Article by Benjamin Welton
I first read H.P. Lovecraft in the summer of 2004. I was then a junior in high school and during that particular summer, I traveled to New England for the first time. The stars, it seems, were aligned.
At that particular time, I was what one could call “inchoate”—not fully formed, incomplete. Like a lot of American teenagers, I was searching to find my niche. The only things that I knew I liked for certain were books and rock and roll. In particular, I loved horror books and heavy metal. The latter seemed like a natural extension of the former, and even then I saw no problem with reading Stephen King while listening to Motörhead or Metallica.
By the summer of 2004, I was well on my way to becoming a full-fledged metalhead, but I still needed that one last push over the edge into serene conversion. The moment occurred in the most unlikely of locales—my cousin Jason’s room. Tucked in the northeast corner of my aunt and uncle’s New Hampshire home, Jason’s room had sat unused for many years. At that time, Jason was a grown man in his late twenties with an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, despite having moved away from New Hampshire sometime in the 1990s, Jason’s book collection still sat lonely and unread in that room.
For the most part, Jason’s bookshelf contained heady titles, some of which were written in French. Jason, you see, had attended St. John’s College, and so his reading tastes tended to stick to the Western Canon. Finding an H.P. Lovecraft paperback in this private library was like finding a Playboy in our church’s pews—it seemed obscene and at the very least inconsistent.
At the time however, I was into the obscene, and when I randomly happened upon Michael Whelan’s ghastly artwork for the Del Rey edition of Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, I felt like I had just unearthed an unholy relic. Inside of the book’s cover was a note from one of Jason’s high school English teachers. I can’t remember the exact words, but they were a ringing endorsement for Lovecraft’s fiction. In particular, this English teacher claimed that Lovecraft’s brand of horror trumped King’s. When I read that part, I just had to jump in.
I read my first three Lovecraft short stories that night after dark in Jason’s room. Then, while on a family outing at Plum Island, I read “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” at the beach. Imagine, if you will, the sheer awesomeness of reading about Innsmouth, which Lovecraft called a “considerably twisted version of Newburyport,” while sitting in a deck chair mere seconds away from Newburyport itself.
Around the same time as my Lovecraft awakening was my emerging interest in the darker strands of heavy metal. No longer satisfied with just the easily accessible heavy metal acts, I began researching the type of music that use to leer threateningly from the aisles of my local record store—death metal, black metal, and doom metal. When I came home from New England, I had a suitcase full of CDs with black covers and titles like Unhallowed and Terrifyer.
While this story remains intensely personal and meaningful to me, it’s in fact a rather typical tale. A lot of people come to metal through Lovecraft or vice versa. In fact, the connection between Lovecraft and heavy metal is so deep that the online H.P. Lovecraft Archive has an entire section dedicated to Lovecraft’s influence on music. Unsurprisingly, most of the entries are heavy metal bands, and unlike a lot of things in heavy metal, interest in Lovecraft and his fiction is shared across the many sub-genres of heavy metal, from the growling death metal of Nile (whose first album, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, references Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”) to the slow, melodic crunch of England’s Electric Wizard.
The history of Lovecraft in music is older than heavy metal itself. During the “Summer of Love” in 1967, H.P. Lovecraft, a quintet from Chicago, formed. According to Richie Unterberger, who wrote the liner notes for the band’s 1997 compilation H.P. Lovecraft/H.P. Lovecraft II, “H.P. Lovecraft’s music was spooky and mysterious, a vibe well-suited for the psychedelic times when their two albums were released in 1967 and 1968.” Unterberger further claims that H.P. Lovecraft, who broke up in 1969, then continued on as both Lovecraft and Love Craft until 1975, made music that one could liken to the moody atmosphere of “the stories of the author after whom they [the band] were named.”
Listening to these songs now, H.P. Lovecraft sound like a standard folk-rock act of the hippy era. Their songs come complete with flute interludes and heavy electric organ traffic. This is not the stuff of Lovecraftian dread, especially considering the band’s near contemporaries, one of which—a band from the industrial city of Birmingham, England—was set to create the sound and image of heavy metal.
Black Sabbath, a group of four working-class lads named John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Terence “Geezer” Butler, did not set out to redefine rock and roll, but their first album—the simply titled Black Sabbath—did just that. On that debut record, Black Sabbath included the song “Behind The Wall of Sleep,” a bluesy number that takes its name from Lovecraft’s 1919 short story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” While the lyrics to “Behind The Wall of Sleep” do include some Lovecraftian moments (“Take your body to a corpse” / “Now from darkness there springs light”), the song itself is not overwhelming Lovecraftian.
Sadly for Black Sabbath and H.P. Lovecraft fans alike, “Behind The Wall of Sleep” represents that great band’s only foray into the Lovecraftian world. For the rest of their career, Black Sabbath either stuck to more earthly themes like drug addiction (“Snow Blind,” “Hand of Doom”) or more digestible horrors like Satan (“Black Sabbath”) or futuristic cosmonauts (“Iron Man”). Still, despite Black Sabbath’s abandonment of Lovecraft, later heavy metal acts, all of whom continue to owe a serious debt to Black Sabbath, did not and in fact rushed to Lovecraft as a fount of inspiration.
Of all the extreme metal sub-genres, the one most loyal to Lovecraft is death metal. With its roots in both Europe and America, death metal coalesced into a recognizable sub-genre sometime in the late 1980s. Death metal’s most recognizable acts include the gore-obsessed Cannibal Corpse (who famously made an appearance in 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), the intentionally esoteric Morbid Angel, and the highly political act Napalm Death.
Of these three, Morbid Angel are the most reliably Lovecraftian. Morbid Angel’s founder and guitarist Trey Azagthoth not only uses one of Lovecraft’s gods for a surname, but in numerous interviews Azagthoth, who is the band’s primary songwriter, has claimed influence from several occult texts, one of which being the Simon Necronomicon—a “grimoire” that claims to combine Middle Eastern mythology and magic with allusions to Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon.
In case you’re wondering, Azagthoth is deadly serious about this, and Morbid Angel earned a reputation in the 1990s as one of death metal’s most important and most earnest acts. While Morbid Angel tried to seriously conjure up the Elder Gods with their furiously technical brand of death metal, other death metal acts channeled Lovecraft through the prism of popular culture, most notably horror films. A clear case in point is Deicide and their classic track “Dead by Dawn,” which references the Necronomicon because of that fabled book’s importance to the plot of the 1981 horror film Evil Dead.
This type of referencing—second-hand and filmic rather than literary—is more common than naught in heavy metal. And while bands like the popular black metal act Cradle of Filth make pretensions towards more literary aspirations, most metal acts who make use of Lovecraft are also comfortable keeping things within the realm of schlock and z-grade splatterpunk. A case could be made that Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator is just as important in death metal as any one of Lovecraft’s short stories.
As disheartening as this might sound to some of Lovecraft’s enthusiasts, the fact remains that music and movies remain an important arena for the transmission of Lovecraft’s work. Heavy metal has proven to be an especially fertile ground for such activity over the years, and as the author and blogger Steff Metal has shown, the internet and the proliferation of “geek culture” (which includes heavy metal) means that: “Lovecraft and Cthulhu have become almost mainstream.” I for one would have never reached Lovecraft if I hadn’t already been primed by heavy metal. Even to this day, nothing goes with Lovecraft quite like Celtic Frost or early Bathory, and a million metalheads could concur with Steff Metal’s assertion that Lovecraft’s “themes of forbidden knowledge, civilization under threat, religion and the insignificance of mankind” find a particular resonance within the stark world of extreme heavy metal.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance and amateur journalist who occasionally writes short stories and poems. He fails at all three. He is currently at work on a novel, runs a blog called The Trebuchet, and has two books available on Amazon for purchase.