Unknown. Despised. Revered. Debated.
That basically sums up the reputation over the years of spec-fic master Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). If you are unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft's work, you can think of him as a kind of counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft revelled in the supernatural and the macabre. In addition, he has had an immense influence on genre writers who came later: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman, to name a few.
Critic Edmund Wilson despised Lovecraft, dismissing his work as "bad taste and bad art." But you know when the Establishment hates something, it makes the object of that hatred more alluring. In the decades since his death, Lovecraft's stories have become increasingly popular, even analyzed in English lit courses.
What's the appeal of a Lovecraft story? Simply, he transports us to another world. I guess the question is whether you have the stamina to go on that journey with him. In a typical Lovecraft outing, you may encounter sentient ghouls, subterranean terrors, or ancient extraterrestrial entities. According to him, human beings are insignificant players in a vast, cold, and dangerous universe. We call this cosmic horror. His tales reflected his worries about scientific advances and his recurring themes are alienation, neurosis, and paranoia.
Yes, it's fair to say that Lovecraft's fiction may not be everyone's cup of Darjeeling.
But enough with the philosophy. I enjoy Lovecraft's work because he had a hell of an imagination. His novella At the Mountains of Madness, set in Antarctica, is a triumphant statement of weirdness with a cryptic ending. The Colour Out of Space is one of the creepiest short stories I have ever read. The Library of America published a volume of his Tales in 2005 that amounts to a greatest-hits package (virtually all his fiction is in the form of short stories).
The only misgiving I have regarding Lovecraft is this - the dude was a bit of a racist. Do you have an eccentric granduncle in your family? You know, the kind who complains loudly about conspiracies and then blames foreigners for all the country's problems? You want him to stop talking....
Regrettably, in a couple of his stories, Lovecraft's toxic notions about race are apparent. One of them is here. Was he a man of his time? Perhaps. But the language is still corrosive.
So, in my view, admiring H.P. Lovecraft's fiction is like admiring the music of Richard Wagner (who was a notorious anti-Semite). We can love the art... but hate the man.
Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.