There’s a lot to say about both the man’s work and the man himself. I just saw “Dreams in the Witch House” at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago by WildClaw productions and was so pleased to see a Lovecraftian tale work on stage that I had to write something. First of all, great work guys. Portraying Lovecraftian dimensions is not easy work and it was done fantastically by the effects and sound crew, and the movements of the cast too (Tom this means you!) As a matter of fact, the entire set, sound, lights and everything was pretty amazing for the budget, location and subject matter. Liberties were taken in parts with the plotline, but this was very understandable as Lovecraft is often sparse on dialogue and writing any kind of storyline that could be adapted into this format while retaining the Lovecraftian feel must have been challenging. The show could have benefited from a little more clarity as to how Lovecraftian monsters differ from your average agent of good or evil, and the tentacle scene needs to either go or be reworked, but overall I was impressed. The cast was excellent, doing a great job of illustrating the bizarre kind of inhabitant that Arkham breeds as well as making us identify with the protagonists, letting us follow them down the dark road they travel. Now a few words for the uninitiated…
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. His father became “acutely psychotic” while on a business trip in Chicago and was subsequently hospitalized. He was then raised by his mother who tended to be rather overprotective of him, padding corners around the house and coddling him at every turn which likely only furthered to isolate him from his peers.
Many would consider Lovecraft to be a flawed human being. He believed that the American revolution was a mistake, he was a monarchist, later he was a socialist. Re-reading him lately, I can’t really deny that he was a racist as well. Some of his works, have overt racism in there, even bearing the times in which he wrote in mind. He tended to be an anglophile, seeing the English culture as the pinnacle of human accomplishment, and other races and cultures (especially African and Native American cultures) seem to be cast in his works as the heathen savages and barbarians.
Lovecraft could also be said to be a flawed writer. He seemed to be in love with his use of archaic language, which he frequently used to describe things to melodramatic effect (eldritch, cyclopean, ichor, to name a few). His characters were rather one dimensional, his narrative too muddy at times, his setup too dry, and confusing. Despite his flaws, the man was also brilliant and one of the best things to happen to horror-fiction in a long time.
What Lovecraft may have lacked in dialogue or complex characters, he gave back tenfold in terms of ambience and invention. In “Call of Cthulhu,” for example, I found his description of the ancient city stumbled upon by the sailors, with it’s non-Euclidean geometry, to be far more memorable and frightening than any recollection of the protagonist on his road to discovery. His manner of horror-fiction emphasized fear of the unknown, often only hinting at horrors, or allowing the reader to simply view a piece of the puzzle since the full picture is always too horrific for the mind to bear. Many writers since, have been influenced by him and his ideas. Lovecraft often encouraged other writers to borrow from him in order to expand the mythology he had created. The Necronomicon (the book of the dead) is one of his best known ideas and has found its way into many different stories and movies as a plot device.
Lovecraft is to horror-fiction what Nietzche was to philosophy. He decided to rewrite the rules. He could have tried to build a better vampire or frankenstein. He could have given you a monster more depraved than the rest, or a complicated villain that does evil but has his own twisted code of ethics. Instead he gave us all something truly, “alien.” It wasn’t that the “Great Old Ones” were evil, they were just so far beyond what we consider to be good and evil, which made them truly frightening. It’s like a kid with an ant and a magnifying glass. Their wants and needs are far beyond our understanding and are at odds with what we want, they’re older than we are, having arrived from distant stars, can’t die,could ruin life as we know it forever, and our lives would have been so much happier if we would have never stumbled upon their existance.
In Lovecraft stories, your protagonist generally either dies or goes insane. The Great Old Ones, they’ll still be there. We may be able to lull them to sleep for a few more years, a decade or a century, but they’ll be ready to retake the earth when the stars are right, they’ll never really go away and we’ll never really win.
Now that’s some serious horror fiction.
For me, Lovecraft’s horror ideology is best summed up with this opening paragraph from “The Call of Cthulhu”
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Pretty fucking eldritch, huh?