LOVECRAFT: MADNESS RIDES THE STAR-WIND By Leigh Blackmore
"This is the hour when moonstruck poets know What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents And tints of flowers fill Nithon's continents, Such as in no earthly garden blow. Yet for each dream these winds to us convey, A dozen or more of ours they sweep away!" These lines from one of the sonnets in Lovecraft's famed sequence FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH are typical of Lovecraft's lifelong passion for peering into the unknown and capturing with his pen the essence of horrors undreamed of by most men. But who was this dreamer from Providence, often referred to as 'his own most fantastic creation'? Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island and was a precocious child who quickly absorbed most of the learning in his grandfather's library. He read by the age of 4, composed Homeric epics at 7, and became deeply erudite in a diversity of intellectual and aesthetic disciplines before he was out of his teens. A complex character, he is noted for his Anglophilia, his aversion to extreme of cold, his fondness for ice-cream and cheese, and a multiplicity of other somewhat 'eccentric' habits and mannerisms. His health was always bad, and as a reclusive, deep-thinking and naturally 'bookish' type, he has often been labelled 'neurotic'. Who else would stay awake all night to avoid disturbing a cat which had fallen asleep on his knee, or prowl the streets once walked by Poe as he searched for fictional inspiration during the dark hours, only to work all day in his study with the shades drawn? That Lovecraft was a unique and fascinating character there is no doubt, but he was not neurotic. He was a highly individual philosophic thinker, and a prolific epistolarian - he wrote more letters than anyone else in the history of world literature - and the evidence of his letters alone is enough to show us how well aware he was of his own faults, and how mentally keen he remained during his short life. Who else but Lovecraft, indeed, would minutely detail the course of his illness as he lay on his deathbed? His early literary career included an involvement as writer and editor for the two largest amateur press associations in the USA, and much of his non-fiction output stems from this period. He also wrote much poetry, and a considerable group of stories influenced by his literary idol, Lord Dunsany. However, the main basis for his fame today rests with the relatively small output of fiction commonly known as the tales of the 'Cthulhu Mythos', although this term has not much practical application. S.T. Joshi in his recent study of Lovecraft for Starmont House divides them into the 'New England' tales and the 'Lovecraft Mythos' tales. Labels aside, these tales may be numbered among the finest horror stories in the English language. They include "The Colour Out of Space", about an extraterrestrial life-form which brings corruption and death to a lonely New England farmhouse; "The Rats in the Walls", a grim tale of ancestral degeneracy; "The Outsider", a Poe-esque piece resonant with psychological darkness; "The Shadow Out of Time", about an aeon-old prehuman race and its contacts with Earth; and many others. The central preoccupation of these tales is the idea that monstrous, alien forces are lurking at the perimeters of man's world - forces which are constantly threatening to engulf him and his puny civilisation, whether they be subterrene ("The Lurking Fear", "Pickman's Model"), sub-oceanic ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Call of Cthulhu") or extraterrestrial ("The Haunter of the Dark", "The Dunwich Horror"). Lovecraft invented a gallery of beings inimical to man - Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth and others - and a host of blasphemous, forbidden tomes with which men seek to either conjure up or ward off these beings. So convincingly did he create these, and the mythical milieu of Arkham, Innsmouth, Dunwich, Kingsport and Miskatonic University within which many of the tales are set, that readers have often been fooled into thinking them real. There are many, for instance, who have sought Lovecraft's mythical tome THE
NECRONOMICON, by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, believing it to be a genuine occult artefact. Lovecraft deals with potent themes - the potential defeat of natural laws of space and time, the dread arising from man's insignificance in a vast cosmos, the trickle of tainted blood and miscegenation down through the centuries - and his conceptions are, for the most part, highly original. Vampires and other stock devices do not feature heavily in his work. His prime concern was to create an atmosphere, a mood, which he achieves through the careful build-up of detail and the use of 'pseudo-documentation', whereby invention is freely intermingled with fact to make it all seem convincingly realistic. He always suggests more than he states, realising that the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. The modern school of horror, which relies chiefly on sadism and gore, will never rival the subtle and chilling horror of Lovecraft's style. "HPL", as he was know to his friends, gathered about himself a coterie of fellow-writers, who he encouraged to extend his cycle of lore in their own stories. Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, E. Hoffman Price, and August Derleth are among those who achieved fame in their own right. The role played by August Derleth in the elevation of Lovecraft's work to posthumous acclaim is well-known; it was he who founded the prestigious firm of Arkham House to preserve Lovecraft's fiction in hardcovers. Lovecraft spent much of his time corresponding with these authors, including the other two 'Musketeers' of Weird Tales, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, and lost much other valuable time for his own fiction by revising and ghost-writing the sometimes almost worthless tales of minor fictioneers. This was the price he paid for his high artistic standards; he was forced to rely on revision work for much of his small income because he often preferred to 'accept rejection' of one of his own tales than to have it cut or re-written by an editor. Thus, he spent much of his adult life in near-poverty, scrimping and saving to afford the antiquarian sightseeing trips that were so dear to him (in more ways than one). He was also a notorious 'throw-away' author, reluctant to type or submit his work in case it suffered rejection. His two longest fictional pieces, THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH and THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD languished unpublished for many years due to his doubts about their merit. Lovecraft died on March 15, 1937 of cancer of the intestine. He was virtually unknown during his lifetime except to the readers of Weird Tales and his friends, but thanks to the efforts of Derleth, we have his work to enrich us today. From the Lovecraft 'cult' which sprang up among fans, there has emerged both a quantity of (mostly execrable) fiction and a thriving body of scholarly work on his writings. The USA now has two amateur press associations devoted solely to Lovecraft, and his work is widely available in English and many other languages. His stories are constantly anthologised and his essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature' is still a valuable critical history of the genre. His influence is so widespread that there are few important writers of horror in the eighties who would not acknowledge a strong debt to Lovecraft in their own creative development. In short, Lovecraft is acknowledged as one of the masters among the ranks of writers in weird fiction, and if you haven't read him, you ought to do so immediately. Find a paperback edition of his best tales. Read "The Festival", "The Nameless City", "The Thing on the Doorstep", "At the Mountains of Madness", "The Whisperer in Darkness" and the tales mentioned above. Then beware when the star-winds blow...and try not to look into any cold, unyielding surfaces of polished glass, for you may behold something too much for the brain of mortal man to bear...