What do Batman, Dungeons & Dragons, Black Sabbath, Evil Dead, Neil Gaiman, and Rick and Morty have in common? Apart from general awesomeness, they share ties to the same literary mythos created nearly a century ago by author Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Though it took until decades after his death in 1937 for his writing to find success, you can find elements of his brand of horror all over popular culture—for better and for worse.
Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, a city in which he would spend most of his life. Though he was not inaccurately described as a child prodigy—reciting poetry at three, writing full poems at six—is childhood was not an ideal one: his traveling salesman father was committed to Butler Hospital when Lovecraft was only three and died five years later, still institutionalized; he was sickly and unable to attend school until he was eight years old; he suffered night terrors; he lost his grandfather, who was actively involved in raising him and encouraged his reading and writing, when he was fourteen; and, himself, suffered a nervous breakdown that precluded him from earning his high school diploma. Those experiences, though, heavily influenced the fiction he wrote as an adult: his grandfather was who got him into the weird and strange tales of Gothic horror; the recurring themes of insignificance and powerlessness were likely tied to both his night terrors and the struggles of repeated loss; the descent into madness that so often features in his stories relate to his night terrors and his nervous breakdown, as well as the mental illnesses and subsequent long-term hospitalizations of both his parents (his mother was committed to the same hospital her husband was twenty-one years after his death; she also died at Butler Hospital).
Lovecraft did not enjoy a great deal of success as an author, mostly publishing in pulp magazines and ghostwriting for others—most notably, Harry Houdini. Part of the reason for his lack of success and notoriety was that he was really bad at self-promotion; he would often stop submitting stories after their first rejection, he failed to follow up with publishers who reached out to him, and, sometimes, just never bothered to try to sell his stories. Other factors also played into his lack of success in his lifetime: a lot of his writing, much like Poe’s before, was too far out of step with what was popular in the literary world at the time; his writing style was often just bad; and, apparently, he had a rather uneasy relationship with Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales. Despite the lack of commercial success, Lovecraft was a prolific writer and, though he is known best for his horror stories, the bulk of his writings is comprised of letters—so many letters, in fact, it is estimated that only Voltaire surpasses him as an epistolarian.
Lovecraft died in 1937 after being diagnosed with small bowel cancer. At the time of his death, he was penniless, suffering malnutrition, and convinced that his work would fade into obscurity. Though some dedicated fans took to making sure that his writings were preserved and disseminated, it wasn’t until the horror genre gained enormous popularity in the 1960s and 1970s that Lovecraft’s stories became popular with other writers, filmmakers, and readers. Over the course of the last forty to fifty years, Lovecraftian motifs and images—and homages to those motifs and images—have proliferated throughout popular culture.
Because Lovecraft has had such an impact on popular culture, it is necessary to acknowledge that he—like all of our other faves—is deeply problematic. In this particular instance, problematic means homophobic (or perhaps dealing with some serious internalized homophobia), misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and virulently racist: dude was so racist that his contemporaries, his friends, and his own wife were disturbed by how racist he was. He clearly had some real *gag* charming traits. His hateful worldview was its own Eldritchian horror.
Lovecraft, despite his flaws—no, not flaws; failures of character is more accurate—has influenced whole generations of writers, filmmakers, and artists. He inspired the likes of Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Iron Maiden; without his writing, so many derivative works would not exist. And it is because of how influential Lovecraft’s fiction has been that it is important to acknowledge how profoundly problematic he was—his worldview seeped into his writing in subtle and very unsubtle ways. We must be very careful about not consuming his stories without critically engaging with this side of him as a person and as a writer.
So, on what would be H. P. Lovecraft’s one-hundred and twenty-seventh birthday, let’s definitely celebrate his imagination and the way his imaginings ignited the imaginations of so many others. But, let’s also be real: dude was no saint and we need to be critical of the way his biases and hatred influenced his imagination. Celebrate the awesome (that would definitely be the category in which Cthulhu falls), be aware and critical of the bad, and—above all—do not forget to spend time at the altar of one of the Great Old Ones.
Promo source: https://lovecraftbookclub.wordpress.com/