The Haunter of the Dark:
H. P. Lovecraft and Modern Horror Cinema

by Christopher Sharrett

H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft

It makes sense on this, the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of his birth, to reassess the importance of short-story writer H. P. Lovecraft, whose impact on horror/sci-fi cinema of the last century is remarkable.

I picked Lovecraft up then put him down more than fifty years ago, when a friend told me he was the “new Poe,” a common description. Loving all things Poe, I investigated, but found myself agreeing with critic Edmund Wilson’s scathing (but sloppy and cursory) 1945 essay on Lovecraft, “Tales of the Marvelous and the Ridiculous,” which nearly ruined Lovecraft’s name for decades among the cognoscenti. I considered two stories, “The Rats in the Wall” and “The Dunwich Horror,” published in the superb Modern Library Classics collection Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, to be effective, but not without problems. Like Wilson, I felt Lovecraft’s prose needlessly baroque, with a tendency toward archaic expressions such as “eldritch” and “Cyclopean,” often used several times in the same story.

Over the years, Lovecraft’s embrace by heavy metal fans, toy and game collectors, Goth kids, and fanciers of the occult convinced me that Lovecraft was juvenilia. Then, two years ago, I read him again. I was surprised this time by his literary sophistication, his unceasing satire of religion, his purchase on the horror genre (he is central to blurring the horror/sci-fi boundary), and a prose style that I now felt to be, to use Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi’s term, incantatory. Lovecraft’s outlook now struck me as wholly original, and unflinching in its refusal to offer consolations, his vision of the horror genre entirely committed to the reader’s absolute disquietude.

Ridley Scott's Alien

I was also surprised by the respect now afforded him: previously published in mass-market paperbacks sporting melodramatic covers, Lovecraft’s stories today appear in distinguished editions from Penguin Classics and the prestigious Library of America. As Lovecraft’s influence increased, his reputation has been salvaged from Wilson’s dismissal by the acknowledgements of Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Theroux, Umberto Eco, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Arthur C. Clarke, and the eccentric novelist Michel Houellebecq. Borges and Clarke wrote half-satirical Lovecraftian stories as a tip of the hat. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey might be called a Lovecraft opera, with a ship penetrating deep space to discover an ineffable, inhuman intelligence. But Kubrick’s film, even with the director’s icy cynicism, doesn’t capture his source’s true outlook. An erroneous understanding of his sensibility often hampers Lovecraft’s influence.

As I scanned the mediascape, I was amazed by how so much of fantastic cinema has derived, unconsciously or otherwise, from the writer’s ideas. For starters, Lovecraft gave us the Ancient Aliens fad, with its idea that all life on earth was created by thoughtful (or unkind) extraterrestrials; body horror, with the body transmogrified into a repulsive source of fear; the devolution of humanity into barbarism or prehuman savagery; the tumbledown roadside farmhouse sheltering a bloodthirsty old lunatic and his clan; the explorers of a remote wasteland discovering a terrifying threat to humanity. The monster was no longer tall, humanoid, and hairy, but viscous, amorphous, often tentacled. The list of influences is impressive—Batman puts his foes in Arkham Asylum, named after the town created by Lovecraft. Movies as disparate as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) owe much to Lovecraft’s complex cosmology and horrific vision.

The Thing from Another World

Howard Phillips Lovecraft led his short life (1890­–1937) almost entirely in his native Providence, Rhode Island, yet wasn’t quite the oddball New England recluse often portrayed. A sickly child who lost his father early to syphilis and his suffocating mother to mental illness, he failed to complete secondary school and was rejected by Brown University. Not wanting to leave home, he never applied elsewhere. He was an amazing autodidact, mastering literature, history, art, and architecture, and was competent in several languages. He was math-challenged, however, and unable to dig very deeply into his fixation with the newly provocative work of Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Werner Heisenberg, whose views of the universe appealed to his rock-ribbed atheism. From his various, steadily more impoverished Providence homes, he wrote horror stories for Weird Tales during the Twenties and early Thirties when pulp magazines flourished. In his final days, he was a shut-in destitute, living on chocolate, cheese, and coffee. He died of stomach cancer at the age of forty-six.

A large circle of correspondents formed around Lovecraft, often asking advice (he nicknamed himself “Old Grandpa”), made up of established or aspiring writers, including a very young Robert Bloch, to whom Lovecraft dedicated his final story, “The Haunter of the Dark.” Bloch’s novel Psycho, the source for Hitchcock, owes perhaps less to the horrific 1957 Ed Gein murder case than to Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man” and “The Picture in the House,” stories about grisly happenings in shabby houses just off the main road. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a hyperbolic extension of Psycho, further establishes the Lovecraft inheritance.

It is in Lovecraft the man that we find very tangible horror that inevitably finds expression in his fiction. He was anti-Semitic, racist, and classist. Friends were amazed when he married Sonia Greene, a Jew. Lovecraft called her “Junoesque” and sufficiently assimilated to be a Lovecraft. Samuel Loveman, one of Lovecraft’s best friends, was both gay and Jewish, which Lovecraft certainly knew. Defenders note, correctly, that Lovecraft was a perfect gentleman publicly, never using racial epithets or profanity of any kind. But do we ignore his thousands of letters (he was one of literature’s greatest epistolarians), many of which expressed his racial views?...

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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 1