Don Webb

According to American Book Review, I am, after only 13 years in the profession, a "new writer." This has led me to reflect that one of my biggest influences, Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937), only wrote seriously for 18 years. Though a half century dead, a number of elements make Lovecraft's work more relevant today than ever: his bravery, his antinomianism, his understanding of how the transformative power of an object (especially a book) can link the realms of imagination and reality, his sense of the cosmic, and finally, above all and unifying all, his insistence on the primacy of the imagination. Most of these traits are common among better fantasists, but perhaps "antinomianism" (meaning against the foundation (NOMOS)) needs a bit of expansion. Lovecraft rebelled artistically against the horror story of his time (monster vs. victim) and replaced it with a cosmic theme (Cosmos as source of terror and/or ecstasy). He rebelled against the common sense of how to have a writing career as well-he thought it was more important to play games such as doctoring the texts of others than focusing on income-producing work. Lovecraft's primary outlet for his fiction was Weird Tales, which published all but four of his major works. A secondary source of income was manuscript revision for other Weird Tales authors, which enabled him to salt their mines with references to his own imaginative universe. In addition, several other writers (starting with Frank Belknap Long) began using and contributing to Lovecraft's Mythos. The influence this had on his audience was truly Weird. With each issue, the names of eldritch deities began to have subtle evocative/emotional effects on readers' minds -- effects which were strengthened by two narrative strategies.

First, the names of strange gods were presented in an inconsistent form, sometimes benign, sometimes terrible. Even Cthulhu, Lovecraft's best known bogey, receives benign mention in "The Strange High House in the Mist." This evasive/evocative approach, which Lovecraftian critic Steven J. Mariconda (following the critical lead of Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish) has characterized as "reader-response," is essentially a magical technique. Any magician in an initiating society (such as the Golden Dawn) is aware of how her or his thinking of the entities and names used changes with time. (I am indebted to my friend Mary Denning who turned me onto Steven J. Mariconda's On the Emergence of "Cthulhu" and Other Observations -- Uncle Don says "Check it out!").

The second strategy, which produces a "weird" or becoming, was Lovecraft's effort at making Mythos fiction appear derived from ancient sources. He created a number of fictional texts, such as the Necronomicon or the Pnakotic Manuscripts, as triggering devices for his readers. The trigger works as follows: the reader reads a tale in which the protagonist reads a text partially concealed. Suddenly, the reader has the frisson of glimpsing a partially obscured part of their own imagination. Lovecraft pushed this technique by seeding other writer's tales with these forbidden books, and encouraging his friends to drop references to them in their own work. This illusional reality convinced many Weird Tales readers of these books' existence, just as it convinces many modern readers first encountering the Cthulhu Mythos today.

To understand Lovecraft's lasting appeal, one must first examine how Lovecraft's techniques evolved as an extension of, and in tandem with, his own world view. Lovecraft's public writing career spanned 18 years, from 1917 to 1935. His first public tales were the "The Tomb" and "Dagon." "The Tomb" is a somewhat heavy-handed ghost story, in which a young man realizes he is not part of the modern world (in which he is sickly and scholarly -- a role that Lovecraft cultivated (quite falsely) as his own), but is displaced from an idealized past where he is a lusty, boisterous fellow. The tale's end provides a sort of redemption, in that he may be buried in the tomb of the family which is his spiritual kin. The idea of a redemptive return to the past, connected with fear and pleasure, is one which fills the beginning of his work.

"Dagon," his second tale, concerns a vast pagan sea god who seeks after the narrator. This tale represents the fundamental Lovecraftian structure -- if you seek after the mysteries, they will seek after you. The tale also contains what most people fault in Lovecraft's fiction, the rational narrator writing about his demise up to the last minute. People who don't like Lovecraft say, "Why don't those people get up and run away?" not realizing that the things they run from are internal.

In 1918 Lovecraft wrote "Polaris," a bipolar horror of the past colliding with the present. The pole star causes a contemporary narrator to remember the events of 26,000 years ago when he fell asleep at guard duty and allowed the North to fall to the Eskimo. The star which lured him to sleep then now keeps him perpetually awake. This bipolar force impelling the past and the present is a common theme to many of Lovecraft's tales. 1919 saw the beginning of a fairly steady production of fiction. Of the seven or so tales produced that year, the most important is "The Statement of Randolph Carter." Presented as a report to an unnamed police authority, Randolph Carter explains the death of his friend Warren. Randolph is Lovecraft, his magical persona if you will. He witnesses his friend's descent into a tomb, and discovers the latter's death by remote sensing. This image of distance shows Lovecraft himself wasn't ready to face the depths of his own imagination. Lovecraft recorded that the story had come to him in a dream. 1920 had 14 tales, the most important being the prose poem "Nyarlathotep," which Bruce Sterling once described as the first tale of virtual reality. Like "The Statement of Randolph Carter," it had its origin in a dream.

A terrible traveling con-man out of Egypt produces frightening and glorious visions for his audience, who find themselves transported to a strangely altered world after their encounter. Nyarlathotep is a symbol of an experience which changes the experiencer. He is therefore seen as a messenger or initiator -- a bringer of Understanding (magical knowledge) which changes all who grasp it.

1921 was another seven-story year. Of particular note was "The Music of Erich Zann." The nameless narrator discovers the mute violinist above him plays weird and unearthly harmonies that attract and also hold at bay strange forces in the night. Erich Zann attempts to pass the secret of his music to the narrator, but unearthly forces snatch the pages away. All the narrator is left with is the notion of a sound, not of this world, which resonates with another reality. It is a typical Lovecraftian idea -- a memory so real it cannot be forgotten and so alien that it cannot be acted upon. In short, a sort of reverse existentialism.

1922 saw seven more tales, the most interesting among them being "Hypnos." Another nameless narrator encounters a silent initiator on the streets of London. The initiator leads the narrator through a series of dreams, where they both experience revelation after revelation. The narrator draws back from the knowledge beyond, but the initiator continues his quest. The initiator achieves apotheosis or death, for he is transformed into a bust bearing the name, HYPNOS.

1923 saw little fiction, but for the first time Lovecraft's characters begin to be more than passive observers. "The Rats in the Wall" is a lengthy tale about a man who actively seeks to discover the secret of his ancestors. Brave and decisive, Delapoer shows a manliness in this world which is lacking in Lovecraft's previous tales. Nevertheless the secret of his family overtakes him and he fulfills their dreadful pattern of cannibalism in the depths beneath the castle. The standard Lovecraftian motif of the-mythic-past-is-the-future is strongly in place here; an interesting addition is the fact that Delapoer is ultimately descended from something other than human. This begins to displace Lovecraft's characters a bit more from the world. They are drawn not only to a past, but to a nonhuman past.

1924 was a bad year for HPL with only three tales. The best of these was "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," which was ghost written for Harry Houdini. Houdini was the hero of the piece, and therefore escaped to tell the tale without being eaten by Hrumachis, whose horrifying secret he had glimpsed beneath the pyramid of Cheops.

1925, with a mere three tales, was also sterile. "The Horror at Red Hook" united his fiction with figures of conventional demonology. The purpose of consorting with demons is made clear; it is not merely the pleasures of the demon-wife, but the prospect of personal immortality, which draws the magician on. The Past, the Outside, the Other bringing these into the soul overcomes the much weaker here-and-now.

1926 was a year of regeneration. Eight stories were produced, three of them key to Lovecraft's artistic concepts. "The Call of Cthulhu" introduces the notion that there are beings, gods perhaps, whose life cycles and cosmic purposes are so vast that human history is a mere footnote. These vast beings sleep in a huge city of R'lyeh, which has a frightening nonhuman geometry. Their High Priest, Cthulhu, sends out dreams to cause humans to act in strange ways to prepare the cosmos for their return. Cthulhu has cultists in strange places, but can reach into the minds of sensitive souls like artists. Like many of Lovecraft's stories, this too began as a dream, of an artist showing a clay sculpture still wet -- yet claiming it was older than Babylon or Egypt. The story is a triumph of narrative structure which would have made Henry James jealous. It is told in a series of nested tales; at the center of this nesting, nine layers deep, Professor Webb says the awful formula, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn." (In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.) The horror of Cthulhu is that he is an accurate depiction of the human psyche, which has purposes larger than the here-and-now and is seldom awakened. This story is one of the best descriptions of numinous terror available to man.

The other two very strong tales which come from this time are two Randolph Carter pieces, "The Silver Key" and a novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The first deals with Randolph Carter's urge for a transmundane life, which he gains by acting in accordance with an entity beyond any set of space-time known as Yog-Sototh. This tale and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath both introduce the urge to go to another world as a heroic urge, and like all such urges they produce great becoming in the hero as he can obtain only images of his quest. In the novel, Randolph Carter seeks to discover the secret of earth's gods, and finds he is descended from them and -- even more to his horror -- has transcended them by his questing. This heroic motif mirrors Lovecraft's own quest for the fantastic.

In 1927 Lovecraft wrote what he considered to be his best story, "The Colour Out of Space." This tale of a color which cannot be described is again one of Lovecraft's nested narratives. The narrator, having seen a strangely wasted area of the countryside, seeks a crazy old man who tells him of the destruction of the (ironically named) Gardner family. The color had come with a meteorite; it was a strange living thing, alien to nature, which longed to return to its place of origin. To do so it sapped every living thing in its presence, a powerful metaphor for the estranged human psyche which must use up all of its life to transform itself according to its innate unnatural patterns. As always with Lovecraft, the closer to his real, but hidden, human experience, the more memorable his tales. Like most of Lovecraft's fiction, tension exists between human interests (the Gardner family), and the transmundane which is indifferent to them. Here the mythic past, which becomes also the color's future, has become perfectly nonhuman.

In 1928, Lovecraft penned his second best known tale (after "The Call of Cthulhu"), "The Dunwich Horror." This is the story of two half-human brothers of the Whately clan who have a new mission. Instead of trying to return to their nonhuman past, they desire nothing short of opening the Earth to their nonhuman progenitor Yog-Sototh. This tale changes longing into action, and like any religious reformers these brothers die martyr deaths. Wilbur dies seeking access to the Necronomicon, which would open the gate to the otherness his father represents. Wilbur's unnamed brother dies in a mock crucifixion scene, which had been prophesied before his birth. The tale is a long send-up of the Christianity that Lovecraft despised with Wilbur's invisible monstrous brother as Jesus. It is without a doubt the funniest thing Lovecraft ever wrote.

1929 saw only revision work from Lovecraft. The tale he wrote for Zealia Bishop, "The Mound," began the cementing together of all of his themes: the Cthulhu Mythos gods both of his creation and others exist here, the idea of secret history involving the geologic layers of the earth, and the nested narrative are all on display.

1930 had the keystone tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, "The Whisperer in the Darkness." Albert N. Wilmarth, folklorist, is contacted by Henry W. Akeley, who claims beings from Yuggoth were tormenting him at his rural Vermont home. Eventually the narrator is lured to the home, where Akeley claims there has been a mistake -- the fungi from Yuggoth are really our friends. Akeley, hidden in darkness, begins psychologically torturing Wilmarth, mentioning every Mythos concept he can, from Frank Belknap Long's Hounds of Tindalos to Clark Ashton Smith's Tsathoggua. Wilmarth is invited to give up terrestrial life, and join Akeley and others as a living brain in a cylinder -- to be flown endlessly from sphere to sphere. But in the end Wilmarth discovers the whole affair to be a ghastly practical joke, since he has not been dealing with Akeley at all but a brain in a cylinder playing Akeley's part. This story is one of Lovecraft's most unsatisfying, apparently written only to patch things together.

1931 saw Lovecraft's second stab at a novel, At the Mountains of Madness, an investigation of prehuman ruins in Antarctica. The narrator's party discovers the frozen corpses of the Old Ones. The hero of this tale is not any of the individuals involved but the long description of the rise and fall of the Old Ones, whose bioengineering caused all the life on this planet to evolve, and whose blind pride allowed them to be wiped out by their own creations. This is one of the first ecological novels, and like most of them will no doubt fail to wake mankind up.

1932 had two trans-dimensional fantasies, "The Dreams in the Witch House" -- which tied together witchcraft, other dimensions, architecture and dreaming as methods of prolonging life -- and "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," which dealt with Randolph Carter's brief return from the other dimensions he had spent a lifetime in. Both posit human life can be extended by living outside of time, but nostalgia for human life brings the sorcerer back from time to time. These stories have a more positive view on the bipolarity of human concerns and the indifference of the transmundane. Lovecraft seems to be reconciling and synthesizing the day-to-day life's pleasures and the vast possibilities of time and space. Both of these tales were set in real-world cities, Salem and New Orleans, as opposed to the fictional Arkham.

1933 was marked by some of his least interesting revision work, as though the synthesis begun in 1932 took too much from his imagination.

In 1934 Lovecraft created his utopia. Typical of his distrust of human kind, it was the nonhuman world of the Great Race. In "The Shadow Out of Time" he envisioned a race of cone-shaped, half-animal, half-vegetable beings called the Great Race. These entities had one purpose -- the pursuit of knowledge. They could send their minds into the bodies of any species at any time, and then return to report to their fellows. They were esteemed for the strength of their mind, and, as most critics fail to notice, for their ability at fantasy. Sexless, eternal, curious -- they represented all of Lovecraft's values, yet they also return to their home to share their discoveries. This utopian vision was the final synthesis of Lovecraft's themes.

In 1935, he wrote "The Haunter of the Dark" as a favor to the young Robert Bloch. Set in real-world Providence, it tells of Robert Blake's discovery of the Starry Wisdom Church. He actively seeks after the mystery of the Church, discovering that they possessed an angular gateway -- a dark gem called the Shining Trapezohedron -- which opens the way for the materialization of Nyarlathotep into this world. The Messenger and the Seeker unite. Just as in "Dagon," the worried seeker writes with horror as the god comes to him -- describing the changes of his consciousness until the last minute of terror (or transcendence).

Lovecraft, after a horrible wasting period, died of stomach cancer and malnutrition on March 15, 1937. Writing, then as now, doesn't pay very much. Despite his great pain and emaciated condition, he charmed the nurses of Jane Brown Memorial Hospital with his politeness and courage. According to Mrs. Muriel E. Eddy, he spent the last few days of his life making copious notes on his illness in hopes it would be of aid to future physicians.

Lovecraft's themes dominated his life. He was like his heroes, seeking a return to an idealized past. He avoided any intrusion in his world, kept his shutters drawn and avoided outside employment like the plague. On one occasion he refused a job in Chicago since the city had no Victorian buildings. He spent far more time writing letters than stories, and far more time idly dreaming than anything else. There are no doubt hundreds -- maybe thousands -- like him in most college towns. But Lovecraft's dreaming, and his communication of it to his friends, served as a sort of initiation. Many of his correspondents were initiated into writing from him -- Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Fritz Leiber, and Harry Kuttner. One of his disciples, the late August Derleth, created an entire publishing house to keep the master's work in print, naming it Arkham House after Lovecraft's favorite fictional city. The themes he introduced dominate such modern masters as Thomas Ligotti, Bruce Sterling, and Alan Moore. The films, the dissertations, the rock groups, the comics, the role playing games, art, even magical tributes such as recent articles in Gnosis, could make an essay ten times as long as this and scarcely cover the field. Lovecraft's fictions are of a greater interest to the current reader than they were to his contemporaries. In a society where science fiction can no longer provide us with cosmic themes, fantasy has largely eaten itself, and horror is reduced to splatter, Lovecraft still provides a glimpse of the Absolute Other. His power as a writer is so strong that many young writers still come under his spell, fated to spend their first few years producing horrid pastiches, until the better of them escape to stronger approaches to the cosmic. Lovecraft should be on any beginning SF/F/H writer's shelf for the possibilities that he opens.

Of course, for the critic, Lovecraft is essential, since his is the Ur-text of so many current masters. The essence of postmodernism -- that creation lies only in context for the current writer/artist -- exists as a honorific motif for Lovecraft's heroes. Like the postmodernist writer, Lovecraft's heroes suffer from the curse of influence -- even from men not only long dead, but whose names they have never heard of. Seeking to be transformed (and to transform) by what has already shaped one's self is the postmodern quest, one that Lovecraft's heroes and antiheroes knew well when they were compelled to seek out that forgotten volume of elder lore called the Necronomicon.


© 1999 Edward P. Berglund
"Why Lovecraft Still Matters: The Magical Power of Transformative Fiction": © 1999 Don Webb. All rights reserved. This is reprinted from NOVA Express.
Graphic © 1999 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: August 17, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004