Some thoughts on Lovecraft, for and against.

The following is largely taken from my Horror Fiction in the Twentieth Century, which if you’re interested in the development of and history of horror fiction, both in the Anglophone world and in the rest of the world, is essential reading.

The Case For H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is a topic that contemporary critics and writers argue and speechify endlessly about. His sexism, racism, antisemitism, and bigotry; whether he was a good writer or not; should the readers of the 2020s read him or not; whether he was a good influence on horror fiction or not—these are all topics and questions that raise themselves up like Cthulhu from the depths, only with great regularity (every six weeks or so, it seems to me) and greater vehemence on all sides.

It seems to me, though, that both the pro- and anti-Lovecraft partisans take something for granted: that, in the words of Annalee Newitz, Lovecraft (along with the odious John W. Campbell) “made sci-fi what it is today.” My purpose in writing the following is not to take a shot at Annalee, who I think is divine, but rather to question the premise—to raise the issue of what Lovecraft actually wrought, and what he did not.

It’s taken for granted that via Weird Tales Lovecraft changed the course of horror forever. But if you start examining the publishing world in which Loveraft began appearing, you’ll see that that ain’t so.

The presence of Weird Tales has tended to overshadow the existence of the other pulps that published horror fiction. There was a substantial amount of horror fiction in the pulps before Weird Tales arrived and during its heyday. Weird Tales should properly be seen as a step in the development of horror fiction rather than the first in its modern evolution.

Weird Tales was not the first pulp to publish fantastika or horror. Four years before Weird Tales debuted, there was Thrill Book, whose contents were intended to be different and unusual and which published horror alongside fantastika. Twenty years before Thrill Book , and less than three years after it had become a pulp, Argosy began running fantastika , including horror stories. Between 1899 and 1923, dozens of works of horror appeared in pulp magazines. ArgosyAll-Story, and Cavalier—general pulps rather than genre pulps—played host to over sixty of those stories by themselves.

It is going too far to suggest that there was an exploding world of horror in the pulps, one that complemented the horror appearing in the slicks during this time period, but horror was an active, healthy genre in the pulps before Weird Tales arrived: healthy in numbers, quality, and in the range of horror being written. But the number of horror stories in the pulps outside of Weird Tales would decrease with Weird Tales ’ arrival, as would the average quality of the horror in the pulps, and it is a fair conclusion that, far from bringing about a renaissance of horror in the pulps, Weird Tales dealt a blow to the genre in the pulps that it would not recover from.

Foremost among the Weird Tales writers was H. P. Lovecraft, who became so central to the magazine’s identity that his death (along with Robert E. Howard’s) spelled the end of the magazine’s golden age. Much has been written about Lovecraft, and as the controversy over his racism and xenophobia has grown, so too has the academic and critical respect in which he is held. Certainly, considering his long-term influence, he deserves the attention; his cumulative effect on horror fiction and science fiction in the twentieth century was remarkable, and it can fairly be said that he is the most important horror writer before Stephen King and the second-most important American horror writer after Poe. But it is important to keep in mind that much of Lovecraft’s influence was posthumous and delayed, evolving out of the large-scale reprinting of his work in the early 1970s until he became, in essence, Mt. Lovecraft, in whose shadow most contemporary horror writers now involuntarily labor. Lovecraft was influential during his life, as we’ll see; but after his death, his influence waned among all but a handful of writers—well-known writers, admittedly—until the 1970s renaissance of interest in him. During the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, despite the occasional Cthulhu Mythos story by writers like Ramsey Campbell and the reprints of Lovecraft’s work by the publisher Arkham House, Lovecraft was neither well-known nor well-regarded.

Suffice it to say that while Lovecraft, thanks to his unique style and well-articulated philosophies of art and horror, exercised an outsized influence on other Weird Tales writers during his lifetime. But that influence didn’t extend to horror writers as a whole during his lifetime, and after his death his influence dwindled, although it never disappeared.

Lovecraft deserves analysis on two fronts: his worth as a writer and his influence. With regard to the former, he is the victim of a persistent misapprehension: that his distinctive style is “bad.” Nick Mamatas’s rebuttal—that many readers and critics mistake a level of difficulty and a degree of narrative experimentation for bad fiction—is a sound one: “One might even say that Lovecraft interrogates the assumptions of realism and bends the habitual gestures around new shapes.” Lovecraft is a mutable writer, altering his narrative style and vocabulary to fit the character and story being told. Lovecraft has an extensive vocabulary and is well-read, and usually displays his erudition in his stories. As has been endlessly repeated, his own personal bigotries are to be found in his stories, from racism to xenophobia to class-based bigotry [1]. And as Mamatas says,

Characterization and observation of social realities go right out the window, but Lovecraft had no real interest in the social world or even human beings at all. Franzen could have been speaking of Lovecraft, and not postmodern fiction, when he wrote, “Characters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself.” Pulp, like postmodernism, offers other, more difficult, pleasures.

Lovecraft’s writing began under the influence of Poe, Machen, and Dunsany, as well as a few less obvious writers [2], but it evolved until it became distinctively his own, using his advanced vocabulary to attempt to approach and describe the cosmically indescribable, in stories that transgressed traditional horror literature’s understandings of man’s place in the cosmos. Lovecraft was not the first author to write a cosmic horror story, but he was the first to use it as the underpinning and guiding philosophy of his stories, and he was the first to advance cosmic horror beyond stories of an inimical universe—a simple and predictable reversal of the traditional horror literature moral cosmology—into scientifically justifiable and scientifically supported stories of an uncaring universe in which humans, frighteningly, discover their true nature in the cosmos: irrelevancy.

Lovecraft became an inspiration and mentor to the most important Weird Tales authors, who happily let his Cthulhu Mythos stories influence their own writing. Through his letters, Lovecraft communicated with a wide range of writers and readers. In the decades after his death, his work was a strong influence on the early work of major writers, men like Fritz Leiber and Ramsey Campbell. Lovecraft picked up the fading tradition of regional horror from the East Coast school and not only gave it renewed life but also inspired other writers to write regional horror of their own, whether overtly Lovecraftian, as with Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley in England, or simply unique to those writers, as with Stephen King’s Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine, Charles Grant’s Oxrun Station in Connecticut, and Davis Grubb in rural West Virginia. And, as Fritz Leiber aptly put it, Lovecraft “shifted the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space.”  [3]

The Case Against Lovecraft


Lovecraft was the central figure during Weird Tales’ golden age, and horror literature’s most important figure in the first half of the twentieth century. But his undeniable importance to horror literature has led to an overinflation of his accomplishments and an overestimation of his talents. A corrective is needed.

Lovecraft is commonly associated with the concept of cosmic horror, the notion that there is no god in the universe, that humans are insignificant on the cosmic level, and that all we do and will be and ever have done and been is meaningless. Michel Houellebecq summed it up well:

The human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of halfdead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure “Victorian fictions.” Only egotism exists. [4]

Lovecraft used cosmic horror as the philosophical backdrop for his stories, in which humans often come into contact with cosmic beings and are driven mad by the experience. Numerous later horror writers used the core concept of cosmic horror, the meaninglessness of existence, without resorting to alien

beings, and it can justly be argued—and persuasively so—that the idea of an uncaring and even hostile universe became common enough in twentieth century horror literature that it changed the dynamic of horror fiction into a three-sided continuum rather than a binary continuum. [5]

Unfortunately, a common misconception is that Lovecraft created cosmic horror. It is more accurate to say that Lovecraft popularized it and that in his hands it cohered from an age-old trope—the knowledge that drives one mad—and a nascent idea about the world into an articulated philosophy. In a crude, prototypical form, cosmic horror was present in a variety of nineteenth-century texts: in the devastating vision granted by the titular box in Vladimir Odoevsky’s “The Cosmorama,” (1838), which a terrified victim cries out that “You can see everything—everything without the covering;” in the haunting effect of the illimitable past of Egypt in Théophile Gautier’s “Une Nuit de Cléopâtre” (1838); in the baleful existence and effect of the dread Dweller on the Threshold, in Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842); in the refusal of the main characters in James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre; or, the Feast of Blood (1845–1847) to believe in a world where God would allow vampires to exist, because “we disbelieve that which a belief in would be enough to drive us mad;” in Arthur Machen’s “Great God Pan” (1894), where the merest sight of a divine being is enough to drive a character mad; in Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow (1895), in which the play “The King in Yellow” drives men and women insane simply by reading it; in these and other horror texts, proto-cosmic horror can be seen. Lovecraft was aware of most of these works, praising Gautier, Machen, and Chambers in Supernatural Horror in Literature and openly acknowledging their influence on him; those he was unaware of provide examples of the existence of proto-cosmic horror in the zeitgeist, as a reaction to Enlightenment science’s destruction of the traditional conception of God and religion and to the prospect of non-Nordic immigration into Europe and the United States. [6]

So cosmic horror was not Lovecraft’s creation. It is more accurate to say that Lovecraft took the raw materials that he found and forged them into something new. Lovecraft was a popularizer of cosmic horror; he was an advancer and promoter of it. He was crucial to its evolution. But he was not its creator.

Lovecraft, and Weird Tales more generally, are also credited with, in Steven J. Mariconda’s words, an “innovative combination of horror and science fiction [that] has proved a bellwether for the modern weird tale.” [7] Again, this is a confusion of influence with creation. As Peter Nicholls and John Clute noteBrian W. Aldiss argued in Billion Year Spree (1973) that sf

“was born from the Gothic mode” in the nineteenth century . . . and that was also one of the birthplaces of horror fiction; certainly many of sf’s early manifestations were horrible indeed . . . in the flurry of fantastic fiction published in magazines and Pulp magazines between, say, 1880 and 1930, occult and supernatural fiction and sf were so closely related as to be disentangled only with the greatest difficulty, and sometimes not very convincingly.

That Weird Tales was the source of the numerical majority of the horror science fiction of its time is inarguable; the major sf pulps of the 1920s and 1930s, including Amazing Tales and Astounding, ran very little that can be accurately described as horror, though there are memorable exceptions to this rule. And later writers of horror sf certainly looked to Weird Tales , among other sources, for their influences. But Weird Tales and Lovecraft were working in a preexisting tradition rather than establishing one, and Lovecraft was popularizer rather than a creator, someone who didn’t create a toy so much as wave it in people’s faces while screaming, “Isn’t this great???”

Finally, there’s a common misperception about Lovecraft’s influence. As mentioned, he was a posthumous influence on the early works of Leiber and Campbell. But the thirty-three years between his death and the start of the 1970s Lovecraft revival were long, and the great majority of the horror writers of those thirty-three years were only marginally influenced, if at all, by him. Lovecraft is undeniably an influence on current horror writers, even if those writers are only attempting to write nothing like him; but there was an entire generation of skilled and successful horror writers who turned out work entirely free of even a hint of Lovecraft. Lovecraft may seem inescapable now, but for many years he wasn’t, and at some point in the future—the near future, one hopes—he won’t be again.

[1] David Simmons’ American Horror Fiction and Class: From Poe to Twilight (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) is very good on Lovecraft and class.

[2] Jessica Amanda Salmonson writes, regarding the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett’s fictional Maine towns on Lovecraft, that

Dunnet Landing is the most famous non-existent town of Maine & reminds us of Lovecraft’s Dunwich, Massachusetts. The influence of regional fiction from the nineteenth century on American horror writers has long been underestimated, though many of the ghost stories of August Derleth are frank imitations of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman & Sarah Jewett. The idea of a totally invented town was well established among the New England regionalists, & it is safe to say there never would have been a Dunwich or an Arkham had there never been a Deephaven or a Dunnet Landing . . . as for Lovecraft, he may well be regarded as the last of the great New England regionalists; & as is typical of the last of any important movement in art or architecture or literature, “last” implies decadence, in the sense of repeating all earlier themes & modes to splendid excess.

Anthony Camara makes a reasonable case for the influence of Vernon Lee on Lovecraft in his “Dark Matter: British Weird Fiction and the Substance of Horror, 1880–1927” (PhD diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 2013. Lovecraft directly praises Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in Supernatural Horror in Literature. Eleanor M. Ingram’s The Thing from the Lake (1921) was relatively famous on publication, and Lovecraft would have known of it and likely read it. And Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote makes a strong case for the influence of Gertrude Barrows Bennett (who wrote under the pen name “Francis Stevens”) on Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s reluctance to name his female influences likely stems from a typical-for-the-era sexist view that to be influenced by female writers was to be unmanly and that only women should be influenced by women writers.

[3] Fritz Leiber, “A Literary Copernicus,” in H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. S. T. Joshi (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1980), 50.

[4] Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (San Francisco, CA: Believer Books, 2005), 31–32.

[5] Briefly: There are three kinds of horror fiction. They operate on a continuum rather than a binary/trinary, yes/no, is/is-not scheme. The first kind of horror fiction, incursion, is the intrusion of wrongness into an otherwise moral universe—the appearance of a monster, the discovery of a haunted house, etc. Stoker’s Dracula is an obvious example of this dynamic. The second kind of horror fiction is what can be called “the trip to Faerie” or “into the forest,” in which the protagonist leaves the everyday world and travels to a place of terror; the narrator’s discovery of the lethal valley in Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley” and the mayor’s literal trip to Faerie in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist are two classic examples. Most pre-Lovecraft horror stories and novels fall into these two categories. The third category, revelation, the one essentially created by cosmic horror, is horror caused by the revelation that the universe itself is malign or at best uncaring and that the protagonist’s (and the reader’s) ideas of a just world are dangerous delusions. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories are primus inter pares for this kind of horror.

[6] This point deserves emphasizing. Moral people abhor Lovecraft’s bigotry, but there’s an increasing effort among writers to try to separate cosmic horror from Lovecraft’s version of it and create a bigotry-free cosmic horror. I applaud the attempt, but in a very real respect all cosmic horror, not just Lovecraft’s, is the fruit of the poisoned tree of racial bigotry and bias. This doesn’t mean that cosmic horror can’t be cleansed and redeemed, of course—it just means that those who would create works of cosmic horror must be careful about what they say and write.

[7] Steven J. Mariconda, “H[oward] P[hillips] Lovecraft,” in Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia , ed. S. T. Joshi and Stefan Dziemianowicz (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 738.


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