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  • Matthew Emerson

The Legacy of Lovecraft


"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." H.P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu

It's not radical to say that horror is perhaps one of the most popular genres nowadays. The minute August draws to a close everyone is preparing to celebrate "Spooky Season." This cultural fascination with horror comes from the great horror cinematic and literary tradition that captivated the minds of thousands and left many checking under their beds. The horror movement would not be what it is today if it were not for the man, the myth, the legend, H.P. Lovecraft. Let's set the stage.


Before the time of Lovecraft, horror played on "known" things in the world. Many of the stories told centered around ghosts, goblins, vampires, or any other creeper that exists in folk legends. These creatures were "physical" (at least in some way) and people knew about them. It was common knowledge that goblins stalked the woods at night. Demons hid in the shadows of areas where great evil was committed. These things hated you. They wanted you to die. They were malevolent forces that were out to get you. Yet, there was some hope.


Happily, all it took was the actions of a courageous priest or a few cloves of garlic to repulse these creatures. Since they were physical horrors there were physical solutions. As long as you had your blessed crucifix you could ward off the evil spirits bent on dragging your soul to hell.


Then, in steps Nietzsche.


Fredreich Nietzsche is popularly remembered for his famous statement, "God is dead!" And while some regard this as revolutionary, really Nietzsche was just describing the culture around him. To Nietzsche, God was already dead, and it was only a matter of time until everyone else admitted it. The West was living in a stale echo of Christianity.


The Man Himself

H.P. Lovecraft stepped into the existential vacuum left in the wake of Nietzsche's philosophy. When he began to write his horror stories, his focus was vastly different than that of his predecessors. Lovecraft focused on the edges of the mind. Things that could only be barely made out in our peripheral vision.


Gone were the days of ghosts of our ancestors and demons from hell. Lovecraft introduced monsters that were creepy, absurd, and most importantly, unknowable. For him, in a Godless universe, there was no reason to believe that any other creature that existed in the cosmos was benevolent. He only had to look at the atrocities committed by mankind in WWI to come to that conclusion.


Not only that, but the great theme that runs through his literary style is the complete and utter insignificance of humanity to the greater universe. It is rather selfish of us to think that we mean anything anywhere else but here, and even then that is a stretch. If there are things out there, they don't care about us. They don't give us a passing thought. They might not even know that we exist. If they do, we are just pawns in the cosmic chess game they play with other horrifying creatures beyond our understanding.


Lovecraft founded the Cosmic Horror genre. He perfectly captured the despair that was intrinsic in a universe that didn't care. He also put to word the crippling fear of the unknown that resides in the dark corners of the human heart. His stories incarnated "hopelessness" and allowed us a peek into a grim, dark world where nothing really mattered. His masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu demonstrated the maddening nature of truth. The classic Shadow Over Innsmouth plays with the futility of resisting destiny. His stories set the stage that all other authors have played on.


This crippling fear of the unknown was played out in Lovecraft's own life in the intensity of his racist sentiments towards all who were not white New Englanders. A virulent strand of hatred runs throughout his thoughts, which is, perhaps, the most terrifying strain present within his text. In a truly uncaring universe, the intrinsic dignity of the human person quickly falls away. Instead of grasping the cosmic value and beauty present in diverse modes of speech, color, and art, Lovecraftian philosophy reduces the world to a war of all against all set against a backdrop of pointlessness.


Nevertheless, franchises as large as Warhammer: 40K and World of Warcraft owe much of their worlds to the literary genius that is H.P. Lovecraft. So, if you love horror, during this spooky season, consider giving this man a read. Or don't, it's a free country. No amount of warning or literature can stop the creeping void.


...Just kidding :)