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.

“The Call of Cthulhu” and the other stories in the mythos deal with races of beings from other worlds and other dimensions who once ruled the earth, warred with one another, and now bide their time until they can regain ascendancy. Lovecraft created an elaborate fictional New England for the Cthulhu stories, including the eerie coastal town of Kingsport, the accursed village of Dunwich, and “crumbling, whisper-haunted Arkham,” home to the unwholesomely curious scholars of Miskatonic University. Searching for fragments of ancient lore, characters frequently consult the pages of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon , kept under lock and key at Miskatonic U. and Harvard’s Widener Library.

 

The Cthulhu Mythos eventually made Lovecraft famous, but it failed to make him rich. He was born on August 20, 1890, into a wealthy Providence, Rhode Island, family, but his clan’s fortunes waned as he entered adolescence. The privileged child grew up to be a financially straitened adult, and he never quite adjusted.

Both of H. P. Lovecraft’s parents went mad toward the ends of their lives. His mother described young Howard’s appearance as “hideous” and tried to keep him from the sight of others. As a boy of six or seven growing up in Providence, he was tormented by dreams of “black, lean, rubbery things with horns, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all .” These “Night-Gaunts” would seize him by the stomach and “carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead & horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needle-like pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let me drop. . . .”

Lovecraft spent the first three years of his life in the suburbs of Boston. When his father, a traveling salesman, came down with general paresis in 1893, Howard and his mother, Susan Phillips Lovecraft, moved into his maternal grandfather’s Providence mansion. The sprawling three-story clapboard house contained a library of some two thousand volumes. Lovecraft could read by the age of three and soon was captivated by Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the novels of Jules Verne.

Despite his early love of the fantastic, he was a born skeptic. When he was about five years old, he was withdrawn from Sunday school after engaging his teacher and classmates in a debate about the existence of God. Philosophical doubts aside, for Lovecraft, stern, somber New England Protestantism paled before “the Eastern magnificence of Mahometanism,” which he read about in The Arabian Nights . He outfitted his room with Oriental hangings and incense vessels. His infatuation with Islamic culture faded when he discovered the Greek and Latin poets. After that he built altars to Pan and searched the woods for dryads and satyrs, but this enthusiasm too gave way. “I struck EDGAR ALLAN POE !!” he recalled. “It was my downfall, and at the age of eight I saw the blue firmament of Argos and Sicily darkened by the miasmal exhalations of the tomb!”

Lovecraft attended public school only sporadically. His mother periodically withdrew him from classes because he was sick, though most of his childhood infirmities seem to have been psychological: headaches, stomach pains, bladder problems, facial tics. Family members and private tutors took up the task of educating Lovecraft when he was absent from school. The boy wrote precocious imitations of Dryden and Pope and translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses . He also developed an avidity for the sciences, building a noxious chemistry lab in a cellar room and scanning the night skies with a ninety-nine-cent mail-order telescope.

During that time his grandfather Whipple Phillips suffered such business reverses that when he died in 1904, the mansion had to be sold. Lovecraft’s mother rented the ground floor of a house three blocks to the east. Howard had planned to study astronomy at Brown, but his “nervous collapse” and his family’s financial straits prevented that. He withdrew from high school and became a recluse, sleeping during the day and then reading or writing at night. Susie Lovecraft indulged her son’s retreat from society and gave him little impetus to learn how to make his way in the world. She was beginning to behave oddly herself, lurking about in the shrubbery and telling her neighbors of strange creatures that hovered around the house.

 

Despite his mental state, Lovecraft published astronomical articles in several local papers and the Asheville, North Carolina, Gazette-News . In one column from the Providence Evening News , after an evocative description of the constellations that would be visible in the coming months, Lovecraft offered an existential meditation on man’s place in the universe: “Humanity with its pompous pretensions sinks to complete nothingness when viewed in relation to the unfathomed abysses of infinity and eternity which yawn about it.”

In 1913 Lovecraft published a long, vitriolic letter in The Argosy , a short-story magazine specializing in male-oriented escapist literature. The letter complained about the “erotic fiction” (innocent by today’s standards) of Fred Jackson, a popular contributor to the magazine. Lovecraft preferred stories “where acts of valor are more dwelt upon than affairs of Venus. ... let me venture to describe the Jacksonine type as trivial, effeminate, and, in places, coarse.” Numerous readers came to Jackson’s defense. “I am a cowpuncher,” wrote one, “and certainly would like to loosen up my .44-six on that man Lovecraft.”

Lovecraft escalated the fight from prose to verse, venting his contempt for The Argosy ’s readership with forty-six lines of iambic pentameter: “Scrawl on, sweet Jackson, raise the lover’s leer;/’Tis plain you please the fallen public ear. ...” For the next year the magazine’s letters page was filled with good-natured poetical sparring between Lovecraft and a pro-Jackson reader, John Russell.

The exchange caught the attention of Edward F. Daas, a member of the United Amateur Press Association. Formed in the 1890s, the UAPA was a nationwide alliance of publishing hobbyists who circulated their privately printed journals among themselves. At Daas’s urging, Lovecraft joined the association, writing critiques of amateur periodicals and finding a receptive, if nonpaying, audience for his poems and essays. He rose to prominence in the UAPA and eventually served as its president.

In addition to his writing for the amateur journals, he established a wide circle of correspondents. Letter writing would, in fact, occupy the greater part of his working hours for the rest of his life. His epistolary output was staggering, an estimated hundred thousand letters totaling ten million words. In many of his letters Lovecraft flawlessly maintained his pose as an aged Tory gentleman, using archaisms like “Publick” and exclamations such as “God Save the King!” To his closest correspondents he signed his letters “Grandpa.”

He launched his own amateur journal, The Conservative , in 1915. It ran for thirteen issues over the next eight years and was devoted largely to Lovecraft’s own poems and essays, though it also featured contributions from other UAPA members. The inaugural issue contained an appalling editorial, “The Crime of the Century,” praising the Aryan race’s “vast superiority to the rest of mankind.” Lovecraft’s loathing of Jews, foreigners, and blacks reached almost manic proportions in the 1920s, though he mellowed considerably in his forties.

Lovecraft’s prolific era was a time of great personal distress, during which his mother died in a hospital for the insane.

Lovecraft’s colleagues in amateur journalism encouraged him to try his hand once again at supernatural fiction, which he had abandoned in his teens. In the summer of 1917 he wrote two stories, “The Tomb” a Poe-esque tale of a young man obsessed with the burial vault of an extinct line of New England aristocracy, and “Dagon,” about a stranded sailor who goes mad when he encounters a monstrous sea creature rising from the ocean. Both stories were published in amateur journals.

When America entered the Great War in 1917, Lovecraft tried to enlist, to his mother’s absolute horror. He once described himself in a letter as a “Teutonic killer . . . brother to the frosts and the auroras—a drinker of foemen’s blood from new-picked skulls,” but the local draft board deemed him unfit for service.

Around this time he started working as a ghostwriter. Throughout his career most of his meager income came not from his stories but from ghostwriting and revising other people’s work. His clients included the escape artist Harry Houdini and the popular self-help guru David Van Bush, who wrote books with titles like Grit and Gumption and who made Lovecraft feel “swamped with . . . drivel!”

Despite the drivel, the next several years were the most productive period in his working life. This initial spurt of literary creativity in 1919 was triggered by his reading of Time and the Gods , a 1906 collection of fantasy stories by the Irish writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany. “The first paragraph arrested me as with an electric shock,” Lovecraft recalled. Two months later he ventured to Boston to attend a reading by Dunsany at the Copley-Plaza Hotel.

Quite popular in his time, Dunsany (1878-1957) was later eclipsed by J. R. R. Tolkien ( The Lord of the Rings ) and Lovecraft, who both were heavily influenced by Dunsany’s fantasies. Dunsany set his stories in an imaginary land “at the Edge of the World.” For the next several years Lovecraft wrote a number of fantasies in a distinctly Dunsanyan vein, though with a decidedly darker cast and an air of melancholy absent in Dunsany’s tales. In stories like “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The White Ship,” and “The Other Gods” Lovecraft painstakingly imitated Lord Dunsany’s lofty, neobiblical prose style and devised his own fantasy realms, such as the plains of Leng and the forbidding polar wastes of Unknown Kadath.

During his Dunsany period Lovecraft did not abandon his “weird fiction.” In 1921 he wrote perhaps his best early story, “The Music of Erich Zann.” The narrator, a student and resident of a boardinghouse on the creepy Rue d’Auseil in Paris, is beguiled by the haunting music of his neighbor, a mute elderly violinist. The musician, it turns out, plays his unearthly melodies to hold at bay some malign presence on the other side of his shuttered garret windows. When a fierce wind tears through the shutters and kills Zann, the student looks through the window to see not the aged buildings and narrow cobblestone pavement of the Rue d’Auseil but an ominous dark void.

Lovecraft’s period of literary industriousness coincided with a time of great personal distress. In 1919 Susie Lovecraft was admitted to Providence’s Butler Hospital for the Insane, where she lingered for two years until her death at the age of sixty-three. Susie’s sisters, Lillian and Annie, assumed the responsibility of caring for the thirty-one-year-old Howard. Like his mother, they discouraged visitors and resisted his leaving the house unaccompanied.

 

His mother’s illness and death left Lovecraft suicidal, but he kept himself busy and made frequent trips to Boston to meet with fellow amateur journalists. At one of these conventions he met a lovely Ukrainian-born Jewish woman from New York named Sonia Haft Greene. The two struck up a correspondence that blossomed into an improbable romance. Greene, a divorcée with a grown daughter, was seven years Lovecraft’s senior and a manager at Ferle Heller’s clothing store in Manhattan, earning a then-considerable salary of almost ten thousand dollars a year. She also had literary aspirations, which Lovecraft encouraged.

Lovecraft wrote Greene almost daily, and in 1922 he joined her at a resort near Gloucester, Massachusetts. During an evening stroll, as they watched the moonlight shimmering on the water, they heard a loud “snorting and grunting” noise in the distance.

“Oh, Howard,” Greene said, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.”

Lovecraft suggested that she write the story. The next day she showed him an outline. His enthusiasm so delighted her that she kissed him. Lovecraft blushed, then went pale. He told her that he hadn’t been kissed by a woman since he was a child.

As he courted Sonia Greene by mail, Lovecraft began to see his stories published in professional magazines. He wrote two serials for the lowbrow Home Brew , and in late 1923 his story “Dagon” appeared in Weird Tales , a pulp magazine devoted to tales of the strange and supernatural. During its thirty-one-year lifetime, Weird Tales , with its lurid covers depicting inadequately dressed women writhing in the clutches of various horrid creatures, would publish stories by writers who later became giants in genre fiction, among them Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury.

Lovecraft soon became a frequent Weird Tales contributor; it published some of his best-known stories, such as “The Rats in the Walls,” with its rodents and cannibals, and “The Outsider.” In the latter story, which has been frequently interpreted as an autobiographical allegory, the narrator escapes from the castle in which he has been imprisoned since childhood. Roaming free at last, he comes across a hideous creature from which people flee in terror. He reaches out to touch the beast, and his fingers press against the surface of a mirror.

Howard and Sonia married in March 1924. Lovecraft moved into Sonia’s Brooklyn apartment and launched a valiant but failed effort to find work; he was thirty-three years old and had never held a regular job. Sonia, who now co-owned a millinery shop on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, supported them both. Lovecraft instructed his Jewish wife that whenever they had company, he would prefer that “Aryans” were in the majority.

Lovecraft was ebullient in his first months of married life. He enjoyed the frequent company of New York’s contingent of amateur journalists, and the city’s abundance of museums and historic buildings enthralled him. Through his amateur journalist friend Samuel Loveman, he met the poet Hart Crane. The two men did not hit it off. Crane wrote to his mother that the “piping-voiced” Lovecraft had “kept Sam traipsing around the slums and wharf streets until four in the morning looking for Colonial specimens of architecture, and until Sam tells me he groaned with fatigue and begged for the subway!”

 

His enchantment with New York did not last long, however. The millinery shop failed. Faced with bankruptcy, Sonia took a job with a department store in Cincinnati. Lovecraft decided to stay in New York; the Midwest, with its absence of colonial architecture, would be intolerable to him. Sonia helped him move into a smaller apartment and went off to Ohio. She continued to send him money to supplement his scant earnings from ghostwriting.

While he was living alone in New York, Lovecraft’s hatred of foreigners grew. He was appalled to learn that “a Syrian had the room next to mine and played eldritch and whining monotones on a strange bagpipe which made me dream ghoulish and indescribable things of crypts under Bagdad. . . .” His letters to his aunts were filled with hysterical rants against blacks, Jews, and “loathsome Asiatic hordes.” He began to avoid his friends, complaining that they were keeping him away from his work. He threatened suicide and took to carrying a bottle of poison.

Lovecraft expressed his loathing of New York in several of the stories he wrote during this period, including “The Horror at Red Hook,” about sinister occult doings in a seedy Brooklyn neighborhood, and “He,” in which an alienated Greenwich Village poet meets a two-hundred-year-old man.

Early in 1926 his aunts invited him to come to Providence for a visit. He latched on to the invitation as an excuse for a permanent retreat to his native soil. The accommodating Sonia soon followed, planning to rejoin her husband and start a business there. She offered to support not only her husband but his aging relatives as well. Aunts Lillian and Annie would not hear of it. It was one thing for a lady to provide for her husband in vice-ridden New York, but in genteel Providence it was unthinkable. Lovecraft meekly acquiesced to their wishes, and Sonia returned to New York. The couple divorced amicably in 1929.

Of the failure of his marriage, Lovecraft said that the causes were “98% financial.” So long a lonely recluse, he was simply not emotionally equipped to be a husband. “My life lies not among people ,” he wrote, “but among scenes —my local affections are not personal, but topographical & architectural.”

After he had died, Sonia confided to one of Lovecraft’s correspondents that he had been squeamish about sex. As a child he had learned the facts of life, characteristically, by consulting textbooks. The anatomical details of human sexual congress so thoroughly repulsed him that his interest in the subject was permanently extinguished. Critics would later see a pervasive erotophobia in Lovecraft’s many stories about fearful men plunging into tunnels, crypts, and caverns teeming with slimy horrors.

“I had hoped,” Sonia wrote, “that my ‘embrace’ would make of him not only a great genius but also a lover and husband. While the genius developed and broke through its chrysalis, the lover and husband receded into the background until they became apparitions that finally vanished.”

The last decade of Lovecraft’s life was a time of gradually diminishing expectations. For years he hoped to buy back his grandfather’s mansion, but prospects of wealth were becoming ever more remote. He longed to visit Europe, but this too was beyond his reach. Without Sonia’s financial support he depended on his ghosting. His best clients were gone: He had parted company with Van Bush, and Houdini died in late 1926 of a ruptured appendix. For a time Lovecraft supplemented his freelance earnings by working nights as a ticket seller in a Providence movie theater.

With his florid, Gothic prose, he explored the same territories of alienation as Sartre, Kafka, and Beckett, using much different instruments.

He began losing confidence in his writing too. In the years following his return to Providence he wrote two short novels, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward . Both works so displeased him that he did not bother to try to get them published. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath , a fantasy in the mold of Lord Dunsany’s stories, is one of Lovecraft’s few overtly sentimental works, ending with the protagonist’s discovery that the “marvellous city” glimpsed in his dreams was his home city of Boston.

Lovecraft’s own home city is the backdrop of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward , a deft mixture of occult lore, real and imagined local history, and loving evocations of Providence’s colonial architecture. Ward, a young antiquarian, becomes obsessed with his distant ancestor Joseph Curwen, whom he closely resembles. Curwen had fled Salem, Massachusetts, and in 1692 settled in Providence. After nearly eighty years the ageless and sinister Curwen was lynched by a band of concerned Providence merchants led by Capt. Abraham Whipple, an ancestor of Lovecraft. (The same group in real life later set fire to the British revenue schooner Gaspé e in 1772.) Ward learns that Curwen had discovered the secret of extending life and resurrecting the dead by consulting Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon and other forbidden tomes. Naturally Ward loots Curwen’s grave and raises his ancestor from the dead. Curwen, unmellowed by a century and a half of death, kills Ward and assumes his identity.

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.

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