Monday 18 February 2013

Was H.P Lovecraft actually a good writer?

I admit it. I'm one of those people who is inclined to buy anything remotely Lovecraft-esque, watch any Lovecraft-inspired film and generally wax lyrical about his stories all day long. He's inspired a generation of horror writers, including Stephen King, and his influence continues in popular culture to this day. However, I know that many people don't quite 'get' Lovecraft. His prose can be turgid and adjectives suffocating. There are certainly problems with his style and themes, and characters tend to be as thin as the paper they're printed on. So why do we love the guy so much?

Lovecraft has written some classic works of horror, from The Call of Cthulhu to At The Mountains of Madness, along with dozens of short stories. It's true that all of them aren't quite up to scratch. Azathoth is unfinished, Dagon doesn't really go anywhere and even At The Mountains of Madness has some very dry sections.

What's more is that most of his characters are male intellectuals without much back story (if any) and usually their dialogue is implied. If Lovecraft was a modern author he would no doubt be firmly criticised for his poor characters; he may even be called a hack.

Lovecraft uses a boatload of purple prose, too. Plus, his language is archaic and he tends to use the same words a lot, like 'squamous' and 'gibbering'. Surely this isn't the mark of a good writer.

But even after all of that, Lovecraft is held to high esteem. Why is that?

The fact is, Lovecraft was a genius world builder. He created a pantheon of hideous beings that were completely original at the time. He wasn't concerned with characters because to him humanity was expendable in the eyes of indifferent, mad gods. This vision that we can't do anything about our fate, that there are things out there that are beyond us and that could destroy us on a whim is, well, really unsettling.

What makes Lovecrafts works, particularly in the Cthulhu Mythos, so effective is not the characters or the descriptions of these weird alien beings. It's the fact that in these stories humans don't matter. They go insane and they die. Usually it's the horror that is implied in the stories, those thoughts that stay with you in the periphery of your mind months after you've read them.

For instance, going back to Dagon, we're left with the thoughts of strange, ancient creatures writhing in the slimy black depths of the ocean. That's the horror of it. Similarly in At the Mountains of Madness we're left with the thought of 'what could possibly exist beyond that mountain?' He makes us think.

Lovecraft plants that seed of horror in your mind and lets it lurk there. He was never a great writer in a literary sense, like Hemingway or Dickens, but he is an amazing writer when it comes to atmosphere and making us think about ourselves not as amazing beings with the universe on our side, but as fragile things at the mercy of a cold, uncaring universe.


  1. I agree completely with what you say here Scott: Lovecraft in my view was a pretty terrible writer in many regards (particularly an over reliance on purplish prose full of obscure adjectives, poor characterisation and atrocious dialogue), but he was indeed a visionary for his ideas and "world building" and he continues to cast a long shadow over not only horror, but sci-fi, fantasy and even "heavy metal"... And probably one greater than any other horror writer in history I would think.

    But I'd also like to make a couple of other points: The first is that the world would never have known of Lovecraft and his ideas were it not for the efforts of August Derleth (as opposed to Lovecraft's meager efforts in this regard), who not only took it upon himself to publish and promote Lovecraft's works, but also finished some of them (including At the Mountains of Madness). And the second point is that fiction written in a "Lovecraftian" style would never get published by any large publisher today, it's simply too inaccessible and over-wrought. Despite all these things, he remains one of my biggest influences...

    1. Oh and also if you haven't checked out some of Frank Belknap Long's "Cthulhu Mythos" works, I think he's the only writer I've read who did "Cthulhu Mythos" fiction better than Lovecraft himself. (Long wrote the Hounds of Tindalos for instance).

  2. Like yourself, I can't get enough of the man's writing, and even I admit that he is far from a perfect wordsmith. I still think he manages to get across the feel of horror more than most other writers though, and for that i forgive him his poor choices. And I will also back up Brewin's point that there are people out there who have written some wonderful fiction within the Mythos. At present I'm reading a collection by Brian Lumley, which has been great from the start.

  3. Anyone who still influences people this long after his death is by definition a good writer. Tolkien's writing is often pedantic and overwrought, and yet he's also a good writer. Asimov's characters were flat as paper, and he's a good writer. Phillip K Dick, Robert Heinlein, and many, many more.

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  5. Sorry I'm commenting an Aeon late, but I fully agree with your characterization of Lovecraft's strengths. Very well put. However, I have to defend the purple prose as actually being part of the fun of the experience of reading Lovecraft... I greatly enjoy reading passages like this:

    "The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings."

    "If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft … they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s un-putdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing”, but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works."

    – China MiĆ©ville

    Also as a physicist I respect his attempts to incorporate relativity quite early on.

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  7. Robert E. Howard is far worse but like HP one can't fault his imagination.

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