Sunday, November 10, 2013

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Why We Love Being Scared and the Movies Based on That Love

By Steve Herte

My teenage obsession with the cosmic horror tale imagined by Howard Phillips Lovecraft stems from when I found The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe in our basement and read it from cover to cover. Poe fascinated me and still does; and I believe he must have been a major influence on Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Poe was long gone when Lovecraft was born, but if you read “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” (1838) and then pick up “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931) by Lovecraft you will find that they link together nicely. Both tales take place in Antarctica and both involve a hidden malevolent creature identifiable only by the chilling sound it makes, which both authors quote verbatim.

I don’t remember who among my high school friends recommended Lovecraft to me, but I recall becoming hooked on “The Colour from Out of Space” and went on to collect every book and collection of his wonderfully creepy stories. I learned later on that my current favorite author, Stephen King, is quoted as calling Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale” and that he was responsible for King’s own bent toward the macabre, as he made clear in his semi-autobiographical Danse Macabre.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890, to Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a travelling salesman, and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft of Massachusetts Bay Colony descent, Howard lost his father quite early. Winfield was hospitalized with psychosis in 1893 and died of a paralysis brought on by syphilis (they called “nervous exhaustion” back then).

Raised by his mother, two aunts, and a maternal grandfather who introduced him to Gothic Horror, Howard was encouraged to read and read voraciously, especially during his frequent periods of illness, becoming interested in chemistry and astronomy. His sleep was disturbed by night terrors, which would eventually inspire him to write the poem “Night Gaunts.”

With the trauma of his grandfather’s death in 1904 and the resulting impoverishment due to mismanagement of the estate, the family was forced to move to smaller living quarters. The higher mathematics he needed to become a professional astronomer eluded him and caused a “nervous breakdown” that would ultimately cost him his high school diploma. Living a reclusive life with his mother, he wrote mainly poetry until 1913. Then a letter of complaint he wrote to a pulp magazine, “The Argosy,” got the notice of editor Edward F. Daas, who invited him to join the United Amateur Press Association. Thus, in 1917, Howard was writing fiction stories including “The Tomb” and “Dagon” (his first published work).

In his own words:

In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be... With the advent of the United I obtained a renewal to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening world.”

His frequent letters drew a coterie of correspondents that included Robert Bloch (who wrote “Psycho”), Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard (responsible for “Conan the Barbarian”). Things were looking up until 1919, when Howard’s mother, after bouts of hysteria and depression, was committed to the same hospital where his father died. She succumbed of complications from gall bladder surgery in 1921.

A few weeks later, Lovecraft met Sonia Greene at a convention in Boston and though he was seven years her junior, they married in 1924 and moved into her Brooklyn, New York, apartment. Howard’s initial delight in New York turned into intense dislike when Sonia’s poor health, her stay in a New Jersey sanitarium, and financial hardship (she lost her hat shop) forced her to move to Cleveland for employment, leaving him alone in then-seedy Red Hook. This, coupled with his inability to find work, spawned the short stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Shunned House.” Also during this period he wrote “Cool Air,” “Herbert West – Re-Animator,” “The Unnamable,” “The Lurking Fear,” “The Outsider,” and “The Hound.” He returned to Providence in 1927 and the two agreed to divorce. The best part of Howard’s New York experience was his association with a group of men dubbed the Kalem Club, which included his protégé Frank Belknap Long and several friends who encouraged him to publish in “Weird Tales,” another celebrated pulp magazine.

The last 10 years of Lovecraft’s life were the “big bang” of his writing career and included such stories as “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and the novellas The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Shadow Out of Time, and At the Mountains of Madness. Also during this period he ghosted “The Mound,” “Winged Death,” “The Diary of Alonzo Typer,” and “Under the Pyramids” (written for Harry Houdini), and his only novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. His travels to Quebec, Charleston, St. Augustine and venerable sites in New England provided enhanced settings for his tales. Again, financial hardships forced him to downsize living arrangements with his surviving aunt. If this weren’t enough, he learned of the suicide of Robert E. Howard. Cancer of the small intestine and its resulting malnutrition caused Lovecraft constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937.

I can’t help but wonder if Lovecraft noticed the parallels to Poe’s life in his own: the loss of his father, being raised mainly by women, financial difficulties, and frequent moving. But as they say about blues musicians, “You have to pay your dues to sing the blues.” Howard experienced horror in his own life, which gave him a deep well from which to draw his terrifying stories such as “The Beast in the Cave” (1905) and “The Alchemist” (1908). His imagination was limitless. In his early years he created the ultimate evil book The Necronomicon, first mentioned in the short story “The Hound” (1924), supposedly written by the mad Arab Alhazred (actually a pseudonym for himself at the age of five) and incorporated so thoroughly into his stories that one would believe that such a book actually existed (I actually thought I found it in the Boston Main Library). Robert Bloch created the mythical book and equally loathsome tome De Vermis Mysteriis in his “The Shambler from the Stars” (1935) and Lovecraft adopted it into his mythos of Cthulhu, an ancient horror and extra-dimensional Elder God.

Lovecraft’s nurturing of Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber and Donald Wandrei not only caused their careers to blossom but thanks to them, the “Cthulhu Mythos” was continued and spread as each author incorporated part of Lovecraft’s pantheon of elder gods and unnamable horrors. It was through them that Arkham House Publishing Company was formed (Arkham is Lovecraft’s renaming of Salem) and Lovecraft’s stories were finally put into book format, albeit post-mortem, in “The Outsider and Others” (1939). His novella, The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936), was the closest he came to publishing a book during his lifetime.

Other authors who were touched by and whose writings were affected by (and whose names were changed and incorporated into his stories) included Arthur Machen and Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (known as Lord Dunsany). Even after the last of these men, Bloch, died in 1994, the Cthulhu Mythos continued on and the “Great Old One” appeared in the South Park episode “Mysterion Rises” (November 3, 2010), the second part of a three-part arc beginning with “The Coon” and followed by “Coon 2: Hindsight.” An oil-drilling company that caused a major spill in the Gulf of Mexico releases him when they mistakenly think that drilling on the Moon will fix their former error.

Thus did Poe lead me to Lovecraft and thence to Bloch, who I understand completed Poe’s unfinished final tale “The Lighthouse” in 1977 under the title “The Horror in the Lighthouse.” I’m currently in the process of obtaining that story.


Though there have been many adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, as seen below, practically none are of first-rate quality, excepting the first listed, The Haunted Palace. The rest have simply served as excuses for gross-out horror. None have done well at the box-office, while several went straight to video. The only adaptation that has any sort of reputation among film fans and especially those of horror, is The Re-Animator, which has gained a cult following over the years.

The Haunted Palace (AIP, 1963): Although writer Charles Beaumont took a few lines from Poe’s 1839 mood poem and had Vincent Price recite them near the end, the film is actually based on Lovecraft’s story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Directed by Roger Corman.

Die, Monster, Dieaka Monster of Terror (AIP, 1965): A very loose adaptation of “The Colour Out of Space.”

The Dunwich Horror (AIP, 1970) Well, it’s based on “The Dunwich Horror.” IMDB provides the perfect synopsis: H.P. Lovecraft meets Hollywood: Wilbur Whateley wants to help the Old Ones break through by consulting the Necronomicon, and Dr. Armitage must stop him. Attractive females are added to fill out the plot.

Island of the Fishmen, aka Screamers, from the Italian L’isola degli uomini pesce (Dania Film,1979): A mish-mosh of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells.

Re-Animator (Empire Pictures, 1985): Based on “Herbert West – Re-Animator.”

From Beyond (Empire Picture, 1986): Based on “From Beyond.”

Curse (TWE, 1987): Loosely based on “The Colour Out of Space.”

The Unnamable (Image Entertainment, 1988): Based on “The Unnamable.”

Pulse Pounders (Empire Pictures, 1988): Based on “The Evil Clergyman.”

Bride of Re-Animator (Artisan, 1989): Sequel to Re-Animator. The characters are from Lovecraft, but the story is original.

Dark Heritage (Sterling Pictures, 1989): Based on “The Lurking Fear.”

Shatterbrain aka The Resurrected ( Lions Gate, 1991): Based on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (Lions Gate,1993): Again, a sequel with only Lovecraftian characters, not the story.

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead  (August Entertainment, 1993): An original story based on the concept.

Lurking Fear (Full Moon Entertainment, 1994): Based on “The Lurking Fear.”

Castle Freak (Full Moon Entertainment, 1995): Based only slightly on “The Outsider.”

Bleeders aka Hemoglobin (A-Pix Entertainment, 1997): Based on “The Lurking Fear.”

Cool Air (Lurker Films, 1999): Based on “Cool Air” (1926) and written during his unhappy stay in New York.

Rough Majik aka Dreams of Cthulhu Volume 2 (Lurker Films, 2000): A TV short based on the works of Lovecraft and the Cult of Cthulhu, but no particular story.

Dagon (Lions Gate, 2001): Based on “Dagon” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

Beyond Re-Animator (Lions Gate, 2003): Another sequel with only characters by Lovecraft.

The Call of Cthulhu (MicroCinema, 2005): Based on “The Call of Cthulhu.”

Masters of Horror, Episode 2 (IDT Entertainment, 2005): A TV series. The second episode is based on “Dreams in the Witch House.”

Beyond the Wall of Sleep (Lions Gate, 2006): Based on “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

Cthulhu (Regent Releasing, 2007): Based loosely (very loosely) on “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

Chill (Rojak Films, 2007): Another adaptation of “Cool Air. ”

Colour from the Dark (Vanguard Cinema, 2008): Italian version of “The Colour Out of Space.”

Beyond the Dunwich Horror (Scorpio Film Releasing, 2008): A better adaptation than the first The Dunwich Horror.

The Dunwich Horror (Active Entertainment, 2009): A TV movie based on “The Dunwich Horror.”

The Color Out of Space (Brinkvision, 2010): German version of “The Colour Out of Space.”

The Whisperer in Darkness (MicroCinema, 2011): Based on “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

13: de mars, 1941 (Big Belly Film, 2004): A Swedish film “inspired” by the works of Lovecraft.

Kammaren (Big Belly Film, 2007): Another Swedish film only “inspired” by the works of Lovecraft.

Fyren (Big Belly Film, 2010): Yet another Swedish film “inspired” by Lovecraft with overtones of Edgar Allen Poe’s last tale “The Lighthouse.”

In addition, Rod Serling’s excellent series, Night Gallery, featured two faithful adaptation of Lovecraft:

Pickman’s Model” (Season 2, Episode 11): Lovelorn Mavis Goldsmith ignores her reclusive art teacher Pickman's warning not to follow him home.

Cool Air” (Season 2, Episode 12): A Gothic love story about a woman and a man who lives in a refrigerated apartment.

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