The Hideous Unknown of H.P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft; drawing by David Levine


For adolescents, something about horror never goes out of style. They often feel an excited disgust upon learning how things really are, and their disgust is merely a notch away from the more thoroughgoing pleasures of horror. It is the closest they can come to the sublime.

Every teacher of creative writing in every American college and university is no doubt familiar with the tendency of young people, usually young men, to concoct gruesome narratives that take place in an edgily unspecified locale. Mayhem, awkward sentences, paper-thin characterizations, and complicated weaponry vie for the reader’s attention. But always there are the aliens, organic or machinelike or both, and always the accompanying rage and revulsion.

The authors of these horrific fictions sit in the back of the classroom avoiding eye contact, rarely speaking to anybody. Shabbily dressed, fidgety, tattooed, hysterically sullen, they are bored by realism and reality when not actively hostile to both. When asked about their reading, they will gamely mumble the usual list of names: Neal Stephenson, Stephen King, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. But the name that I have heard most often mentioned in these litanies is that of H.P. Lovecraft, whom they revere. He is their spirit-guide.

And they should not be dismissed. Two horror classics were written by teenagers: Mary Shelley began Frankenstein at the age of eighteen, and Matthew Gregory Lewis wrote The Monk (1796) in ten weeks at the age of nineteen. John Berryman thought it more authoritative about damnation than Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.1

As for Lovecraft, who died in 1937 at the age of forty-six, he never really grew up. “Adulthood is hell,” he once wrote in a letter. Like his character Randolph Carter, “he wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and yearned for the days of his childhood.” His fiction’s familiar condition—fear inspired by shock—is characteristic of early adolescence. Wild imaginings and panic-stricken rhetoric, two features of his work, stem from his anathematizing of day-to-day adult reality and can cast a spell over many susceptible readers, who look up from his pages feeling oddly disturbed and dazed.

The effectiveness of Lovecraft’s fiction has little to do with its purely literary qualities, which are minimal (Michel Houellebecq claimed that Lovecraft’s work was “not really literary”), but with another feature that’s harder to pinpoint: the ways it casts a spell. Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it. Though sometimes stagy, the intensity in Lovecraft’s stories does not seem fake. Closing the book, the initiate tries to find other readers who were similarly spellbound. A cult is formed, as if to combat post-traumatic stress. From generation to generation the cult grows.

By contrast, readers of…

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