As part of the Catacombs "Strange Terrors" celebration, here is the third of four weekly posts in my 2010 "Icons of Horror" series, with this years set focusing on popular or significant genre authors.
Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft (1890-1937) was relatively unknown during his own lifetime despite his stories appearing in the pages of prominent pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, few people knew his name. However he was one of the great letter writers of the 20th century, corresponding regularly with other contemporary writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard; people who became good friends of his, even though they never met in person. This group of correspondents became known as the "Lovecraft Circle", since they all freely borrowed elements of Lovecraft's stories – the mysterious books with disturbing names, the pantheon of ancient alien gods, such as Cthulhu and Azathoth, and eldritch places, such as the New England town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University – for use in their own works (with Lovecraft's blessing and encouragement).
Lovecraft's guiding literary principle was what he termed "cosmicism" or "cosmic horror", the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, gamble with their own sanity. As early as the 1940s, Lovecraft's work had developed a cult following for his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of loosely interconnected tales featuring a pantheon of humanity-nullifying entities, as well as the Necronomicon (a fictional grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore). His works were deeply pessimistic and cynical, challenging the old values of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Christian humanism. Lovecraft's protagonists usually suffer the opposite of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality and the abyss.
Although Lovecraft's readership was limited during his life, his reputation has grown over the decades, and he is now regarded as one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century. According to Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft — as with Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century — has exerted "an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction". Stephen King has called Lovecraft "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale”.
Literary historians believe that his fiction was informed by seminal events in his early life such as the syphilis-induced psychosis (and later death) of his father. His grandfather's death in 1904 greatly affected Lovecraft's life after mismanagement of his grandfather's estate left the family in such poor financial circumstances that they were forced to move into much smaller accommodations. Lovecraft was so deeply affected by the loss of his home and birthplace that he contemplated suicide for a time. A sickly child, Lovecraft is believed to have suffered from night terrors; he believed himself to be assaulted at night by horrific "night gaunts." Much of his later work is thought to have been directly inspired by these terrors.
H.P. Lovecraft’s works have also been widely adapted for radio, films, television and comic books. [Portrait illustration (above; left) by Bruce Timm].