The following article is by author Daniel Mills.
I suppose I should just come out and say it: HP Lovecraft is my favorite writer.
I’ve felt this way for years now, though the various disputes surrounding Lovecraft’s life and legacy have sometimes made it difficult for me to admit as much, even to myself. Most recently, the dust-up over the World Fantasy Award statuette has left many of us within the Weird community feeling angry or conflicted, and so I thought I would just take a moment to reflect on what Lovecraft means to me and why, perhaps, so many of us feel so invested in his legacy.
I grew up in Vermont in the small town south of Burlington where I still live. As a child I was always interested in horror — due in large part, I suspect, to my early exposure to the Scary Stories to Tell in Dark series — but the local library’s collection was rather lean on horror save for shelves of Stephen King and I didn’t encounter Lovecraft’s work until I was in eighth grade.
I was thirteen when I read “The Dunwich Horror” and was immediately taken by its evocation of New England’s history and landscape. Afterward the woods and hills around my house came to feel imbued with a new beauty and menace, with all the possibilities of fantasy or folklore.
Following that initial exposure, I went on to seek out and devour each of the old Del Rey paperbacks in turn, entranced by his vision of the landscape I loved and dazzled by his command of language. I read and reread short stories like “The White Ship” or “Nyarlathotep,” savoring the look, sound, and feel of the various unfamiliar words and of the worlds they suggested beyond themselves.
Inevitably, I suppose, I was moved to write my own fiction in the same mode, all of which was cringingly bad so that in time I came to mistake the faults of the imitator (me) for those of the imitated (Lovecraft). When I entered college, I did my utmost to put aside childish things, as I thought then, and disavowed Lovecraft’s influence on my work. My writing classes taught me that I should aspire to write like Carver or Cheever or Hemingway and I allowed myself to fall into the illusion propagated by writing programs that some writing styles are “good” (e.g. sleek, transparent prose with strong verbs, no adverbs, active voice, etc) while others are objectively “bad.”
Looking back now, I find the very notion ridiculous and yet it remains quite fashionable to dismiss Lovecraft as a purple prose-spewing hack — I’m reminded of the offhand way the World Fantasy petition dismissed him as a “terrible wordsmith.”
It wasn’t until after I graduated that I rediscovered Lovecraft’s work. In school I had studied environmental studies and nature writing, of all things, and as a consequence of this, I quickly found myself unemployed. Eventually, I ended up working in a microchip fabricator, where I spent my 12-hour shifts in the photolithography lab. This was an utterly alien space, lit by banks of sickly yellow lights, and was thus perhaps an appropriate environment in which to return to Lovecraft, reading “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time” and indeed the whole body of his work over the course of that autumn.
In his fiction I came to see the reflection of my own alienation: twenty-one years old, living alone in a cheap apartment, writing and submitting work to agents and journals that rarely bothered to respond. Accordingly I could not help but envision Lovecraft as a similarly isolated figure. From his Providence apartment I imagined him looking out at the void, at “this revolting graveyard of the universe,” and raging against his self-imposed seclusion.
His nihilism, racism, xenophobia, his occasional misogyny — all seemed to me born from the same paralyzing loneliness and fear, twisted responses to a despair with which I was all too familiar. These flaws (and they are flaws) cannot be excused, but viewed in the context of his life and work, they can at least be understood, and it was because of such shortcomings that I was able to recognize elements of my own brokenness in Lovecraft’s work: to see in him my own loneliness, agony, anxiety, and doubt. This was mostly projection on my part — I was reading into his work what I needed to read there — but the comfort I derived from this realization was very real, as was my inspiration.
After rereading Lovecraft, I soon discovered Blackwood, Hodgson, and Machen, among many others. All of these writers have shaped my work in ways both small and profound, but it’s Lovecraft himself to whom I keep returning. His style is unconventional, to be sure, but in its baroque stylings, I see an effort to create and capture something of beauty out of an otherwise overwhelming pessimism and despair.
There is ugliness in his work, it’s true, and hatred, and sorrow, but reading his fiction when I was thirteen — and again when I was twenty-one — showed me that language itself could be a kind of salvation. With words alone, you could transcend almost anything, even the self. You could speak to the void and you could make it sing.
Daniel Mills is the author of The Lord Came at Twilight (Dark Renaissance Books, 2014) and Revenants: A Dream of New England (Chomu Press, 2011). His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Black Static, Shadows & Tall Trees, and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. He lives in Vermont. His website is at www.daniel-mills.net.
Is it even possible to have suffered life’s travails — loss of employment, rejection for one’s most basic virtues, the basic hardness of life — without forming views based on those experiences? Yes, Lovecraft was as product of his times. Yes, Gahdhi was a product of his times. But you can’t do that. You can’t hold anybody up to Gandhi. Somebody wrote that people ought to be judged by their best moments, not their worst. Maybe that’s true or not, but I value Lovecraft’s work so so very much, that it pains me to see how the conversation goes, at times. Yes, I am so very sorry he had racist views. It’s embarrassing and wrong. But I love his work.
Well said Daniel. Just because a person likes Lovecraft and his fiction does not mean that you uphold as personal virtues, ethics and values everything that he stood for. There is such a compulsive need in some, borderlining on a sickness, to pigeonhole people into black and white categories that do not match reality. And those who dismiss others by that categorization often cannot see their own profound biases.
Spot on! Very well put.
Great article, sir!
Wonderful post, i too love lovecraft, and have struggled at times with understanding why. Grear way of putting it, cheers.