“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form – and the local human passions and conditions and standards – are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes.” (H.P. Lovecraft)
What would you get if you mixed Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stephen King? The answer might be something resembling Howard Phillips Lovecraft, an extremely influential poet and author who mixed science fiction, horror, and fantasy into a subgenre known as “weird fiction”. Perhaps nothing encapsulates weird fiction like his creation of the monster Cthulhu, which has been used by other writers to spawn a fictional universe and mythology centered around Cthulhu.
There is no greater accolade for a writer than for their name to become an adjective. For example, any story that deals with a dystopian future is likely to be called “Orwellian” following the success of the novel 1984 by English writer George Orwell. But within the horror genre, Lovecraft’s work, filled with madness and brooding menace and set in a semi-fictional world of his own creation, gave rise to the use of the term “Lovecraftian” to describe similar works. Despite this accolade, however, Lovecraft achieved almost no commercial success and very little recognition during his lifetime. His output also seems disproportionately small compared to his current influence – he never wrote a full-length novel, and most of his fiction took the form of short stories published in various magazines. It was only after his death that his fiction was regarded as more significant than the bulk of horror fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s.
Lovecraft was a complex man, a truly prolific letter writer (it has been estimated that he wrote more than 100,000 letters during his lifetime), a poet, an amateur journalist, a literary critic, a scientist, and a philosopher. His letters give insight into his personality, though what they reveal is not always pleasant, as his complexity extended well beyond his writing. He was deeply eccentric, but also an anti-Semite (though he married a Jewish woman), a xenophobe, a racist, and a supporter of the Nazis. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Lovecraft wrote, “I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!” Some extremist groups have claimed that Lovecraft’s horror stories are really parables about the danger of attempting to create racially integrated societies. Conversely, apologists and supporters acknowledge his extreme racism and anti-Semitic views but claim that these should be separated from an appreciation of his writing.
Lovecraft’s legacy has become mired in this controversy. The World Fantasy Award was established in 1975 as a literary prize for writers in a genre “too often distinguished by low financial remuneration and indifference.” A noble aim, perhaps, but the award itself was in the form of a caricatured bust of Lovecraft’s face, which became known as the “Howard” award. How can a literary prize incorporating the face of a man who often claimed that black people were inherently inferior to whites be awarded to writers of all races?
Despite all the controversy, Lovecraft is generally recognized and accepted today as one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century. How did this happen? What was it about Lovecraft’s writing that would come to inspire such passion among readers? How could a writer who was so unsuccessful in life that he simply gave up on trying to sell his work come to be regarded as an important writer after his death? H.P. Lovecraft: The Life and Career of the Influential Horror Fiction Author chronicles how Lovecraft became one of the 20th century’s most important writers.
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