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The Man With His Own Country: Who Was H.P. Lovecraft?

Before tuning into the new HBO series ‘Lovecraft Country,’ it’s worth examining the author who birthed a movement in the horror subgenre while harboring his own personal demons

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“I never ask a man what his business is,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft. “It never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.”

Thoughts and dreams were Lovecraft’s business. Like no genre writer before or since, the New England native hypnotized the mind’s eye with breathless descriptions of unearthly horrors: colors out of space, things on the doorstep, shadows out of time. “I think it is beyond doubt that H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth-century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale,” wrote Stephen King, implicitly including himself among the writers who’ve tried and failed to live up to the master’s example. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then King’s inventory of barely disguised Lovecraft riffs—from It to The Mist to the marvelous short story “Crouch End”—showcases an earnestness equivalent to worship; given how many of Lovecraft’s stories revolved around brainwashed disciplines in thrall to a greater power, King’s willingness to be seen as an acolyte makes perfect sense.

The title of HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country refers to the fictionalized New England backdrop that figured into so many of the author’s narratives, a deceptively idyllic setting superimposed over a submerged, unearthly alternate reality. It’s also a reference to how thoroughly the writer has colonized the collective unconscious, for better and for worse. The show is based on a 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, which functions simultaneously as a tribute to its namesake’s immortal “Cthulhu Mythos”—a cycle of stories describing the reawakening of malignant extra-dimensional presences—and a critique of the barely veiled racism lurking beneath their enduringly pulpy surfaces.

The issue is not whether Lovecraft, whose popularity was largely posthumous and who died in poverty at the age of 46, qualifies as a “problematic” writer. The prosecution closed that case long ago. Lovecraft was unambiguously racist, arguing passionately for segregation in a series of essays published during the 1910s and transposing those sentiments allegorically into his narratives, which frequently featured codedly xenophobic encounters between Anglo-Saxon protagonists and dark, sinisterly disfigured enemies.

Lovecraft’s bigotry was hardly unique in his era, even in the supposedly enlightened precincts of the North. But to say that he was simply a product of his time or a cog within a larger system of discrimination belies the visceral specificity of his disgust. In a 2017 Literary Hub essay entitled “We Can’t Ignore H.P. Lovecraft’s White Supremacy,” Wes House argues that the writer’s “race-inflected narratives can’t be wished away, cherry-picked, or swept under the rug in favor of his more widely known literary techniques and accomplishments.” Certainly, Lovecraft’s legacy cannot be hidden or erased, nor bludgeoned into smithereens head-on with a baseball bat (as visualized in a highly symbolic scene from Lovecraft Country’s first episode). If anything, the extent to which his ideas and imagery have seeped into popular culture—not only in movies and television shows, but comics, graphic novels, and video games—means that reckoning with their impact is imperative: not separating the art from the artist, as it were, but examining their inseparability on a molecular level.

This is not the same as denial, which, as Lovecraft’s fiction teaches us, is always a trap. The writer’s great theme is the collapse of rationality, as experienced by protagonists driven mad by true knowledge of the universe; for these paranoid unfortunates, the center cannot hold, and the rough beasts slouching toward them represent the return of the repressed in the harsh light of epiphany. While Lovecraft’s own personal network of superstitions, fetishes, and prejudices gave his immortal monsters their gnarled, twisted outer shapes, it was his intuitive understanding that true horror is that which exceeds our experience that gave his work its terrible, unshakable power. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind,” he wrote in 1927, “is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” insisted Franklin Roosevelt six years later in his 1933 inaugural address, attempting to assuage a nation by suggesting that its ongoing economic crisis could be conquered by a brave face. But Depression-era America was also very much Lovecraft Country, and the stories that emerged in that period effectively weaponized Roosevelt’s sentiment, turning the language of reassurance into a cruel prophecy. “Fear itself” was Lovecraft’s subject, and his myths are filled with examples of characters consumed by terror long after they’ve escaped their physical predicaments.

“Would to Heaven that we had never approached them at all,” recalls the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness, a 1931 novella that Guillermo del Toro has been trying to film since 2006. The character is referring to a collection of hideous creatures met in the midst of a doomed Arctic expedition; he can outrun them, but not his own memories. “[We should have] run back before we had seen what we did see,” the narrator also says. “Before our minds were burned with something which will never let us breathe easily again.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” says Palmer (David Clennon) upon sighting a spindly, unthinkable creature in The Thing, a movie based on a different Depression-era text (John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?) and 1951’s The Thing From Another World, but shot through with a thoroughly Lovecraftian sense of frostbitten, paranoid incomprehension: The snowy peaks towering over its characters are very much mountains of madness. The connection between John Carpenter’s masterpiece and Lovecraft’s literature is perfectly encapsulated by Clennon’s weary one-liner, which suggests exhaustion fused with anxiety, but also the gallows humor of a writer who once said “The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.”

One of the common denominators of Lovecraft’s work was the self-styled doctrine of “cosmicism,” a secular philosophy adjacent on one side to atheism—a refusal to acknowledge the existence of a benevolent or controlling God—and on another to an occultism that played out in his recurring motifs of secret pagan sects worshiping all-powerful yet strangely indifferent entities. It’s the distinction between forces that wish to do humanity harm and those whose impact comes mostly in the form of collateral damage that distinguishes Lovecraft’s stories from other fables of alien invasion. Typically in his fiction, it is human beings—explorers, scientists, or other avatars of intellectual ambition—who stumble across and disturb the agents of their own destruction. The apocalyptic cautionary tale of The Thing fits into this worldview, as does the doomed expedition of Alien, whose title character combines elements of Lovecraft’s gelatinous, tentacled Elder Gods with a shiver of millennial technophobia.

An interesting wrinkle in film history is that the unofficially Lovecratian movies—like Alien and The Thing—are the ones that have made the biggest impacts, while direct adaptations have ended up as niche items (i.e., 2005’s ingenious black-and-white pastiche The Call of Cthulhu, which adopts the form and style of a silent movie). Carpenter leads the field in worthy Lovecraft riffs, including the apocalyptic trilogy of Prince of Darkness, They Live, and In the Mouth of Madness. What makes Carpenter uniquely suited to tackling Lovecraft is his prevailing belief that evil, whether in the form of Michael Myers, the Thing, or the semiotic brainwashers of They Live, is something external, to be confronted; while Lovecraft was fascinated by madness, it was almost as always as a symptom of coming face to face with something terrible as opposed to emanating from within.

One of Lovecraft’s best-known stories features death from above. Written in 1927, “The Colour Out of Space” concerns a downed meteorite that poisons the hills outside the idyllic (and fictional) town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Striving to generate a sense of something truly alien in place of the humanoid invaders beloved by many other science-fiction writers—including H.G. Wells, from whose War of the Worlds Lovecraft pilfered the image of a “blasted heath”—Lovecraft imagined his antagonist as purely ephemeral “globules of color” left over from the crash site that variably cause ruination and mutation in all surrounding life forms, including the members of a local family known as the Gardners.

The ecological subtext of this surname is unsubtle: If the political valence of Lovecraft’s work was usually reactionary, “The Colour Out of Space” nevertheless registers at least in part as an anti-pollution parable. Earlier this year, the eccentric British director Richard Stanley returned to filmmaking with a visually accomplished adaptation of the story that updates the action to the present tense, with Mr. Gardner being played by Nicolas Cage, an actor who might just be the punch line to Lovecraft’s idea of life as a joke on mankind. Digging deep into his bag of Nouveau Shamanic tricks, Cage does justice to the contagious mania described on the page, delineating the experience of madness as vividly as he did back in Vampire’s Kiss.

“The Colour Out of Space” may be Lovecraft’s most imitated story: the extraterrestrial haze referred to as “the Shimmer” in Annihilation has a similarly transformative effect on the landscape of Alex Garland’s depressive thriller. Thus, critic Meagan Navarro places Annihilation within an “adaptive legacy” for “The Colour Out of Space” that also includes 1965’s Die, Monster Die! (featuring Boris Karloff in one of his final roles), the “Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segment of George A. Romero’s Creepshow (1982), and actor-director David Keith’s half-cheesy, half-visionary 1987 shocker The Curse, starring Stand by Me’s Wil Wheaton and a host of wonderfully inventive special effects.

But two years prior, arguably the greatest of all Lovecraft cinematic treatments was released: Stuart Gordon’s mighty Re-Animator, a wickedly witty riff on the writer’s 1922 serial about a medical student named Herbert West who decides—stupidly, as it turns out—to play at being Dr. Frankenstein. Set mostly at Arkham’s hallowed Miskatonic University, Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Re-Animator” follows a predictable pattern of grave-robbing, underground experimentation, and dubious breakthroughs, with West successfully reanimating several corpses, which results in all kinds of chaos.

Originally devised as a stage production, Re-Animator leans into the gory ridiculousness of Lovecraft’s premise, playing it for perversely titillating black comedy. Keyed by the anxious, nervy brilliance of star Jeffrey Combs, the film unfolds as a series of startling, hilarious shock effects, including a character being strangled by their own intestines and a decapitated cranium licking a nude woman laid spread-eagle on an operating table (the visual joke on the idea of “giving head” is, yes, quite unsubtle). These and other excesses earned Gordon’s movie the dreaded X rating, as well as instant cult status and the appreciation of critics like Pauline Kael, who gleefully invoked surrealist artists like Luis Buñuel in her review. The New York Times cheered Re-Animator’s sense of humor while noting that it “would be lost on 99.9 percent of any ordinary moviegoing crowd.”

Gordon, who died earlier this year, was a one-man cottage industry in the field of Lovecraft movies: In addition to Re-Animator, he also helmed 1986’s underrated From Beyond (which also starred Combs) and 2001’s hallucinatory Dagon, a gratuitously gothic (and beautifully designed) saga about a cult worshiping a bloodthirsty aquatic deity. “I think these films are about dreams, and how incredible dreams can be,” Gordon told Cineaste in 2009. “The horror about dreams is that you have to be careful, because sometimes they can wind up becoming nightmares. Basically, at their root, they follow that old adage you’ve got to be careful what you wish for.” Gordon’s comments echo Lovecraft’s observations about how dreams are more interesting—and revealing—than waking life. But they also help to explain why the films made in Lovecraft’s image or in his debt have proved so captivating when the lights go down.