Howard Phillips Lovecraft was arguably the most significant horror author of the twentieth-century. He links the nineteenth and early twentieth-century authors who were his own influences (Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, Arthur Machen and Algernon Henry Blackwood) and writers of contemporary horror and fantastic fiction. Robert Albert Bloch, the author of ‘Psycho,’ and Robert Ervin Howard, writer of the ‘Conan’ stories, were both friends of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and authors as different as Stephen Edwin King, Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges and Joanna Russ have all published Lovecraftian stories.
In 2005 three collections of Lovecraftian stories were in print in the United Kingdom as ‘Penguin Modern Classics,’ and his work has clearly influenced contemporary “New Weird” authors like China Tom Miéville. His 1927 study ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ is accepted as an important work, and he makes an appearance in Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.’ The use and reuse of fictional books, people, places, and entities in the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, his friends and others have made his influence easy to trace. This tendency was strengthened by August William Derleth, whose editing and interpretations played a large part in systematizing Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s fictional universe and giving it a name — the ‘Cthulhu Mythos.’
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, United States of America in 1890. His father, a commercial traveller, died in 1898, leaving his mother, maternal grandfather, and two aunts to bring him up. This side of Lovecraft’s family was of old and rather wealthy New England stock, but in 1904 the death of his grandfather and collapse of his business meant that the Lovecraft’s were forced to move out of the family’s mansion. Despite his passion for reading and writing, Howard Phillips Lovecraft did not finish high school as ill health — probably depression — led to frequent periods of absence. In 1908 he more or less turned his back on the world, living as a self-described “hermit” until 1913. What drew him out of this isolation was the opportunity to contribute to the amateur journalism movement. Publishing his own journal and commenting on the efforts of others, Howard Phillips Lovecraft began to write fiction again in 1917, and by 1923 he was beginning to contribute to the newly founded pulp horror and fantasy magazine ‘Weird Tales.’
Following the death of his mother in 1921, Howard Phillips Lovecraft married Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian Jewish immigrant, in New York in 1924. The first days of their marriage were not easy and they ceased to live together after only ten months. Howard Phillips Lovecraft hated New York and returned to Providence in 1926. Sonia Haft Greene was effectively barred from joining Howard Phillips Lovecraft because his aunts opposed her plan to open a shop there, and they divorced in 1929. Howard Phillips Lovecraft had started writing in earnest in New York in 1925, though, and he continued to sell stories to ‘Weird Tales,’ ‘Amazing Stories’ and elsewhere until his death in 1937. He was unable to live off these stories, however, relying on the remnants of his inheritance as well as income from revisions and ghostwriting. Howard Phillips Lovecraft did not live to see his stories collected in hardcover, though his friends August William Derleth and Donald Albert Wandrei set up Arkham House to publish Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work posthumously.
It is easy to imagine Howard Phillips Lovecraft as the classic outsider, a subject he explored in the story of that name. A seemingly reclusive figure who hated the twentieth-century and longed to return to the colonial era, he was an autodidact with strong and sometimes antisocial opinions. Yet he did travel and made many friends through his stories, amateur journalism and letter writing. This group of younger friends kept his name alive, and in the 1960s and 1970s, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was “rediscovered” by a new generation of readers. The publication of the highly successful role-playing game ‘Call of Cthulhu’ in the 1980s brought wider interest, as did a number of films that have referred to his ideas in some way. The Internet has also provided space for further discussion and elaboration of his work.
Despite his interest in the supernatural, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a confirmed atheist. He described himself as a “mechanistic materialist,” believing that the universe obeyed the principles and laws discovered by nineteenth-century science. Paradoxically this belief was at the heart of his theme of “cosmic terror;” the vast gulfs of space and time revealed by sciences like astronomy and geology had no human scale. He wrote: “the reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft was not alone in this awareness of the sublimity of “deep time,” in fact, Rosalind Williams suggests that “deep time retained its aura of mystery and sacredness” despite the achievements of Cuvier, Schliemann, and T. H. Huxley.
In 1927 he wrote “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.” As a consequence, his horrific extraterrestrial entities were not evil, because this implies a human morality. In ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s narrator warns: “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.” When his characters do seek to master space and time, like the insane inventor Crawford Tillinghast, who yells “Space belongs to me, do you hear?” in ‘From Beyond,’ they invariably come to a sticky end. Neither magic nor science can make these things human and familiar.
As a consequence of this, it makes sense to approach Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work as fantastic fictions. As Lucie Armitt explains, “the fantastic is a mode or attitude, rather than a genre.” Following Tzvetan Todorov, the fantastic encourages the reader to hesitate between conflicting interpretations. Because this hesitation manifests itself within the text, it is possible to extend Tzvetan Todorov beyond his structuralist concerns and to read Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s fictions as explorations of the limits of language and representation. In his article ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,’ he wrote that he wished “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.”
However, he goes on to stress that these illusions must be realistic ones: Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.
Rosemary Jackson suggests that the fantastic attempts to say the unsayable. It relies upon “non-signification,” on severing the connection between signifier and signified, producing all kinds of “nameless things” and “thingless names.” She writes that his “horror fantasies are particularly self-conscious in their stress on the impossibility of naming this unnameable presence, the thing which can be registered in the text only as absence and shadow. [He] circles around this dark area in an attempt to get beyond language to something other, yet the endeavour to visualize and verbalize the unseen and unsayable is one which inevitably falls short, except by drawing attention to exactly this difficulty of utterance.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his collaborators produced a host of “thingless names,” collected in ‘The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana,’ a reference guide to his invented places, beings, and concepts. The last entry gives a flavour of the book: ‘Zvilpogghua.’ There are also many “nameless things” that lurk “beyond the radius of our sight and analysis” in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s stories. Some are so hybrid that they can only be described as a mixture of things they almost resemble, as in this example from ‘The Festival:’ They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, not decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall.
Noël Carroll notes that “an object or being is impure if it is categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless,” appearing as “metaphysical misfits.” The “shoggoth” from ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is another good example of formlessness; Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s narrator actually describes it as “the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s thing that should not be.” It seems that this “terrible, indescribable thing” can be described, but only as a “nightmare plastic column,” “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles… with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light.”
It is worth considering an example here in some detail. In the story ‘The Unnamable’ Howard Phillips Lovecraft works through this problem of naming and knowing. It begins with two friends sitting on an old tomb in a New England graveyard, “speculating about the unnamable.” The narrator, Carter, a writer of ‘Weird Tales,’ is trying to persuade his friend Manton that it is possible to speak of nameless things. Manton is unimpressed: We know things, he said, only through our five senses or our intuitions; wherefore it is quite impossible to refer to any object or spectacle which cannot be clearly depicted by the solid definitions of fact or the correct doctrines of theology.
Wrapped up in their debate, the two friends barely notice night falling as Carter tells Manton about the history behind one of his stories. It involves a half-human, hoofed thing with a blemished eye which existed in Puritan times; a shunned house and a boarded-up attic; and the rumoured survival of this thing in some immaterial form into the present day. Carter offers this as an example of the “unnamable,” asking “What coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulosity as the specter of a malign, chaotic perversion, itself a morbid blasphemy against nature?” This is precisely the question that haunts the writer of the fantastic. Carter then reveals to Manton that he looked for and found the curious remains of the creature, restoring them to a nearby tomb, the very tomb that they are sitting on.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was certainly aware of Salomon’s “problem of witnessing.” Many stories start with the narrator apologising for or qualifying his account; ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ begins with the words “Bear in mind closely that I did not actually see any actual visual horror at the end.” Notebooks and manuscripts are found long after their authors have disappeared; his narrators continue to record their experiences for the reader as they go mad or are consumed by ravening horrors from beyond. Witnessing is central to the plot, as it is the representation of space.