H. P. Lovecraft — or how to appreciate his work without being a dick about it.

Look, I like Lovecraft as much as anybody. And in the world of speculative fiction — particularly horror — “anybody” is a long and illustrious list. Stephen King. Ramsey Campbell. Robert Bloch. Charles Stross… no, sod it. It would be easier to list writers who haven’t tried their hand at a Cthulhu Mythos story than to list those that have added to the body of work that has grown from Lovecraft’s singular vision of horror.

Lovecraft had great ideas. His vision of humankind as a kind of ignorant, terrified latecomer clinging desperately to a thin veneer of sanity in an uncaring, inherently hostile universe full of innately incomprehensible horrors and monstrosities is, very possibly, a spark of genius. Certainly, it has inspired generation upon generation of writers and created some of the creepiest fiction of all time.

But you know what?

I’m just gonna put it out here, folks. And I know: I’m gonna pay for this. But the truth is, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was not a very good writer.

He was verbose as hell. He wallowed in turgid passive structures. He loved to use fifty-cent words that nobody else — particularly the readers of cheap-ass, dime-store pulp fiction magazines — understood. (Hands up everyone here who can define “rugose” without resorting to any form of dictionary or thesaurus. Oh, really? Well then: how are you with “non-Euclidean”?)  Reading a typical Lovecraft story is a lot like trying to snort a thesaurus: painful, and largely irrelevant.

Note very clearly I’m not saying those stories had no value. Seriously? The ideas and the concepts in them were creepy and horrifying in a way that few other writers have ever achieved, and that’s precisely why Lovecraft’s themes and tropes and ideas keep being recycled. And you know what? I love Stephen King’s mythos stories. Oh, and Charles Stross — jeez, those “Laundry” books of his are absolutely bloody brilliant. Fantastic!

You know what I don’t like, though?

I don’t like wannabe-Lovecrafts who think that the way to do Lovecraft is to write the same horrible, passive, verbose, overcomplicated pseudo-Victorian shit that Lovecraft did.

Here it is in a nutshell, my friends. By all means, explore Lovecraft’s ideas. Play with the ever-expanding pantheon of horrors that the Master established. Join the august company of often extraordinary writers who have delineated their own dark interpretations of Lovecraft’s singular vision.

But if I find you using the word “eldritch” without a very fucking good excuse, I will hunt you down and hurt you.

Permanently.

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10 comments

  1. “rugose” yeah I have only ever come across in H P’s work, but I recon I could take on “non-Euclidean”.

    His influence has even reached one the most popular and satisfying computer games in recent years Over at Io9 http://io9.com/5886178/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation

    The flaw is a simple one: the assumption that life has meaning, that intelligent life has a purpose, and that humanity contributes anything to the universe. H.P. Lovecraft, a man “against the world, against life,” refused to assume the universe was good. Out of that refusal crawled the sublime philosophy of Cosmicism – defined thusly:

    There is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos, ever susceptible to being wiped from existence at any moment. This also suggests that the majority of undiscerning humanity are creatures with the same significance as insects in a much greater struggle between greater forces which, due to humanity’s small, visionless and unimportant nature, it does not recognize.

    Cosmicism is not merely the idea that there is no meaning in the universe. It’s far worse. Instead, the argument is that there is meaning, but it is so far above and beyond human understanding that we can never attain meaningful existence. Despite writing at the turn of the last century, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cosmicism is something with which no major narrative of humanity’s journey through the stars has dealt. Until, that is, Mass Effect allowed Sovereign to utter the following sentences:

    Organic life is nothing but a genetic mutation, an accident. Your lives are measured in years and decades. You wither and die. We are eternal. We are the pinnacle of evolution and existence. Before us, you are nothing . . . Your civilization is based on the technology of the mass relay, our technology. By using it, your society develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic evolution. You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.
    In doing so, Mass Effect forces the observant player to ask, “Why fight for survival in a meaningless universe?” From the answer stems a story that demands the player confront the purpose of human beings in the galaxy at every level. To play Mass Effect is to consider the value of the lives of other species, the meaning of life on a cosmic scale, and the importance of individual relationships in the face of cataclysm.

  2. or was the above post me be a dick about it?

  3. The world “eldritch” didn’t appear anywhere that I noticed. I think you’re safe. For now.

  4. And no one ever quotes his series of comic gems ‘Sweet Ermengarde, the Street, and the Terrible Old Man’

  5. schillingklaus · · Reply

    Lovecraft is a great author and example to live up to, and he writes in order to teac h ultimate truth to the worthy part of mankind; whereas vulgar scribblers, such as King, just write in order to please the ignorant masses. All sufficiently advanced humans detest the world and life, as already known by Arthur Schopenhauer. And I will use the term eldritch whenerver I want to, and no self-proclaimed authority will ever keep me from doing so.

    1. Michael Guirguis · · Reply

      Misanthropy and an aversion to corporeal existence are not exclusive to “advanced” humans. I’m certain that it merely depends on one’s temperament and philosophical stance. An emo teenager can claim that he abhors life to create a semblance of profoundness, or on account of his emotional caprices. He would immediately retract his statements if a girl subsequently propositioned him out of mingled pity and annoyance. Our society progresses, with each passing decade, due to the joint efforts of industrious and erudite philanthropists. Those geniuses don’t disdain the world or life, but strive to enhance it. Yes, I am a pretentious, sesquipedalian dimwit who types out fustian-laden rebuttals to seem sapient. Give me points for honesty.

  6. Yeah, I think Lovecraft inserted a lot of sophisticated words into his work in order to please the lovers of literature. I enjoy the plethora of words that Lovecraft used in his writing, but I am one of the few who find the discovery of a new word exciting.

    Now in my opinion, I find Stephen King’s writing a little boring. His stories are okay, but I do not enjoy his eighth-grade writing level (the writing cap that is placed on authors in order to sell more copies to the masses because that is the reading level of the average American).

    1. What can I say? You’re preaching to the converted there. BTW — I like King’s short stuff too.

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