Happy October, loyal readers! Welcome to Lightrider’s annual Halloween Month, where we spend our time looking at the contributions of horror to the writing toolbox. And to begin this year, we’ll be looking an author whose work has already been profiled on this site, the creator of the Old Ones, H.P. Lovecraft.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. He was described as a child prodigy, writing poems as early as six. He also took an interest in chemistry and astronomy (though he struggled with the math needed to be an astronomer). His early life also provided much of the influence for his later work- Lovecraft suffered from night terrors and vivid nightmares, and his father reportedly went into a mental asylum when his son was three. Lovecraft also learned Gothic horror stories from his grandfather, whose death forced the family into financial difficulties (another constant theme of Lovecraft’s life).
Lovecraft largely supported himself through his work, which was generally sold to pulp magazines. While at the time given little major fanfare (much like Edgar Allan Poe), much of this pulp is regarded as classic horror, with stories like ‘The Outsider,’ ‘The Thing on the Doorstop,’ and his most famous work, ‘The Call of Cthulu,’ which began Lovecraft’s most enduring creations, the god like aliens known as the Old Ones. Still, these works gained Lovecraft little financial support, and he largely subsided on the support of his wife, Sonia Green. Unfortunately, Green also suffered financial problems, and Lovecraft was forced to reside in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, which proved a hardship due to its immigrant population (Lovecraft held those of English descent in high regard and this sadly shows in much of his work). Eventually, Lovecraft did return to Providence, where he continued to write with increasingly small returns, until his death from cancer of the small intestine in 1937.
What Writers Can Learn: Theme, Suspense, Mystery, World-Building
There are many constants in the works of Lovecraft. He is largely considered a father of the modern horror story due to his consistent theme of man’s great insignificance in the universe. Perhaps owing to his family history and his love of astronomy, Lovecraft’s tales often involve men stumbling onto great secrets that literally drive them mad (many of his stories are recorded as the last testaments of men in the throws of madness). Tales such as ‘Arthur Jerym,’ deal with the secrets of inherited guilt, while stories like ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Colour out of Space’ show the great horrors of the universe, both from above the heavens, and the remnants left on Earth. Each of these stories show the creeping effects of madness, horrible transformations of mind and body, and that despite man’s knowledge, he is but a grain of sand in the vast and terrible beach that is the universe. For a writer looking to tell a mounting tale of suspense, or simply to keep their reader enthralled, they need look no further then Lovecraft.
And for those that look to creating worlds, Lovecraft is also a guide. His most enduring creations, The Old Ones, arguably stand as embodiments of all his themes- otherworldly beings that dwarf man, cause fear that creates madness, and will one day return and undo all of humanity’s work. But they are also an influential mythology onto themselves. ‘The Call of Cthulu’ describes an archeological expedition that uncovers the writings and remnants of Cthulu, including the cult that still worships him, the location his ancient, underwater city, and sets the basis for the creation of the other Old Ones. With this, and other Old Ones tales, like ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,’ Lovecraft created not only a pantheon, but a sense of an ancient world and it’s people, and a horror that will continue to dog man forever. He creates a past and present, and then links the two together forever, some of the finest world building and one authors should strive to look to.
The list of Lovecraft’s stories and the works inspired by them is numerous. However, those looking for the complete history should purchase The Necronomicon, a thorough collection of all Lovecraft’s works (smaller collections are also available). From those stories, ‘Herbert West; Reanimator,’ ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ ‘Cthulu,’ and ‘The Colour Out of Space,’ are all recommended. Many film adaptations also exist, such as Reanimator, From Beyond, The Haunted Palace (though this is mistakenly thought to be based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem) and the anthology Necronomicon. Many films have also been inspired by Lovecraft- the Evil Dead series contains its own Necronomicon, and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness is heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s work. So go find your own way in, but don’t stay too long. We have more to dig up next week.