“These are my Poe pieces and my Dunsany pieces but, alas—where are my Lovecraft pieces?” — H.P. Lovecraft
This quote is a strange thing for modern readers to read, to whom the mere name Lovecraft describes a more distinct sub-genre than almost any other name in 20th century literature. The Cthulhu mythos, and Lovecraft in general, has had as large an impact on the horror/science-fiction genres (and perhaps more significantly the elision of the two) as Edgar Allen Poe, the writer whose legacy he claims to inherit.
The adjectivization of Lovecraft’s name is not alone enough to prove his lasting impact on literature, but the persistence with which it surfaces, even in unlikely places, is convincing. Just this morning Tor.com published a new story in a “series of Lovecraftian secret-agent bureaucratic dark comedies.” I can’t even begin to fathom what that story would even look like, but Lovecraftian put front and center to entice readers. Popular speculative fiction today is mired in Lovecraftian themes, tropes, and images, and some of the biggest names in speculative fiction claim Lovecraft as a forefather (Joss Whedon, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King are just a few). The addicting, creepy, irreverent podcast Welcome to Night Vale (which held the #1 spot on the itunes podcast downloads for several months) also cites Lovecraft as an influence, and it certainly shows in the podcast’s delight with secret underground cities, giant glow clouds and a sandstorm that had mysterious effects.
But Lovecraft didn’t just leave behind a legacy of cosmic horror and uncertainty, he also left behind an unprecedented peek into his dark mind. A popular pastime for writers and thinkers from the 17th century onward was to produce something called a “commonplace book.” Commonplace books were not quite journals and not quite writing in its own right, but a collection of snippits, quotes, ideas, recipes, letters, etc. that a writer kept, presumably to draw ideas from. Keeping a commonplace book even had its own verb associated with it–commonplacing. Lovecraft, it turns out, kept his own commonplace book, the contents of which were published online by Wired magazine in 2011:
The book totals 221 distinct snippets. Sometimes a full scene, sometimes simply an image, sometimes just a word or a phrase, these “unused story ideas” provide an interesting insight into a mind that is widely regarded as one of the most influential and original in the genre of horror.
27 Life and Death
Death—its desolation and horror—bleak spaces—sea-bottom—dead cities. But Life—the greater horror! Vast unheard-of reptiles and leviathans—hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle—rank slimy vegetation—evil instincts of primal man—Life is more horrible than death.
56 Book or MS. too horrible to read—warned against reading it—someone reads and is found dead. Haverhill incident.
114 Death lights dancing over a salt marsh.
138 Someone or something cries in fright at sight of the rising moon, as if it were something strange.
The 221 entries are varied and different, but perhaps what unifies all of them is that they are quintessentially Lovecraftian. It’s rare to be able to see so clearly the process by which a writer dreams up and conjures ideas into existence. Here are ideas—or nuggets of ideas—in their rawest articulated form. In the introduction to A Commonplace Book of the Weird: The Unused Story Ideas of H.P. Lovecraft, the editor Joseph Fink says “Never having completely transitioned from imagination to disappointing reality, these partial works of art aren’t burdened with the inevitable flaws of a finished piece. They are stories that start on the page and end completely in our imagination.”
Much has been said of the form of “Call of Cthulhu” and the way Lovecraft tells his story. I think it’s interesting to look at it as an echo of the process of commonplacing. In class we have called it an epistolary work, an ethnography, a travel log, even a documentary of sorts. This is a project taken up by many contemporary works of horror and science fiction: just think of The Blair Witch Project, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, the Paranormal Activity franchise.
If commonplacing is the act of cobbling together a string of different ideas and images, then “Call of Cthulhu” acts out that process and takes it a step further by bringing together a set of different voices to tell a story. For a writer who saw his own work so firmly placed in the tradition of his predecessors and contemporaries (who here would recognize the name Dunsany before Lovecraft?), Lovecraft’s approach to narration in “Call of Cthulhu” is unsurprising. His voice today is seen as so effortlessly distinct, and yet Lovecraft seems to be very interested in taking on different voices within his work. And an anxiety over the staying power of his own writing seems present in that of Francis Thurston:
Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.
Lovecraft’s writing lives on today in ways he probably couldn’t have imagined or thought to hope for. When he spoke of his “Poe” pieces and his “Dunsany” pieces, he wasn’t thinking that some day a young writer might say “Here are my Poe pieces, and my Lovecraft pieces,” but I would defy you to come up with a writer of speculative fiction that hasn’t looked to Lovecraft.