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H. P. Lovecraft Profile

Visit any well-stocked comic book shop in America and you might just stumble onto an ironically cuddly stuffed toy of Cthulhu, the fearsome alien Elder God created by the early 20th-Century writer of weird tales, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). You might also find his characters, and certainly many of the themes he explored, in modern video games, horror and fantasy movies and television, role-playing games, graphic novels, and in the work of the many current authors penning fantastic fiction directly inspired by Lovecraft. Yet the writer was barely acknowledged in his own lifetime, and it was more than twenty-five years after his death before Hollywood discovered the rich, visually complex cosmic horror that Lovecraft first presented.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, August 20, 1890 to an affluent family. An only child, he was raised in the Victorian mansion of his Grandfather by his over protective mother and aunts; his father died, insane, in a sanitarium when Lovecraft was only three. Although he was sickly and only attended school sporadically, Lovecraft was an avid reader and was essentially self-educated. He was especially interested in science and literature, and was drawn to astronomy and chemistry, and to the writings of Oswald Spengler, Robert W. Chambers, A. Merritt, and Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft did not finish high school or attend college, and supported himself as a young man as a journalist and as a ghostwriter. He began submitting nonfiction and poetry to magazines and in 1914 joined the United Amateur Press Association.

In 1917 Lovecraft started submitting fantasy stories to the pulp magazine Weird Tales, which would remain the primary publisher of his work during his lifetime. His early stories were influenced by the Irish writer Lord Dunsany and were dreamlike, but innocuous, tales in imaginary settings bearing titles such as "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" and "The Cats of Ulthar." Lovecraft was soon to turn to a darker tone, however, and began writing horror tales that combined the realistic New England settings he was familiar with alongside themes involving black magic, madness, and creatures from other dimensions. The culmination of this line of writing was the creation of the "Cthulhu Mythos," in his later stories which dealt with an otherworldly universe of Earth's Old Ones or Elder Race, bearing names like Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. As Lovecraft explained (quoted by fellow writer August Derleth), the stories "are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on the outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again."

Though Lovecraft was a very prolific writer, he saw only one book published in his lifetime, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in 1936. The following year, Lovecraft died at the age of forty-six, of intestinal cancer. Though he lived a very isolated life, Lovecraft was an inveterate letter-writer, and kept correspondence with many of his fellow writers in the pulp fiction field, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Two of Lovecraft's friends and like-minded horror writers, Derleth and Donald Wandrei, established Arkham House after his death to publish collections of Lovecraft's writings, both the previously-published pulp stories as well as the numerous unpublished works the writer left behind. Collections such as The Outsider and Others and Beyond the Wall of Sleep found ready readers and have remained in print for decades.

Lovecraft essentially created a new branch of horror fiction, that of "cosmic horror," combining the factual science that he admired growing up with arcane mysticism and bizarre dreamscapes. Lovecraft wrote to friends that he suffered from chronic night terrors, and that these directly inspired the fearsome visions in his work. A line in his 1926 story "The Call of Cthulhu" reveals Lovecraft's philosophical idea of 'cosmicism': "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and 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." During his lifetime, Lovecraft encouraged other writers to take up his themes and incorporate them into their own work. After his death, Derleth and others expanded on the Cthulhu Mythos, and utilized those and other characters and the Book of Necronomicon in their own stories. The Necronomicon book of forbidden lore has since become so ubiquitous in popular culture that many are aware of it even if they have never encountered Lovecraft's work itself.

The first official movie adaptation of Lovecraft's writings came, interestingly enough, from low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman, in the midst of the Edgar Allan Poe films he was producing and directing for American International Pictures during the 1960s. Corman asked screenwriter (and short story writer of the fantastic himself) Charles Beaumont to adapt Lovecraft's novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. AIP did not want to confuse the issue with moviegoers (or upset any continuing gravy train at the box-office), so while Lovecraft is named as the story source in the credits, the studio edited a Vincent Price voiceover reading a few lines from the Poe poem "The Haunted Palace" into the film and advertised it as "Edgar Allan Poe's" The Haunted Palace (1963). Although it bore a resemblance to Corman's previous Poe pictures, this new film featured a protagonist (played by Price) who, with the help of other warlocks and the Book of Necronomicon, attempted to create a new species on Earth by breeding young females from the village of Arkham with the dark Elder One he kept in a pit in his dungeon. Here was something new, not only to shake up the Poe cycle at AIP – this was something new to motion pictures.

More adaptations were produced in the 1960s, including two AIP films directed by Daniel Haller, Corman's art director for The Haunted Palace; they were Die, Monster, Die! (1965), based on the story "The Colour Out of Space" and The Dunwich Horror (1970), taken from a story of the same name. Also appearing during this period were The Shuttered Room (1967) from Warner Bros. and directed by David Greene, and the British film Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), based loosely (and uncredited) on the Lovecraft story "The Dreams in the Witch House."

A few of Lovecraft's stories were adapted as episodes of the Rod Serling-hosted Night Gallery TV series in 1971, but there was not another major movie officially based on Lovecraft until director Stuart Gordon scored a hit with Re-Animator (1985), based on the story "Herbert West - Re-Animator." Gordon's treatment was modern, gory and tongue-in-cheek (as were a second Gordon-directed adaptation the following year, From Beyond - 1986, and Sam Raimi's Lovecraft-inspired Evil Dead II from 1987). Since the mid-Eighties there have been more than 60 features, short films, and video games that have utilized stories, characters, and situations from Lovecraft's writings. Current figures that exhibit an influence from Lovecraft include writers Stephen King and Clive Barker, artist H. R. Giger and director Guillermo Del Toro. Lovecraft's cynical and pessimistic worldview holds favor with those that enjoy the "Goth" in their popular culture, and the author's penchant for vivid and unusual imagery will no doubt inspire visual artists who work in movies for many years to come.

by John M. Miller


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