In the early part of the 1900s, there was an awkward, slender man in New England who dreamt of monsters. H. P. Lovecraft shared the ageless creatures birthed by his imagination with a world he often saw as uncaring, ambivalent, or downright disturbing. Though largely uncelebrated in his lifetime, his influence can now be seen throughout modern popular culture.
From film and TV to tattoos and board games, you'll find tentacled beasts rising from the sea and protagonists faced with forces of evil they could never comprehend, let alone defeat. But as Lovecraft's contributions to literature continue to pervade new works, he remains a topic of great debate, never seeming to fit any prescribed mold that we may apply to him. In a new book author and College of Charleston professor W. Scott Poole examines not only Lovecraft's life and works, but also the growing cultural impact that the late writer has on today's artists. Recently named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the "55 Books to Read this Fall," In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft is set for release on Sept. 13. Weaving together elements of biography, cultural history, and literary criticism, Poole's newest work is as difficult to pin down as its subject.
"I did not want to write another Lovecraft biography. There is, as I mentioned in the book, already a 1,200-page two-volume biography of Lovecraft and then there are three or four other short biographies in the traditional sense of 'this thing happened to this person and then this thing happened,'" says Poole. "I absolutely wanted to tell his story because one of the things that makes him so interesting is that there's maybe as much interest in him as in his stories. But at the same time, the world didn't need another traditional biography."
If Poole was to write about Lovecraft, he needed to expand beyond the scope of the usual biography, and look at what his works mean now. Part of the reason why Poole's examination of Lovecraft gets as personal as it does is the result of him trying to better understand an author who has fascinated him for the past 20 years. But in many ways, Lovecraft remains an enigma. While discussing the complexities of Lovecraft's personal philosophies, Poole is quick to acknowledge the uglier side of the late author. Refusing to apologize for Lovecraft's faults and shortcomings, Poole paints him warts and all, providing his audience with an honest portrayal of a complicated man.
"Throughout his whole life, from the time that he was writing anything, his juvenalia that he was writing when he was a teenager, he essentially always displayed the ugliest version of racism that you could display. A misconception about Lovecraft — as is often said about people who we want to admire — is that in his final years he let that go. I found no evidence at all that he let that go," says Poole. "He generally saw race as the way to understand history. That was sort of his guiding principle for understanding history, and history was really important to him. The notion that there had been races that had risen and races that had fallen and races that had attained a certain level of sophistication and races that had degenerated was always part of him."
But despite Lovecraft's bigotry and what Poole describes as the "flexibility of his sexuality," the author was for a time married to Sonia Greene, a Jewish woman of Ukranian descent and exactly the sort of person he railed against. In this way, Poole says Lovecraft is a man who didn't completely understand himself. Race was almost a sort of phobia for Lovecraft — one in a long list of anxieties that colored his understanding of an uncaring universe.
"He called his world view 'cosmic indifference,' by which he essentially meant that his view was that whatever human strivings are, whatever human beings love, whatever they hate, whatever they fear, ultimately the universe doesn't care," says Poole. "And this is actually, I think, the key to understanding why Lovecraft is so important to modern horror because he was the first person to take horror to the darkest place that it could possibly go."
Stories of heroes triumphing against all odds, vanquishing monstrous threats, and saving the day — these tales never seemed to make sense to Lovecraft. His brand of nihilism has become much more common in popular culture over recent decades, seeping in at the fringes and affecting independent horror films before gaining widespread influence. Now, it's much more common to find our heroes fail. What we've always known to be true in real life is better reflected in our art: The good guys don't always win, and happy endings are no guarantee. But what Poole has realized is that there exists a large number of Lovecraft fans who don't realize that they're Lovecraft fans. They've been captivated by his themes, imagery, and are perhaps familiar with his name, but have never read his works.
In modern popular culture, we subsist on a type of cultural soup in which artists combine their own personal influences to create something new. According to Poole, it's a situation where fans develop a taste for Lovecraft through other, more modern works, before they learn that he was a key ingredient in their creation.
"It's definitely a Lovecraft renaissance, although one that's been building for a long time, and it's one that was built in a strange way because there are so many — not just my students or twenty-somethings, or thirty-somethings, but even my generation, Generation X — who kind of came to Lovecraft backwards," says Poole. "And then you read the stories, and finally, you're like, 'Oh wait, I recognize this.' And it seems like that's what is happening and that's exciting for me as somebody who loves books. That's an exciting thing."