Before one of the most unexpected posthumous career upturns saw the unknowable Cthulhu suddenly culturally ubiquitous, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was simply a very odd bod whose work was almost impossible to find in print and who was mainly of interest to other writers of weird fiction.
The prolific writer of weird fiction from Rhode Island published only in pulp magazines and in his lifetime was considered by many (if he was considered at all) to be a Bad Writer of Trash. Acolytes like August Derleth, who founded Arkham House specifically to publish hard to find weird fiction like Lovecraft’s, collaborated with the Rhode Island writer and worked to expand the Cthulhu mythos himself, did much to turn Lovecraft’s writing into a genre in itself.
The cosmic horror that these writers explored can be identified by its focus on immense, unknowable and ancient powers encountered by a lonely protagonist who is often sent mad or left awed by their contemplation of this vast and previously hidden reality.
Time was that Lovecraft’s work only came up randomly in the odd anthology– short stories like Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror and The Colour of Out of Space were included once in a while in a larger collection, and stories like Pickman’s Model were adapted for the screen for shows like The Night Gallery.
Nowadays you can find a copy of The Necromicon and just about all his other writing with two clicks of a mouse. So if you have read all the Lovecraft, and then all the Derleth and still haven’t got your fill what next? Well luckily there is plenty to sate your Lovecraftian thirst. There are the contemporaries of Lovecraft and those who inspired him, and there are modern writers who continue to draw upon the universe he created for settings and stories (Lovecraft’s work is now in the public domain, so if you are looking for a writing project maybe Innsmouth is where you need to go).
One of my favourite authors was also considered by Lovecraft to be a ‘modern master’ of the horror genre. Algernon Blackwood tales of the supernatural traverse everything from the standard haunted house narrative (The Empty House) to tales of cosmic terror and human psychology (The Willows). To my mind he is one of the best writers in any genre, and you can see his influence on Lovecraft in the latter’s portrayal of human vulnerability in the face of terrifyingly indifferent universe, but he also has a sweetness and a love for humanity that Lovecraft perhaps does not. If you have not read him try The Listener and Other Stories (1907).
Another author admired by Lovecraft was William Hope Hodgson, who was sadly killed in the First World War at age 40. Before he died he produced some outstanding weird fiction, including stories featuring the occult detective Carnacki (The Whistling Room), many set at sea, and novels like The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912). The copyright on most of Hodgson’s work has now expired, which is perhaps why there are now several new reprints to be found, so that it is now much easy to experience his dreamlike, sometimes almost psychedelic horror.
If you have exhausted the work of Lovecraft’s influences and contemporaries never fear– writers continue to be inspired by the Lovecraftian universe and Lovecraft himself.
Cherie Priest is one of my favourite fantasy/dark fantasy/horror writers so squeals were heard when I discovered the Borden books. Combining two of my favourite things– a Lovecraftian horror and the story of Lizzie Borden makes for a Victorian action-adventure with moments of true spine-tingling horror. What if the Borden sisters dispatched their parents not in cold-blooded murder but to defend the world from an eldritch horror threatening all humanity? You’d be plenty pleased Lizzie is so handy with an axe then! The Borden Dispatches, Mapelcroft (2014) and Chapelwood (2015) provide plenty of thrills and spills but Priest’s writing also delivers on emotional and aesthetic levels which makes for a super satisfying package.
Unlike these other writers, in the The Broken Hours (2014) Jaqueline Baker has Lovecraft the author as the subject rather than his fictional world. After replying to an advertisement protagonist Arthur Crandle finds himself secretary to a writer who won’t come out of his room, in a house that poses more questions than it reveals answers. Baker’s cold and beautiful book is a haunted house story and a haunted person story– speculating on the kind of demons a character like Lovecraft may have wrestled with.
Winter Tide (2017) and Deep Roots (2018) are my most recent discoveries in terms of Lovecraftian horror. Like Derleth, Ruthanna Emrys has taken on the Lovecraftian universe entire in her series of fantasy novels, but she has also inverted it so that the monsters are now the heroes. Siblings Aphra and Caleb Marsh, former inhabitants of Innsmouth search for the lost libraries of their kind within the halls of Miskatonic University while under continued suspicion from the twentieth century humans who have persecuted them and yet also want the waterfolk’s knowledge.
Emrys writes beautiful, lyrical and questioning fantasy that reminds me of Ursula Le Guin in its examination of the intersection between individuals, culture and lore– more than an homage to Lovecraft it opens up his work in ways that are both loving to the original and at the same time make you aware of its weaknesses.
So cosmic horrorheads– what are your favourite Lovecraftian stories? I am always excited to find another awful tome to open!