The New Shoggoth Chic: Why H.P. Lovecraft Now?

The New Shoggoth Chic: Why H.P. Lovecraft Now?

By Amy H. Sturgis. Originally published in Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, Vol. 1 Issue 4 (December 2005).

Lovecraft Now

“I have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft in his 1933 autobiographical essay “Some Notes on a Nonentity.” He added, “The only thing I can say in favour of my work is its sincerity.”
More than seventy years later, others can and do say much more in favor of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. “Lovecraft is a resonating wave,” notes author Neil Gaiman in the 2004 documentary The Eldritch Influence: The Life, Vision, and Phenomenon of H.P. Lovecraft. “He’s rock and roll.” And as the reigning King of Cool, Gaiman should know, especially after winning the 2004 Hugo Award for his crossover short story “A Study in Emerald,” the latest of his several published works invoking Lovecraft’s universe.

Lovecraft died four years after he penned his humble “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” and at the time it seemed as though obscurity would claim both the man and his collected tales of cosmic horror forever. Quite the opposite occurred. Today, Lovecraft’s cast of scientists, scholars, and paranormal investigators, as well as his pantheon of grotesque creatures from Shoggoths to Deep Ones, are part of mainstream popular culture; so, too, are his fictional settings of Arkham and Miskatonic University, and the dreaded volume of forbidden lore known as the Necronomicon. The 21st- century audience in particular has shown unparalleled interest in all things Lovecraftian, yielding everything from role-playing games based on Lovecraft’s stories and film festivals showcasing adaptations of his texts, to t-shirts that proudly proclaim “Cthulhu Is My Homeboy” and cute plushie slippers in the shape of his Elder Gods. While many of the authors Lovecraft most greatly admired – the Arthur Machens and Montague Rhodes Jameses – are remembered now only in specialized circles, Lovecraft’s work continues to win over new generations of enthusiasts. Moreover, the mythos he created continues to expand and evolve as some the most successful of modern writers, including Stephen King, Brian Lumley, Robert Bloch, and the aforementioned Gaiman, play within its borders.

The year 2005 provides an impressive measure of Lovecraft’s appeal. Novelist Michel Houellebecq’s ecstatic tribute, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, was translated into English. Two new volumes of Lovecraft’s writings appeared this year, one of letters and one of essays, both edited by preeminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, who likewise edited the new Fritz Leiber and H.P Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark. Douglas A. Anderson’s anthology H.P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Weird Tales: The Roots of Modern Horror debuted along with analytical works such as Don G. Smith’s H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture: The Works and their Adaptations in Film, Television, Comics, Music and Games and Jason Colavito’s Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. The Modern Library reissued Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness with a fresh introduction by hip science fiction writer China Miéville. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society produced a 1920s-style silent film adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu, while the often Lovecraft-inspired director Stuart Gordon shot a version of “The Dreams in the Witch-House” for Showtime’s Masters of Horror October lineup. The list could go on and on.

Perhaps the most notable event in 2005, the one that permanently cemented the status of Lovecraft’s fiction for the mainstream reading audience, arrived with the publication of the Library of America’s anthology H.P. Lovecraft: Tales. Those at the Library of America pride themselves on being gatekeepers for the literary canon. For an author to be granted that organization’s blessing is to have arrived, to be considered an indispensable part of (in the press’s own words) “our nation’s literary heritage.” Not only did Lovecraft earn his own volume alongside the likes of Robert Frost and Henry James, but he also became the first writer of exclusively speculative fiction, or what he termed “weird fiction,” to receive the honor – in death, as in life, serving as the pioneer of a genre he cherished and championed.

Why Lovecraft? is a question easily answered by the likes of The Weekly Standard’s Michael Dirda, who comments, “What matters is that he possesses the storyteller’s greatest gift, the one Nabokov called shamanstvo: the ‘enchanter quality’.” Lovecraft seduces the reader with carefully crafted atmosphere and relentless, unflinching exposition. Lovecraft’s protagonists are sensitive, thoughtful, curious scholars and researchers, all of whom suffer from the unfortunate desire to know. In their discoveries lie true horrors, whether these are revelations about the curious and covert doings of the mysterious villagers of Innsmouth in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” or theories about the progressive transformation and waste of the farmland and its inhabitants in “The Colour Out of Space.” Readers are left to wonder if the characters who lose their sanity in the process of gaining the answers they sought might be the fortunate ones.

Many of the secrets uncovered by Lovecraft’s heroes point to the same underlying fact that powerful extraterrestrials once controlled the Earth, and, when they have awakened, will do so again. Never does Lovecraft fully outline the past chronology, future history, or complete hierarchy of this so-called “Cthulhu Mythos.” Instead, he provides tantalizing glimpses to fascinate and madden the reader. All fundamentally contradict E.M. Forster’s assertion in “The Machine Stops” that “Man is the measure” of all that is “lovable, desirable, and strong.” Instead, Lovecraft asserts, humanity is powerless, insignificant, and ultimately threatened by forces it simply cannot comprehend. This is due not to any inherent flaw or failure of humanity, but rather to the simple calculus of an impersonal and unfeeling cosmos, a formula that renders humans altogether temporary and inconsequential. The warnings of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, as quoted in “The Dunwich Horror,” offer a telling example: “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen….Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold…. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where Man rules now…. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.”

All of Lovecraft’s best works contain the promise of the sudden shift of perspective, the jarring moment that challenges the reader’s conception of the universe and her place in it, making all she thought before seem impossibly trivial when placed in this expansive, unforgiving new context. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” Lovecraft explained his desire “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity…. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is the deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions.” And Lovecraft’s readers, like his protagonists, cannot seem to avert their eyes from the grim landscape produced by such illusions. Lovecraft’s enchantment is all the more impressive because he persuades readers to look in the most uncomfortable and disturbing of directions, without chance of solace or hope, and then to return gladly for more.

In short, why Lovecraft? is a question easily answered by anyone who has read “The Call of Cthulhu” or At the Mountains of Madness. But this was as true in 1937 as it is today. The real question is this: Why Lovecraft now?

The Lovecraft-Tolkien Connection

H.P. Lovecraft is not the only author whose genre writings, more than half a century after their first publication, are now the subject of widespread popular attention and remarkable scholarly interest. J.R.R. Tolkien is a household name along with his Middle-earth works such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The inspiration for various university courses, countless literary analyses, and now Academy Award-winning films, Tolkien’s writings have proven relevant and meaningful to the 21st-century audience. And while neither Tolkien nor Lovecraft has ever gone “out of style” or lost faithful followings, a good case could be made that neither has ever been more popular.

Could there be a connection between these two success stories? The men were contemporaries, born only two years apart, although Lovecraft enjoyed far fewer years of literary production, as he died the same year that Tolkien launched his Middle-earth saga with the publication of The Hobbit. At first blush, the writers could not have been more different. The British Tolkien was an Oxford professor while the American Lovecraft never graduated from high school; Tolkien was married for life to the sweetheart of his teenage years, with whom he had four children, while Lovecraft’s sole marriage did not last five years and was childless; Tolkien’s fiction made him an international celebrity and cult figure in his own lifetime while Lovecraft never saw a collection of his tales in print; and, perhaps most importantly for their writings, Tolkien was a dedicated Roman Catholic while Lovecraft was a mechanistic materialist and atheist.

Despite these contrasting biographies, the two had more in common than often is supposed. Both lost fathers at early ages, both had mothers who were enormously influential on their lives, and both grew up in genteel poverty. Both also relied heavily on informal circles of like-minded writers for support and inspiration, Lovecraft on his Circle and Tolkien on the Inklings; both drew much of their fiction from their knowledge of other academic disciplines, Lovecraft from astronomy and Tolkien from philology; and both offered impressive scholarly defenses of their genres, Lovecraft with “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927, revised in 1933) and Tolkien with “On Fairy-Stories” (1947). What is not as easily recognized, and is in fact far more important, is that behind the Shoggoths and Hobbits that people their tales, both men were consumed by several of the same concerns.

Modernity, that nebulous and abstract force of the dawning 20th century, meant various things to Lovecraft and Tolkien at different times in their lives. One thing remained constant: both were against it. To Lovecraft, modernity primarily meant entropy, the gradual decay of time-honored habits, traditions, and even people into confusion and decrepitude. Many of his works portray the degeneracy of a group of people into deformity and idiocy, their own weaknesses turning them into vessels or victims of loathsome external powers (“the decadent Whateleys” of “The Dunwich Horror,” for instance). His racial and nationalistic assumptions fueled his disgust with the way in which industrialization and urbanization threw unlike people together in the most squalid conditions, ensuring (to his mind at least) that their most negative traits would come to the fore. He found an example of his worst fears realized when he lived, for a short time only, in New York City. In the somewhat autobiographical story “He,” Lovecraft described what so unnerved him about the place:

“But success and happiness were not to be. Garish daylight shewed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eye, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes around them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.”

Though charged with what we today would call racism and xenophobia, Lovecraft’s description implies more than simple fear or dislike of the Other: these others are overcrowded, literally “teeming,” unattached to their setting or community, isolated and atomistic, uncommunicative and “hardened.” Lovecraft contrasted such scenes with his native Providence, Rhode Island, where generations remained in the same place and were known by their family name and traits, and where the community as a whole tended to share what Augustine called “loved things held in common.” Lovecraft feared a humanity cut adrift from such grounding tradition and identity, left vulnerable to outside forces of superior power and unwholesome design.

For Tolkien, modernity primarily meant technology – “The Machine,” as he called it – and its triumph at the expense of nature. Where Lovecraft idealized his hometown of Providence, Tolkien revered the English countryside, and believed the growth of cities and factories to be a direct threat to its survival. By creating the fictional Shire and the Hobbits who populate it, Tolkien praised the rural values of decentralization, artisanship, stability, and familiarity over the urban qualities of centralization, mass production, disposability, and anonymity. His words in “On Fairy-Stories” are as anti-modern as Lovecraft’s:

“Not long ago – incredible though it may seem – I heard a clerk at Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life.’ He may have meant that the way men were living in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not.”

Both authors’ anti-modernism, as well as other intellectual ideas and personal traits, led them to feel out of place in a world of tremendous change and upheaval, economic depression and world war. For his part, H.P. Lovecraft felt himself to be an old man in a young man’s body, and, to use his words from “The Outsider,” “a stranger in this century.” Tolkien’s similar certainty that he was not at home came as much from his religious perspective as his disgust with all things “progressive.” He sensed all people were exiles on a fallen Earth, though perhaps he felt such estrangement more keenly than many. He wrote to his son Christopher, “… certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’.” In fact, in many ways, Tolkien’s fictional fallen creatures – his sundered Elves and degraded Númenóreans – were cut of the same cloth as Lovecraft’s living illustrations of entropy. The difference was that Tolkien counted himself among the number of the outcast.

In a related fashion, both shared a disappointment with humanity that must have further enhanced their sense of isolation. Lovecraft was forthright about his distaste with his fellow humans: “I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer from the external universes.” Tolkien admitted that he identified with his Hobbits instead of his human characters – interestingly enough, Hobbits are by nature wary of Men, and for good cause – and claimed, “I take the part of trees as against all their enemies,” noting repeatedly cases of “the destruction, torture and murder of trees” by individuals and groups. Both even appeared to take pride in their personal eccentricities, as their habits set them apart from the mainstream of humankind. Ironically, although Lovecraft and Tolkien harbored a certain disgust for their fellow creatures as a whole, both men had warm, genuine friendships with an intimate circle of colleagues that lasted throughout their lives.

It would be a mistake to assume that the two men were similar only in their dislikes and disappointments. Although they looked to the future with no little trepidation, they looked to the past with real fascination and affection. Lovecraft and Tolkien shared a fervent kind of antiquarianism. Lovecraft’s self-confessed “love of the ancient and permanent” can best be seen in his absorption with and knowledge of early American architecture, which he used to great effect in his precise and evocative descriptions. He also nursed a fervent Anglophilism, despite the fact he was born in the United States, tracing his ancestry across the ocean and reveling in the ethereal places of beauty described by such fantasists as Lord Dunsany. Tolkien nurtured his own love of ancient texts and national epics from Beowulf and the Kalevala to the Icelandic Eddas and family sagas. He studied the original languages of the stories and incorporated ingredients of the tales into his own work. Tolkien also possessed a strong reverence for things authentically Anglo-Saxon, and he dreamed that his own Middle-earth cycle, especially The Silmarillion, ultimately would serve as a national mythology for England.

In short, both Lovecraft and Tolkien were on a quest for something permanent, meaningful, and binding in a changing modern world, fueled by a desire for identity and community in a time in which they felt displaced and marginalized, and a thirst for structure and civilization in the face of what they saw as entropy and barbarism. Paradoxically, these concerns, while isolating each author to a certain degree, also made Lovecraft and Tolkien exemplars of their age, men of remarkable insight and sensitivity who articulated the concerns of an entire era with unusual eloquence and urgency.

But there the similarity ends. The paths of the two diverged, one in the direction of faith and hope, and the other in the direction of science and hopelessness.

Tolkien might be called a medievalist for a variety of reasons. Beyond studying, editing, and producing scholarship about medieval texts such as Gawain and the Green Knight, he valued the pre-modern countryside, and dealt in his writings with such medieval themes as the interplay of prophecy, sacrifice, heroism, and fate. He employed the medieval narrative structure known as the interlace method as his storytelling technique in The Lord of the Rings, leading some academics to call his 20th-century epic the world’s final work of medieval literature. He also wholeheartedly embraced Roman Catholicism, a choice that, in post-Reformation England, made him a member of a distinct minority, not only in academia, but also in the population as a whole.

In his religion Tolkien found his hope. As he wrote in “On Fairy-Stories,” “The Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.” He found the Christian condition to be “eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.” Times might be bitter, and people flawed, he explained, but such darkness served as all the more powerful of a contrast to the light of God’s ultimate plan and the redemption of creation.

Tolkien viewed what he called “fairy-stories” as a divinely sanctioned vocation, in that writers of fantasy made worlds in the image of their creator, who made our world. In the final consolation provided by such stories, Tolkien believed that the authors of fantasy shared with readers a “joyous turn” that was similar to, and as true as, the Christian gospel story. Such happy endings provided “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” And so Tolkien had his solace and comfort in the belief that there was a heavenly plan, that he and his world would be redeemed, and that, in the meantime, his fiction was serving a life-changing, even holy purpose.

H.P. Lovecraft had no such consolation. He was a product of the Scientific Revolution, a “modern man” in this way, if in few others. A self-named devotee of “abstract truth and of scientific logick,” Lovecraft did not believe that humanity is the center of either the natural cosmos or any god’s attention. The universe is large, he implied in story after story, and our species is small, without a champion or a chance of understanding, not to mention affecting, reality. This was the lesson of astronomy. There is only, to use his words from “The Call of Cthulhu,” “the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form only transient incidents.” As Dirk W. Mosig has noted, the cast of characters Lovecraft created to populate his mythos, alien “gods” such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, are mere avatars for the impersonal forces of the universe in all of their capriciousness, power, and inevitable triumph.

The result of such a perspective was, in fact, horror.

Lovecraft presented his words of doom unflinchingly, with the same kind of intellectual fascination one might expect from a physician at a particularly gruesome execution. His fiction lived up to his philosophy, serving death and madness to his characters without concern about their personal motivations or merits, putting humankind in its place. Neil Gaiman said it best in the documentary interview: “He simply gave you a vision of an impossibly inhospitable universe in which we are screwed.” And yet, despite the unalleviated despair of his prose, or perhaps because of its singular, tragic beauty, readers return repeatedly for another dose of Lovecraft’s bleak fatalism.

Why Now?

Since Lovecraft and Tolkien possessed such different understandings of the nature of the universe, neither Lovecraft’s reliance on science nor Tolkien’s reliance on faith explains fully why both have captured the 21st-century imagination. The two did not share personal philosophies. Their fiction reflected vastly different worldviews. Tolkien represented hope, a belief in a benevolent guiding plan for the universe, and the promise of ultimate redemption. Lovecraft represented science, which argued that we are only matter, insignificant in a vast universe, unable to comprehend or combat the forces that made us and ultimately will destroy us. Tolkien argued through his fiction that the important things are permanent and eventually will be perfected. Lovecraft argued through his fiction that all that humanity considers to be important is transient and trivial, including people themselves.

But these perspectives were, in a sense, answers to a specific set of questions. What the writers did share were similar concerns about their rapidly changing world. In the midst of societal upheaval and political and economic strife, what, if anything, is solid ground, unchanging, larger than the self? Where do we belong as individuals, or as members of a community? And what are we to make of the processes that seem to threaten the familiar, loved institutions of our civilization? Perhaps these questions, more than the contrasting answers Lovecraft and Tolkien provided, are at the heart of both authors’ popularity.

As the 21st century unfolds as a time of rapid innovation, vast change, cultural conflict, violent warfare, and natural disasters, it is not difficult to see why these questions might be at the forefront of many readers’ minds. It may be the case that the tension between logic and faith, despair and hope is the truest reflection of the audience today, an accurate depiction of the uncertainty of our era. It is possible that readers wish they could believe as Tolkien did, and fear thinking as Lovecraft did, but find themselves at the crossroads, unsure which path to follow. Perhaps we all have a Shoggoth and a Hobbit perched on opposite shoulders, each offering a whispered commentary on our plight. And if the words of the Shoggoth bring us terror, and the words of the Hobbit bring us comfort, that proves that both Lovecraft and Tolkien are still successful in achieving their literary goals after all these years.


Acknowledgements: This article has benefited from ideas shared by Lawrence Person and Wendell Wagner, Jr. in The New York Review of Science Fiction, as well as the comments of Larry M. Hall and Karen H. Sturgis.