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A Candle for H.P. Lovecraft

Posted on 2006.08.24 at 02:11

"Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places"
--H.P. Lovecraft, "The Picture in the House", 1920

"I have harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness..."
--H.P. Lovecraft , "From Beyond", 1920 

A couple days late posting this, but I ask you to take a single precious minute of your life, spend the treasure of sixty-odd heartbeats, and pause in silence to remember a man who changed Horror, SF, and Fantasy fiction forever. August 20th was H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday. He was born in 1890, and would have been the ripe old age of 116–but what’s a hundred plus years in the vast and timeless caverns beyond the wall of sleep? He inspired writers such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, Mark Z. Danielewski, China Mieville, Joyce Carl Oates, and countless others; became an obsession of film directors from Roger Corman, John Carpenter, and Brian Yuzna to Guillermo del Torro. He redefined the abject for the modern age, replacing ghosts and demons with entities and forces of cosmic horror. He made art from our fear of our shrinking place in an increasingly subjective universe, and shined an electric torch into the face of the unknown. He is the diametric opposite of his own hero, Poe, projecting his internal fears outward, onto the universe, as opposed to using external environments as metaphors for man's fractured psyche. For me, he made the universe a scary place indeed, and perversely, made it more magical and wondrous.

I still remember my first exposure to Lovecraft’s writing. I was twelve years old, staying at my Grandmother’s cabin deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Every afternoon a thunderstorm boiled over the forest and blackened the sky. Wind whipped through the towering pines and flung the clouds of gold coins on the branches of the quaking aspens against their trunks--trunks that still remind me of cracked and ancient bones. Lightning forked across the granite peaks that soared above the timberline. Rain ripped through the pine branches and hail pattered the old, shingle roof. During one such storm, I scurried up the creaking stairs to my room. In the closet, I discovered a cache of old horror comics--issues of Creepy, Eerie, and Weird Tales. Among them I found a tattered copy of Creepy #113, an all Bernie Wrightson issue, no less. On the cover was a dead Tyrannosaurus Rex, with a great white hunter who looked suspiciously like Teddy Roosevelt getting his picture taken with the beast--the perfect entertainment for a dark and stormy night. I flipped through the magazine and found a story of a scientist who lived in an old brownstone, and kept his living quarters as cold as a morgue to preserve his cadaverous flesh. The man had "lived" after contracting a strange disease that lead to organ failure, and in death was preserved by arcane science and strange drugs. After the treatment, he needed stay in a near-freezing environment to maintain his artificially extended life. Nature knew her domain, (which, his secret knowledge had violated) and without the cold she would claim him and his body would decompose. The ammonia-driven air conditioner breaks down during a heat wave, and though a neighbor desperately tries to help him by bringing him blocks of ice, he can’t maintain his frigid environment. I still remember the gruesome pen and ink drawings Wrightson so masterfully rendered. I felt the narrator’s panic as his flesh began to rot from his bones but his mind still endured. If I remember correctly, the last panel showed the narrator’s rotted hand scrawling his last words onto a page of his journal–"The end is here...for you see I died the last time eighteen years ago." I shuddered. The hail and the lightning were the forces of nature trying to breach the false security of the cabin, to claim me, and reduce me to the putrid slime from which life had come. All our human endeavors, our dreams of immortality, were fodder for the same forces that lead our terrified, hominid ancestors to make them into gods. After all these years, every time I smell ammonia I think of "Cool Air." I wonder, what would it be like to still be conscious in a husk of dead, decaying flesh? For Lovecraft, that’s the core of the human condition--all of us are all dying all the time.

I offer for your pleasure some of Lovecraft’s musings on horror, mortality, and man’s place in the universe.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
--H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", 1928

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to "uplift" the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness."
--H.P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature," 1926-27, Revised 1933

"I believe that—because of the foundation of most weird concepts in dream phenomena—the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive, & witnesses or experiences a stream of bizarre events which . . . flows past him, just touches him, or engulfs him entirely."
--H.P. Lovecraft, letter, 1936

"Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism." 
--H.P. Lovecraft. "The Tomb", 1917

"They were of that vaster and more appalling universe of dim entity and consciousness which lies deeper than matter, time, and space, and whose existence we suspect only in certain forms of sleep-- those rare dreams beyond dreams which come never to common men, and but once or twice in the lifetime of imaginative men."
H.P. Lovecraft, "Hypnos", 1922

"It was from the artists and poets that the pertinent answers came, and I know that panic would have broken loose had they been able to compare notes."
--"H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", 1928

The definitive H.P. Lovecraft source online: The H.P. Lovecraft Archive

H.P. Lovecraft biography

H.P. Lovecraft quotes

Complete essay:  "Supernatural Horror in Literature"

Complete texts of selected stories, letters, poems and miscellanea by H.P. Lovecraft

Complete Joyce Carol Oates essay on Lovecraft:  "The King of Weird" --an introduction to "Tales of H.P. Lovecraft" 1998. Originally published in an abridged form in the New York Review of Books, October 31, 1996.

Other biographical articles on Lovecraft:



And so, Mr. Lovecraft, I light a candle in your memory.  "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."

Leave a comment if you do him the honor, and please share your first experience with Lovecraft.

That is not dead
which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons
even death may die.
--The Call of Cthulhu



C.Rae for Today
rae_too_serious at 2006-08-24 23:30 (UTC) (Link)
Hail Cthulhu!

Garrett's birthday is also August 20th. No wonder we like him so much.
rjcrowtherjr at 2006-08-29 09:46 (UTC) (Link)

Octopus dreams

Now all we need is to talk Garrett into getting a big octopus tattoo on his back. ;-) Wish him a happy, belated birthday for me. Miss you, my love--R.
(Anonymous) at 2006-08-26 16:37 (UTC) (Link)
YOU were my first experience with Lovecraft. :) My memory is tragically unreliable, but I have this image of us at an outdoor table near the Pagoda Gates to S.F.'s Chinatown when we had the discussion about Lovecraft's fear of the Yellow Peril.

Oct 6,7,8 - that's when you should visit Portland:

(Anonymous) at 2006-08-28 21:22 (UTC) (Link)

My Lovecraft Cherry...

Actually got popped watching the Real Ghostbusters, remember that show? The cartoon? Excellent - you're with me! Anyway, they fought the Old Ones, and they even mention the Chthulu (I probably spelled that wrong, forgive me) and I was hooked. I took my little rear-end to BD Dalton and bought a short story colleciton by Lovecraft, then another, then Dreamquest of Unknown What-his-nuts... I read everything. And loved it. Sinister and elegant at the same time, you don't beat that.
Lynne Jamneck
lynnejamneck at 2006-08-28 23:08 (UTC) (Link)
Ia! Cthulhu ftaghn!
rjcrowtherjr at 2006-08-29 09:48 (UTC) (Link)
Ia! Ia! Indeed! Thank you for stopping by and reading. I'm so curious to see what you write.
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