Why we should still read H. P. Lovecraft
I'm posting this on the 20th of August so Happy Birthday H. P. Lovecraft! H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors who fall under a strange banner. While he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest horror writers of all times, both he and his writings were... say it with me now, problematic.
Stephen King once named Lovecraft as “the 20th-century horror story’s dark and baroque prince.” And there's no denying Lovecraft's influence. Lovecraftian horror seems to be having another moment of popularity. I've written before about everyone's favourite Cthulhu, appearing in series like Rick and Morty and South Park. And recently, The Sinking City game has taken YouTube by storm.
We've once again returned to the idea of cosmic horror in our popular media. Things out there so powerful we mere humans could we swished before we'd even know what happened. It doesn't take a great deal of brainpower to draw a line between current affairs and that pervasive fear.
A man-shaped bundle of issues
I think the Youtuber, Red, from the channel Overly Scarcastic Productions said it best:
It would be inaccurate to describe Howard Philip Lovecraft as a man with issues. It's more like he was a bundle of issues shambling around in a roughly bipedal approximation of a man.
The fact is, Lovecraft was the only man who could have created Lovecraftian horror.
Lovecraft experienced episodes of parasomnia ‘night terrors’ from the tender age of six. Highly uncommon, night terrors are estimated to affect 3% of adults. In Lovecraft's case, he described seeing “nightgaunts” - creatures which appear as thin, black, and faceless humanoids who tickle their victims. Nightgaunts would later appear in Lovecraft's stories.
In a letter he wrote in 1918, he said:
Do you realise that to many men it makes a vast and profound difference whether or not the things about them are as they appear?... If TRUTH amounts to nothing, then we must regard the phantasma of our slumbers just as seriously as the events of our daily lives...
And again, not to put too fine a point on it, he was incredibly racist and xenophobic. He also had a deep and abiding fear of everything. And I mean everything. In Luc Sante‘s New York Review of Books “The Heroic Nerd” article, he writes:
was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering–the things that did not frighten him would probably make a shorter list.
This deep an abiding fear lead to his belief that he was somehow different and apart from this world. It was these demons Lovecraft was able to tap into an almost primal level of fear that not many writers before or since have been able to do.
Separate the writer from the work
This is not an apology for Lovecraft, but it does give us an insight at how he came to write what he did. It's incredibly difficult to separate a writer from their work. Their writings are so steeped in their own view of the world, their culture, times and, yes, they're own personal demons.
But it's important to read Lovecraft's work on its own merits, leaving aside the man's blatant racism as a relic of an unpleasant past. There are some fascinating themes and stories in his writings which are important for us to read.
In the case of Lovecraft, I want to celebrate what came out of his head - not the man himself.