“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. 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. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
As the leaves begin to change, the air grows crisper and the nights longer, students might find themselves looking for a fresh dose of the frightening, terrifying, and horrific. One place such seekers of the macabre might find stories to slake their grim thirst lies in the eldritch heart of the tales of a man from Providence, Rhode Island.
Born in 1890, the life of Howard Phillips Lovecraft was almost immediately set to be strange and grim. At the age of three, Lovecraft’s father was committed to a psychiatric institution where he soon died. Raised by his mother, aunts and grandfather, Lovecraft quickly became a literary prodigy, reading poetry by three and writing his own by six. Continually suffering from illness and night terrors through childhood, Lovecraft frequently missed school, but continued to read on his own time with an insatiable appetite.
In adulthood the man was thin, pale, and reclusive. Lovecraft maintained correspondence with several people, some of whom would go on to become well-known authors such as Robert Block and Robert E. Howard, but wasn’t much of a social butterfly. From the day of his grandfather’s death to his own demise in 1937, Lovecraft was frequently in poverty. His own writings, frequently submitted to horror magazines such as Weird Tales, went largely unrecognized in his own time. Now, you can walk into any bookstore and find a collection of Lovecraft’s stories nestled on the shelf in the horror section. Lovecraft’s work has inspired many, from Stephen King to John Carpenter. The man who wrote himself, “that is not dead which can eternal lie,” has found new life and popularity in the years beyond his passing.
“If Horror and Fantasy are cities, then H. P. Lovecraft is the kind of long street that runs from the outskirts of the first city to the end of the other,” said author Neil Gaiman of the ascetic Rhode Islander.
As the opening lines from the Call of Cthulhu above may indicate, one of the major themes of Lovecraft’s horror is the insignificance of man. Oftentimes the characters of his stories find themselves caught up in the machinations of beings beyond their comprehension and beyond their influence. Great monsters, elder gods with names barely translatable to English like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth, prey on a helpless mankind. Also indicated is a sense of fear at what havoc strange new sciences may wreak upon the Earth. In Lovecraft’s own time, scientific advancement was opening up its own terrifying vistas of reality, showing just how small humans were in the scheme of the universe, how fragile our existence upon this Earth. Fear of the unknown and fear of knowing two much course through Lovecraft’s stories. Perhaps influenced by his own night terrors, Lovecraft frequently wrote about sleep and dreams as well, though if you expect these dreams to be fanciful and lighthearted you really haven’t been paying attention. In his writings, dreams are frequently a doorway into strange and alien worlds, or the channel through which horrific revelations are relayed.
The picture of our world painted by H. P. Lovecraft is a grim one. Drifting ignorantly through the vast void of space, mankind foolishly thinks itself safe and in control of its own destiny while, at the corners of reality, at the edge of what is known, behind the walls and beneath your bed, dark forces far beyond our own comprehension wait. Things today may seem normal and out of the realm of such eldritch horror, but remember that Cthulhu waits beneath the ocean in the dead city of R’lyeh, dreaming until the stars are right.