Welcome back to Dissecting The Dark Descent, where we lovingly delve into the guts of David Hartwell’s seminal 1987 anthology story by story, and in the process, explore the underpinnings of a genre we all love. For an in-depth introduction, here’s the intro post.
This article in our series is going to be a little different. Our current stop on the table of contents is “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft, a story and author whose legacy have been discussed exhaustively at length over roughly a century of criticism. People much more qualified than I have, at length, discussed horror’s complicated relationship with Lovecraft and his legacy. Chances are, discussing the Lovecraft stories included in this anthology would just be repeating everything already said to some degree. Despite that, Lovecraft is an author who clearly made an impression on David Hartwell. Not only does The Dark Descent quote “Supernatural Horror in Literature” in its introduction, but Hartwell features two of Lovecraft’s stories (“The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Rats in the Walls”) and the work of at least one person who heavily references Lovecraft.
Since Hartwell wanted to edit a definitive history of the horror story, he clearly felt that Lovecraft wasn’t just worthy of inclusion, but integral to the history of short horror fiction. This being the case, I thought it would be instrumental to take a look at why Hartwell thought he was such a worthy inclusion. This isn’t going to be a Lovecraft love-fest, don’t worry—the goal in writing this is to show why he was deemed so important, and in the process demystify one of horror’s most enduring and exhausting figures.
Hartwell’s fascination with Lovecraft lies in how Lovecraft understood horror. To Lovecraft, horror was about emotion and sensation in the reader, evoking dread or uneasy fascination with his tales of contact with the unknown and unnatural. Lovecraft’s ultimate goal with his criticism—to define the shape of horror, specifically in the gothic, supernatural, and weird vein—was similar to Hartwell’s own goal of creating a definitive work on the short horror story. As Lovecraft himself said (as quoted in Hartwell’s introduction):
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
Or, put simpler, horror is about a specific sensation, not a set of tropes or rules. It’s unique among genres in that all are welcome as long as you elicit the proper tone—make someone feel weird, unnerved, unsettled, or tell a story that explores those feelings and boundaries, and you’re in. It’s one of the most concrete ways we have to define horror. Lovecraft used that concrete understanding to push boundaries, not just in terms of story elements, but in terms of the stories themselves.
By using familiar structures—underground cities, ancient cults, sinister conspiracies, squid-faced monsters, and gothic horror tropes—and applying them to his own primal fears of death, madness, disease, and pretty much everything outside his own front door, Lovecraft translated those fears for his readers. He also messed around with story structure itself. “Call of Cthulhu” is a nested epistolary work that reads like a very disturbed piece of investigative journalism. “The Rats in the Walls” plays with late-1800s pulp imagery (bestial people, underground civilizations, dark conspiracies among the aristocracy) to create an absolutely twisted story. Even one of his more conventional stories, “The Cats of Ulthar,” takes the form of a folktale. He even wrote an epic fantasy story with “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.” He also set all these things in a relatively open-source universe, being one of the most successful to do so. The “Cthulhu Mythos” is something people engage with to this day, with Lovecraft’s vast works and “things man was not meant to know” providing direct inspiration and reference for a multitude of horror works.
Which leads us, in fact, to how we can decouple ourselves from the grasping tentacles of a man so backwards he thought monarchism was a good idea, and finally move past the leaden thud of “Lovecraftian” works. Despite the praise heaped on his technique and craft, despite his deep and incisive understanding of horror as a whole, it’s high time we climb out of his sandbox. While I certainly have no problem with those who wish to put their own personal mark on or otherwise subvert Lovecraft’s work, there’s so much more to be gained by moving past it. Lovecraft is foundational to modern horror—his understanding and willingness to marry the primal and abstract in a more (for his time) modern style of grotesque are practically the formula for successful modern horror (it’s been used to devastating effect by a number of writers)—but at some point, you stop inspecting a structure’s foundation. It’s high time we made our own mythoses (mythoi? It’s not an easy word to pluralize) and created our own personal versions of what Lovecraft did without using his exact components. It’s not enough to merely “do Lovecraft” just without the offensive parts; eventually we have to move past him and leave him behind.
August Derleth even advised Ramsey Campbell as much, telling Campbell—who started his career writing cosmic horror with Lovecraft pastiches—to develop his own style and voice. The result of that advice—Campbell going on to write a fierce mix of folk horror, modern terrors, gothic horror, all infused with his own brand of disturbing imagery—further enriched horror and birthed a modern master. Numerous others have developed along similar lines without directly drawing on Lovecraft’s work. Stephen King’s unusual suburban gothic nightmares owe a debt to Lovecraft’s conception of horror, but is very distinctly his own work, set in his own world. Plenty of authors are able to build their own horrifying little corner of the multiverse for readers to curl up in by following the formula and pushing the established boundaries of work as they understand it without incorporating one of Howard’s unpronounceable gods or stellar fungi (or any of the numerous people assimilated into Lovecraftiana like Robert Chambers or Frank Belknap Long).
It’s a simple enough formula to digest, even. Define what horror is to you, figure out what fears motivate you on a primal enough level to translate that feeling to your readers. Build your own universe of monsters and ideas story by story. Be unafraid to experiment, whether that means formally or in terms of taking the story places you haven’t seen before, and most of all be flexible and receptive. As long as we keep those things in mind, and ground them in our own attempts to understand and define horror as we see it, eventually we can find our way to our own blasted plains and horrifying monoliths and move forward, leaving Howard’s far behind.
As always, we await your comments. Should we leave Lovecraft behind and build our own universes rather than keep going over the same parts of his? How foundational is Lovecraft to modern horror? And at the end of it all, what’s the plural to “mythos” anyway?
And as always, join us next week when we discuss and define American folk horror through one of its most shining exemplars with Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People.”
Sam Reader is a literary critic and book reviewer currently haunting the northeast United States. Apart from here at Tor.com, their writing can be found archived at The Barnes and Noble Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Blog and Tor Nightfire, and live at Ginger Nuts of Horror, GamerJournalist, and their personal site, strangelibrary.com. In their spare time, they drink way too much coffee, hoard secondhand books, and try not to upset people too much.