Even stranger things
In the summer of 2016, there was lots of buzz around the TV series Stranger Things. Newspapers and websites rushed to provide cheat sheets for millennials on all the echoes and references to the 1980s embedded in the show, from Steven Spielberg and John Hughes movies, to Nightmare on Elm Street or Stand By Me, or the way the whole plot hinged on Stephen King’s key theme of kids navigating the fallout from flawed fathers, figured in supernatural terms.
Not many, however, noted that Stranger Things, with its murderous, tentacled creature unleashed through a trans-dimensional portal into a small town by the experiments of a mad professor, owed virtually everything to the imagination of H. P. Lovecraft. He composed these scenarios over eighty years ago in classic stories like ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’.
Lovecraft’s influence stands behind many of the key cultural icons of modern Gothic and horror. There would be no Alien series without him, no Species, none of those David Cronenberg body horrors, no Clive Barker, and no Pan’s Labyrinth. (Director Guillermo del Toro has long harboured ambitions to make a block-buster film of At the Mountains of Madness, the last attempt pipped at the post by Ridley Scott’s awful Prometheus.) There is also a whole post-millennial style of fiction, called ‘The New Weird’, which would be impossible without Lovecraft, although major contemporary writers in the mode, like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, have an ambiguous and vexed relationship to the Old Weird.
It’s now pretty hard to imagine our monsters outside the squishy, tentacular paradigm conjured by Lovecraft. Amazingly, Lovecraft’s horrors have burst out of the chest of a small subculture and rapidly evolved into a creature that has transformed the very shape of our nightmares.
Lovecraft’s ancient god, Cthulhu, has risen from the South Seas as an awful menace that threatens humanity’s existence – but he is also a cuddly toy you can buy on the internet. In the 2016 American presidential race, you could even get a ‘CTHULHU FOR PRESIDENT’ T-shirt, which seemed entirely appropriate.
Lovecraft lost … and found
When Lovecraft died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937, he was destined for literary oblivion. He had published only in small-circulation amateur journals and struggled to get his stories into the pulp magazines, cheap literature for a mass readership of millions but that paid very poorly. He ought to have found a home in Weird Tales, established in 1923, but his stories were often turned down there. He also wrote in pulps that were just beginning to stabilize around a newly coined term, ‘science fiction’. Lovecraft’s cosmic perspective, placing a fragile human race in the merciless context of astronomical space and time and the murderous competition for survival between biological species, sometimes chimed with editors in new journals like Astounding Science Fiction.
Yet Lovecraft made only a few hundred dollars here and there, his magazine work crumbling into dust, and he only ever published one limited edition book during his lifetime. He was considered a master of horror only amongst a small group of friends and fans, to whom he wrote voluminously throughout his life.
After his death, a number of these dedicated friends tried to interest New York publishing houses in collections of stories, but none were prepared to publish. This rejection prompted the establishment of the Arkham House press, which from 1939 published three volumes of his stories (hang on to those first editions if you happen to have one: they are now worth thousands). Yet when the esteemed American literary critic Edmund Wilson deigned to notice these volumes, he acidly declared that ‘the only real horror of most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.’ This effectively condemned Lovecraft to a place entirely outside the literary sphere.
That outer darkness was where he stayed even when a mass paperback edition in the 1960s began to sell in the thousands, and then the hundreds of thousands, and even after horror hit the mainstream after the breakthrough of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and Stephen King began to publish in the early 1970s. Just as Gothic fictions were condemned as ‘terror novels’ that endangered public virtue in the eighteenth century, so horror fiction into the 1970s and 1980s was considered the outré, adolescent preserve of moody teens, a disordered sensation fiction that was certainly not literature. Even now, some might question Lovecraft’s appearance in a ‘Classics’ list.
A style for the times
As a writer of the 1920s and 30s, Lovecraft was decidedly not in the Modernist mode that dominates the literary history of that era. He fulminated against Futurism and particularly vented his scorn on T. S. Eliot’s poetry (although he shared his very conservative politics). Lovecraft’s tortured style, with sentences that pile up adjectives in tottering heaps in hilarious violation of every creative writing tutorial ever conducted, is about as far from Hemingway, or Raymond Carver’s minimalism, as you could imagine. It is not tasteful.
And yet there is something extremely powerful and evocative that crawls out of Lovecraft’s sentences, which often evoke horrors so effectively precisely because they are so broken and strange. He is pushing to imagine forces that exist beyond human capacities, embodied in the pressure he exerts on the order of literary prose. At his best, Lovecraft’s dime-store pulp sublime really can shatter the niceties of beautiful literary prose in extraordinary ways.
My sense is that in conceiving malignant ancient creatures that stir underground or that arrive from the cold dark of interstellar space, Lovecraft is also speaking anew to a world that feels on the brink of catastrophic change. The sense that humans have irreversibly broken the planet, and that Nature is coming back to exact a terrible revenge, is at the heart of many recent ‘weird’ fictions. Perhaps by now we should have elected H. P. Lovecraft as the Poet Laureate of the Anthropocene. He would get my vote, assuming I hadn’t had my head pulled off by Cthulhu already.
Featured image credit: “Dirt Road” by shrutikhanna. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.