Craft­ing a hor­ror-fic legacy

H.P. Love­craft’s writ­ing has shaped much more than we re­alise.

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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

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