What is “Lovecraftian”?

While writing my post about Pete Rawlik’s novel Reanimators, I started thinking about Lovecraftian writing in general. You see the term everywhere these days, in blogs, book reviews and descriptions. What does it mean, anyway?

What is a Lovecraftian novel or story, and how does it differ from other types of weird fiction, science fiction or horror fiction?

Tentacles? Surely more than that!

First of all, who was Howard Phillips Lovecraft? He was a writer of weird fiction who lived almost his entire life (1890-1937) in Providence, Rhode Island. Almost unknown during his relatively short life, he achieved enduring fame after his writings caught the popular fancy. Lovecraft’s friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei are credited with bringing public attention to his work by publishing it posthumously under the Arkham House imprint.

Fiction dubbed “Lovecraftian” covers a wide range:

1. Rewritings or expansions of HPL’s stories. Examples include Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators and my own The Friendship of Mortals, both of which use Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator” as a starting point.

2. Original stories with HPL’s settings, entities and situations, but with new plots and characters. The body of such writings is sometimes described as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Authors include August Derleth and Brian Lumley, among others.

3. Original stories with new themes similar to those of HPL, often referencing his works. Colin Wilson’s story “The Return of the Lloigor” is an example. Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft is another.

4. Original stories that mention HPL or elements from his fiction but with plots that go beyond his characteristic settings and situations . Many present-day writers in horror and the paranormal give a nod or pay tribute to Lovecraft in varying degrees. Stephen King, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and many others — too many to name, really. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree, which I recently finished reading, is a perfect example.

I think that to be truly Lovecraftian, a story or novel must include certain qualities and plot elements, such as references to ancient books, other dimensions and displacements in time, but especially the idea that we and our Earth are not the culmination of anything, merely a small blip in the cosmos. The horror, when revealed, must be enormous and incomprehensible, on a cosmic scale.

Fiction of the “classic Lovecraftian” type would include some or all of these:

1. A New England setting.

2. Old houses or other buildings, or subterranean places.

3. Ancient books or manuscripts of secret lore.

4. Concerns with ancestry.

5. Connection with a university or with researchers.

6. No sex and almost no female characters.

7. An earnest, scholarly narrative style.

8. Accidental discovery of shocking secrets by a character (always a man, of a scholarly, solitary type) engaged in genealogical or other research.

9. No magic; presumably all manifestations are natural phenomena, even though some violate the laws of physics as we know them.

10. The idea that the earth, solar system, galaxy and universe have a history independent of any connection to humanity, involving life forms or vast entities that, while indifferent to humans, may pose deadly threats to them, either directly or by actions of worshippers or minions of these entities.

This brings me to religion and magic. Lovecraft’s atheism and scientific rationalism are reflected in his fiction. Magic appears only in Lovecraft’s fantasies, for example The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Even there it is somewhat limited, being part of that fictional world — for example, cats that can fly to the dark side of the moon. As for religion, it’s human beings who worship and act in the name of the Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. The entities themselves appear to be indifferent to humanity.

Personally I think the term “Lovecraftian” is being applied rather too freely these days, as a synonym for weird fiction generally. In a straight-up Lovecraftian story, their main characters may not necessarily be male, but should definitely be unattached and engaged in some sort of scholarly enterprise or genealogical research, rather than sex. Characters with active sex lives are not Lovecraftian in the strict sense, no matter what weird things happen to them.

In fact, I would argue that many of the works in my fourth category of types above aren’t really Lovecraftian at all. They may have been inspired by HPL’s writings or contain references to them, but it takes more than that to be “Lovecraftian fiction.” It’s a subset of weird fiction, not a synonym for it. Writers and reviewers owe it to H.P. Lovecraft and his admirers to be familiar with his outlook and style before applying the term to a piece of writing.

 

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9 comments

    1. I’m always happy to see more folks reading HPL. His stories do cover a lot of different types, from horror to fantasy to science fiction, with nuances in between. My favourite of his short stories is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” Among the novellas I recommend At the Mountains of Madness and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.

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  1. For me Lovecraft takes a normal landscape and places it inside an enormous unfathomable universe. The thing that struck me about his work – and I touched on this in a recent reply – was the ordinariness of the setting at the start and then the plunge into some cosmic mystery that is bigger than anything man can comprehend.

    Yes, no tentacles, no Transylvanian castles, no mysterious groups of men in black or conspiracies, Nothing ‘of this earth.’

    Chris

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    1. The human characters are indeed quite ordinary and unheroic. They open a (metaphorical) door onto vast expanses of time and space, unfathomable abysses of the incomprehensible. No wonder they often faint or run screaming into the night!

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