“The Cult of Cthulhu: A Century of Cosmic Horror Writing Inspiration for the Modern Age”, by Ross E. Lockhart

Ross Lockhart

Ross Lockhart

The following is a transcript from a talk given by Ross E. Lockhart on November 4, 2014, at Nerd Nite North Bay.

What do the films Alien, Re-Animator, The Haunted Palace, The Evil Dead, and The Thing have in common? Before you answer that, let me add a few more things to the pile. Bands like Metallica, Black Sabbath, and The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. Comics like Batman and Hellboy. Manga like Uzumaki. Video games like Alone in the Dark and The Lurking Fear. Cartoons: The Real Ghostbusters and Scooby-Do! Mystery Incorporated. Television shows like Night Gallery, Dark Shadows, and Supernatural. Toy companies like Toy Vault, Squishable, and Warpo.

All of these have been influenced by H. P. Lovecraft, a writer of supernatural fiction who died in 1937, and have incorporated some element of Lovecraft’s best known creation, the Cthulhu Mythos, an interlocking pantheon of weird alien god-things, strange books, black magic, and horrors beyond human comprehension. This homage to Lovecraft even extends to science. Things as diverse as an organism that lives in the digestive system of a termite to a crater on the south pole of the planet Mercury have been named for Lovecraft or his creations.

Which is odd, considering that Lovecraft was not a terribly successful or well-known author in his lifetime, publishing a few handfuls of stories in obscure pulp magazines, most notably Weird Tales and making ends meet through ghost writing and revising works for other authors.

And yet, some seventy-seven years after Lovecraft’s death, his body of work continues to influence authors, artists, filmmakers, game designers, and other creatives. How did this happen? How did an author of weird fiction, with a penchant for using words like “eldritch” and “cyclopean” and a pessimistic worldview manage to become one of the most influential forces on late 20th and early 21st century pop culture? To figure that out, we should probably start at the beginning.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890. His father was Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman who dealt in jewelry and precious metals. His mother was Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, who took pride in tracing her ancestry back to 1631 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1893, Winfield Lovecraft developed an acute psychosis, and was institutionalized at Butler Hospital, Providence’s psychiatric hospital. He would remain there until his death in 1898. Young Howard was told that his father’s condition was brought on by “nervous exhaustion,” though some scholars theorize that Winfield’s mental illness may actually have been caused by syphilis.

After his father’s institutionalization, Howard was raised by his mother and his aunts, Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips, and their father, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. By all accounts, Howard was a prodigy. He would entertain his mother and aunts by reciting poetry, some of his own composition. He was also a voracious reader, working his way through his grandfather’s library and favoring things like The Arabian Nights and Bulfinch’s Age of Fable. It was through Whipple Phillips that Howard heard his first tales of Gothic horror.

Howard was frequently sick as a child, and had a lot of trouble staying in school. But he made up for it by reading constantly and teaching himself about chemistry and astronomy. He self-published articles he wrote about science beginning in 1899 with a proto-‘zine named The Scientific Gazette. Around this time, Howard also suffered from strange, terrifying dreams, many of which centered around his being abducted by terrifying, faceless creatures he called “night gaunts.” These would later appear in his fiction.

In 1904, Young Howard’s life was thrown into turmoil with the death of his grandfather. Almost overnight, the family went from wealthy to poor, and Howard, his mother, and his aunts were forced to move from the family home to a much smaller house. In 1908, Howard suffered a nervous breakdown, and was unable to finish high school. He never received a diploma, though he did continue to write.

Howard wrote constantly. Poetry, essays, letters. In 1913, Howard wrote a critical letter to The Argosy, complaining about a saccharine-sweet love story by Fred Jackson. This got the attention of the president of the United Amateur Press Association, Edward F. Dass, who invited Howard to join the organization in 1914.

Membership in the UAPA encouraged Howard. His first published story was The Alchemist, which appeared in the United Amateur in 1916. He would begin commercially publishing in 1922, when he was thirty-one. In 1919, Howard’s mother began suffering from depression and hysteria. She would eventually be committed to Butler Hospital. She died in 1921 due to complications from gall bladder surgery.

Howard continued writing. In 1921, Howard attended a convention of amateur journalists in Boston. There, he met Sonia Green, who he would marry in 1924. At this time, Howard moved to New York, sharing Sonia’s Brooklyn apartment. Howard fell in with Sonia’s circle of friends, particularly a group of writers who called themselves the Kalem Club, and with their encouragement, Howard began to submit stories to Weird Tales.

Howard had a love/hate relationship with New York. Sonia, who had been supporting Howard, soon lost her business, suffered illness, and lost her savings to a bank failure. And Howard—like a lot of writers—was virtually unemployable. He took a series of short-lived clerk jobs. At one point, Howard was offered a chance to become editor of Weird Tales, but he declined, as he was unwilling to relocate to Chicago. Farnsworth Wright would end up with the job, and would often be in the position of rejecting Howard’s submissions.

Sonia moved to Ohio for work, leaving Howard to take a single-room apartment in Red Hook. Despite setbacks, including a burglary which left Howard with little more than the clothes on his back, he continued writing, completing stories The Horror at Red Hook and He. He also began work on an outline for a story that would realize his philosophy of cosmicism, The Call of Cthulhu. In 1926 Lovecraft would abandon New York and return to Providence.

Returning to Providence allowed Howard to complete The Call of Cthulhu, and he was intensely prolific for the last decade of his life. This was the period in which he wrote the short novels, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. Other stories written during this period included The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dunwich Horror.

Unfortunately, while the stories came readily, payment for those stories arrived less readily. Howard was forced to live frugally to get by on what money did come in and a dwindling small inheritance. He’d go without meals in order to afford stamps. He was also self-sabotaging: He would frequently give up on stories that had been rejected by publishers, or trunk stories that publishers might have been interested in. In 1936, Howard received two pieces of bad news. The first was of the suicide of Howard’s friend and correspondent, Robert E. Howard. The second was when Lovecraft himself was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine.

Howard died on March 15, 1937. He was buried in Swan Point Cemetery.

Howard might have been forgotten. But instead, some of his fans and friends decided to carry on. Because Howard had encouraged his friends, correspondents, and clients to play in the world of his creation, and to use the names of the gods, monsters, strange books, and locales he had invented in their own fictional worlds (and Howard did the same with theirs). He describes the process in a 1934 letter:

“For the fun of building up a convincing cycle of synthetic folklore, all of our gang frequently allude to the pet daemons of the others — thus Smith uses my Yog-Sothoth, while I use his Tsathoggua. Also, I sometimes insert a devil or two of my own in the tales I revise or ghost-write for professional clients. Thus our black pantheon acquires an extensive publicity & pseudo-authoritativeness it would not otherwise get.”

Because of this, as P. Schuyler Miller wrote in 1945:

“[Lovecraft] created a cult of readers who could fill in the gaps of suggestion because they had followed him through the earlier tales. Their minds were tuned to the same key; their imaginations had been trained to venture in the same directions. The details they filled in were at least close to those Lovecraft himself would have imagined….”

Some of those who would continue to fill in the details included Robert Hayward Barlow, who became executor of Lovecraft’s literary estate, Weird Tales author Donald Wandrei, and August Derleth, who with Wandrei founded publishing company Arkham House (named for a city in Lovecraft’s fiction) in 1939 in order to preserve Lovecraft’s works in hardcover.

In addition to publishing volumes of Lovecraft’s fiction and letters, Arkham House published a number of Lovecraft’s contemporaries: Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith being just a few notable names. They also published early works by Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley, two of the most notable of the next generation of writers inspired by Lovecraft.

Because demand was strong and constant for new Lovecraft and Cthulhu Mythos material, Derleth—a canny businessman—began crafting “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, using unfinished story notes and fragments, often marketing these stories as if they were Lovecraft’s alone. In 1945’s H.P.L.: A Memoir, Derleth attempts to explain the enduring appeal of the Mythos:

“As Lovecraft conceived the deities or forces of his mythos, there were initially, the Elder Gods, none of whom save Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, is ever identified by name; these Elder Gods were benign deities, representing the forces of good, and existed peacefully at or near Betelgeuze in the constellation Orion, very rarely stirring forth to intervene in the unceasing struggle between the powers of evil and the races of Earth. These powers of evil were variously known as the Great Old Ones or the Ancient Ones, though the latter term is most often applied to the manifestations of one of the Great Old Ones on earth’s extension. The Great Old Ones, unlike the Elder Gods, are named, and make frightening appearances in certain of the tales. Supreme among the Great Old Ones is the blind idiot god, Azathoth, an ‘amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity.’ Yog-Sothoth, the ‘all-in-one and one-in-all,’ shares Azathoth’s dominion, and is not subject to the laws of time and space, being coexistent with all time and conterminous with all space. Nyarlathotep, who is presumably the messenger of the Great Old Ones; Great Cthulhu, dweller in hidden R’lyeh deep in the sea; Hastur the Unspeakable, who occupies the air and interstellar spaces, half-brother to Cthulhu; and Shub-Niggurath, ‘the black goat of the woods with a thousand young’ complete the roster of the Great Old Ones as originally conceived.”

Many consider Derleth’s conception of Lovecraft’s Mythos to be at best, more optimistic than Lovecraft. And at worst, reflective of Derleth’s own Catholicism, or adding an elemental theme to the works. Regardless, Derleth managed to keep Lovecraft’s works in the public eye and in print, garnering notice both positive and negative.

In 1945, critic Edmund Wilson published a review of Lovecraft in a New Yorker article called “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous.” He was pretty harsh, calling the stories “hack-work” and suggesting that “the only real horror in most of these ficitons is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” Strangely enough, Edmund Wilson’s brainchild, The Library of America, would publish a volume of Lovecraft’s tales in 2006, proving that even hack-work becomes respectable enough to incorporate into the canon if it sticks around long enough.

In 1980, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos for myself. Since this is Nerd Nite, I’m going to go ahead and out myself by admitting that I stumbled onto Lovecraftiana when I received a copy of the Dungeons and Dragons cyclopedia Deities and Demigods. I was already into mythology, but in addition to the familiar Greek and Norse gods, the book turned me onto three groupings of gods and heroes and monsters I wasn’t already familiar with: Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In particular, Erol Otus’s artwork jumped off the page at me, lodging itself into my mind. It was so weird, I had to find the stories that inspired such magnificent strangeness.

So I started asking around. A friend loaned me his copy of Arkham House’s New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. As a result, I cut my Mythos teeth on  Stephen King’s “Crouch End,”  David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness,” Ramsey Campbell’s “The Faces at Pine Dunes,” and T. E. D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn,” which remains one of my all-time favorite horror stories. This began for me a thirty-plus year obsession, exploring not only fiction by Lovecraft, which I got to and devoured eventually, but the authors that were inspired by Lovecraft, and those that inspired Lovecraft, particularly Poe and Dunsany, about whom Lovecraft wrote in 1933:

“…the discovery of Lord Dunsany — from whom I got the idea of the artificial pantheon and myth-background represented by ‘Cthulhu’, ‘Yog-Sothoth’, ‘Yuggoth’, etc. — gave a vast impetus to my weird writing; and I turned out material in greater volume than ever before or since. At that time I had no thought or hope of professional publication; but the founding of Weird Tales in 1923 opened up an outlet of considerable steadiness. My stories of the 1920 period reflect a good deal of my two chief models, Poe and Dunsany, and are in general too strongly inclined to extravagance and overcolouring to be of much serious literary value.”

Fast forward a few years. In 2011, I was working for a publishing company in San Francisco who had a reputation for (among other things) publishing weird fiction and Lovecraftiana. We had done well with a thick anthology of zombie stories, so I suggested that we do the same with the Cthulhu Mythos. The project was greenlighted, so I set to putting together The Book of Cthulhu, a collection of 27 tales of “tentacles, madness, and terror” by authors who had been inspired by Lovecraft’s vast creation.  Just a few of the authors appearing in the book include Kage Baker, Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear, Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, Caitlin R. Kiernan, T. E. D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, Tim Pratt, Cherie Priest, W. H. Pugmire, Charles Stross, and Gene Wolfe. The anthology did well enough that in 2012 a follow-up was published, creatively titled The Book of Cthulhu 2. Between the two books, you will find the best of the last thirty years of Cthulhu Mythos short fiction.

Today, I run my own small press, Word Horde. We launched last year with Tales of Jack the Ripper, an anthology paying tribute to the 125-year literary legacy of the world’s best-known serial killer. And because it’s an anthology I put together, you can bet there’s a weird fiction angle to it. This year, I published The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron, in which my co-editor Justin Steele and I gathered together an amazing cast of authors to give homage to one of the modern masters of cosmic horror. Next August, in time for what would have been Lovecraft’s 125th birthday, Word Horde will be publishing Cthulhu Fhtagn!, an anthology of all original Cthulhu Mythos stories by some very exciting authors.

And while Lovecraft and his works continue to inspire me, I think the success of the Books of Cthulhu, and all the films, songs, games, toys, and other products that I mentioned at the top of this talk show that we’re on the cusp on a new era with regards to Lovecraftiana, one in which, as Stefan Dziemianowicz wrote more than two decades ago, “Lovecraft has become, paradoxically, a minor figure in the area of Cthulhu Mythos fiction.” Much like Internet sensation Garfield minus Garfield, we’ve reached an era of Lovecraftiana minus Lovecraft, where new authors take their inspiration from Klein, and Ligotti, and Kiernan, and Barron rather than going back to Lovecraft, or Poe, or Dunsany. And I’m not just cool with that, I look forward to what happens next.

ROSS E. LOCKHART is an author, anthologist, editor, and publisher. A lifelong fan of supernatural, fantastic, speculative, and weird fiction, Lockhart is a veteran of small-press publishing, having edited scores of well-regarded novels of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Lockhart edited the anthologies The Book of Cthulhu and II, Tales of Jack the Ripper, and The Children of Old Leech. He is the author of Chick Bassist. Lockhart lives in an old church in Petaluma, California, with his wife Jennifer, hundreds of books, and Elinor Phantom, a Shih Tzu moonlighting as his editorial assistant.

Elinor Phantom

Elinor Phantom

2 responses to ““The Cult of Cthulhu: A Century of Cosmic Horror Writing Inspiration for the Modern Age”, by Ross E. Lockhart

  1. Okay, I,m going to make it a point to go to the next Nerd Nite North Bay in Novato.😃 Thanks Mike, I really enjoyed this transcript of Ross’ talk at Nerd Nite #2! You guys always post the coolest stuff! Lovecraft eZine flippin’ rocks! One of the best sites going!

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