The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King

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Although The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is more impressive as a macabre historical travelogue of Providence than as a thriller, Lovecraft was mistaken in his decision not to submit it. Published posthumously, it remains in print today and in the early 1960s was made into a movie, The Haunted Palace , starring Vincent Price.

Lovecraft followed Charles Dexter Ward with a series of excellent stories: “The Dunwich Horror,” about the unholy spawn of a New England woman and a sinister cosmic being; “The Whisperer in Darkness,” which has fungal creatures from Pluto lurking about in Vermont; and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the tale of a Miskatonic University student who spends his spring break on an antiquarian tour of New England and discovers something literally fishy going on in a decaying seaport town.

Unlike the young Lovecraft, for whom “every trip to town was an ordeal,” the middle-aged Lovecraft was getting about, visiting Florida and Quebec and making extensive explorations of New England. He traveled cheaply, staying with friends or at YMCAs, sustaining himself on such meager fare as beans eaten straight from the can. His circle of correspondents widened to include Robert E. Howard, a Texan who wrote popular stories and novels about the mighty-thewed Conan the Barbarian, and Robert Bloch, a journeyman horror writer who would one day create the homicidal Norman Bates in his novel Psycho .

In 1931 Lovecraft wrote the short novel At the Mountains of Madness , perhaps his best work of fiction. The story maintains a high degree of suspense throughout, and the prose is largely free of overreliance on adjectives like hideous, abhorrent , and eldritch , which often mars Lovecraft’s earlier work.

Unlike the bulk of his tales, Madness takes place not among the rotting wharves and gambrel-roofed houses of Lovecraft’s New England but in the cold polar glare of the Antarctic, where a team of scientists from Miskatonic University discover terrifying secrets about the earth’s ancient past. A scouting party encounters a tremendous mountain range, taller than the Himalayas. In the foothills the explorers discover ancient frozen carcasses of barrel-shaped, tentacled creatures. When a vicious polar storm severs radio communications with the party, the narrator and a colleague fly out to the mountains to search for survivors. Amid the wreckage of the camp, they find mangled corpses of all but one of the men.

Continuing their search, the two scientists fly over the mountains of madness. On the other side they find a vast abandoned metropolis. Exploring the ruins, they learn that the city had been home to the barrel-shaped creatures uncovered by the doomed scouting party. The creatures, it turns out, were the Old Ones, beings from space whose existence had been hinted at in Alhazred’s Necronomicon . Pictorial carvings in the city tell the history of the Old Ones and their overthrow by the shoggoths, shapeless beings created by the Old Ones as beasts of burden. The city is not completely deserted, however, for the scientists find giant penguins and a handful of deadly, shambling shoggoths . . .

 

Lovecraft liked the novel well enough to conquer his aversion to typing. When Farnsworth Wright, a former Shakespearean scholar and the editor of Weird Tales , rejected it because the magazine did not serialize novels, Lovecraft was crushed. (In 1941, four years after his death, Weird Tales reversed its policy and serialized The Case of Charles Dexter Ward . ) He eventually sold Madness to a science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories , but the initial rejection so discouraged him that he wrote only a handful of stories thereafter.

During his last years he underwent a remarkable shift in his attitudes. He abandoned most, though not all, of his ethnic phobias, and the former Tory flirted with socialism and in 1936 came out for Roosevelt and the New Deal. In his final year he contemplated writing a full-length novel chronicling many generations of a New England family with “some grewsome variant of lycanthropy” (the ability to turn into werewolves). The publishing firm William Morrow and Company expressed interest in the opus, but by now Lovecraft was too ill to even begin such a project. Since 1935 he had been suffering from what he called “grippe,” in fact an undiagnosed cancer of the colon. He put off seeing a doctor until February 1937, after he had been bedridden for months. By then it was far too late for surgery, and he died on March 15, 1937.