The Lovecraftian Life-cycle
I have had the great pleasure of a decades-long involvement (if that’s a strong enough word. Addiction maybe?) with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. I hopped aboard the hell-bound train back in 1967 when the second printing Lancer paperbacks appeared (The Colour out of Space and The Dunwich Horror). It was a great time for me as a nerd. I was exulting in the great paperback revival of pulp fiction and classical fantasy. The love of it will never leave me. But I have noticed certain changes in focus and in scope over the years. I’ll bet most of my readers will know just what I mean.
At first, of course, it was the fiction of the Old Gent that grabbed me (though, oddly, I did not read the novellas till several years later, I don’t know why). I soon branched out a bit to read some of Clark Ashton Smith’s fantasy and Robert E. Howard’s horror tales as I expanded my reading of Howard from my original focus on his heroic fantasy. But in terms of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, I trod the path followed by so many in the pulp era until now: I plunged into August Derleth. It was clear to me that Derleth was not writing on Lovecraft’s level, but so what? It was great fun and placed me in the midst of familiar and beloved territory. As I remember, I naively accepted Derleth’s retooling of the Mythos, Elder Gods, elementals, elder signs and all. It would be several years before, reading Richard L. Tierney and Dirk W. Mosig, that I understood the differences between Lovecraft’s and Derleth’s visions. But in the meantime, I was devouring whatever Mythos material I could get my mitts on. Paramount among these, of course, was Derleth’s seminal anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Ramsey Campbell’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, soon joined by Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites.
So thus far the direction my interest took was one of expansion: from Lovecraft to the Mythos, to which Lovecraft was essentially one contributor (as blasphemous as that sounds). Some would say I had become lost, that the great Mirkwood of Mythos fiction was a distraction, a cancerous growth upon Lovecraft’s work. I should venture that Lovecraft expert David E. Schultz (compared to whom I am to be judged the veriest tyro) might paraphrase what Rudolf Bultmann said in his monumental Theology of the New Testament to the effect that Jesus is more of a presupposition for the New Testament than one of its voices. Even so, Lovecraft might be considered the premise of the Mythos but not really a Mythos writer. I would not go quite that far myself, but I understand and appreciate the sentiment.
After the expansion came the contraction. Under the influence, as I have intimated, of Tierney, Mosig and Mosig’s disciples, I repudiated “the Derlethian heresy” (Peter H. Cannon) and looked askance at most of the Mythos fiction outside Lovecraft’s own canon. Partly this was because I had made a late acquaintance with Brian Lumley’s Mythos work and did not then much care for it (though now I enjoy it a great deal). My reaction to the Mythos work of Lin Carter was mixed: I cared little for his pastiches of the Necronomicon and The Book of Eibon (though, again, it was not long before I came to forgive their flaws), while I really enjoyed his pastiches of modern-era tales, emulating Derleth and, interestingly, the secondary “revision” tales of Lovecraft. So my “back to Lovecraft” phase was neither totalistic nor long-lived. It was not long before I widened my scope again, though without placing everything on the same level. With the awareness that there were phases and stages of development in Mythos fiction came an interest in the historical evolution of the whole business. Viewing the matter this way I found I had a new interest even in amateurish efforts and began a series of anthologies called The Fan Mythos. This didn’t mean those stories were so great; it just meant they had a particular kind of interest to them.
The same sort of expansion and contraction dynamic marked my interest in media versions of Lovecraft. How fascinating, at first, to discover movie adaptations of HPL! Even bad ones (which one might consider most of them). And comic books! And music! And toys! Gaming was for many a prime area of Lovecraft addiction, but after a tepid attempt or two to play “Call of Cthulhu,” I abandoned that. No judgment, just not for me. How remarkable, though, that many young people seem to have begun with the game, then moved into Lovecraft and other Mythos fiction as they grew curious about the sources of all the Mythos data they had mastered. It was because of this phenomenon that Chaosium approached me to edit the Cthulhu Cycle series of Mythos anthologies in the early nineties. It began as a kind of remediation, making it easy for such late-comers to the Mythos to catch up. And thus did many of them become interested in the fiction for its own sake, a salutary development indeed.
I grew more tolerant of the liberties taken with the film adaptations of Lovecraft. I realized that most of Lovecraft’s stories simply didn’t possess the narrative structure to make a good movie. This was the result of Lovecraft’s conscious decision to go for effect, to awe the reader with cosmic vistas, rather than character development or conventional plotting. If the stories were more like movies they would be much less effective as stories. So I stopped complaining about the simple fact that a movie adaptation is and must be just that: an adaptation. But the other side of that realization was a deflation of my interest in the film versions! If it’s HPL’s fiction that interests me, then why not just stick to it? Ditto for the comic books. To me, the various media adaptations do not enhance Lovecraft. They are doing Lovecraft’s work no favor. They are curiosities, and they are increasingly well done. So I do not mean to criticize them, much less their creators. Just my likes and dislikes. But again, it does mean my field of interest is shrinking, narrowing in scope. But these things are cyclical, and you know what they say: “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons, even death may die.”
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.
Browse Dr. Price’s books at Amazon.
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Columns like this are why the Lovecraft eZine is essential reading for all Lovecraftians.
The first story I read was The Dunwich Horror and I was hooked. I have read other Mythos stories by various authors but Lovecraft is still my favorite.
I agree that the Mythos has expanded well beyond what HPL started. He inspired so many with his writing style and the way he drew pictures with his words in such wide strokes that people could fill in the canvas with their own thoughts, visions and nightmares.
Great Echoes. I started reading Lovecraft by picking up a book on horror stories from the library, finding his visual themes fascinating, and creepy…then began reading other short stories and discovering Howard and Ashton Smith through the Cthulhu Mythos, and it took off from there…..I think Pickman’s Model and The Outsider were what drew me into the world of Lovecraft…nice to see others had similar experiences…
I think it’s a good point, that Lovecraftian Mythos has evolved in many different styles of writing and media. But I think the idea of evolution is really key to understanding how all this fits together. Evolution is basically biology’s way of throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks (I know, I know, I’m getting technical here. Biologists out there, please don’t hit me). In the same way, all these media are taking Lovecraft’s ideas, tinkering with them, throwing them against the wall and seeing what sticks. Most of it is bad, just like most genetic mutations don’t survive. But some of it works and helps the whole species, as it were since I’m sticking with my terms here, flourish.
I also think this kind of tinkering is necessary for the horror genre as a whole. All American horror rips Lovecraft off in the same way all fantasy rips Tolkein off. It just does. We accept it and move on, because, well, you’re ripping off something good, at least. What’s important is taking those core ideas and doing something else with them. Maybe something that’s not Lovecraftian, maybe something that is. As Herbert West would probably say, the experimentation is necessary, no matter what comes of it.
Nice description of a journey with Lovecraft, and related. Also some interesting observations. I actually started my journey reading CAS – and taking particular interest in the Mythos based/influenced stories, and then I quickly read HPL. I took on the RPG early, and was heavily involved for around 20 years in convention modules etc, which added to my depth of understanding, rather than detracted.
Nice article indeed.
My reading relationship with Lovecraft evolved in pretty much the same way too and also paved the way for the reading of other writer such as Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Derleth of course.
I was a big comic book fan when I was growing up (I was born in 1960), and I was aware that many of the artists and writers were heavily influenced by HPL. I never did much more than just glance through his stories until around 2002 (shame on me for waiting so long). I was hooked! My favorite story by HPL is “The Colour Out of Space”. (I love ’em all, of course…) My favorite modern Lovecraftian novel is Brett J. Talley’s “That Which Should Not Be”. I have a ton of fun reading Mythos literature, and I occasionally add Lovecraftian overtones to my stories and art on my “Deviant Art” website (the basic theme of my site is “superheroines-in-KO-peril”, though)
My own growing relationship with Lovecraft evolved quite along the same path. I owe my very dear but sadly departed sister a big thank you for it was her who introduced me to Lovecraft and growing up in Providence certainly added a certain bonding element as well.
Thank Robert for such a sweet love note to H.P. and to the all those who have attempted to swim the same dreaded water as he had, and of course a big thank you to all the great anthos you have given us. Look forward to seeing you here in August.
A lot of what you say about your evolving relationship with HPL and the mythos is true of me, too. I have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) seeing how Lovecraft’s ideas are expanded on by other writers. And if occasionally I find a contribution that doesn’t seem to fit (or, more accurately, doesn’t fit my taste), so what? There is room for many different takes on the original material….