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[GUEST POST] Jonathan Wood on Looking for Lovecraft in All the Wrong Places

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.

Looking for Lovecraft in All the Wrong Places

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…

But for the genius of Lovecraft to persist, for authors inspired by him to terrify a new generation, the same tropes cannot simply be rolled out again and again.

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.

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jonathan Wood on Looking for Lovecraft in All the Wrong Places

  1. Thanks, Jonathan. Hear, Hear!

    (This does remind me I need to read Larry’s work, and well, yours,as well…)

  2. You’ve gotten the cold dead center of the matter in a few paragraphs — I couldn’t agree more. Another aspect of this is keeping the unknown just what the word means. Offstage and not understood. Too much of current weird writing puts the terror dead center in the spotlight. There’s a great bit in Ramsey Campbell’s The Voice of the Beach about how the mind creates abstractions for the horrors it can’t comprehend. More of this, please.

  3. Brandenburg // August 15, 2012 at 8:06 am //

    For a light article like this, you did a great, concise job explaining Cosmic Horror. Well done, in that regard. Much of the rest of the article, however, contains two very large problems.

    First, you seem to suggest that modern Lovecraftian horror is no fun for anyone. Large sales of Mythos-related texts would beg to differ. There are a slew of Lovecraftian authors out there, and many of them are amazing. They write Lovecraftian fiction and yet they are not just regurgitating Lovecraft. They make it their own. For myself, and many others, Lovecraft is not a seasoning, nor the main course, but the entire Grande Buffet, complete with Sushi Bar. He is the center of a very large world of weird fiction that continues to thrive today.

    Second, you mention two modern authors who are inspired by Lovecraft. Two. OK, fine, it’s a small article. But the two you mention? Nothing against them at all – one of them I quite enjoy – but if you’re only going to mention two…why not two of the greats in Lovecraftian fiction today?

    You could’ve mentioned Ramsey Campbell. He’s a fairly mainstream, well-known author whose body of work is dauntingly large. There are few peers in the business that can match his skill. Lovecraft had quasi-fictional New England. Campbell has Severn Valley, in much the same way. This author knows how to breed fear in his readers like bunnies on Ecstasy.

    You could’ve mentioned Laird Barron. The man is brutal. I think that no other author I’ve previously encountered has been able to instill in me a deep level of Cosmic Horror. He’s a masterful storyteller. While he deviates from Lovecraft in his own very big way, Lovecraft is right there, casting shadows on every page.

    You could’ve mentioned W.H. Pugmire. He is a true acolyte of Lovecraft and yet his work is very much his own, deviating in major ways from his master. Whereas Lovecraft stayed away from the supernatural, Pugmire drenches in it. Just like Lovecraft, Campbell, and others Pugmire has his own Lovecraftian land – Sesqua Valley. It’s at the same time a romantic and revolting place. He is the great living master of that which is quite central to Lovecraft’s work: a sense of compulsion and revulsion in the same moment in time. Being inexplicably and unavoidably drawn to something that you are completely and simultaneously horrified by. His characters have done things with the tongue that were never meant to be done.

    You could’ve mentioned Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. He is unboxable, indefinable, unfathomable, and completely original. He’s Robert W. Chambers’s mad brother, gibbering truths beyond knowing. He’s also the reigning author and editor of Hastur-related materials. He’s a powerhouse of storytelling prowess, and you need to read his stuff.

    You could’ve mentioned Caitlin R. Kiernan, who deviates strongly from Lovecraft (perhaps more strongly than any author in this humble comment), but has done marvels for the Mythos. She’s written a couple of sequel-stories to Lovecraft’s, and she certainly has some aspects of Lovecraft in the rest of her works as well.

    You could’ve mentioned so many others, too. There are dozens, scores, of other amazingly talented authors, some I’m ashamed not to list here but my time is running out – the window, the window!

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