Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on this day one hundred and twenty two years ago. Seems like a long time for a guy who has a new book out every few months. Then, dead folks can cast the longest shadows.
My feelings about Lovecraft, Ol’ Grandpa, HPL, are…complicated to say the least. He was overly verbose and in an annoying ‘human thesaurus’ sort of way rather than a more moderate, and forgiveable Dickens-like ‘penny-a-word’ fashion. He was a virulent, frothing racist, even for the time. Klan members would’ve read some of HPL’s letters and gone ‘whoa there, buddy, take it down a notch.’ He regarded writing as a sacred art, something which hinged on inspiration and the mental caresses of the muses, and be-wailed his imprisonment in the pulps at length and with detrimental asides concerning the habits and personalities of his readers.
But, and this is the thing, we only know all of this because he wrote so many damn letters to so many damn people. He’s quite likely one of the 20th Century’s greatest literary figures due to the sheer volume of correspondence alone. Lovecraft was an aleph around which an entire generation of weird writers and pulp-jockeys turned. And from their letters (and his), we know that he was an unmitigated ass–seriously, how are you friends with both a Jewish gentleman AND married to a Jewish woman and still talking anti-Semitic smack?–but that he was also kind-hearted and a sucker for ice cream, cats and architecture. We know that his verbosity wasn’t just reserved for stories about unknowable and unnameable squamous shapes slithering in vast silences and unseen gulfs, but that it was a facet of his every-day interaction. We know that as he got older, his more despicable views softened and changed. He went from monarchist to fascist to socialist.
He was an odd, lonely man, who wrote odd, lonely things. Yet he also travelled extensively, had a vibrant network of friends, acquaintances and correspondents and seemed to enjoy life when it wasn’t busy driving him into an incandescent rage what with its various ethnicities and modern whosits. We know all of this because he told us, in his letters and postcards and commonplace book entries. And in his stories too.
There are common themes running through the canon, even in the work-for-hire, ghost-written bits. Xenophobia, isolation, a fear of the new and a deification of the old. In Lovecraft’s stories, history has weight and mass and it sits like a rock in the stream of life, waiting to upend your canoe when you least expect it. Horror has a hundred shapes and wears a thousand masks and it is not inimical save in its result, because malevolence implies understanding and recognition of our destruction as a crime, and Lovecraft’s terrors, by and large, are not malevolent. What we perceive and what is really there are two entirely different things, in his work. To see the world without blinders is to reveal yourself to the things which may want to eat you or worse. To uncover the truth is to open yourself up to a destruction of one sort or another.
Lovecraft talked about fear a lot. He was scared of New York, scared of his wife, scared of the throngs and masses of people who were not like him. He was scared of change, of the gradual excision of the familiar and its replacement by something new and alien, and it’s that fear that crouches in his fiction and in his letters, and it’s that fear, that naked, terrible, yet terribly recognizable fear that speaks to us and draws us into his world.
I shy away from that fear in my own writing. I’m happy to borrow Lovecraft’s tropes and signatures, the evil books and alien races that litter his fictive offerings, but the fear…I stay away from that. It’s not that I don’t feel it, because I do, though my fears are uniquely mine and do not resemble his. Unlike Lovecraft, I’m not willing to incorporate it into my writing. Or maybe I do, and I just haven’t realized it yet.
I’m not planning to look too deeply into it. I learned that much from Ol’ Grandpa. Let what it is dead, eternal lie. Even if it is only sleeping.