The Icy Hand of H.P. LOVECRAFT Still Felt Across Media
The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft #1 cover
H.P. Lovecraft is one of those writers who has become so influential, his name is now an adjective. In the past few years that adjective: “Lovecraftian”, has become so ubiquitous, it’s starting to become meaningless. Lovecraft’s influence has intertwined itself indelibly into the sensibilities of visionaries like Guillermo Del Toro, Mike Mignola, H.R. Giger, Stephen King, Alan Moore, and countless others. In comics, Lovecraftiana has become a full-blown subgenre. In addition to openly Lovecraft related works like Fall of Cthulhu or the soon-to-be –filmed Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft, there are hundreds of titles and storylines that utilize themes pioneered by Lovecraft. Conventions that originated in Lovecraft’s work have become integral to modern genre storytelling. As writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning begin to integrate Lovecraftian themes into their “Realm of Kings” event at Marvel, it’s a good time to go back to basics and attempt to define exactly what writers and critics mean when throwing out the term “Lovecraftian”.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 and his life was filled with enough tragedy and gloom to fulfill anyone’s knee-jerk expectations of what the life of a master horror writer must be like. The scion of a once-prominent New England family fallen into decay, Lovecraft’s father was committed to an insane asylum when Lovecraft was 3 years old, eventually dying of syphilis-related symptoms 5 years later. Lovecraft was left to be raised by a mother plagued by hypochondria and depression, as well as a doting aunt and grandfather. Not surprisingly, Lovecraft himself was plagued by illness (some of which was undoubtedly psychosomatic) throughout childhood. Sickly, reserved and brilliant, Lovecraft became a voracious reader and scholar of New England history. All in all, Lovecraft seems to embody the stereotype of the lonely child who escapes a dreary life through dark visions and macabre fantasies. Lovecraft died in 1937, impoverished, sick with cancer and woefully underappreciated in his time.
Lovecraft’s most prominent creation was the oft-referenced Cthulhu Mythos cycle, a body of short stories and novellas that were delicately linked by a monstrous cosmic mythology of forgotten space gods and sinister extradimensional entities. The Mythos stories introduced the world to dread “gods” such as Cthulhu, Azathoth, and Yog-Sothoth, as well as lesser beings like the amphibious deep ones, the prehistoric elder things, and the horrible, unstoppable shoggoths. Stories Like “The Call Of Cthulhu”, At The Mountains of Madness, and “The Whisperer in Darkness” established the mythos as a universe of lone madmen, degenerate cults and terrible truths that cast human perceptions of self-importance and spirituality into an abyss.
Lovecraft was certainly not the first writer to posit that there were baleful supernatural forces writing to besiege us from beyond this world, but Lovecraft’s removal of his mythos from any sort of Judeo-Christian or spiritualist connotation was groundbreaking, especially in Lovecraft’s heyday of the 1920’s and 30’s. The Mythos was not inspired by the eternal battle between concepts like good and evil, but by the sheer terror that arises when contemplating the infinity of space and the possibilities of cosmic time-scales spanning billions of years. The crawling monstrosities of the mythos were not demons or minions of some antithetical hell, nor were they byproducts of ectoplasmic, spiritual energies gone wrong. The Mythos entities were forms of life that operated at such an elevated and inhuman level that the stress of their attention on a race as insignificant as humanity could have apocalyptic effects. When describing the nature of the Mythos’ entities, even the term “evil” is inappropriate. The mythos “gods” were as indifferent to humanity as humans are to the insects they trod under their feet on a casual stroll.
Stories of interdimensional “gods” and their crazed worshippers, or portals into parallel universes spilling forth horrible entities are all standard sci-fi tropes today, as is the convention of forbidden areas of science masquerading as black magic. These conventions all have Lovecraft at their root, and Lovecraft was laying the framework for these now standard plot devices way back when most of his peers were still working in the gothic tradition, or the space opera tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Our most basic visual sense of the monstrous has also been altered by the work of Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s weird imagery drew upon sources wildly outside the mainstream of traditional horror. Necrotic visions of walking corpses and phantasmic spirits held little interest for Lovecraft. The creatures of the mythos were either inspired by the most bizarre organisms in nature or so otherworldly that their forms could only be implied. Lovecraft’s monsters were often tentacled, octopoid things, as in his most famous creation Great Cthulhu, a corporeal octopus-headed space-god who sleeps in a city at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or amorphous and heterogenous to the point that they strained human sanity, such as the titular entity of “The Dunwich Horror”. One of his most haunting tales, “The Colour Out of Space” even features a malevolent, sentient color. Today, any story that features tentacled terrors or chaotically monstrous fiends can be justifiably pegged as “Lovecraftian” from a design perspective alone, even if the tale lacks Lovecraft’s other hallmarks.
Lovecraft’s essential use of metatext, i.e., references to books and documents that did not actually exist, has had a seismic impact on genre storytelling as well. A bibliophile himself, Lovecraft’s references to the legendary (and completely fabricated) mystical grimoire "The Necronomicon," were infused with such verisimilitude, you can still find fans and critics who swear the volume was a real historical text. Bogus versions of the Necronomicon have even been cobbled together and marketed by opportunistic publishers. Lovecraft’s apocryphal tome has long since transcended its origins, appearing in modern novels, comics and most notably showing up in Sam Raimi’s "Evil Dead" films. Lovecraft and his colleagues created a veritable phantom library of imaginary source texts for the lore of the mythos. The obsession with obscure tomes permeates Lovecraft’s work, and his evocative use of fabricated passages from the fictional volumes is unequaled in horror fiction. Essentially, every time Dr. Strange plunges into some absurdly named volume for mystical answers, every time a worm-eaten forbidden book is used as a mystical Macguffin within the pages of a comic, the ghost of Lovecraft is hovering nearby.
The verisimilitude Lovecraft imbued upon these arcane references also helped give birth to one of the most ubiquitous of contemporary Lovecraftian cliches: the post-modern “Lovecraft as mystical adventurer” sub genre. After all, if you believe that all of those volumes of forgotten lore Lovecraft referenced were real, then the next obvious step is that paranoid, sickly, ol’ H.P. himself was actually some sort of secret occult investigator. From there the story ideas practically create themselves. Despite the relative absurdity of the prim, hypochondriac, racist, Lovecraft, becoming a horror hero, or the fact that the novelty of the trope has long since worn thin, the gimmick still pops up in comics and pop-culture, most recently in the young-adult graphic novel "Howard Lovecraft and The Frozen Kingdom."
Lovecraft’s fascination with genealogy, combined with his own frail health and the decrepit status of his once-wealthy family is at the root of one of Lovecraft’s other eccentricities: an obsession with degeneration and atavism. Some of Lovecraft’s most famous tales feature characters that find themselves on a descent into monstrosity after uncovering some macabre branch in their family tree. The masterful, deeply influential “Shadow Over Innsmouth” portrays a throwback community of degenerate New Englanders who have interbred with a sinister race of fish people from the ocean depths. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear is as chilling a tale of de-evolution as any ever written, and other stories like “The Festival” focus on sociological degeneration; i.e. communities that have become psychically or physically warped by adherence to degenerate traditions from ancient times.
So any time you throw a group of secret cultists practicing long-forgotten rites into a story, it can rightfully be described as “Lovecraftian” even if it doesn’t integrate Lovecraft-style monstrosities or the author’s trademark cosmicism. This is why you can have a story like Dennis Wheatley’s "The Wicker Man," a tale that is firmly situated in the Pagans vs. Christians tradition, still described as Lovecraftian. Likewise, narratives of personal or socio-cultural corruption warping people into subhuman monsters can accurately be described as Lovecraftian, even if polypous monstrosities are absent. Some horror fans will even try to extend the “Lovecraftian” moniker to works in the “inbred hillbilly” genre, since Lovecraft’s works often show a paranoid fear of the poor and rustic.
This fear of degeneration is also at the root of the pervasive element of racism and elitism in Lovecraft. There is an element of fear of other races and cultures, and fear of the rural poor in almost all of Lovecraft’s stories. In the best Lovecraftian tales, this paranoia is just a footnote in the broad spectrum of dread Lovecraft orchestrates, a quirk that is distasteful but able to be written off as a product of the times the author was living in. In other stories, such as the laughably paranoid “The Horror At Red Hook”, Lovecraft’s prejudices reduce his weird visions to simplistic racist screeds. Fortunately, Lovecraft’s modern day successors have tried diligently to avoid this unfortunate aspect of Lovecraft’s writing, but critics of the author will always get good mileage out of critiquing Lovecraft’s bigoted fears.
The real strength of Lovecraft’s body of work, however, lies in the brilliant way he contextualized his parade of cosmic horrors. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos Cycle is a perfected example of the careful deployment of exposition and imagery in tandem with obscurity and obstruction. The eldritch secrets of the mythos are dealt out so carefully in the texts that even in reading all of the canonical stories, only a shadowy outline of the whole picture is revealed. Everywhere, Lovecraft goes just to the edge of what is required to reveal the substance of his mythology, while never giving away so much that the terror of the unknowable is lost. In Lovecraft’s work, what is revealed is gripping, but what is implied is absolutely terrifying.
Maintaining the tension of the unseen and unknowable is extremely tricky in the illustrative medium of comics. The serial nature of comics also means you just can’t keep that unknowable entity unknowable for too long without seeming contrived. Likewise, The more typical breed of comic book hero needs a clear-cut villain they can punch, not one that simply drives them insane by forcing them to ponder their own cosmic insignificance. Add this all up and comics actually seem like least likely medium for Lovecraft’s influence to flourish. Still, Lovecraft’s work casts its shadow on titles as varied as Alan Moore’s arty “Yuggoth Cultures” and "The Courtyard" to unabashedly irreverent stories like "Atomic Robo" and "The Shadow From Beyond Time."
Perhaps it is the Gonzo eclecticism of the Comics medium and the superhero genre as a whole that allows graphic storytellers to modify Lovecraft in ways fans would find blasphemous in prose. In comics you can get away with blatantly portraying the sort of Cthulhoid apocalypses Lovecraft only hinted at in prose. Marvel’s "Realm of Kings" storyline, where a cosmic rift opens up upon a world overtaken by Lovecraftian entities is a good example. In Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Mythos-fueled milieu, Bruce Banner “hulks out” into an ever-expanding tentacled chaos, Superheroes derive their powers from eldritch pacts with Great Old Ones, and plasmic cyclopean cephalopods writhe in the skies, devouring and propagating endlessly, hungry for new worlds to devour. Its not the sort of thing the man from Providence would have dreamed up himself, but it’s definitely “Lovecraftian”.
Of course, the most prominent and richly conceived hybridization of Lovecraft’s themes in comics lays Mike Mignola’s "Hellboy" Universe. Mignola’s mythology is a definitive textbook on the sort of things that are possible when Lovecraft’s ideas are freed from the orthodoxy of prose and mixed into the bubbling, diverse, brew of comic culture. Mignola takes Lovecraft’s weird cosmic sensibilities and fuses them, not only wth Jack Kirby/Stan Lee inspired superhero adventuring with but with literary inspirations as diverse as 1930’s pulp lierature, the infernal classics of Dante Alighieri and John Milton, and thousands of years of folk tales from around the world. Mignola’s world still retains the feel of Lovecraft, while being textured and diverse in a way only the eclecticism of comics can make possible. The end result is a vibrant re-imagining with endless possibilities.
Whether creators are blatantly co-opting Lovecraft’s creations and simply changing the names, or digging deep into the mythos and overtly continuing the tradition of Lovecraft’s mythology, the icy hand of H.P. Lovecraft’s influence can still be felt reaching across space and time to grip today’s storytellers. Purists might balk at the liberties taken in comics with Lovecraft’s ideas, but, then again, Lovecraft himself was probably not as conservative about his legacy as his admirers are. The Mythos, after all, was an early example of a shared universe, with dozens of Lovecraft’s contemporaries contributing to it even in the author’s own lifetime. Lovecraft, by all accounts was pretty laissez faire when it came to other visionaries’ contributions. Sure, H.P. never envisioned Hawkgirl and Solomon Grundy destroying Cthulhu (or, in this case “Ikthultu”) by ripping up his brain from the inside, but don’t be so sure the deceased author is spinning in his grave whenever someone watches “The Terror Beyond” episode of Justice League Unlimited. Like the greatest story cycles, the Cthulhu Mythos has grown bigger than its creator. Now so much more than a “cult” figure, his influence on comics alone makes a strong case for Lovecraft as the foremost dark dreamer in the pop culture pantheon of this new century, both in comics and beyond.