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H.P. Lovecraft

Published This article is more than 2 years old.
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    If you watch movies, you know H.P. Lovecraft. The American author, who died in 1937 at the age of 46, remains an extremely influential figure across modern film, TV, comics, and even video games. Both his “Cthulhu Mythos”—basically a literary ancestor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, except with grotesque monsters—and his brand of cosmic horror have either directly or indirectly inspired countless pop culture phenomena, from Alien to Stranger Things.

    The thing is, as popular as Lovecraft may be, the guy was an undeniable racist. He called Black people “beasts,” defended lynchers, and harangued against interracial marriage. That toxic worldview served as the foundation of his writing. All of the horrible creatures in his stories were really just allegories for how he viewed immigrants and non-white people.

    Whether or not we should still enjoy or even appreciate Lovecraftian horror is a question scholars continue to debate. But the author’s imprint on our culture is undeniable, and as Halloween approaches, it’s worth diving into why Lovecraft is so scary.

    There’s no turning back now.

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    But first, hit play on a little mood music that sets just the right tone for a chilling email—or for reading Lovecraftian stories themselves.

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    What we now know as Lovecraftian horror is really what Lovecraft considered to be “cosmic” horror. Its main conceit is that humans are silly, tiny beings compared to the vast and unknowable terrors of the universe. And when confronted with those vast and unknowable terrors, humans literally cannot comprehend them, and lose their minds. Essentially, if we ever face the true, utterly alien nature of things, it will break our brains.

    Unfortunately for them, almost every protagonist in Lovecraft’s short stories do come in contact with these incomprehensible horrors. They are made aware—sometimes by accident, sometimes by poking their noses where they shouldn’t—of the existence of entities who are too alien to even think about. They often render to human eyes as giant tentacle-y monsters, because that’s the only way humans can process them. But what they actually look like, nobody really can say.

    That’s why the narrator in “Dagon” decides to commit suicide, rather than resign to a life in a universe in which he knows these things also exist. “I must have forgetfulness or death,” he says, before leaping from his bedroom window. It’s an extreme reaction, to be sure, but as humans, readers can empathize with that primal fear of the unknown. Lovecraft was counting on it.

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    1890: Howard Phillips Lovecraft is born in Providence, Rhode Island.

    1893: Lovecraft’s father, Winfield, is committed to an insane asylum. H.P. is not off to a great start.

    1896: Lovecraft’s maternal grandmother, Robie, dies. The family falls into despair. H.P. starts having debilitating nightmares.

    1898: Winfield dies, possibly from syphilis, while still institutionalized.

    1904: Both Lovecraft’s grandfather’s business and Lovecraft’s grandfather himself die. Around this time, H.P. starts having physical and mental health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life.

    1916: Lovecraft publishes his first story, about a man whose ancestors all mysteriously died at the same age.

    1919: Lovecraft’s mother, Susie, is committed to a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown.

    1920: H.P. starts formulating his “Cthulhu Mythos.”

    1921: Susie dies.

    1924: Lovecraft marries Sonia Greene and moves to Brooklyn, NY.

    1926: He moves back to Providence, where he remains for the rest of his life. He and Sonia divorce. This begins the most prolific period of writing for Lovecraft.

    1937: Lovecraft dies from colon cancer without achieving commercial success.

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    “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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    —H.P. Lovecraft, from the opening of “The Call of Cthulhu

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    Unable to import block of type BLOCKQUOTE. Sorry! Delete me or seek out the truth.

    —Wes House argues in Literary Hub that we must place Lovecraft’s white supremacy at the center of all examinations of his work. He notes that, thanks in part to Lovecraft, fantastic imagery has long been “violently deployed” by writers and filmmakers against people of color.

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    Lovecraft once ghostwrote a story for Harry Houdini called “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” a fictionalized account of the time Houdini claimed to have been kidnapped by a tour guide in Egypt. Houdini loved the story so much he wanted to collaborate with Lovecraft several more times. Lovecraft thought the story was dumb, and said he only did it for the money.

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    An all-encompassing term within Lovecraft’s shared fictional universe, the Cthulhu Mythos is a vast, intricate, terrifying place to lurk for any extended period of time. Some have said you can go mad just by reading about it. Only one way to find out.

    There are a few main pillars of the Mythos:

    • The Great Old Ones: A pantheon of ancient alien gods who once roamed Earth but have been dormant for a very long time (Cthulhu is one)
    • Great Ones: Slightly weaker ancient alien gods who do most of their dirty work in our dreams, a la Freddy Krueger
    • Outer Gods: Cosmic entities that generally exist outside our understanding of time and space, but occasionally they visit Earth and do very upsetting things

    There is much, much more involved in the Cthulhu Mythos for those who really want to drive themselves nuts. We’d recommend The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia by Daniel Harms if you’re ready to risk it.

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    “Nyarlathotep” (1920): A quick little nightmare of a story that introduces readers to one of Lovecraft’s infamous “Outer Gods” and sets the stage for the writer’s signature cosmic horror that serves as the foundation for so many of his stories.

    “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928): The first Lovecraft short story to mention the ancient octopus-like monstrosity, it reads like actual history… and maybe, it is.

    “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936): An Antarctic science expedition is unlucky enough to stumble upon the remains of, yes, an ancient civilization (noticing a theme?). The story’s twists and turns inspired movies like The Thing and Prometheus.

    🦑 Direct adaptations

    In the Mouth of Madness (1994): This John Carpenter classic isn’t about one particular Lovecraft story—it’s basically about all of them, with more references that even the most esteemed Lovecraft scholar could probably count.

    Color Out of Space (2019): One could argue all Nicolas Cage movies are actually Lovecraftian in nature. But this one does a solid job of turning one of Lovecraft’s more inscrutable stories into a film—and smartly subverting the author’s racism along the way.

    Lovecraft Country (2020): This HBO series posits that Lovecraft based the location of many of his stories on a real town in Massachusetts, where stranger things are known to occur. The show does a terrific job destabilizing Lovecraft’s racist canon by centering the story on a young Black man surviving Jim Crow America in the 1950s.

    🐙 A little less direct

    Alien (1979): The first of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror movies to go for a markedly Lovecraftian atmosphere and style.

    The Mist (2007): Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Frank Darabont’s film feels like it could have come straight out of the demented mind of Lovecraft. King, who is not easy to shake, admitted Lovecraft scares him.

    Annihilation (2018): Based on the excellent book by Jeff VanderMeer, this one is also reminiscent of The Colour Out of Space in several ways.

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    You know what could turn out to be deeply scary? A fragmented internet. We dabbled in a little fiction writing ourselves to bring you a glimpse of what our world might look like in 2025, should the splinternet continue.

    In one of our dark imaginings, we considered the implications of a US-China technology rift. Our Oct. 25, 2025 report by a fictional Chinese paper, the Global Journal, imagines the potential outcome of this fight five years from now.

    One possibility: no company is able to sell products that meet regulations on both sides of the Pacific.

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