Weird Tales: The Strange Life of HP Lovecraft
June 11, 2007 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Weird Tales: The Strange Life of HP Lovecraft is a 45-minute BBC radio documentary: "Geoff Ward examines the strange life and terrifying world of the man hailed as America's greatest horror writer since Poe. During his life, Lovecraft's work was confined to lurid pulp magazines and he died in penury in 1937. Today, however, his writings are considered modern classics and published in prestigious editions. How did such a weird, wild and ungodly writer get canonised? Among the writers considering his legacy are Neil Gaiman, ST Joshi, Kelly Link, Peter Straub and China Mieville." ST Joshi, a biographer of Lovecraft, has an essay up on The Scriptorium. Wikisource has an extensive collection of his writings, including not only his most famous novels and short stories, but also essays, letters, poetry and legal documents. He is buried in the city of his birth, Providence, Rhode Island, where he does eternal lie, even though someone made an unsuccessful attempt to exhume him in 1997.
posted by Kattullus (43 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Note that the documentary is only available for listening until June 16th.
posted by Kattullus at 12:34 PM on June 11, 2007

Any non-realplayer way to listen to this?
posted by absalom at 12:43 PM on June 11, 2007

I must say that I feel an indescribably ominous foreboding about these links; yet somehow I am subject to an overwhelming compulsion to click them.
posted by amphioxus at 12:57 PM on June 11, 2007 [8 favorites]

How did such a weird, wild and ungodly writer get canonised?


Stephen King's adulation probably has a lot to do with it.

I remember writing an essay or something in the eleventh grade about Lovecraft (I wrote another one on "World War II bombers"). My English teacher must have rolled his eyes when he read it.

The verdict on Lovecraft of my adult self, twenty years later?

Kinda interesting, but also kinda stupid.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:06 PM on June 11, 2007

Huh. I didn't know that HTML had a [squamous] [/squamous] tag. So I... learned something.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:07 PM on June 11, 2007

Google ads get it uncannily right/wrong as they often do: when I was logged out, this page had an ad for archeological tools for those who want to do some digging.
posted by Termite at 1:13 PM on June 11, 2007

I'm in the middle of Lovecraft's Tales, issued by the super-classy Library of America. When the LOA puts you in one of their editions, that's when you know you've been canonized.

I agree that there is much that is ridiculous about Lovecraft's writing (and much that is repulsive, such as his notorious racism and anti-Semitism), but if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, the stories can produce some genuine creeps.
posted by Rangeboy at 1:21 PM on June 11, 2007

There's an mp3 version of the Weird Tales BBC documentary here. (That's a Rapidshare link, which may not be much help, but it was the best I could find.)
posted by El Brendano at 1:31 PM on June 11, 2007

Stephen King's adulation probably has a lot to do with it.

Not so: Lovecraft was an icon long before anyone ever heard of Stephen King. Aside from the primitive but undeniable power of his stories, the reason IMHO was that Lovecraft spent a huge amount of his time mentoring young writers like Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch.

Treats for you Lovecraft fans:

Bossthulhu cartoon, very funny and filled with brilliant details.

"A Study In Emerald" by Neil Gaiman is even funnier; more free Gaiman stories here.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:37 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

El Brendano - Do I need to run Ad Aware after looking at that?
posted by Artw at 1:40 PM on June 11, 2007

I think it's nice that King can talk in an intelligent way about Lovecraft. I can't really imagine Dan Brown or Tom Clancy having a similar enthusiasm for the literary history of their respective fields.
posted by Artw at 1:42 PM on June 11, 2007

Modern bards, in their endeavour to display with seriousness and minute verisimilitude the inward operations of the human mind and emotions, have come to look down upon the simple description of ideal beauty, or the straightforward presentation of pleasing images for no other purpose than to delight the fancy. Such themes they deem trivial and artificial, and altogether unworthy of an art whose design they take to be the analysis and reproduction of Nature in all her moods and aspects. (Essay reproduced here, 1918)

It's a good thing he stuck to writing about Cthulu rather than attempting more of a career in literary criticism...

(Seriously, Lovecraft going on about the "honest old pastoral" and Arcadian delights? That's just crazy talk!)
posted by jokeefe at 1:45 PM on June 11, 2007

Luc Sante had an excellent NYRB review ("The Heroic Nerd") of the LoA edition and of Houellebecq's book ("Houellebecq, who according to the detailed account of his translator, Dorna Khazeni, inserted interpolations ranging from a few words to entire paragraphs into his citations from Lovecraft (for reasons that are not always clear), found in the older writer a perfect vehicle for creative misreading, an elected ancestor who was at once ambitious, marginal, conventionally accomplished, and pathologically unstable").
posted by languagehat at 2:05 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I recently saw The Call of Cthulhu--though it was made in 2005, it's done in the style of old silent movies. Way cool.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:19 PM on June 11, 2007

I'm glad you brought up that essay, jokeefe. I find his literary criticism fascinating. Metrical Regularity (1915) is an even better insight into his sometimes bizarre attitude towards literature. Here's the most holy crap! bit:

The ill effect of metrical laxity on the younger generation of poets is enormous. These latest suitors of the Muse, not yet sufficiently trained to distinguish between their own artless crudities and the cultivated monstrosities of the educated but radical bard, come to regard with distrust the orthodox critics, and to believe that no grammatical, rhetorical, or metrical skill is necessary to their own development. The result cannot but be a race of churlish, cacophonous hybrids, whose amorphous outcries will waver uncertainly betwixt prose and verse, absorbing the vices of both and the virtues of neither.

He isn't necessarily saying anything that others didn't say at the time, but he says it in a completely different way. I think that's his genius, that he was able to articulate rather common thoughts (e.g. we are all alone afloat in an endless, hostile void) in completely unique ways (the hostile void has tentacles and considers us primarily as a source of nutrients). Often while reading his vilest racist passages I have to stop and put away the book. Sometimes, though, I can get through it by looking at it as a singular expression of unfortunately all too prevalent attitudes. And, if may strive to find some light in the void, these passages do reveal the sheer batshit insanity of that world-view rather thoroughly.
posted by Kattullus at 2:35 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lovecraft tapped into the anxiety that scientific ideas like evolution, the true age of the universe and the sudden explosion of technology generated. They painted a picture of a world that was immeasurably larger, older and more complicated than previously understood, and one in which humans had no special role to play. Lovecraft took that world and surrounded it with monsters, and generally not monsters we could fight either. In some of his stories he talked about the intelligent races that would come to exist after humans were extinct. Cthulhu for his was going to wake up someday, or Nyarlythotep would call down the outer gods, or the servants of Dagon would come out of the water, or the shoggoths would get free and kill us all... the list goes on. The hopeful aspect about Lovecraft's stories (and there is a hopeful aspect), is that individuals in his stories can and do survive contact with the inhuman and the ancient. They don't survive it undamaged and it's certainly not easy, but you can survive. You can get away from the Shoggoths, ram Cthulhu with your ship, escape from the horrible fungoid creatures living in the mountains.

I think that that anxiety about the world and our place in it has only gotten stronger since the stories were written. As that anxiety grows stronger Lovecraft's stories get more and more resonant.
posted by Grimgrin at 2:41 PM on June 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

...ram Cthulhu with your ship...

August Derleth nuking Cthulhu was a personal Mythos lowpoint for me...
posted by Artw at 3:01 PM on June 11, 2007

August Derleth was a personal Mythos lowpoint for me...

Fixed that for you.
posted by mkhall at 3:17 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

On a purely nerdtastic note, although I haven't read so much as a single story of his, I am familiar, of course, with his themes and those of his acolytes and successors as filtered through the venerable Call of Cthulhu RPG. Which is pretty awesome. No. 1 Rule: If you find a mysterious book, BURN IT.

The Delta Green setting for this game is really good, popularly described as "The X-Files meets Cthulhu (and gets eaten)".
posted by Midnight Creeper at 3:18 PM on June 11, 2007

Delta Green rocks. Tricky to get hold of the books though.
posted by Artw at 3:29 PM on June 11, 2007

I did a high school essay on him, too. Lovecraft remains popular amongst a certain underground slice of humanity in spite of his writing. What lingers on is his vision and philosophy, a universe somewhere between indifferent and actively hostile, a complete reversal from the Ptolemaic cosmology and Christian dogma of Earth and man as the center of the Universe. Truth is now something that can drive you insane, Beauty is in the eyes of inhuman beholders, and Justice does not exist. Even the pop-culture Darwinistic views that we were inevitably progressing towards something better were flipped into an inevitable degeneration of humanity, to be supplanted by something both greater and alien.

His characters are entirely too similar; their fates almost always gibbering insanity, hideous transformation, or unspeakable death; and the plots rarely surprise. The racism I can pretty much forgive due to his time, place, and familial circumstances. All of it is insignificant next to the mythos, and the mythos is more than the list of some slimy deities with their own personal ideas of physics, it's the sheer contrary bleakness he brought to fiction. I'd never suggest taking writing lessons from the guy, but if you could tap into that kind of worldview, you'd sell a lot of books, for a very long time.
posted by adipocere at 3:37 PM on June 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

Michel Houellebecq tapped into that world-view, adipocere, and he writes very lucidly. And he's sold a ton.

Though I'm not sure I agree about Lovecraft always being a terrible writer. I find this passage very compelling, the first two paragraphs from He:
I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.

The disillusion had been gradual. Coming for the first time upon the town, I had seen it in the sunset from a bridge, majestic above its waters, its incredible peaks and pyramids rising flowerlike and delicate from pools of violet mist to play with the flaming clouds and the first stars of evening. Then it had lighted up window by window above the shimmering tides where lanterns nodded and glided and deep horns bayed weird harmonies, and had itself become a starry firmament of dream, redolent of faery music, and one with the marvels of Carcassonne and Samarcand and El Dorado and all glorious and half-fabulous cities. Shortly afterward I was taken through those antique ways so dear to my fancy-narrow, curving alleys and passages where rows of red Georgian brick blinked with small-paned dormers above pillared doorways that had looked on gilded sedans and paneled coaches - and in the first flush of realization of these long-wished things I thought I had indeed achieved such treasures as would make me in time a poet.
I find this an incredible way of describing a modern metropolis. Unfortunately, the third paragraph is racist bile:
But success and happiness were not to be. Garish daylight showed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.
But yeah, Lovecraft could also write dreadfully.
posted by Kattullus at 3:58 PM on June 11, 2007

Any non-realplayer way to listen to this?

Yeah, try Real Alternative.

Lovecraft remains popular amongst a certain underground slice of humanity in spite of his writing.

I just read a bunch of Lovecraft for the first time this year, and think his writing isn't the awful stuff some folks like to say it is. I enjoyed a lot of it, even if it does get somewhat redundant the more you read; he has a wonderful elliptical way of telling a story, which makes the moments you do finally get descriptions of "unspeakable horror" all the more powerful. He's great at dread, and that's a skill.
posted by mediareport at 4:00 PM on June 11, 2007

if you could tap into that kind of worldview, you'd sell a lot of books, for a very long time.

Charles Stross is the best at that I've ever found. The Atrocity Archives and its sequelae are brilliant. Here's his short story A Colder War, which I'm sure has been linked here before.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:02 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Can we avoid doing handstands if he turns up in-thread?
posted by Artw at 4:09 PM on June 11, 2007

If Lovecraft turn up in-thread, handstands will be the least of my freaking out since that will be a jump-in from the grave.

I highly recommend reading a biography of Lovecraft if you're a fan of his writing. Puts a lot of stuff, including his racism, which he apparently recanted in later life, into perspective.
posted by lumpenprole at 4:38 PM on June 11, 2007

Uh, 'turns up'. Damn my fast twich posting finger.
posted by lumpenprole at 4:39 PM on June 11, 2007

I found rather charming the letter in response to the New York Review of Books article Languagehat linked to.
posted by Kattullus at 5:40 PM on June 11, 2007

Metafilter: a race of churlish, cacophonous hybrids.
posted by rdone at 5:45 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just thought I'd pop my head in and say I've always loved Loveccraft, so thanks for this. "The Color out of Space" everyone should read that one, the only horror story that ever actually found disturbing, you can even read it twice. The thing about Lovecraft is you never back into a monster, light never glints off axes wielded by drunken gargoyles, the scary stuff is in the shadows and you never really see it. Also, see the dream cycle, though it isn't really scary it is great.
posted by Grod at 6:37 PM on June 11, 2007

Kattullus, that letter was a hoot. Btw, there's more about Clark Ashton Smith here.
posted by mediareport at 8:16 PM on June 11, 2007

is there a list of which order is best to read the chtulu books?
posted by andywolf at 8:41 PM on June 11, 2007

The best stuff is short stories, andywolf, all the really famous ones* are available in the wikisource link in the fpp. Call of Cthulhu is an obvious place to start. A lot of people's favorites are Mountains of Madness or Color from Out of Space. There is no set order (unlike, say, with Pratchett's Discworld novels).

*This being a nerdish subject, there are those who argue for the excellence of otherwise obscure stories. I seem to remember that oobernerd Gary Gygax preferred King in Yellow to the Cthulhu Mythos stuff.
posted by Kattullus at 8:53 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

eh, hmm:

Metafilter: churlish, cacophonous hybrids, whose amorphous outcries will waver uncertainly betwixt prose and verse, absorbing the vices of both and the virtues of neither.
posted by dreamsign at 9:02 PM on June 11, 2007

This being a nerdish subject

Oh, if we're going with that disclaimer, then I'll say that I was halfway through roleplaying a story using the Call of Cthulhu rpg when I realized, to my shock (and delight) that we were playing a somewhat camouflaged Colour Out of Space. They nearly had to tape my mouth shut from excitement. Good, horrific fun.
posted by dreamsign at 9:08 PM on June 11, 2007

I'll recommend his The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a short novel that requires no prior experience in the Mythos. The detached, clinical tone of the narrative merely lays the facts before the reader. It is the reader who, examining the facts, draws the terrible conclusions. Thus, HPL summons his most terrible servant: the reader's own imagination.
posted by SPrintF at 9:11 PM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great letter, Kattullus. Here's the nub for those who didn't click through:

Lovecraft and his circle were themselves engaged in a Borgesian experiment, as each made shuddering reference to monstrous gods and mind-blasting books created by the others, as if they were all privy to an actual canon of hidden occult lore. Thus "Tsathoggua" is mentioned in Lovecraft stories, and in fact Lovecraft was the first of the two to refer to him in print, having encountered the name in the pages of "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," in manuscript. Smith wrote that story in 1929, but couldn't find a publisher for it until 1931. By then, Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness," in which Tsathoggua is invoked, had already appeared.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 AM on June 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I, too, am another Lovecraft Essay Writer (as my final project in undergrad), and have always been of the impression that Lovecraft was a technically poor author with very a novel vision and ideas.

Also have to agree with those upthread who stated his largest contribution was his correspondence. Totally. He wrote somewhere on the order of 100k letters over his lifetime, devoting hours each day just to keeping up with his mail. In fact, I believe the collected correspondence of HP Lovecraft fills several volumes. The Additionally, he was very unusual in that he did not jealously guard his ideas, but rather encouraged other people to run wild with them. (Hell, the best Mythos stories were written by Robert Howard, IMHO.)

Additionally, I think his view of humans as insignificant specks was very radical for its day.

Oh! And I'm surprised no one has mentioned Herbert West: Reanimator. Not only is the most well known Lovecraftian film based on it, but it's one of the few stories of Lovecraft's that is injected with humor throughout.
posted by absalom at 7:19 AM on June 12, 2007

Delta Green rocks. Tricky to get hold of the books though.

Delta Green's just been re-released, in hardcover. With d20 material for the d20 version of CoC.
posted by Obscure Injoke at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2007

Thanks for this post! I only recently got turned onto Lovecraft, I've made my way through most of his best-known stuff. If you get the three penguin editions (The Thing On The Doorstep, The Call of Cthulhu and The Dreams In The Witch House) they cover almost every single work of his between them. My favorite so far is probably either The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, or The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I find Lovecraft more unnerving than outright scary, but I never sleep well after reading one of his stories.
posted by supercrayon at 7:25 PM on June 12, 2007

is there a list of which order is best to read the chtulu books?

No, it's not really that important. Keep in mind that there's a long-standing debate among fans about which of Lovecraft's stories are actually in the Cthulhu mythos; don't worry about it too much and just start reading. I started with "Dagon," a very short, very strange story he reworked into "The Call of Cthulhu;" both of those are great and would be a fine place to start. Be sure to include "The Shadow over Innsmouth," one of the creepiest things I've ever read, filled with suspense and dark squelchy things, and "At the Mountains of Madness," which has lots of backstory about the Old Ones. "The Dunwich Horror," "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and "The Thing on the Doorstep" are all solidly in the mythos, too. That should ground you, and you can see if you want to go further from there.

But honestly, don't just stick to the obviously Cthulhu-related stories. One of his best is "The Colour Out of Space," a marvelous heap of gray dread that has no direct relation to Cthulhu but which really nails some of Lovecraft's main themes. I also loved the short classic "The Outsider;" I think it captures something perfect (and kind of darkly funny) about horror fiction. Basically, there's more to Lovecraft than Cthulhu. Just pick up a collection that includes a couple of the stories above and start reading; you'll probably love it.
posted by mediareport at 9:17 PM on June 12, 2007

Mountains Of Madness FTW!
posted by Artw at 12:00 AM on June 13, 2007

I found a book some time ago that was a collection of HPL's correspondence (entirely through writing) with a young fan. He never talked down to the kid (at first, in fact, he had mistaken the kid's amateur publication as a legitimate market for his work), but kept the friendship going by mail for quite some time, up until Lovecraft's death I think it was.

Everyone brings up the racism. Of course that was bad, and if he did recant it late in life that's good. (Keep in mind that "late in life" for Lovecraft would be his late 20s/very early 30s.) We have no reason to believe that he did anything violent to anyone of any race; it doesn't seem to have been his style. Few remember that he was really quite a nice guy, in general. If he were alive now, you can bet he'd be here in Metafilter, chiming in with all the rest of us. He was a devoted antiquarian, but in a sense, he was born for the Internet.
posted by JHarris at 9:22 PM on June 13, 2007

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