The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King

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Among the presents that came Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s way during the Christmas season of 1936 was a skull from an Indian burial ground. The gift was appropriate for a lifelong connoisseur of the weird. It was also a portent: Less than three months after receiving it, Lovecraft died of cancer at the age of forty-six.

At the time of his death H. R Lovecraft was virtually unknown outside the readership of a few pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories . Today, more than a century after his birth and nearly sixty years since his untimely end. Lovecraft’s stories enjoy an astonishing popularity. Much of his fiction remains in print in both hardcover and soft. His stories have keen adapted for radio, movies, and television and have served as the subjects of academic theses and scholarly papers. Widely translated, his work has an enthusiastic following in Japan, and intellectuals in France and Spain consider him a neglected genius of American letters.

All his adult life Lovecraft liked to fancy himself an elderly eighteenth-century English gentleman in periwig and breeches. Yet he was the man who brought the currently thriving genre of supernatural fiction into the twentieth century. In stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “The Colour Out of Space” Lovecraft abandoned the demons, ghosts, and vampires of his nineteenth-century predecessors in favor of modern horrors inspired by Darwinian evolution and Einsteinian physics.

“Now that time has given us some perspective on his work,” says Stephen King, “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.” Around 1960 a young Stephen King came across an old paperback edition of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear and Other Stories . It was a decisive moment for today’s pre-eminent horror writer. “Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes King, “as he had done for others before me.... it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

“Lovecraft . . . opened the way,” says King; his shadow looms over “almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

Lovecraft’s horror, especially his later work, is more cerebral than visceral. The horror felt by his protagonists arises not out of the fear of death or pain or loss; it is simply the fear of knowing the unsuspected truth heretofore hiding just beneath the surface of things. “My fears, indeed, concerned the past rather than the future,” says the narrator of “The Nameless City.” “Not even the physical horror of my position in that cramped corridor of dead reptiles . . . could match the lethal dread I felt at the abysmal antiquity of the scene.” Lovecraft’s characters, like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s terminal patients, respond to their situation in discrete stages during the course of the story: rationalization (or “denial”), suspicion, dread, discovery, and, often, madness.

Lovecraft’s 1926 story “The Call of Cthulhu” begins: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. . . . The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

For Lovecraft, science had turned into a “deadly light” sometime in the nineteenth century. In his beloved 1700s science represented man’s triumph over superstition. Natural laws and principles replaced spirits and magic. But embracing science meant surrendering man’s exalted place in the universe, a process that had begun when the Copernican heresy wrenched our world from the center of creation. Further dislocations took place in the nineteenth century: Geologists announced that the world was millions of years old, and Darwin linked humans inextricably to the animals. As the twentieth century dawned, Einstein shattered Newton’s clockwork universe by demonstrating that space was curved, time was mutable, and matter and energy were interchangeable. Freud and Jung delved into the human mind and reported equally disturbing things.

Lovecraft explored this sense of cosmic alienation in the loosely connected stories composing what would later be called the Cthulhu Mythos. “All my tales,” he wrote in 1927, “are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large.” The universe as revealed by modern science had no place for ghosts and vampires, the stuff of pagan legends and traditional supernatural fiction. But Lovecraft saw room enough for other horrors in the great gulfs of time and space.