Howard Phillips Lovecraft, despite sounding like an erotic video game from Blizzard, wrote the most terrifying works of literature in the English language.
Just The Facts
- American writer from New England, creator of the Cthulhu mythos.
- Reclusive, suffered from depression and a family history of mental illness.
- Spent a worrisome amount of his life living with elderly female relatives.
- Invented the Necronomicon, as well as the only alien language it's cool to understand.
- There are two other Cracked Topic pages about Lovecraft, but this one's the longest!
Readers should be warned, Lovecraft's biography has been known to induce Emo-Goth-kid-itis at ranges of up to 30 paces.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), demonstrated an extremely precocious dedication to his craft by being born in the most depressing part of America, at the time: Providence, Rhode Island. (This was well before the film industry was born and stole the title for Los Angeles.) Furthermore, Howard opted to be the first and only child born to a traveling jewel salesman who was slowly going insane due to syphilis. Evidently, the family jewels traveled quite a bit. Papa Lovecraft had a full-on Courtney-Love-heroin-bender meltdown in a Chicago hotel in 1893. He spent the next five years in a psych ward, where he died. After the psychotic break, little H.P. and Mama Lovecraft moved in with her two sisters and Grandpa Whipple. During this period, Howard prepared to write stories that make Jigsaw look like a slightly more linear Michael Scott by having no friends and reading at a high school level. (Seriously, Cthulhu makes the Saw franchise look like the work a well-meaning goof ball with no sense of boundaries.)
Many believe that Howard suffered from night terrors, potentially because Grandpa Whipple thought that Gothic Horror made great bedtime stories for a pre-schooler. When the beloved Grandfather and purveyor of ghost stories died in 1904, it plunged the family in into poverty while Howard wrestled with the kind of angst that Gerard Way has wet dreams about; going so far as to contemplate suicide well in advance of being shunned by the opposite sex. Speaking of which, Howard was so troublesome as a child that he had to be homeschooled by his mother and elderly Aunts. At this point, we figure it's safe to assume that plans to open a "family" motel were thwarted when the rival Bates clan won the real estate bidding war.
Next to go was mother-dearest. Mama Lovecraft suffered her own psychotic break in 1919, which devastated Howard. The two were close... really close... in that "wait, are you two... you know?" kind of way. To make it creepier, biographers have noted that Mama had a pathological love-hate relationship with her boy, following the death of her husband. In 1921, she died in the same psych ward her husband had 23 years earlier; because superstition-inducing tragic coincidence was the only thing missing from Lovecraft's portfolio of freaky.
Howard set aside writing shortly after Grandpa Whipple died. He was, however, reading like a mofo. In 1913, Howard took to flaming the writer of "insipid" love stories that appeared in one of his favorite magazines; but it wasn't just any flaming. For one, unlike most modern examples, everything was spelled properly. Second, it was written in verse. Because when H.P. Lovecraft wants to take your gushy, love-dovey ass down, he does it with fucking poetry! And not that bullshit "freeverse" poetry your talentless hippy High School English teacher did, these were metered heroic couplets. It is, perhaps, one of the great tragedies of Western literature that Lovecraft died before he could make Stephanie Meyer (known as "that bitch" among scholars) a slobbering, jabbering apology of humanity.
An editor was so impressed by the way Lovecraft meted out learned abuse on the offending romance writer and his fans that Lovecraft was asked to join an upscale group of freelance writers. Slowly, he began writing more and more stories and continued to do so until his death. He never had much of a fanbase in life, but has steadily increased in popularity in the 75+ years since his death.
That's right, 75+ years. While the matter is under dispute, there is a strong case for all of his work being public domain. Whether it is or not, tons of otherwise famous writers (including Robert Bloch, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman) write and publish Lovecraft fanfiction, which is called an "homage" if you're actually good at it.
While Lovecraft's biography makes for the kind of reading that inspires sympathy suicide, any given thirty-page sample of his writing is collectively more terrifying than any given thirty-book sample of Stephen King. In fact, his work is so terrifying that the archaic words often come as a relief to new readers as it gives them an excuse to reach for a dictionary and thereby think about absolutely anything else, without looking like pussies in front of the obscenely well-read English major who gave them the book in the first place.
The first thing a new reader will notice is Lovecraft's liberal, yet skillful, use of the theme of madness. Which, let's face it, is about as surprising as a Megan Fox movie sponsored by WonderBra. This is what makes Lovecraft so hair-raising and he never skimps. Sure, the idea of being chased through the woods by a psycho with a chainsaw immediately triggers a sense of self-preservation, but it's got nothing on madness.
Think of it this way: you are running through the woods, trip, fall and are set upon by... (Choose the most preferable)
- A masked, machete-wielding corpse collector who handily lops off your limbs before beheading you, bringing about thirty seconds of ridiculous pain before embracing death.
- A formless creature of unspeakable horror who opens your mind's eye to ultimate reality, driving you mad, and you spend the next thirty years a twitching, drooling sack of bones who daily lets out an earsplitting howl of terror longer than a live performance of Stairway to Heaven when Jimmy Page forgets how it ends.
And all you cheeky bastards who will say you chose 2) are lying and you know it; and liars go to R'yleh. Which brings us to Lovecraft's most enduring contribution to the kind of nightmares that necessitate saying "screw it" and just buying new sheets: the Cthulhu mythos. Cthulhu belongs to a race known as the Great Old Ones, who came to Earth from beyond what is generally acknowledged as reality. Using telepathy, they took control of human dreams and started a lot of cults just above the average level of crazy.
All that isn't especially important, though. What's important is that Cthulhu is the dragon-like, vaguely humanoid, creature of uncountable tentacles that will rise from the ocean to drive all of mankind insane and usher in a new age of orgies, murder, madness and all the other stuff Rush Limbaugh accuses left-wing activists of liking.
Ultimately, Cthulhu is one of those creatures of unspeakable horror who is impossible to describe. Of course, any time someone tells you something is impossible to describe, you can be damn sure that he's about to try. First off, Cthulhu is big. You know how sometimes, if you look straight up a flag pole you get a little dizzy? Okay, now imagine that feeling times a million and it won't go away. That is roughly what it feels like to behold the size of Cthulhu, never mind the huge wings, claws and general green stickiness.
Cthulhu currently "sleeps" in the great evil stone city of R'yleh, which is sitting at the bottom of the really south Pacific. Okay, you know how a certain way light comes through a window can be eerie? Now, imagine that feeling times the circumference of the cloud of cool emanating from David Bowie plus one. That's roughly what it feels like looking at the walls of R'yleh. Not because there's spooky ass carving on them; oh no, it's because of the geometry. That's right, just taking in the angles in which R'yleh was built makes peeling off your own skin while watching Transformers 2 with the director's commentary sound like 72 virgins feeding you hand-peeled grapes dipped in absinthe.
Other highlights of Lovecraft's work include shoggoths (shapeless creatures of darkness with "myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light" that feed on enormous penguins), Nyarlohotep (a hypnotic mad scientist who may or may not be an ancient pharaoh), and the Necronomicon (yes, that Necronomicon; Lovecraft invented it).