I will admit by saying that I didn’t discover H.P Lovecraft’s works until about seven years ago, right after Dan Lockwood’s graphic vignette LOVECRAFT ANTHOLOGY VOL. 1 was published into the mass market. I was almost eleven years old, and found it poking out of my mother’s library bag after a long excursion with her at a Portland library. Seeing the ominous, navy-blue cover, I flipped to a page near the end of the book and, with my pubescent, neutered eyes, saw a fish creature known as Dagon. With its dark, scaly body, white glowing eyes, sharp talons, and hideous, blood-stained face, this was my first leap into Lovecraftian territory, illustrated by the ever-so-talented Alice Duke. I can honestly say I had no idea what it was all about, yet I became curious and decided to read the original story Dagon, itself. I was incredibly impressed, and over a period of a few years had read and analyzed about 25 of Lovecraft’s tales.
To this day, I consider myself a fan of this talented man and what he had created. His concepts, even if they were not the first, were incredibly detailed and developed for his time period. His works cannot exactly be classified into one genre. While you will hear people call him a “cosmic horror” writer, his work went beyond and outside the reaches of horror. H.P Lovecraft’s stories are about exploring the outer reaches of what humans can see and perceive, creating vast landscapes and a diverse pantheon of gods (which are not really gods at all but are, unequivocally, beings and entities that we mere mortals cannot even begin to fathom and equate with the gods of flesh and blood we created when we could not figure out how the world worked). From the daemon sultan Azathoth to his shape-shifting messenger Nyarlothotep to the tentacled horror that is Cthulhu, Lovecraft was certainly one to explore into the depths of mystery and what we cannot comprehend, no matter how far science takes us. (Lovecraft was terrified of the ocean, which is an obvious major theme in his writings, yet that’s in an essay I have yet to publish on here).
Putting Lovecraft’s short stories and other works into a single genre (which I already mentioned was “cosmic horror”) is where problems start(ed) to arise.
Shortly after Lovecraft’s death, one of his good friends, August Derleth, thought that he was the natural heir to Lovecraft. It was he who coined the term Cthulhu Mythos as well as labelling Lovecraft’s stories as “cosmic horror”. Over a long period of time (until his own death in 1971), Derleth began publishing stories containing Lovecraft’s canon, such as the deity Cthulhu, Hastur the Unspeakable (which Lovecraft never labelled as “The Unspeakable”–this is another Derleth creation), and really, all of Lovecraft’s gods as well as some characters from stories such as The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Dreams in the Witch House before putting them into his own stories and labelling it as “Cthulhu Mythos” and “Lovecraftian”.
There is a reason why I dislike the term Cthulhu Mythos as much as I dislike the term “Lovecraft-inspired”. At first I believed the term was coined because Derleth wanted to gather Lovecraft’s connecting stories and vignettes together into one, large mythological scale. Many of Lovecraft’s tales do indeed interconnect with each other, as many of his stories reference the deity names repeatedly as well as sticking to the themes of the East Coast, the ocean, the cosmos, and later on developing the backgrounds of alien races and gods he created. While there is some explicit truth behind this matter, it later became discernable to me that Derleth most likely began using this term so that he and other writers in his circle could publish stories in this label them as Lovecaftian canon. Why do I believe this to be true?
Because not only was Derleth a close friend of Lovecraft, he was also the first individual to publish Lovecraft’s stories. He and H.P obviously had a rather tight-knit relationship, as well as a close camaraderie with others in their métier. This way, after Lovecraft’s death at the mere age of 47 in 1937, he was able to integrate his own writings and canon into Lovecraft’s under the Cthulhu Mythos label without anybody raising an eyebrow about it.
Once Lovecraft became more popular in the 1980’s (mostly with the help of Dungeons and Dragons), other writers thought they could do something similar, but use the “Lovecraftian” label instead of the more tight-knit “Cthulhu Mythos” moniker. What has this resulted in?
People who reference Cthulhu without knowing who or what the creature is. Dropping the word F’taghn and Iä like you know what those words mean. Stories only containing Lovecraft characters and deities but not having the creepy, disturbing, atmosphere that would truly make any “Lovecraft-inspired” story “Lovecraftian”.
The one who has gone under assault the most and has gotten the most fame is Cthulhu, himself. He’s everywhere. From being in the titles of dozens of books cranked out yearly labelled “stories inspired by Lovecraft” to plushies and squishables to internet memes. What is the reasoning behind this?
Cthulhu has become what Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster have been manifested into; generic, parodical creatures used on a whim because people don’t bother to read the works or the stories behind them, instead seeing the mere archetypes the mass public interpreted and shaped them into, much like a fundamentalist Christian seeing images of pagan gods for the first time and labelling them as evil instead of reading up on the rich histories behind each and every one of them, but are instead looking through the lens of what the mass public sees.
Frankenstein’s monster, one of the most fascinating, philosophical, complex creatures in literature, who is actually thoroughly explored instead of resorting to the usual trope of monsters being evil and stupid, is made into a creature of evil and stupidity by a multi-million Hollywood corporation. Dracula, a mysterious, composite individual who is explored past the blood-sucking, evil monster trope, is turned into a mere, blood-sucking, evil monster by the same corporation in the same time period.
Cthulhu has yet to reach that point, but time will surely tell. You see, Lovecraft made Cthulhu tangible. Since he described Cthulhu’s appearance in The Call of Cthulhu, people can imagine Lovecraft’s one of not-so nightmares without having to go through the strain of doing so when it came to other deities and aliens like Yog-Sothoth or the Elder Beings from At the Mountains of Madness. People only see an octopus-headed man instead of realizing what makes Cthulhu scary. It’s not the cephalopod head that’s frightening. It’s the depictions of insanity and terror Lovecraft depicted in the story that made it frightening. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, people fail to realize what made them scary. It wasn’t Dracula sucking blood. It wasn’t Frankenstein’s monster lumbering around and sounding like he’s constipated. It was the sense of dread, the anxiety, the terror cast upon the individual who witnesses them (e.g. Jonathan Harker, Dr. Frankenstein, Francis Wayland Thurston), as well as the atmosphere the author’s of these stories took time and effort to make terrifying.
Now every time I head to Powell’s and enter the Gold Room (sci-fi and horror section of the book store), just a little turn of my head to the left will show bookshelves crammed with books titled “_____ of Cthulhu” or “Cthulhu’s ______”…I really should make a drinking game out of it.
Of course, all these books are so-called “Lovecraft inspired” short stories written by both indie and big-name writers. While I will admit that I have read a couple that are indeed imposing and unsettling, out of all the dozen Lovecraft-inspired short-story compilations I’ve read, a superfluous amount fell into one of these unfortunate categories:
1). Using the names and nightmares Lovecraft, himself came up with and inserting the into a two-cent story in which the Lovecraft character usually has to battle the Lovecraftian nightmare (e.g. Herbert West vs. Nyarlothotep or something along those lines).
2). The stars align correctly and Cthulhu rises. The story usually involves him tearing up New York City and sending his spawn out to enslave humankind. These authors also tend to forget what made Cthulhu terrifying in the first place (it’s not him tearing up big cities if you want a hint).
3). Zombies. Or Herbert West or a knockoff battle zombies, making B-movie level dialogue as they do so.
4). Thinking that putting grandiose, eloquent words here and there when the writing is below mediocre level makes it “Lovecraftian”. Indeed Lovecraft’s writing was often verbose and could take a while to get used to, yet these authors fail to realize how Lovecraft was incredibly skilled when it came to building tension, atmosphere, and trepidation.
5). Filled to the brim with violence, profanity and of course, nehked laydehs. Nothing screams Lovecraft like a liberal amount of blood and tits. I am aware that Lovecraft did portray subtle violence and orgiastic rituals in his works, yet that’s not what made him unique and creepy.
6). Fish and tentacle rape. I’m looking at you especially, Moore.
7). Giving the terror away in the story too early instead of building suspense and agitation, like many modern day horror films.
8). This is the most common one: the oh-so-flawed and nonviable black vs. white/good vs. evil debate. It seems to be a very common trait in human nature for us to label things we do not understand as “evil”. Whether this has to do with our Abrahamic upbringings I cannot say, but it is a truly backwards, primitive argument that I never liked alliancing with, even as a little girl who loved Disney princess movies.
Why do we label Cthulhu (who I’m using as an example since he’s the most popular and falls victim in this category the most) as evil? In The Call of Cthulhu and other works by Lovecraft that mention him, Cthulhu transcends past the typical good vs. evil that mankind set upon themselves. Why would an ancient, unhuman being such as Cthulhu alliance himself to such a label? If you want more back-up on this, here’s a quote from H.P Lovecraft, himself:
“…premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large… To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of space or time or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all… [W]hen we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism [sic] at the threshold.”
Yep. Lovecraft’s works could get pretty philosophical as well, another reason why I don’t like labelling his work as “cosmic horror”.
There are more to list, yet doing so would be a miserable experience. Am I saying Lovecraftian fiction should not be written? No, I’m not. In fact, H.P himself encouraged and inspired a bunch of young writers, including famous ones like Robert Bloch!
However, the point I’m trying to make is the lack of thought and creativity going into these stories. I believe if you truly want to write something “Lovecraftian”, you should read and re-read stories by the man, himself, both in the Cthulhu Mythos and outside of it (I actually find his more local, early stories such as The Beast in the Cave to be some of his best).
Lovecraft is not about violence, boobs, fish rape, sodomy, Cthulhu’s vengeance against humanity, devil worship, or malevolent gods taking over the world. It’s about what we cannot comprehend, the outer reaches we will not be able to touch, the true feebleness of the human mind to grasp such abstract, esoteric concepts such as Great Old Ones, and truly, the irony than humankind is only a microcosm to an uncaring, unloving, inexplicable universe, whose grasp lies in the hands(?) of a blind, chaotic, idiot god who is completely oblivious of his own creation(s).
I believe that if you want to capture the true horror that is Lovecraft, you need to look past the tentacles of Cthulhu, the fishy claws of Dagon and the Deep Ones, and far past the reaches of the time-travelling, brain-swapping Yithians. Explore what makes Lovecraft one of the most fantastic, terrifying, nonrestrictive writers to ever hit paper. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the main characters of his stories, and try to envision yourself being whisked away from your own, physical body, or slowly realize reality is fading away from you on inkling at a time and you have no control over it, or imagine yourself exploring the old, decrepit remains of an alien city, whether it be the sunken city of R’lyeh or the metropolis in the middle of an isolated Antarctic…both are equally terrifying.
You are merely the pawn, the puppet, and the insect in a universe full of more powerful, intangible beings.
You can follow Erin Rose Latta on her Goodreads profile (linked in the “About Me” page) and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She currently does research behind the works and life of Lovecraft, himself. She hopes in the near future to become a contributor for the H.P Lovecraft Historical Society.