“A Man Who Loved His Craft.” An Assignment that turned into a valuable tool for my writing.
“Perspective is everything,” one of my annoyingly hippy friends would say to try and cheer me up after a bad day, to which I would usually retort by telling him to kick rocks. Again and again he would use irksome lexicons like “it’s always darkest before dawn,” to improve what he called my Dan-the-downer moods. My buddy’s inclination towards philosophic realism is often not much more than a speed bump on the circular conversations he pulls me into, but after I insulted him once for attempting to be such a neo- Nietzsche, he told me that Nietzsche was on to something and that I should open my mind and read a story by some guy called H.P. Lovecraft. I grudgingly agreed, and soon ate my words because I loved it, and there started my journey down the dark, cosmic rabbit hole of the dark nihilistic horror of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, an author who proved to me truly, that perspective is everything.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890 to a traveling jewel seller young Howard watched as his father went insane due to a dyad of neurosyphillis and heroin addiction. After a breakdown the father was committed to an institution and lived the last five years of his life until his passing, forcing the family to move in with his grandparents because of financial difficulties. Howard learned to read at the age of two and had begun writing poetry at the age of six. This might seem cute until you consider the fact that young H.P.’s six year old poetry was extremely complex and that he was cognizant of rhythm, meter, and even alliteration. H.P. was nurtured by a grandfather who thought Gothic Horror stories were appropriate bedtime reading for a young child. Because of this questionable parenting, the young boy suffered frequent night terrors throughout his childhood. After a short time the grandfather died, and the family slid into financial turmoil. As a third and final blow to young HP his mother ended up following the institutional path of her husband, dying in the same ward as him in a cruel conclusion to Lovecraft’s tragic juvenilia that would lead us to empathize that writing horror stories could be seen as a safety valve to escape reality.
Lovecraft lived a poor life, and even suffered from malnutrition. His writings did not have widespread appeal due to his unconventional rejection of humanism, so he made due with the money he earned as an editor and columnist of various small magazines. He died of cancer of the intestines at the ripe age of 46 in 1937 in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
Lovecraft’s work is the quintessential epitome of straw nihilism, that is, the philosophy that life is utterly meaningless. The stark human condition where our quest for knowledge gleans such a small amount of knowledge of the infinitely expanding cosmos is a running theme through his work. Statistically, all we know about our universe is essentially zero percent. We view life through a conical visual field that can’t sense infrared, UV, or microwaves; we can’t see through objects, and are limited to a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Aristotle once called the sense of sight “the most noble of man’s faculties,” yet it is a sense so atrophied that it barely allows us to perceive much more than is right under our nose. Astronomers and physicists work to discover the awful secrets of the universe, whether we are alone, and what makes up the dark spaces between the cosmos. Lovecraft knows, and he’s not afraid to reveal it: impotence. That in one corner of a solar system a little blue planet revolves around a star that is at one corner of a galaxy that makes up an even larger cluster of galaxies in one corner of an ever expanding and changing universe; that we are a speck on a speck on a speck in the middle of a black abyss of helplessness. Thinking pragmatically, of course, Lovecraft’s views may be correct, but going through life with such an outlook will surely lead anyone to despair. Another theme that is often present with his work is punishment for the quest of knowledge, whether forbidden or not. Many of his characters are intelligent, ambitious young men who unravel that awful secret to the universe, which forces them utterly mad. Their entire view of the world has been altered by some revelation, thus reinforcing that one’s perspective has such a profound influence.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft is an important writer for several reasons, mainly for inventing a wholly new genre of horror called “cosmicism,” the horror that gets under your skin because the spot of hope infused is about the size of the period at the end of this run-on sentence. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Alan Moore have all credited Lovecraft for the inspiration for several of their pieces of work.
Lovecraft’s works weren’t appreciated, as they should have been while he was alive, but the notoriety he has gained after his death has pushed him to become one of the most beloved horror writers of all time, on par with his hero and rival Edgar Allan Poe.
The creative process by Lovecraft is a highly complex one that involves a taxonomy of weird fiction subtypes and elements. He broke the process of writing a short story into five components summarized in the following:
- Prepare a synopsis in order of occurrence
- Prepare a synopsis in order of narration, noting changing perspectives, stressors and climax. Interpolate first synopsis with second.
- Rapidly write the story out, uncritically, using the second synopsis and adding in details if they should increase dramatic effect.
- Revise story, focusing on pacing, syntax, and effectiveness. Add in details if opportunity presents.
- Type up a copy, adding in extra details if they seem fitting.
Lovecraft states that the first three stages are often done mentally, without writing any of it down at all and that he often would begin at the third stage without a clear idea of how a story will pan out.
Lovecraft then goes on to organize distinct types of weird fiction and elements, which I have broken down into the beautiful table below.
|Type of weird story||Mood or feeling||Pictorial conception||General situation / condition /Legend or intellectual conception||Specific dramatic situation|
|Elements of a weird story||Some basic, underlying horror or abnormality/ condition/ entity||The general effects or bearings of the horror||The mode of manifestation —object embodying the horror and phenomena observed||The types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror||The specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions|
Lovecraft then goes on to say that he uses this awareness of the make up of a weird story to carefully place emphasis where it belongs. In his own words he makes the claim that only writers of “immature pulp charlatan–fiction,” infuse an element of supernatural in a story without there being a proper grounding in realism. Simply, stories like Alice in Wonderland or Narnia are forms of juvenilia because an impossible event (going through a portal) separates the world of the main character from the world of the reader. Revolutionizing horror by building marvels based in our world, using an exceptional build, an atmosphere of the unknown, and creating realistic characters, Lovecraft leaves you wondering how printed words could have such a profound psychological effect on you.
The graph below shows an analysis of Lovecraft’s major works of fiction across his lifespan. Note that the x-axis lists when his works were written, rather than when they were published. Taking note of Lovecraft’s radical twist of style from previous writers of horror we see how the early works were churned out ad naseum, but seemed to decrease over his short lifespan. This data seems contrarian to Kozbelt’s analysis and findings that creative work usually comes later on in an individual’s life but it can be explained with a further analysis. Lovecraft’s early career involved writing mostly short stories and flash fiction (fiction less than 2,000 words long). He produced five novellas and one full-length novel, the earliest of which came in 1927. So perhaps the bulk of Lovecraft’s work came at the beginning of his career, however the more refined pieces of weird fiction were produced only in the last six years of his creative life.
Lovecraft’s style has amassed a very large underground following, and we see his influence in contemporary popular culture all the time. Perhaps his most beloved creation was the Cthulu mythos, an underwater monster who looks vaguely humanoid as tentacles emanate from every part of his body. With short stories of weird fiction that are more frightful than anything that could possibly be created by Stephen King and Ann Rice’s hypothetical baby, it truly is a shame that his work is not more renowned. In the digital age, as creativity and imagination are slowly becoming less and less valuable traits, one plausible explanation for our apparent apathy towards Lovecraft may be his infusion of the unknown. He often describes things as looking “too horrible to describe,” which leaves us free to imagine the horror as something out of our greatest nightmares. Lovecraft’s views about the quest for knowledge so often ending in despair are based in a kernel of truth. Ironically, almost every scientific discovery made in the passed century has raised more questions rather than answering those we already have. Einstein’s theory of relativity challenged preconceived notions of gravity, and established the complex concept of Space-Time, what is that? How does it work, can it be separated, what does “curved space-time” even mean? As Vonnegut would say, so it goes, and instead of concentrating on the rain we can be like my buddy and say “look, above the cloud’s, it’s not raining.” The way we look at things, or our perspective, truly is everything.
Miscellaneous Writings. By H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S.T. Joshi. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1995, 113–16.
Don G. Smith, H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture, 2005, ISBN 0-7864-2091-X,page 85, “Lovecraft never had much good to say about families either”
Tyson, Donald (2010). The Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe. Llewellyn Publications. pp. 5–6, 57–59
Burleson, Donald (1991). On Lovecraft’s Themes: Touching the Glass. Associated University Pressess. pp. 135–147