Howard Lovecraft and Cthulhu

4 December 2017

Howard Lovecraft's writing has long inspired others, but in today's mass-media market, words like Cthulhu, Lovecraft and Lovecraftian have become commonplace. In fact 'Lovecraftian' is a term attributed to works that were never meant as an emulation; it has become a catch-all word, a genre. Yet somehow people's knowledge of Lovecraft rarely goes beyond pictures of tentacled beasts and strange names. So who are Howard Lovecraft and Cthulhu?

Howard P Lovecraft

Howard Lovecraft

Though Howard's cultural impact is enormous today, he was relatively unknown at the time. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, and wrote for science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines. Lovecraft was a nerve-stricken, sickly child and took much time off from school. He instead read extensively in history, science and literature; subjects that form an important part of his stories as the often high-strung protagonist seeks to uncover forbidden knowledge and hidden mysteries. Lovecraft's stories are thus quite autobiographical in nature. Working just before the 'Golden Age' of science fiction, at a time now called the 'Pulp era', Lovecraft took inspiration from past horror writers, particularly Poe, as well as his contemporaries such as Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. He was a prolific letter writer and formed a close writing circle which included Clark Ashton Smith and Robert. E. Howard the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Within this circle Lovecraft enjoyed sharing his ideas and a kind of mythology was shared between them. This helped further familiarity of Lovecraft's work as more and more people began to read this sort of material. After Lovecraft's death in 1937, writers continued and expanded on the mythology.

The Cthulhu Mythology

Cthulhu Figurine

'If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.'

The iconic Cthulhu character is often used as a kind of figurehead for anything Lovecraftian and the story the Call of Cthulhu exemplifies a Lovecraftian story. In the first two paragraphs alone you have mention of the defining principles of a Lovecraft story; the slumbering terrors, the glimpses of forbidden knowledge, the threat of scientific progress to reveal 'terrifying vistas of reality' and the consequent madness of revelation.

A great many works derived from Lovecraft follow the pattern laid out in this story - that of an academic-type investigator; adventurous but not physical, who chances upon a strange and ancient statuette carved with unknown glyphs. Accompanying press cuttings mention cults and other world-wide phenomena such as the horrible and fantastical dreams experienced by those sensitive enough to receive them. Subsequent Investigations reveal the macabre sect, accompanied by terrible and other-worldly drum beats and flutes.

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