:

Lovecraft was a fairly interesting writer who tends to be neglected academically in favor of other American authors who are easier to digest, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert E. Howard; which is a shame, really. A lot of it has to do with the fact that Lovecraft made life terribly difficult for himself both personally and professionally. He obviously followed his own path, and in doing so, he created an incredibly rich body of work that literally has no commercial appeal. Poe not only had C. Auguste Dupin, but a wealth of short stories that are psychologically compelling while remaining brilliantly compact, so he’s easier to translate to other media. Plus, due mostly to his bewildering death, Poe is viewed as being mysterious and romantic, again making him more interesting. Outside of Herbert West, Lovecraft did not create any character that has really withstood the test of time. In fact, his most popular creation is probably the Necronomicon, a book that has appeared in numerous movies such as Evil Dead and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. His writing is dense, the English he used was archaic when it was originally published, and while he would be perfectly fine with describing a wall or a tree for two or three pages, when it came time to describe the monster, he would simply explain that it was too horrible for words. And because he was a prolific letter writer – he wrote over 80,000 letters in the last 25 years of his life – we tend to have a little too much information about Lovecraft, such as his racism and anti-Semitism – which I’m sure his Jewish wife really enjoyed.

Whatever flaws exist in his personality or writing, I’m thrilled to be living in a world where people are more aware of his contributions to modern horror literature. Discussing horror today and not hearing his name is like discussing American detective fiction and refusing to acknowledge Dashiell Hammett. It’s a frightening omission.

If you haven’t read Lovecraft’s writing yet and you love horror, take the opportunity sometime this month to check out his work. Many of his stories are readily available online and his books look great on your bookshelf.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Lovecraft!

  1. “Lovecraft was a fairly interesting writer who tends to be neglected academically in favor of other American authors who are easier to digest, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert E. Howard; which is a shame, really.”

    My experience has been very different, that the influential weird fiction of Lovecraft was much more attractive to academia than the alleged “pulpy trash” of Howard. Can you cite examples of Howard being studied in academia, as opposed to Lovecraft?

    Indeed, I’m pretty sure Lovecraft as an author is far more famous in the age of the internet than Howard is. Plenty of people know (or think they know) Conan the Barbarian, but the connection to Howard is frightfully low: in comparison, Lovecraft and Cthulhu are inseparable from each other.

  2. I remember Howard coming up in my classes at university (granted, this is going back 15 years), whereas Lovecraft never came up, which was particularly glaring considering one of my classes was specifically on American horror fiction.

    You’re probably right about Conan eclipsing Howard, but at least Conan is iconic, whereas Cthulhu – once you get past the stereotypical imagery – is all over the place.

    Thanks for stopping by, Al.

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