A Review of H.P. Lovecraft
How to start a review like this one? I first have to admit I have an immense admiration for Lovecraft’s work. I discovered his work in my early 20’s. I was at university then, and spent my summers at my parent’s home. After work, at night, I would take a chair and pull it at the end of the backyard, away from the house. At the end of the backyard was an open sport field. So there, after watching stars and identifying constellations, alone in the dark, with that immense open field behind me, I would read Lovecraft’s tale of cosmic horrors. It was quite chilling to read these stories, out on an open field, at night...
It is later that I found out about the man himself. In a nut shell, for those who do not really know about Lovecraft, he was quite a case! He lived in reclusion of the world, shy, like a stranger observing the city. He was living in Providence, Rhode Island, and went out mostly at night and took long walks – some buildings and eerie scenery at night no doubt inspiring him.
He once wrote “Life has never interested me as the escape from life”. However, he was not a complete hermit: Lovecraft had an immense correspondence with other writers and fans (it is estimated he wrote over 100,000 letters in his life!). He was of feeble constitution and notorious hypochondriac. It is said Lovecraft was eating mainly sweets and ice cream – no wonder his health was bad. “There are twenty-eight varieties this season, and we sampled them all within the course of an hour.” (About ice cream, in a letter to Maurice W. Moe, 1927)
He had unconventional parents – he never really knew his father (who died with syphilis when he was about 8 years old), and was overprotected by his puritan mother (who died while in a psychiatry clinic). His misunderstanding of woman was outstanding – he was totally clueless with them. Very few characters in his stories are female. He was married two years, but it is said to be disastrous. He was over protected by his weird mother in his childhood, and in that very strict Puritan context, everything that looked alien was scorned. While he first espoused the popular racist ideas of pre-WWII, he mellowed his opinions on the matter by the end of his life.
Lovecraft was a cat lover and this animal is often found in his work - “All we may say is, that the more purely an aesthete a man is, the more likely he is to prefer cats; since the superior grace, beauty, manners and neatness of the cat cannot but conquer the fancy of any impartial observer emancipated from mundane and ethical illusions.” (A letter to James F. Morton, 1926).
He died in 1937, at the early age of 46. Sadly for him, his work started to have success in the general public about two years after his death. An interesting character, no?
Among his non-literary work, in 1931 he did a very detailed travelogue of Québec - my home: ‘A description of the town of Quebeck, in New-France’. It was to crystallize his memories of a trip to Québec City.
“Peste! Sacrebleu! Nom d'un Cochon vert! O Saint Dieu et Notre Dame de Montreal! THIS GAWD-DAMN COLD!!!”(A letter to James F. Morton, 1925)
Edited by his main biographer, L. Sprague de Camp, it saw print once, in 1976, in a book named ‘To Quebec and the Stars’ (Needless to say, I’m nearly dying to find a cheap copy of it…) But of course, his main contribution to the last century’s writing scene is horror short stories. In fact, many stories border horror and science-fiction, in a new genre often called ‘cosmic horror’. Most of his stories were a few pages long, but some are quite long (‘The Charles Dexter Ward Case’ being the longest).
Lovecraft was a 19th century lover, and many of his stories are set in that time era. He loved to walk and discover historic district and old buildings of East Coast cities. His writing style is often old, for a writer of the early 1900’s, as he often tried to emulate the 19th century horror writers. He was also an avid reader of science, astronomy and other discoveries, and in his tales many unfortunate heroes are scientists or researchers.
While many of his horrors were of the ‘unnamable’ or ‘unmentionable’ or ‘indescribable’ type, Lovecraft often tried to put numerous details in his horror stories, to make them more believable:
“In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan-fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately -- with a careful emotional "build-up" -- else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel”.
He would have done wonders DMing Ravenloft! In his stories, his sense of building drama is very good (“In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring” – is one the first sentences of The Descendant).
His horror work is mostly based on the following assumptions:
"All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again."
Lovecraft started his ‘Supernatural in Literature’ essay with the following sentence: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. For him, the cosmos is a frightening, infinite place, full of horrors we are not meant to see. And Lovecraft excelled in sharing with us his fear of the cosmos.
He imagined a pantheon of Ancient powerful beings (with a near God status), sleeping since a very long time. Old forgotten gods, very creepy ones, which a secret bunch of insane followers, very creepy ones too, are trying to call back to Earth. It is sure that if they succeed, the human race is doomed. Those who happen to know are tracked and killed by these evil cultists.
One of the most fascinating sentences of his Necronomicon is a key to this peculiar but fascinating universe:
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
The main gods of this pantheon are Yog-Sothoth (an ancient being, able to be at more then one place or time simultaneously), Azathoth (a blind, idiot god floating in the cosmos), Nyarlathotep (the messenger of the Ancients), Shub-Niggurath (the ‘Goat with a thousand youngs’, a pagan-like evil god of fertility).
In an interesting matter, a secondary God in Lovecraft’s work, Cthulhu, gave its name to the ‘Cthulhu mythos’ often used to describe Lovecraft’s imaginary pantheon.
In Lovecraft's stories, alien races came to earth millions of years ago, erected vast cities but vanished long before humanity came to earth. Each of these races is largely superior to us. The Ancient Gods were also revered by other alien creatures: the Deep Ones (think of a sahuagin who starts its life among the human, and is born of a human female and slowly transforming into a fish monster), the Shoggoths (idiot but powerful amoeba monsters), the Great Race (alien conical monsters from space), the Primordial Ones or the Old Ones (Barrel shaped animal/vegetal horrors), who came from the stars and established themselves in Antarctica (At the Mountains of Madness). The latters created all earth-life for an unknown reason.In Lovecraft’s horror world, unfortunate humans sometimes have contact with these forgotten cosmic beings.
He once wrote: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large”. Simply put, our human existence is meaningless in the vast universe. Also, our human senses are limited, as is our imagination to understand our world, time and space. We are not able to understand a fraction of the other beings of the universe. Most humans do not know of these mysteries - and those who do go mad or are assassinated by cultists.
The Necronomicon, is a fictious evil arcane book created by Lovecraft. So real is his depiction of it (this book is often quoted in Lovecraft’s work), that many librarians got a request for it! Later, this demand prompted a few editors to make their own (lousy) copy of the Necronomicon (One of the evilest book in paperback – sure!).
For those who still want to believe in that book existence, please do not take my word for it and click here!
“Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.” (Quote from the Necronomicon in The Dunwich Horror)
The Necronomicon (written by Abdul Alhazred - actually a name Lovecraft took at the age of 5 after reading ‘Arabian Nights’ J) isn’t the only ancient book in Lovecraft’s work: there is also The Book of Eibon (Or Livre d’Eibon, or Liber Ivonis; in fact created by fellow horror author Clark Ashton Smith); the Cultes des Goules by the Comte d’Erlette (a spoof of one of his best friend, August Derleth), De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn (in fact created by the horror writer Robert Bloch), The Pnakotic Manuscripts, etc.
Lastly, Lovecraft created a strange dream-like land, where some of his heroes were drawn. The best stories of this Lovecraft sub-genre are ‘the Dream-quest of unknown Kadath’, ‘Celephais’, ‘the Silver Key’, ‘the White Ship’; and ‘Hypnos’ where the hero of this story explores the world of dreams with a friend (They reach this strange realm with the use of drugs).
An excerpt of a dreaming story:
“A yowl now came from the farther peak, and the old leader paused abruptly in his conversation. It was one of the army's outposts, stationed on the highest of the mountains to watch the one foe which Earth's cats fear; the very large and peculiar cats from Saturn, who for some reason have not been oblivious of the charm of our moon's dark side. They are leagued by treaty with the evil toad-things, and are notoriously hostile to our earthly cats; so that at this juncture a meeting would have been a somewhat grave matter.” (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath)
While I think Nightmare Lands when I read these stories, the dreamlands stories are the least interesting of the lot, in my humble opinion – the story goes very slowly and it’s not as interesting as the non-dream tales …
Lovecraft wrote about 60 horror stories. Some of these were very short, about a page length. The following is a list of the best of the lot for me – roughly a third of them. Some comments (and spoilers!) are provided, as is the year of writing and the French name of the novels (Why? Well, because I read them in French first and because I know many people will like this short French lesson of reading their fave Lovecraft novel title in French).
At the Mountains of Madness – 1931 (Les montagnes hallucinées). An amazingly good quest, where Ancient Beings still inhabit the earth. Perhaps one of the best Lovecraft stories. The narrator is a professor of the Miskatonic University, publishing the tale of his travel in Antarctica, in the hope that it will discourage other future expeditions of going there. Some Primordial Ones bodies are discovered. Later in an old titanical stone ruin, a Shoggoth is seen from a distance.
“They have a strange and titanic mausoleum, and I hope the end of this planet will find them still undisturbed.” (At the Mountains of Madness)
This story screams for an Antarctica expedition in MotRD, or an expedition to Bluetspur?
Beyond the Wall of Sleep – 1919 (Par delà le mur du sommeil). Would you follow a seemingly insane man in his dreams?
The Call of Cthulhu – 1926 (L’appel de Cthulhu). An interesting detective story around a ‘repugnant’ statue, set in the Louisiana jungle and later in the Pacific Sea. Cthulhu himself makes an appearance, the only one in all Lovecraft’s work IIRC.
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” (The Call of Cthulhu)The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – 1927-28 (L’affaire Charles Dexter Ward). Excellent story, if perhaps a little too long. An evil man (Joseph Curwen) revives through one of his offsprings - his grandson, Charles Dexter Ward, an antiquarian. The goal of this long dead evil sorcerer spirit is to bring himself back with the help of his grand son, and then resume his evil experiments: with the use of magic and alchemy, he can shrink a body to its ‘essential salts’, and bring them back to life.
“Memory sometimes makes merciful deletions.” (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward)
Ravenloft idea: The ghost of an evil sorcerer possesses his grandson and pursuit a sinister necromantic goal. Evil necromantic alchemy ideas abound in the story.
Cool Air – 1926 (Air froid). Interesting story that screams Ravenloft self-made golem.
“It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady and two stalwart men by my side.” (Cool Air)
The Color Out of Space – 1927 (La Couleur tombée du ciel). Another story on the fear of the cosmic unknown: a monstrous disease from space slowly destroys a farm.
“It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.” (The Color Out of Space)
Plenty of Ravenloft ideas from this one: link with doppelganger plants (see Horror’s Harvest in Dungeon # 38, 1992), or a hamlet is poisoned: humans, animals, plants are all wasting away, slowly. It might be the water, or is something else corrupting their flesh?
The Doom that came to Sarnath – 1919 (La malédiction de Sarnath). A good example of the dream stories.
The Dunwich Horror – 1928 (L’abomination de Dunwich). Wilbur Whateley is born of an albino mother and an unknown father. With the infamous Necronomicon, Wilbur is able to summon back his father: Yog-Sothoth! But the story doesn’t stop there, as many farms are destroyed by this monstrous entity. Great story.
“Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now.
After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.” (The Dunwich Horror)
Ravenloft idea: A half-fiend is trying to summon his father into Ravenloft, but will it open a gate to the abyss?
The Dreams in the Witch-house – 1932 (La maison de la sorcière). A man lives in Arkham (Salem), in a house where a witch once lived. The man has strange, horrifying dreams of the witch and her pet monstrous rat.
The Haunter of the dark – 1935 (Celui qui hantait les ténèbres). A strange, dark church that everybody shun? Sure, let’s visit it! J A good story of failed fear checks (and madness).
Herbert West – Reanimator – 1922.
“Their outlines were human, semi-human, fractionally human, and not human at all
-- the horde was grotesquely heterogeneous”. (Herbert West—Reanimator)
Not a great story, but provides many Ravenloft ideas: An alchemist is experimenting with a necromantic brew that can revive the dead. The PC's should investigate the source of these zombies.
Horror at Red Hook – 1925 (Horreur à Red Hook). Ravenloft idea: A coastal city is the site of mysterious deaths. The PC's investigate and are led into the underground alien world of an illithid cult.
Imprisoned with the Pharaohs – 1924. Written for the magician Harry Houdini. Interesting tale for a desert domain.
The Lurking Fear – 1922. Where an incompetent explorer (but otherwise sympathetic) narrator explores the horrors of remote New-England.
The Music of Eric Zann – 1921 (La musique d’Éric Zann). A mute’s musician’s dark secret.
The Nameless City – 1921 (La cité sans nom). Another good tale of forgotten ruin exploration.
The Outsider – 1921 (Je suis d’ailleurs). Short story, but powerful at the end, when the sense of realization strikes the reader. Interesting backstory for a pathetic NPC?
Pickman’s model – 1926 (Le modèle de Pickman). An artist painting monsters, what could be his muse? Good possible background for a twisted Dementlieu NPC?
The Rats in the Wall – 1923 (Les rats dans les murs). Another interesting story where the narrator is driven mad by a Haunted House.
“Ultimate horror often paralyses memory in a merciful way” (The Rats in the Walls)
The Shadow Out of Time – 1934 (Dans l’abime du temps). A classic Lovecraftian search through past documents and through archaeology. The narrator discovers the Great Race. An excellent summary of the Lovecraftian mythos.
“If the thing were there -- and if I were not dreaming -- the implications would be quite beyond the power of the human spirit to bear. What tormented me most was my momentary inability to feel that my surroundings were a dream.” (The Shadow Out of Time)
The Shadow over Innsmouth – 1931 (Le cauchemar d’Innsmouth). Excellent story. After fleeing the mongrel inhabitants of Innsmouth, the narrator finds that he is in fact one of them, and is slowly becoming a Deep One. Easily transposed to D&D.
The Thing on the Doorstep – 1923 (Le monstre sur le seuil). Cool story about a body-switching entity. One of its victims is stuck in a cadaver! Great story twist for Ravenloft.
Whisperer in Darkness – 1930 (Celui qui chuchotait dans les ténèbres). Truly great story about black arts, and strange monsters found when the water mark gets high…
The reader may have noticed that I didn’t include any of the so called ‘collaboration’ work Lovecraft did with other authors. Simply because I think these should be avoided. They are either bland copies of Lovecraft’s work, that Lovecraft possibly corrected or rewrote in part (he partly earned his life as a ghost writer, and those resurfaced after his death with Lovecraft now sharing the credits). Simply put, Lovecraft’s name is used to sell a story where he didn’t really collaborate (for example a story where Derleth added 20,000 words to a story outline of 1,000 words by Lovecraft…) And, yes, I include August Derleth in that ‘to be avoided’ lot.
Really, try to get the real stuff, as those bad copies lack the genie or the Lovecraftian atmosphere. All of Lovecraft’s stories are available in paperback, very cheap. Get them, it’s worth it, as Poe is.
General thoughts - how to use Lovecraft in Ravenloft?
“The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from every-day life.” (Supernatural Horror in Literature)
To use Lovecraft in a Ravenloft campaign? I’d say it’s a good idea, as long as you keep it a Ravenloft game! Remember that Lovecraft’s environment is fantasy cosmic horror, but most stories aren’t really gothic in the Ravenloft sense. So IMHO a DM should avoid using too much the fantasy monsters (while using a shoggoth once as a horror climax is fine, I guess!), and of course while letting the Ancient Gods outside the demiplane.
Also, Ravenloft is about heroes, while Lovecraft’s characters were often lousy explorers, or victims: his heroes often died or went insane. Ravenloft is very much a moral world, where punishment is given to those who commit evil deeds, while Lovecraft’s horror could strike anybody.In a nutshell, from Lovecraft keep the cultists and other black arts experiments, but leave the gods outside. The sole possibility that the cultist could succeed in bring the Ancients back is enough to motivate the players, IMHO.
Anyway, here’s other fantasy ideas I used in a campaign:
... A coastal village has been wiped clean of all habitants in an horrific massive human sacrifice (except one who can testify (but he is now mad – of course!)). It is found that the High Priest of the faith are trying to bring the Ancient Gods to our plane. The adventure brings them to an ancient underwater temple in ruins. The PCs raid the temple filled with Deep Ones (of which High Priest of the cult), one Shoggoth and other horrors. The idea is to stop them before they succeed in awaking the Ancient Gods.
... A new sect of Gythyanki thought they found the lost god Azathoth (it was part of a non-Ravenloft campaign, located on the astral plane), and started whorshiping this insane god ... They investigate a Gythyanki lair full of insane gythyanki ...
An alternative version of the alien domain of Bluetspur could host many Lovecraftian horrors.
Other sources of inspiration on H.P. Lovecraft:
Lovecraft Archive: A great site dedicated to the life of H. P. Lovecraft (I borrowed the Lovecraft picture from this site).
A compendium of Lovecraft stories is found here.
And of course the D20 Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium (2002)
Addendum - my visit to my buddy Howard – Summer 2004
During my summer vacation, I had the chance to start a visit of major U.S. North-East Coast landmarks in Providence, Rhode Island - where Lovecraft lived most of his life. The city is very nice, as the old district has many superb Victorian houses:
Those buildings along the Providence River are really superb. The sea is an important feature of Providence: salt water sight or smell is never far from you. No wonder the inspiration it gave to Lovecraft in his walk at night. A very nice and welcoming old town, everybody passing near the area should stop to visit it!
However, something struck me as quite odd. While Lovecraft is now recognized worldwide as a major horror writer, I didn’t see a thing about Lovecraft in the travel guides or in the official city travel literature found on the net. Not a line, nothing when the guides mention the Who’s Who that lived in Providence… It’s like he never lived there. No ‘Lovecraft road’. Also, I didn’t see any Lovecraft mention in commercial signing either – no ‘Shoggoth Pub’, or whatever J
Strange, no? If someone from Providence ever reads this, please contact me for an explanation!
I was starting to doubt my own memories: did Lovecraft really exist at all? Is it something my subconscious invented like the time I was experiencing visions of dancing banana phone in my pool? I got my answer in Swan Point cemetery. I was relieved to see this cemetery, the actual home of the horror writer. I was trembling with anticipation: In the last 20 years, I often wrote Lovecraft about his work, but sadly I never received any answer. He is probably very busy. I was thinking that perhaps the recluse of Providence would be more affable in person? Lot # 281 of the very nice Swan Point Cemetery is where I found my buddy Lovecraft quietly spending the afternoon with his mother and father. The picture on the left shows a close up on the main family monument. On the picture at the right are three smaller stone monuments: from left to right Lovecraft’s father, his mother and H.P.’s grave – added only in 1970 I recall.
Anyway I was struck with humility by this visit to the place and had to rest. Shortly I had again those visions of gelatinous octopus monsters rising from the Providence Sea.
Getting back to reality, I asked Lovecraft for an autograph.
However, like most of my previous correspondence with him, my request got no response – even after an awkward wait of 20 minutes in that position. I now think H.P. was too sad by his lack of recognition in his hometown.
While his mother was eying us with disgust – she’s a poor host and didn’t offer me anything to drink in this summer heat - I decided to read a few horror stories to my buddy Howard to cheer him up.
That will be all for now: I have to go back to my cell: I’m waiting for my trial in a Rhode Island jail, on the futile accusation that I tried to dig my buddy Lovecraft from his grave yesterday. But I was close to success! I had the salts, the formula and the stars alignment was right!
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Lovecraft Swan Point wgah'nagl fhtagn!
Send your comments to Joel@fraternityofshadows.com