Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He is the author of the Lovecraftian urban fantasy novel, No Hero, named one of the best paranormal fantasy books of 2011 by Paul Goat Allen. He also writes odd little things that show up in odd little places, such as The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Chizine, and Weird Tales. Follow him on Twitter as @thexmedic.
If there was a fight between the big three staple monsters of horror writing—vampires, werewolves, and zombies—do you know who would win? Goddamn Cthulhu. I know he wasn’t in the fight. It doesn’t matter. He’s Cthulhu. He has tentacles coming out of his face. He is dead and dreaming. He’s on an island called Rl’yeh. It has an apostrophe in it and isn’t really pronounceable. He goddamn wins. Live with it.
This is the genius of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. A man whose horror writing was so good that he has transcended the silliness of his own last name. Because Lovecraft tapped into a terror deeper than any fear inspired by our own bestial inner nature (suck it werewolves) – he managed to capture and crystallize exactly how small and meaningless we are in the face of the large uncaring universe. His work taps into a profound existential terror that can freeze your blood.
And then he gave it tentacles.
That said—and I realize I risk the wrath of the Old Ones here—there is the niggling fact that Lovecraft’s work can feel horribly dated these days. I mean, every one knows the formula. Something weird happens. A well-meaning man investigates. He stumbles past all the road signs saying “this is some profoundly messed up shit right here.” Rats scamper in the walls. Our plucky hero finally sees something that is beyond description and then describes it in exacting detail. The word “squamous” is used more than really seems appropriate. Our hero is reduced to a dribbling insane cretin. We, the reader, realize how small and insignificant we are in the face of the vast uncaring universe. We wet ourselves. Roll credits.
I’m paraphrasing slightly, of course…
I know. I know. It’s a shame. It would be easier if we could rip him off without remorse. August Derleth beat us to to the punch, though, and that day is done. But good news! Other people have worked out how to riff off Lovecraft in a good way, and we can copy them instead.
Mike Mignola is probably my favorite contemporary writer riffing off Lovecraft. Hellboy, and its many spin offs are not purely Lovecraftian, but their universe is definitely underpinned by a similar mythology. Whatever the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is shooting in the face this week, be it tentacled or not, there is still the sense that they are lost in a vast, unknowable universe. There are some horrors we do not want to face. Madness does lurk at the corners of our vision, and between the comic book panels. The Lovecraftian influence not always in your face, but it is always there. It is a flavor mixed into the universe. It adds depth.
Larry Correia performs a similar trick in his Monster Hunter series. There are old ones at the fringes of his universe and his pages. Their influence can be felt like an unwanted hand on your thigh at a dinner party. Both things that must be dealt with eventually, but only once the main course has been devoured.
That’s where I think Lovecraft belongs these days, not in the center stage, not hogging the spotlight. He’s an ingredient, like chile powder. Well, not exactly like chile powder. I wouldn’t recommend him in a tasty meat dish. He’s been dead for years. But in the way that too much of him could overpower the main dish, and ruin it for everyone involved.
So raise you glass and toast a little cosmic horror to spice up our fiction, the odd tentacle caught out of the corner of our eye, the fleeting sense that we are small and insignificant and can achieve nothing of true lasting value. And let us hope that no one does anything big or loud enough to wake a sleeping god.