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Muse of the Shadowy Realms

By Shannon Hunt | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

When he died at the age of forty-six, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was convinced he was a literary failure. His peculiar tales had found homes only in pulp fiction magazines, and his autobiography, published posthumously, was subtitled "Some Notes on a Nonentity."

Yet H.P. Lovecraft and his works now attract a vast cult following. His stories have been translated into fifteen languages and receive serious attention from scholars, who compare him to Poe for his gift of writing horror, and to Yeats for his elaborate philosophies. "Lovecraft developed a distinctive type of horror tale that works even for unbelievers in the supernatural, for modern individuals whose thinking has been shaped by scientific skepticism of ghost stories and the like," says Yozan Dirk Mosig, a Lovecraft scholar and professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. "Lovecraft’s stories use the notion of a suspension of natural law, an annulment of the laws of physics and the universe, as the most horrifying event of all."

A Providence native of old New England stock, Lovecraft affectionately referred to his hometown as "that universal haven of the odd, the free, and the dissenting." Although he never was able to attend Brown University as he had planned--illness prevented him from finishing high school--Lovecraft’s papers now reside in Brown’s John Hay Library. With support from a 1996 NEH Challenge Grant, the university preserves Lovecraft’s manuscripts and voluminous correspondence--only a portion of the supposed hundred thousand letters he wrote.

Lovecraft invented his own elaborate mythology--commonly called the "Cthulhu Mythos" after one of his fantastic creatures--and set it against the New England landscapes that were familiar to him, using antiquated spelling and grammar to describe futuristic events. In his correspondence he often alluded to a divided self, a mind split between "cosmick" fantasies and the traditional world in which he grew up. His work uses a puritanical restraint when describing horror scenes; rather than filling them with excessive gore, Lovecraft relies on the power of suggestion to terrify his readers.

Lovecraft’s popularity spiked in Europe some ten years after his death in 1937, and it later spread back to America. Countless stories, paintings, games, and films have been inspired by his fiction. The annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, shows a wide selection of films based on his stories, from the professional to the amateur. The tenth festival will be held from October 9 through 12.

The event takes place at the Hollywood Theatre, a neighborhood cinema revived by the Oregon Film and Video Foundation. A vaudeville venue at its opening in 1926, the nonprofit theater now has three small auditoriums for concerts and community events as well as films.

Lovecraft-inspired music and art also feature in the festival, and participants have the opportunity to take part in panel discussions with scholars and filmmakers. For the first time, the festival will include a seminar geared towards high schoolers, supported by a grant from the Oregon Humanities Council. "We’re able to introduce high school students to the complex themes in Lovecraft’s literature and imagery, making them better-informed consumers of the modern-day horror film genre," says Richard Beer, director of programming and operations at the Hollywood.

The seminar aims to prove that horror fiction and film are not simply about gore or shock value, but rather that the most terrifying art inspires fright because its creator understands society’s fears. "From the point of view of Jungian psychology, it could be said that Lovecraft was unusually sensitive to the workings of his collective unconscious," says Mosig. "The reason we are so disturbed by the images he paints vividly in his fiction is that these images echo the unconscious forces in the depths of our own minds."

The festival’s founder, Andrew Migliore, acknowledges that many film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work have failed. "Most of the problem stems from a failure by these filmmakers to capture any of the essence of Lovecraft’s unique and meticulously developed atmosphere," he notes in his book The Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft. "They seem unable to remain faithful to the story without adding unnecessary Hollywood devices in order to sell the film (i.e. nudity, token Satanists and leaking sacks of iridescent protoplasm)." Migliore finds that amateur and student films pay better attention to the stories themselves.

In her introduction to a collection of his work, Joyce Carol Oates writes, "Lovecraft’s influence upon twentieth-century horror writers has been incalculable." Lovecraft encouraged budding writers during his lifetime, including the author of Psycho, Robert Bloch, who was sixteen when he began corresponding with Lovecraft. Today’s generation of horror and science fiction writers, such as Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King--who calls Lovecraft "the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale"--cite him as a major influence, and new authors still look to his work for inspiration. Says Mosig, "Lovecraft’s works are not hackworks or formula fiction; they are genuine expressions of the shadowy realms of human nature, of our nature, and therefore they are timeless."