Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Thanks to Lovecraft

This month saw the 75th anniversary of the death of one of the most influential authors the majority of us have never heard of.

H.P. Lovecraft wrote dozens of short tales over his short 47 years of life, mostly for publication as a jobbing writer. He was in many ways a terrified Victorian reactionary living in a rapidly changing, modernising and homogenising early 20th century and his rampant imagination took not only his surface fears but also his darkest, deepest anxieties about life and the cosmos and plaited them into tales of ancient traditions, slumbering terrors and nihilistic visions of our place in the universe.

I first discovered Lovecraft via a couple of routes, the first being a tattered old paperback copy of The House on the Borderlands by the brilliant but doomed British author William Hope Hodgson. My Gradfather and uncles were rapacious readers of all things pulp and The House on the Borderlands was one of hundreds of paperbacks that were passed onto me during my formative years. I was inducted in this way to a bizarre and colourful club that included Arthur Machen, Frank Herbert, Robert E Howard, Alfred Bester, Michael Moorcock and many others. Of course there was always the rough to go along with the smooth in the shape of E.C. Tubb's seemingly infinite Dumarest saga, the lasciviously awful Gor books by John Norman and what is to this day my favourite shit book ever, Dannus and the Dark Straights of Reglathium. Of all of these hundreds of tomes that I devoured as a child the biggest impact came via the works of Michael Moorcock and that one book by Hope Hodgson. The Sphere paperback had a striking cover, a muscled, pig-headed creature looming over a dark, gothic manse. The same painting would be used many years later on an early issue of White Dwarf magazine, by which time my old sphere paperback had long since been chewed up by a needle-toothed puppy.*

There was a quote on the back by Lovecraft, describing the book as 'a classic of the first water’. That was the first time I’d ever seen his name, and to this day I don't really know what Lovecraft meant by that, other than he rated it highly (as do I), but I would later learn after reading Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Fiction (from whence the quote originated) that the 1908 novel, and Hodgson's other weird fiction works, were an enormous influence on the then young american writer.

My second exposure to the Lovecraft name came when a friend and I, both aged 13, visited the Cecil cinema in Hull on our weekly monday cheap movie night. It cost just a pound and we had the choice of three (count them) screens. This night in particular our eyes flicked over the three posters on show and we instantly settled upon From Beyond. To my 13 year old  brain it was a lurid, nauseating and utterly stunning revelation and it was adapted from a story by H.P. Lovecraft.

I became obsessed with finding out who this Lovecraft fellow was so I requested that my school library obtain some. They did so and, much to their dismay, the books that arrived were the British Grafton omnibuses with the wonderfully bloody and grotesque Tim White covers*. They promptly vanished from the library, deemed unsuitable for our young minds, but not before my tiny brain had been exposed to At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. To this day they are my favourite Lovecraft stories. I subsequently saved my pocket money and bought all three omnibuses and buried my head in what transpired to be a rather turgid body of work, littered with lumpen tropes and forgettable, over-wrought accounts of strange encounters. Shining in amongst the workaday jobbing works however lay a number of mind-expandingly brilliant stories that were evidently of a more personal nature to the troubled writer, and in them he reached me more than almost any other author I had ever read up until that point in my life.

It was around this point that, having played Dungeons & Dragons for a few years, my tastes in role-playing games moved towards more contemporary settings including Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG. I still own and treasure my second edition box set and have very fond memories of playing (and taking my first ever mushrooms) in my friend Geof's loft. Geof was all about atmosphere and his sole intention when running Cthulhu games was to scare the shit out of us, and he did so on numerous occasions before turning his attention to games of Twilight 2000 in which we would argue and bicker endlessly over how many guns one man could realistically carry, and whether chinese soldiers would have that many gold teeth. It may or more not surprise you that we were short on girlfriends in those days.

I went on to play modifications of Call of Cthulhu extensively in my later teens and early twenties and sought out all other Lovecraft movie adaptations I could get my hands on, even the truly terrible ones. Since the halcyon days of straight-to-video horror films waned the Lovecraft adaptation has become a rarer beast but they do still emerge from time to time, and they are still mostly terrible. The notable recent exception is the black and white, silent movie of The Call of Cthulhu made on a modest budget by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Although not a horror film by today's gore-drenched standards this lovingly crafted homage to the man successfully captures the angst-ridden tone of his best works and presents the story in a fashion that he himself would have recognised had he been an avid cinema-goer. The same people have recently released their take, this time a black and white talkie, on The Whisperer in Darkness.

Over recent years Lovecraft has come in from the literary cold, even having Penguin publish editions of his work. Today collections of his works (numerous and duplicative) dominate my bookcases, the most recent being the first ever to revert to his original manuscripts as source material rather than reprint the August Derleth amended Arkham House versions that have been the standard for over fifty years.

Lovecraft role-playing is, despite a decline in the fortunes of publisher and lincence-holder Chaosium, stronger than ever with numerous takes on the Mythos finding their way into print and pdf form for avid gamers everywhere. Kenneth Hite's tremendous Trail of Cthulhu rekindled my passion for all things Lovecraft but in all honesty I never went for, as a player of games or as a reader, the Mythos’s fear factor. I do however adore the cosmic scope and dreamy qualities of his work, and that is what my imagination is infused with thanks to William Hope Hodgson unwittingly and posthumously introducing me to H.P. Lovecraft.

*Fortunately my wonderful partner would, more than twenty years later, gift me a pristine copy of that very edition for christmas purely based upon a drunken, teary description form several months previous. I dread to think what she paid for it.

**For many years in the UK the Tim White covered Grafton ominibuses were the only Lovecraft in print (as they still are to this day) so too numerous fans such as myself they are burned into our memories as the defintive Lovecraft images, despite them having relatively little relation to the contents.

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