For nearly a century, a formidable presence has cast its shadow over horror publishing. As protean as it is pervasive, it has insinuated itself into virtually all aspects of the genre's publishing platform: trade publishing, specialty press, comics and graphic novels, role-playing game scenarios, movie novelizations, audiobooks, Web zines, and now e-books. It's the spirit—or, if you will, the shade—of H.P. Lovecraft, and every decade it looms larger and darker.
Once the private worship of a small but dedicated congregation of devotees, Lovecraft has hit the big time in the first decade of the new millennium. In 1997, Ecco Press brought out Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, a selection of Lovecraft's tales of horror chosen and introduced by literary legend Joyce Carol Oates. It was followed, between 1999 and 2004, by three collections—The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, and The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories—all assembled by leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi for the prestigious Penguin Classics imprint. In 2008, Barnes & Noble brought out as part of its Library of Essential Writers series, H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction, the first single-volume collection to feature all of Lovecraft's fiction. Any doubt these books may have left that Lovecraft, who was once demonized as a pulp writer of passing fancy, is anything less than a leading figure in American letters, was dispelled in 2005 when McSweeney's brought out H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, a study of the philosophy underlying Lovecraft's fiction by renowned French cultural critic Michel Houellebecq, with an introduction by Stephen King.
An even greater laurel, to some, is the Library of America's publication in 2005 of H.P. Lovecraft: Tales, a selection of Lovecraft's best fiction assembled by best-selling horror writer Peter Straub that now shares shelf space with books by other LoA icons, among them Henry James, Edith Wharton, John Cheever, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. To many, the LoA volume of Lovecraft officially signaled his induction into the American literary canon, although LoA editor-in-chief Geoffrey O'Brien notes that Lovecraft's literary credentials already were well established. "Lovecraft was a genuine original, with a rigorous sense of narrative form at the service of a coherent vision of the universe—a vision that happens to embody the most extreme paranoia and unblinking pessimism. He will, I think, figure as unavoidable mythologist of the 20th century."
Lovecraft's fiction is now enjoying the same broad dissemination through trade publishing houses and their classics imprints that was once reserved, as American horror fiction goes, for Lovecraft's main inspiration, Edgar Allan Poe. To the minds of many, that's as it should be. "I think Lovecraft has a permanent place in American writing," says Peter Straub. "He stands next to Poe as the high-water mark in 19th- and 20th-century American gothic. His influence on other writers, which was immediate, has proved to be unending and fruitful."
In some ways, though, Lovecraft's reach is more encompassing than Poe's. The Cthulhu Mythos, a myth cycle distilled from his fiction that is to the Lovecraft universe what Middle-earth is to Tolkien's fiction, has been a fertile and fecund subgenre of horror fiction since before Lovecraft's death in 1937, and hundreds of writers over the decades have contributed tales written in Lovecraft's style, infused with its philosophy of cosmic pessimism, or full of references to the entities, books of occult lore, and unhallowed smalltowns that are its signifiers—among them Straub, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z. Brite, Neil Gaiman, Caitlín Kiernan, and Brian Lumley. Last year, Dark Horse brought out Lovecraft Unbound, an anthology of original stories, edited by Ellen Datlow, penned by leading writers of fantasy and science fiction, all of which evoke the spirit, if not the specifics, of Lovecraft's writings, and capture what Datlow refers to as "the deep dread and fear of the unknown" that distinguishes Lovecraft's tales of horror for her. And P.S. Publishing, the U.K.'s premier specialty press for fantasy, horror, and science fiction, has just released Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, another compilation of original stories in the Lovecraftian vein, edited by Joshi. These books form the tip of an iceberg made from scores of similar anthology excursions into Lovecraft-land that began building back in 1969 when Arkham House, once the exclusive publisher of all things Lovecraftian, released Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, a compilation of horror stories by Lovecraft's pulp colleagues put together by Lovecraft's disciple August Derleth. A revised version of this volume is still in print, in paperback, under the Del Rey imprint.
Lovecraft's presence is proliferating not only in the field of fiction but in graphic arts publications as well. Last year, Centipede Press's oversized art tribute, Artists Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, earned a nomination for the World Fantasy Award. The book is an exhaustive exploration of artistic interpretations of Lovecraft's fiction, from the earliest renderings that accompanied Lovecraft's stories in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s, through the postwar comics and paperback explosion and up to contemporary times, with reproductions of work by Lovecraft-inspired luminaries including Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame), H.R. Giger, and Gahan Wilson, among others. Several artists sampled in that volume have produced portfolios devoted exclusively to Lovecraft's work, among them John Coulthart's The Haunter of the Dark and Other Grotesque Visions (Creation Oneiros; with an introduction by Alan Moore) and Richard Corben's Haunt of Horror: Lovecraft Premiere (Marvel Comics).
In 2007, Lovecraft merited his own volume of multiartist interpretations of his fiction in Eureka Publications' Graphic Classics series. This month, The Fall of Cthulhu: Nemesis, the sixth volume in a graphic novel series from Boom! Studios that extrapolates Lovecraftian themes into an apocalyptic horror saga, hits stores. Lovecraft has been referenced in Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke and Key comic book series, and is a fixture in numerous independent comic book series both in America and abroad. His presence in graphic media, and in Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, a bestselling fantasy role-playing game now almost three decades old, ensures that Lovecraft will find a foothold with a younger generation raised on graphic novels, manga, computer games, YouTube clips, and Twitter feeds, and who may discover Lovecraft through extraliterary media before they even know he wrote fiction.
Lovecraft's name is so ubiquitous in publishing these days that almost no one thinks it necessary, as it once was, to give his backstory—an attitude that might leave those still not familiar with him or his achievements in the dark. So, who exactly is H.P. Lovecraft?
To some, he was a writer who lived a life that would have made him the perfect character in an H.P. Lovecraft story—and, not surprisingly, there is a well-established subgenre of fantastic fiction in which Lovecraft figures as a character, ranging from PW Reviews editor Peter Cannon's The Lovecraft Chronicles (Mythos Books, 2004), which speculates about the books Lovecraft might have written and the literary associations he would have forged had he not died prematurely in 1937, to David Barbour and Richard Raleigh's Shadows Bend (Ace, 2000), one of many novels that situate Lovecraft in a world where the supernatural horrors he imagined are real.
Born in 1890 in Providence, R.I., the city where he spent most of his life, Lovecraft made the most of a sickly childhood by reading omnivorously and largely educating himself in such areas as astronomy, history, science, and the classics. At an early age he discovered Poe's fiction and cultivated a taste for tales of the macabre. He began writing fiction in his adolescence and placed some of his earliest work with amateur publications.
Lovecraft's early years coincide with the explosion of the pulp fiction magazine market, which provided inexpensive escapist reading for mass consumption in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1920s and '30s, there were genre-specific pulps to suit just about every taste, and, given his passion, Lovecraft gravitated toward Weird Tales, the long-lived magazine that shaped the modern American horror tale. Lovecraft cracked Weird Tales with his first professional sale in 1923, and though he would sell to other pulp markets, it became the magazine with which he and his work were most closely associated.
From the start, Lovecraft's stories were noticeably devoid of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other traditional supernatural monsters appearing in the work of his pulp contemporaries. Though written in a somewhat mannered gothic style and prose empurpled with words like "eldritch" and "squamous," his atmospheric tales strove to express a horror rooted in humanity's limited understanding of the universe and humankind's arrogant overconfidence in its significance in the cosmic scheme. In 1928, Weird Tales published "The Call of Cthulhu," his tale of an extradimensional monster whose unpronounceable name suggested its incomprehensible alienness, and whose devastating emergence in our world overwhelms the humans who encounter it with an awareness of humanity's puniness and powerlessness against such threats. The story is recognized today as the work that most clearly articulated Lovecraft's concept of "cosmic horror," and it is this aspect of his writing, says Pete Crowther, the publisher of PS Publishing, that is Lovecraft's unique contribution to horror. "There are few writers who embrace such scope and such size to their ‘monsters' or their monsters' domain. It's the sheer size of the horrors that separates Lovecraft from everyone else."
Lovecraft's original approach to horror proved infectious, with many of the best and brightest of his pulp colleagues, among them Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Clark Ashton Smith, and younger admirers including Robert Bloch (later the author of Psycho), Henry Kuttner, and Fritz Leiber. With Lovecraft's encouragement they began referencing in their own fiction some of the superficial signifiers in Lovecraft's work—imaginary New England backwaters like Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth; Cthulhu-ish monsters with names like Yog-Sothtoth, Azathoth, and Shub Niggurath; and rare books of occult lore, of which the dreaded Necronomicon by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred ranked supreme. They also created their own to add to the mythic melting pot. What began as an in-joke to suggest a common and pervasive mythology verified by references in the work of many different writers became the basis for what was named years after Lovecraft's death the Cthulhu Mythos, arguably the first "shared world" in fantastic fiction.
In addition to redrawing the map of modern horror through his fiction, Lovecraft authored the landmark essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," considered to be one of the first comprehensive treatises on horror fiction, and wrote an estimated 100,000 letters, many of which touch on his ideas concerning horror fiction. (To date, only a few thousand of the 20,000 letters of his thought to be extant have been collected.)
Lovecraft died of cancer and its complications in 1937. The publishing phenomenon that was to evolve from his legacy began two years later, when Lovecraft protégés August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded Arkham House, a specialty press created initially to rescue his work from oblivion in the pulps when trade publishers turned up their noses at it. Arkham House's initial self-limited agenda to bring out Lovecraft's fiction and several volumes of his letters eventually expanded to a more ambitious program to publish the work of other important fantasists, including first books by Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, and Brian Lumley. Between 1963 and 1965 Arkham House published three standardized volumes—The Dunwich Horror and Others, At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales—that reprinted Lovecraft's complete fantastic fiction. The books have never been out of print since, and have provided texts for virtually all other editions of Lovecraft's stories since, notably Del Rey's trade paperback The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, which has gone through more than 30 printings since 1982.
Seventy-one years later, Arkham House is still publishing, and "The House that Lovecraft Built," as it might be called, is both the longest-lived specialty fantasy press and the publisher that paved the way for Night Shade Books, Subterranean Press, Cemetery Dance Publications, and other leading specialty presses of today—all of which, it should be noted, have produced Lovecraft-inspired titles. Taking the lead from Necronomicon Press, which launched in 1976 to bring rare Lovecraftiana and critical writing on Lovecraft into print, some presses have devoted themselves almost exclusively to Lovecraft-themed publications, key among them Hippocampus Press. In addition to publishing five volumes of Lovecraft's complete collected essays, several volumes of Lovecraft's collected letters, and numerous titles on Lovecraft and his circle, this August Hippocampus will be publishing I Am Providence, S.T. Joshi's exhaustive and definitive two-volume biography of Lovecraft.
It is hard to estimate the impact Lovecraft and Lovecraft-related publications have had on horror publishing, but it should be pointed out that the modern horror boom was ignited in the 1970s and '80s in the pages of specialty press magazines such as Weirdbook, Whispers, and Nyctalops, all of which initially tapped the ferment of interest in Lovecraftian horror then percolating through horror's fan base. The sprawling Cthulhu Mythos that has evolved out of Lovecraft's fiction each year attracts new contributors, many happy to till ground first broken by Lovecraft until they develop into professionals who write confidently in styles all their own. And as the abundance of new books of Lovecraft-themed materials each year indicates, Lovecraft is an inexhaustible reservoir who has yet to run dry nearly three-quarters of a century since his death.
Ultimately, the originality of Lovecraft's contribution to horror is what ensures enduring interest in his work. Says current Arkham House editor Robert Weinberg, "Lovecraft was the first and the best writer to tap into people's fear of the unknown. Stories like ‘The Colour Out of Space,' ‘At the Mountains of Madness,' and ‘The Call of Cthulhu' are still chilling, and I suspect they will remain so even a hundred years after publication. If Hammett and Chandler took the mystery story out of the English drawing room and back to the street, then Lovecraft took horror out of the English drawing room and put it into outer space and prehistory. No one has matched that achievement in horror since, and to be honest I doubt that they ever will."
Stefan Dziemianowicz has edited more than 30 anthologies of horror, fantasy, and science fiction; he reviews regularly for Locus and Publishers Weekly.