Fans, detractors and Lovecraft-inspired writers respond to Laura Miller's "Master of Disgust."

By Salon Staff
Published February 15, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

[Read the story.]

There is a lot to criticize H.P. Lovecraft for, but a lack of horror in his writings is not one of them. Lovecraft's monsters may not be as scary as a sewer-dwelling clown and today might seem no more frightening than a Japanese karate student in a rubber mask, but they were never the point of the story.

The true horror of Lovecraft does not spring from exploiting our fear of mortality -- as so many other writers hash and rehash -- but from our fear of our own cosmic insignificance. In many ways, this is a much deeper and ineffable horror than the fear of dying, and a fear that was almost unknown before the 20th century.

Lovecraft should be rightly praised for trailblazing in this new vein of horror. While often verbose, his stories encapsulate the dread horror of standing at the edge of the universe and recognizing that despite all humanity's arrogance we are still painfully ignorant. This, to me and many others, is where the true horror of existence lies.

-- Jason Cranford Teague

I quote: "If Lovecraft, unlike Poe or King, hasn't the psychological acuity to get under our skin and make us feel real fear, he does offer us the spectacle of his own unfettered morbidity."

Getting under your skin is a momentary thing -- I will say quite honestly that most Hitchcock movies don't "get under my skin" while watching them, but movies like "Vertigo" and "Strangers on a Train" are the kind of things that make me dream weird dreams. I honestly haven't read any of Lovecraft's books, but the snippets I read pull out my own horror at what it is to be alive.

-- George Black

There may be some truth to the appeal through disgust that this article notes. However, the very indescribable nature of Lovecraft's supernatural antagonists, what he probably would have called their "unknowable horror," is also a large draw, and it's one that writers continue to evoke today. Even if he won't admit it, much of Stephen King's work covers this same territory, with his descriptions of It and other monsters from Derry, Maine. Clive Barker has used this device from time to time, and newer writers like Warren Ellis do their best to exploit Lovecraft's legacy. The real horror of his stories is how Lovecraft attempts to invoke a dread something that we can never understand, a madness under the outwardly rational universe. Claiming that he was going for outright shock value is missing the point.

-- Thomas Wilburn

As Ms. Miller "would not call it wholesome at all," I am left to speculate on whether she would, in fact, call it pestilential, noxious, vile beyond all measure of human understanding, perhaps even the first vestiges of a condition beyond sense that, even at the barest fringe of recognition and comprehension, would drive men reeling and screaming into a bottomless, reeking abyss of violent madness.

If not, she hasn't read enough Lovecraft.

-- Tom Davidson

Was Lovecraft a bad writer? No. He broke many of the rules of the 20th century literary idiom esteemed by creative writing instructors (minimize the use of adverbs, "show, don't tell," etc.), but he wasn't a bad writer by any means. He had his own aesthetic, one that combined the innovations of Poe with the 17th and 18th century writings he absorbed as a child prodigy from explorations of his grandfather's library of antiquarian works. Lovecraft is no more a bad writer for his style than Jack Kerouac is for his tumbling rivers of sentences.

Was Lovecraft scary? The final revelations of his stories often weren't, but he was able to evoke dread and keep the mood building far more effectively than most contemporary horror writers. His best stories, like "The Shadow out of Time," capture the "cosmic awe" of a limitless universe in a way that give most modern readers chills, adverbs or no.

Of course there are Cthulhu toys and the like; every real fear is eventually reduced to kitsch ("The Producers," anyone?), and that's fine, but there are a number of current writers who work in the Lovecraftian mode, and their work offers more modern chills. Thomas Ligotti is probably the leading practitioner of Lovecraft's sort of weird fiction.

Is Lovecraft's bizarre life one reason for his continuing popularity? Certainly. The same can be said of any number of writers who are as widely talked about as they are read: Plath, Salinger and, again, Kerouac. My own novel "Move Under Ground," a Beat/Cthulhu Mythos pastiche, takes advantage of many of the connections between Kerouac and Lovecraft, in fact.

Finally, on the issue of Lovecraft's racism, of course he cannot be forgiven for his opinions. It should be noted, however, that late in his life he repudiated most of his racist attitudes and virtually all of his Yankee conservatism to become an ardent supporter of the New Deal.

-- Nick Mamatas

I doubt that Lovecraft would have a problem with his paradoxical place in American letters; moreover, as a New Englander of "good Puritan stock," he'd probably be the first to understand why he's been dragged out of his pauper's grave and slapped into the pillory.

Miller lines up a good prosecutor's case for Lovecraft as an anomalous growth on the backside of literary culture, citing his ugliest excesses to lull the defense into despair, but the article never seriously broaches why Lovecraft matters as more than a guilty pleasure of morbid geeks.

At his best, Lovecraft and a dog couldn't scare a cat, but his stories (which also delved into fantasy and science fiction in pure and ingeniously hybridized specimens) are brilliantly vivid explorations of fear, of mingled repulsion and fascination for aspects of the natural world that continue to scare the stinkless clinkers out of churchgoing America. It is not the weak attempts to project his guilty fear of these subjects onto us, but the forensic fetishism with which he finds himself unable to look away, that makes him at least the equal of Kafka, James or any of the great neurotics.

The Cthulhu Mythos is a pulp metaphor for dread of a blindly evolving, endlessly copulating universe, and its miscegenated scions are so potent for some because they are not "from Outside" or unfathomable to us, but all too familiar. That they look like the things we find under rocks and in fishing nets and between our legs, and yet are exalted and privy to secrets we cannot bear to comprehend, speaks to the dread in all of us, that we are none of us special, and that none of this matters. And if he had an orgasm or two in the course of describing them, so much the better.

-- Cody Goodfellow

The last line of Laura Miller's sniffy piece about H.P. Lovecraft -- "No, I wouldn't call it wholesome at all" -- sums up exactly how off-base the article is. Sure, Lovecraft's "Cthulhu mythos" stories may be, at heart, adolescent fables of the world's horrors. However, without any sense of irony, Salon has printed article after article about the presumed genius of J.R.R. Tolkien. With equal justification, you might describe Tolkien as the author of childish monarchical fantasies, in which the forces of absolute good battle with absolute evil. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien deserve a great deal of praise, as imaginative men who started whole movements of modern popular culture. The moment you try to dress them in the trappings of "Lit-Ter-Rah-Choor," they look ridiculous. But of course, their fans don't read them as Major Lit, just as an imaginative lark -- as they'd gladly tell Miller.

-- Tom Grant

Ah, yes! H.P! He is a guilty pleasure. I was terrified by his stuff as a teenager, until I sat down and tried to draw the monsters (so ridiculous!).

Yes, it is the craziness of Lovecraft that really is the monster; somewhere inside he knew it was his own Victorian self that was wrong and he could not admit it.

-- Sarah Jumel

H.P. Lovecraft was not the best writer on the planet, nor are his stories always incredibly frightening. What does set him apart from other writers is the bizarre and unique alien world he describes. In Lovecraft's stories humans are not by any stretch the center of the universe. Some of the alien gods and races briefly notice humanity, but deem it largely ignorable.

Compare this worldview to every other writer who puts his or her heroes, and humanity in general, at the very heart of everything. In Lovecraft's writings, humanity isn't worth the very small effort it would take to exterminate. Like ants on the wall, humanity can occasionally observe (but generally not understand) what the true powers of the universe are doing, but they can do nothing to stop them.

-- Stephen Cumblidge

Ms. Miller does both lovers and haters of H. P. Lovecraft's work a disservice with her article.

Although she has done some research into in life, his times and the reactions of his readers since his death, she leaves out facts of his life that make him appear as a complex human being struggling with his existence, and the legacy his writing has left upon pop culture and horror as a genre.

Nowhere does she mention the contradiction between his proto-white supremacy beliefs with the fact that his short-lived marriage was to a Jewish woman! If race mixing was such an abhorrent proposition to this man, what would lead him to enter into a marriage with somebody of "inferior blood"?

Secondly, Miller simply skipped over the fact that H. P. Lovecraft wrote the book that helped define horror (and to a lesser extent sci-fi) as a genre: "The Role of the Supernatural in Literature." Lovecraft's work along with his encouragement of other writers helped to give birth to icons and works that we still know today.

-- David Sinclair

I read Lovecraft years ago when I started writing horror myself because he was supposed to be one of the Great Masters of the craft. Your article hits the nail on its tentacle-enshrined head about Lovecraft's writing style. You left out one thing, though: Unlike a lot of horror fiction (especially the popular ones today), there wasn't even a glimmer of hope in Lovecraft's writing. The scariest thing about reading "The Call of Cthulhu" was the fact that at the very end of the story mankind was doomed to destruction by an angry god when he finally rises again from the ocean, and there wasn't even a trace of hope on how one might survive when that happens (you don't, period). Horror fiction in general doesn't scare me much (if at all), but pessimism on that scale did unnerve me a little.

-- Kelly Rothenberg

I found several things I enjoyed in this Lovecraft essay -- a balanced and very well-written summary of the overriding themes of sex and race in Lovecraft, the mention of "Cthulhu camp" -- but I had a huge problem with Miller's division between high and low literature. She's implicitly judging Lovecraft according to a standard in which really good literature has psychological depth and realistically individuated characters. I really despise this assumption and the way so very many people automatically accept it. Yes, Lovecraft had cookie-cutter characters, but that's another flaw that turns into a strength insofar as he can make individuality itself uncertain, vulnerable and meaningless in the face of a hostile and indifferent universe! (I wish I could have inserted some egregious italics there.) How on earth does this compare to the standard, very humanistic Stephen King plot, in which a lovable band of misfits always ends up saving the day? Also, Lovecraft and the writers he admired and worked with had a lot more things than scaring people on their agenda. It's too bad there wasn't any mention of either his little-read contemporaries Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton-Smith, or his very frequently read protigi, Robert Howard of Conan fame. To sum it up, too much Wilson on Lovecraft and too little of S.T. Joshi, whose "Annotated Lovecraft" series I highly recommend.

-- Hannah Aki Hawkins

Though you mentioned that both Stephen King and Peter Straub have both minimized any influence Lovecraft may have had on them, you neglected to touch on Mike Mignola's pulp comic "Hellboy." In "Hellboy," the ageless space creature that is the central villain as well as some of the tentacled creatures that Hellboy battles are clearly inspired by Lovecraft. Even Stephen King owes more to Lovecraft than he admits: In "Desperation," the ancient creature uncovered at the bottom of a mine is strongly reminiscent of Lovecraft.

-- Gautham Thomas

Laura Miller completely misses the point when it comes to Lovecraft. His critics revert to the same old Freudian bromides and armchair moralizing when addressing his work, but completely overlook what his fiction is about. Writing in a century where a world of perceived order and comforting old ways had given way to social chaos and mass destruction, and armed with the amateur astronomer's assurance that human life is essentially insignificant, Lovecraft created a much more honest art than many of the more celebrated writers of his time. Lovecraft wrote about monstrous, impersonal forces that were tearing apart the world he once took for granted. Watching his family fall apart because of disease and mental illness and seeing the genteel environment he knew was being bulldozed by modern, predatory capitalism, Lovecraft responded with what was for a man of his background primal screams. Don't forget that in socioeconomic terms, Lovecraft was nearly a Marxist. The fish-human hybrids in "Shadow Over Innsmouth" and the Chthulu cultists became monsters out of greed. Lovecraft did subscribe to some odious Eugenic ideas, but don't forget that he married a Jew, and was quite comfortable in the decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon pulp millieu of his time.

Better than any other writer of our own sorry-ass times, he also put the numinous, elemental power of nightmare on paper. To read his best stories is to enter his dreaming mind. Of course his stories are often disjointed and inconclusive -- so are dreams.

-- Chris Knowles

I was deeply disappointed by Laura Millers "Master of Disgust." While of course she is free to hate or love H. P. Lovecraft at will, her denunciation of Lovecraft's literary accomplishment seems based largely on misunderstanding and misrepresentation. First the misrepresentation: Miller rightly berated Lovecraft for his overuse of adjectives in creating his horrific effects, but without telling readers that the selections she quoted from "The Lurking Fear" were from some of Lovecrafts earliest fiction. Because it clearly undercuts her thesis, Miller ignored the Library of America volume's chronological arrangement of Lovecraft's work, which clearly demonstrates the progression of his writing from empurpled prose to a sleeker, though still complex, style in later tales. Like any writer, Lovecraft grew as an artist over time, and it is unfair to judge his style by "The Lurking Fear," which was purposely written as an overwrought pulp serial. As a Lovecraft fan, I neither "chortle" nor "quote [it] with glee."

But worse is the misunderstanding. Miller tells us that no one finds Lovecraft "scary," and this is one of many reasons his works fail to become literature. But it is a mistake to judge any horror story independently of the time and place where it was written. Bram Stokers "Dracula" is also less-than-frightening in light of todays explicit, carnal horrors. "Dracula," too, provides a still better example of how horror reflects its time and place: The 1931 movie version starring Bela Lugosi frightened its original audience into spasms of horror. Today, no one would call it scary, especially after the Pez dispensers, breakfast cereals, and other paraphernalia it directly or indirectly spawned. Im sure that Stephen King would be the first to agree that King's own works would hardly hold up as pure terror 80 years from now. Horror is very much part of its moment.

Where Lovecraft succeeded brilliantly was in his use of ideas. Though Ms. Miller belittled Lovecraft's alternative mythology (and many titles she attributes to many of Lovecraft's alien-gods are not his own), his stories mythologize the new materialism that evolution and relativity had created. Lovecraft's work captured a particular moment of uncertainty between the two World Wars. Miller and Stephen King may be disappointed that Lovecraft did not focus on, or recognize, the primacy of sexual impulses and organs, but he painted on a larger canvas. Lovecraft purposely created a remote fiction that played out on a cosmic scale and dealt with the purposeless and meaninglessness of a universe that created suffering and pain.

Does this make him literature? Im not sure, but I know he is much more relevant and important than his critics pretend. In my forthcoming book, "The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture," I explore the profound effect Lovecrafts work has had on science, pop culture and even the cloning/stem cell debate. Few authors have had such influence almost 70 years after their deaths.

-- Jason Colavito

Only readers who have been so spoiled by the exaggerated and pompously overblown horror tales of writers like King and Koontz and Barker could ever claim that Lovecraft was other than a major figure in the progression of weird fiction. King himself has said that "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." Lovecraft was a master of the horror best left unknown, the terrors that dwell in the dark.

While admittedly "The Call of Cthulu" won't ever inspire more of a chill than R.L. Stine, stories like "The Rats in the Walls," "Cool Air," or "The Haunter of the Dark" exemplify the vague, persistent horrors of the unknown. No one would call Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" a frightening tale, but the lurking menace of impending doom is enough to create a dreadful suspense that is the basis for the gnawing well of horror fiction, which is exactly the response that many an early horror writer aspired to.

Further, though he is often criticized for his prejudices, let it also be fairly stated the Lovecraft had an intense fear and hatred of sea life, which prompted many of his stories --"Dagon," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" -- aside from any worries he bore about his fellow humans. It is easy to look back and condemn his ideas from the vantage of a century, but it's not so easy to outrace his literary shadow.

-- Marleigh Riggins

Salon Staff

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