Strange Scribes #6: H.P. Lovecraft
By Gabino Iglesias
Every writer wants to make Stephen King money. They might not tell you, but they do. However, if you ask those that really care about writing amazing stuff, those that want their words to keep on living way after they’ve abandoned this overturned piss pot of a world, you’ll learn that many of them care about something no money can buy: reaching the point where their last name becomes an adjective. And when it comes to defining a writing style with a last name, there’s no one bigger than Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Unlike my previous Strange Scribe columns, I won’t waste time here giving you small details about Lovecraft because, if you’re reading this, you know at least the basics. The man born on August 20, 1890, in a house on Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island, would’ve been 123 years old today. However, what matters most is what he created while he was alive, what happened to it after he died, and the nuanced relationships we all have with his work. No, this is not about his biography or a list of stories; I’m here to tell you about My Lovecraft. Also, I’m here to tell you about The Unholy Trinity.
This morning I learned that noir maestro Elmore Leonard had died. I remembered my first winter in Austin. It was 2008 and I was cold, lonely, broke, and cooped up with Tom Wolfe, Umberto Eco, and Elmore Leonard novels. However, I couldn’t remember which Leonard novel I read first. In contrast, I clearly my first HPL book, and that came many years before.
I was fourteen and hooked on horror. Lovecraft was a name I’d stumbled upon here and there, so when I found a copy of The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (you know, the one from Del Rey with the John Jude Palencar art on the cover) on sale, I spent my hard-earned money on it. I went home and started reading the first story, The Call of Cthulhu:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
The same thing that happened to countless readers before and that will continue to happen to numerous readers for eons to come happened to me that day: the way I looked at fiction changed. I was blown away. I had a new favorite author and his name was H.P. Lovecraft. I read and reread Pickman’s Model, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Colour Out of Space, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Then I needed more. The next bookstore visit was a quest for more Lovecraft and I came home with Dreams of Terror and Death: The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft.
The Doom That Came to Sarnath became an immediate favorite. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath proved to me no one could ever write like the master. The Other Gods, Nyarlathotep, The Thing on the Doorstep: fucking wow. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Music of Erich Zann, The Nameless City: they took a chunk of my sanity. The Statement of Randolph Carter…I want to be a writer.
Years later I was hiking in a rainforest with my girlfriend of the time and Lovecraft joined us. We stopped to eat something and a few minutes later found ourselves surrounded by dozens of feral cats. In a crazy nerd moment that only I enjoyed (that’s why she’s an ex!), I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out my dogeared copy of Dreams of Terror and Death. I stood amongst the cats and read The Cats of Ulthar out loud. When I was done, I realized Lovecraft is The Unholy Trinity.
The Unholy Trinity? Yes, he’s three in one. There’s Howard Phillips Lovecraft the historical figure, the author who lived, wrote, died, and left behind his stories, his crazy cosmogony, his mind-blowing Mythos. Then there’s the Lovecraft we all talk about and discuss, the one many authors pay homage to while other talentless hacks shamelessly imitate, the one on t-shirts and posters and Facebook pages and movies and conventions, the writer we study, analyze, critique, call a genius, a racist, a whacko, a master. Then, last but perhaps most important to each of us, is our own personal Lovecraft, the one we can’t help but consider a friend because we’ve spent countless hours with his words, the one we want to share while simultaneously being very protective and defensive of, the one who’s dead but with whom we have forged a deep personal relationship. See? The Unholy Trinity.
Anthologies, role playing games, podcasts, art, websites, movies, songs: you name it, HPL has inspired it. And then there’s Lovecraftian fiction and the plethora of authors who have delved in it (not to mention heated debates on the role of August Derleth in the mythos). There will always be arguments about the superiority of one narrative over another and discussions about the originality of his work. Some will forever worship Cthulhu while some of us have a special place in our hearts for Dagon. Some will read a few stories and call it quits while others will strive to become the next S.T. Joshi. Some will never write a Lovecraftian story and some will spend all their time trying to become the next W.H. Pugmire. However, one thing is clear and undebatable: Lovecraft is now much bigger than his stories and his reach keeps expanding like Cthulhu’s tentacles when he wakes up from a long nap.
So now that you know about The Unholy Trinity, join me, brothers and sisters, and celebrate Lovecraft’s birthday by reading his work and screaming at the top of your lungs the statement, the prayer we all know so well: Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn!
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias