Crafting a horror-fic legacy
H.P. Lovecraft’s writing has shaped much more than we realise.
IS it possible to be a fan of an author’s work without ever having read it?
H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors whose writing I know so much about, I feel like I’ve read his stories even though I haven’t.
As one of the most influential horror writers of our time, Lovecraft’s ideas and style permeate a staggering amount of pop culture, from novels and movies to music and games.
While mostly unrecognised during his lifetime (he died in 1937 at the age of 46), his writing has birthed an entire subgenre named after him: Lovecraftian horror.
Typically defined by the “terror of the unknown” element, Lovecraftian horror views life as we know it to be a thin shell over a much more alien and unknowable reality, the full truth of which would drive us insane. His works tend to be based on supernatural or extraterrestrial beings from a pre-human age, and position humans as an insignificant part of a much larger, terrifying reality.
He is perhaps best known for inspiring the Cthulhu Mythos, a fictional universe that has taken on a life of its own, spawning numerous adaptations across genres and media. Cthulhu, a cosmic entity created by Lovecraft, is described as having an octopus-like head and a body that resembles both a dragon and a human. The mere sight of the creature is said to drive people mad.
As I began reading my very first Lovecraft story – At The Mountains Of Madness – for this column, I couldn’t shrug off a creeping sensation of familiarity. It was a feeling that whispered, “I’ve been here before”. It was the dawning terror of the unknown I felt when I read Stephen King’s It. It was the dreadful panic of watching Ripley trying to outrun the xenomorph in Alien. It was the visceral unease of reading Neil Gaiman’s short story, A Study In Emerald.
Lovecraft has influenced so many books and movies I love that this is hardly suprising. King, Ridley Scott (who directed Alien) and Gaiman have all cited Lovecraft as a defining influence.
Even At The Mountain Of Madness’ plot feels like the predecessor to so many others. One of Lovecraft’s definitive stories, it tells of a scientific expedition to Antartica that uncovers remnants of an ancient civilisation that appears to pre-date all life on Earth. Narrated in the first person by Dyer, who tells the story to prevent further exploration into the area, the story draws its initial structure from the “lost world expedition” genre before morphing into something much more disturbing.
So many of our modern storytellers cite Lovecraft as an influence on their work that, often, we don’t even realise the debt a particular work owes to him.
If Alien’s look and feel bears a remarkable Lovecraftian influence (the film’s award-winning designer, H.R. Giger, was greatly inspired by Lovecraft), its prequel, Prometheus, seems to derive even parts of its plot from At The Mountains Of Madness.
Homages to Lovecraft’s imagination pop up in places as disparate as the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer (its director, Joss Whedon, explores Lovecraftian themes in the movie Cabin In The Woods too), and the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies (the appearance of the Davy Jones character was based on descriptions of Cthulhu).
So is it possible to be a fan of an author’s work without ever having read it? When it comes to Lovecraft and me, I believe I already was one before I ever picked up At The Mountains Of Madness.
If Lovecraft were alive today, he’d be amazed at how influential his work has been. — Everett Collection/ Wikimedia Commons