The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King

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He kept writing until almost the very end, faithfully answering letters from correspondents, many of whom, like Robert Bloch, he would never meet. His last letter, left unfinished on his desk in Providence when he was taken to the hospital, ends with a rumination on the weird landscape painted by the Russian Nicholas Roerich: “. . . those ominous, almost sentient, lines of jagged pinnacles—and above all, those curious cubical edifices clinging to precipitous slopes and edging upward to forbidden needle-like peaks!” These were the mountains that inspired At the Mountains of Madness , and they probably reminded him as well of the terrible peaks glimpsed in his childhood nightmares, when the “Night-Gaunts” would swoop down and carry him away.

Stephen King writes that the years following Lovecraft’s death would “fulfill many of his visions of unimaginable horror.” In fact, unlike Lovecraft’s cosmic menaces, the greatest horrors of the twentieth century have turned out to be the work of humans. But perhaps he would not have been surprised. For the would-be pastoral gentleman, the ultimate horror was the world of modern man and “that cancerous machine-culture,” he complained. The serene ticking of the eighteenth-century wooden clock was drowned out by the clank of heavier machinery, the hiss of steam, the crackle of electricity. With his florid, Gothic prose, Lovecraft explored the territories of alienation surveyed with much different instruments by Sartre, Kafka, and Beckett.

Yet for Lovecraft, a man who felt ill suited to common human society, the realization that “common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos at large” may have been a source of strange comfort. In his stories supernatural forces often served as a means of liberation: The protagonist of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” learns he’s a hybrid—part fish—and dives into the ocean to “dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness” a character’s brain is removed by aliens and placed in a metal cylinder so that he can travel through space unhindered by mortal flesh. The narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time” is possessed by ancient, powerful beings and witnesses marvels of the distant past. Perhaps Lovecraft was describing not his darkest dreads but his fondest dreams.

A LOVECRAFT SAMPLER