HP Lovecraft died in obscurity, a barely-read writer for pulp magazines that paid poorly and rejected many of his dark, nihilistic horror tales.
But in the years after his untimely demise at the age of 47 his legend quickly grew: something about his bleakly original work began to resonate. Today, roughly 100 years since he began his career, he is considered one of the most influential speculative writers in history, alongside HG Wells and Edgar Allen Poe. His reach across modern popular culture is poorly understood but vast; he has spawned countless imitators not just in fiction but in film, TV, comics and games too. He may not have quite the name recognition, but he is to horror what JRR Tolkien is to fantasy: the great progenitor. He is a giant – an Elder God – of the genre.
Which is funny because he was by many measures – both those of the early 20th century and those of today – a bad writer. Well, not bad exactly but certainly self-indulgent and wildly inconsistent. His purple prose and plodding plots and cardboard characters – not to mention his overt, nasty racism – should have consigned his work to the literary grave alongside the author; but his sheer imaginative power and his singular mastery of tone and atmosphere has ensured that he has endured.
Who was the man behind these ghastly tales? In The Curious Case of HP Lovecraft, Paul Roland attempts the first real “popular” autobiography of the author, as opposed to niche or academic. Given Lovecraft lived a short and largely uneventful life, what’s the point? He was no globetrotting Graham Green or Hunter S. Thomson-style wildman: he was an anti-social recluse who rarely travelled, had few friends and quite possibly suffered from Aspbergers. Roland focuses his attentions then on dissecting the work itself, explaining where it came from and assessing its success. He does an admirable if unexciting job of it.
Michel Houellebecq’s Against the World, Against Life is more an extended essay than a book and offers a probing philosophical examination of Lovecraft’s work. Houellebecq – himself an accomplished and controversial novelist – brings a fan’s enthusiasm and a critic’s cold, keen eye to what makes a marvellously insightful read. I devoured it in a single sitting, like Cthulhu sitting down to a meal of men.
Expect more Lovecraft content on the site later in the year.