Lovecraft is called “visionary.” He expertly built uncanny atmosphere, moods of horror that are still unsurpassed, fantastic worlds, convincing characters and plots, and mythologies on a grand scale. He manifested and expressed his own deepest beliefs in such a convincing, expert, and personal way. He actually leave several people to believe that his fictional monsters and gods were real!
According to Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft (and Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century) exerted “incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction.” Horror, fantasy, and science fiction author Stephen King called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” King has made it clear in his semi-autobiographical non-fiction book Danse Macabre that Lovecraft was responsible for his own fascination with horror and the macabre and was the largest influence on his writing. Wikipedia
To me, what is best about Lovecraft is his ability to create in the reader’s mind something so expansive and so creative that it would never occur if not for Lovecraft. He creates awe-striking and breathtaking revelations under the guise of a completely rational narrator. What is more startling than the revelation that great lumbering gods from the stars rests underneath the earth like in Call of Cthulhu? Or following poor, doomed narrators through their damning self-revelations like in The Rats in the Walls and The Outsider!
How Was Lovecraft So Good at Writing?
I’m going to attempt to explain why and how Lovecraft became one of the most known and respected writers. There are so many reasons to want to study Lovecraft’s genius!
Maybe to walk in Lovecraft’s footsteps, creating art and worlds that convey beautiful, creativity, and terror. Maybe you want to use writing to explain your own thinking to not only your reader but to even discover yourself as you write. Maybe you want a shot at making the same kind of fortune Lovecraft would be doubtlessly be entitled to if he was still living today.
Whatever your goal, I hope that I can shine some insight as to how Lovecraft did it.
First and foremost,
He Wrote Prolifically
How Much Did Lovecraft Write?
Lovecraft published (sometimes with an editor, sometime not I hear) 65 short stories and novella. Yet, Lovecraft still was a ghost writer or collaborator on some 34 works. While Lovecraft was young he wrote 11 juvenilia, some published, others not.
Of poetry, philosophical works, scientific works, and miscellaneous writings he published a dizzying amount! See the exhaustive list here.
It is estimated that Lovecraft wrote 100,000 letters during his lifetime. For a man who lived to 46 and was actively writing letters, let’s say, all of his adult years, that is 3,500 letters a year for his entire adult life, almost 10 letters a day!
Letter writing is still writing; in fact, it is writing about writing, which you could see could greatly improve one’s own writing. In fact, Michael Dirda, book critic for the Washington Post & Pulitzer prize winner, believed that Lovecraft’s letter correspondence was equal to, if not better than, his actual literary works.
With creatives (and I suspect with Lovecraft in specific), sometime the published and known works can just be the tip of the iceberg.
One way or the other, know that Lovecraft wrote prolifically.
As a side note & to some people hopefully a point of encouragement. Not all his works were masterpieces! The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, a modern reading and commentary on Lovecraft’s entire body of work, at times has confessed that some stories are just not enjoyable and not up to the level of his masterpieces. You don’t have to hit a homerun every time you are up to bat; Lovecraft didn’t.
Lovecraft Used Science and Reality to Make Fantasy More Powerful
Most times Lovecraft’s narrator is extremely skeptical and behaves almost too rationally for the circumstances. Not only can a rational narrator be used as an excuse to drive your protagonist into more peril (because he doesn’t believe anything is wrong because nothing should rationally be wrong), but having a skeptical and jaded narrator makes the horrible revelations more real and ever more horrible.
As an example of Lovecraft using known science to describe fictional creations of his own, in The Call of Cthuhlu, Lovecraft mentions that Cthuhlu’s ocean tomb breaks Euclidian geometry. He speaks of how things should be; acute angles should behave like acute angles; surfaces that are convex should remain convex even on a second viewing. But to build otherworldliness, when encountering Cthuhlu, these normal things we take for granted do not function properly.
Lovecraft Had Role Models
Amusing yet telling of who Lovecraft would later become, when some neighbors might have thought young Lovecraft and his mother were up late arguing, a next-door neighbor recognized that it was only loud recitations of Shakespeare.
Lovecraft idolized Lord Dunsany, a nobleman of England and well-received and prolific author within whose works he created fictional pantheons of gods. It might even have been that Lovecraft met Lord Dunsany, certainly he heard him speak in 1919. Dunsany’s influence can be seen in Lovecraft’s stories The Statement of Randolph Carter and others written around that time.
Lovecraft looked up to Poe Immensely, even including mention to Poe in The Shunned House where he called Poe “the world’s greatest master of the terrible and the bizarre.”
Poe inspired Lovecraft who in turn inspired Stephen King, a literary giant in our own time. Having a role model did remarkably well for these authors.
Lovecraft Had a Large Circle of Peers
Lovecraft had a large network of friends who shared interests similar to his own. Notably Clarke Ashton Smith and Frank Belknap Long.
He was a prolific letter writer. It is estimated that Lovecraft wrote 100,000 letters during his lifetime.
He had many correspondence with many other similar authors and young authors that he tutored going all the time it seemed! This body of authors called the “Lovecraft Circle” corresponded with Lovecraft, on topics ranging from writing, art critique, philosophy, and politics.
Some of the young authors Lovecraft tutored went on to become professionals in writing. August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, and Robert Bloch went on to see some success from their writings. Robert Bloch wrote Psycho, the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Lovecraft Joined Groups that Fueled His Career
Having a group of like minded people who have similar goals as you yourself have can greatly benefit your work. Lovecraft joined the “Kalem Club” in New York.
In April 1914, Lovecraft joined the United Amateur Press Association. He held multiple positions and was active in his group; he went from chairman to vice president to president. During this time he began to publish his fictional short story type inspired by Poe, that becomes what he is best known for today.
He Was Active in His Trade Journal
As early as 1911 (Lovecraft would have been 21), Lovecraft began to write to the editors in pulp and weird fiction magazines. In 1913 he began a year-long feud with Fred Jackson when Lovecraft insulted Jackson’s emotionless characters and is trivial and boring stories. This public feud earned Lovecraft entry to the United Amateur Press Association, another group which Lovecraft connected himself with.
This shows Lovecraft as a person not afraid to speak his mind and not afraid to engage in discourse even somewhat combatively. This same trait was shared by a young Abraham Lincoln, and many other great minds if I am not mistaken.
Why Didn’t Lovecraft’s Genius Pay Off?
“Throughout his adult life, Lovecraft was never able to support himself from earnings as an author and editor. He was virtually unknown during his lifetime and was almost exclusively published in pulp magazines before he died in poverty at the age of 46,” Wikipedia.
It is bitter sweet that others have reaped the financial and professional success that rightly belong to Lovecraft. Sweet that his work is shared with the world. Bitter that he can’t reap the rewards that belong to him.
The Library of American sold 25,000 copies of Lovecraft’s work within a month of release in 2005. Penguin Classics financially benefitted from Lovecraft’s work. Recently, Lovecraft Country was released on HBO to plenty of attention. There is no end to the influence and the commercialism of Lovecraft’s work. Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s defining creative god-demon-monster, has appeared in the popular animated show South Park and inspired doubtless hundreds of artistic works and thousands of commercial products.
I take no issue with the widespread of his influence. I simply mourn that he lived in poverty when, if he was alive today, he would enjoy the royalties that J. K. Rowling, George Lucas, and other fictional popular creators enjoy today.
So why didn’t Lovecraft’s genius and toil pay off during his own time? It’s a terrible thing. Could it have been prevented?
His Work Was Difficult to Read
If you have read Lovecraft, you don’t need me to tell you that it takes concentration to understand his work.
If you haven’t read Lovecraft’s work, I would describe it as, at times, painstakingly detailed and often times of mundane beginnings.
Lovecraft purposefully wrote in a archaic or old fashioned style of writing. I think Lovecraft chose to write this way to create a real-seeming world to lure you to believe in the reality of the setting of the story before he reveals cosmic horror upon it.
He is thorough; many times family histories and careers of different experts and histories of entire places and buildings are explained with more detail perhaps than is required. Yet, it is all well-written (certainly from his best stories) and usually not only assures you of the reality of the setting, but is usually interesting in and of itself to read the history and goings-ons.
However, I wonder whether this archaic style was a double-sided blade for Lovecraft. On the one hand, I think this fictitiously old way of writing contributed to the modern-day popularity of Lovecraft’s works. On the other hand, I think his insistence on this proper old English and falsely ancient style might have hurt his chances with the American audience of his time. But perhaps it would be like asking a fish to walk on land to ask Lovecraft to write in another style.
Nick Mamatas, Los Angeles Review of Books Reviewer, said that Lovecraft couldn’t compete with pulpy reoccurring protagonist stories and damsel in distress stories. Although his self evident skill and depth of style and detail might have also been what has propelled such a incredible posthumous career.
A sane man, I think, would prefer to enjoy the fruits of his labor during his own lifetime. Could it be that Lovecraft might’ve enjoyed more of his deserved success during his time if he wrote more in tune with his own time, sprinkling some pop-y stories to supplement his heavier, deeper masterpieces?
Lovecraft Was Out Of Step With His Time
Very introspective and of a sensitive nature, he saw great significance in his dreams, many times the inspiration for his stories came from dreams.
Lovecraft could easily be described as a person with an old soul.
Themes of history, family, duty, the danger in knowing more than we are meant to, and even proper social etiquette are traceable through his body of work. These themes are sometimes incredibly dated to modern audiences, even off-putting to plain wrong at times.
Lovecraft had great pride in his heritage. He was born to an affluent family but, before his adulthood, that affluence had run out. I think it would be fair to question whether this pride could have prevented Lovecraft from connecting with some readers in his time, and perhaps kept him from reaching his entire potential.
When Lovecraft was a chairman of the Department of Public Criticism of the United Amateur Press Association, he used his position to argue for a more archaic use of English language, as oppose to using slang and Americanization; he preferred more old-fashioned ways of writing. His father warned him off of using Americanized words and phrases. Lovecraft used British English often, though his entire life and work was in America.
Lovecraft was a fascinating person in history. He created influence and art that is still a hundred years later being talked about.
How genius is born and how to emulate it for ourselves might be too tall an order. But that doesn’t dissuade me from trying to find what caused Lovecraft’s genius. What specific things did he write so impactfully that they have stuck him so permanently in modern culture? What specific behaviors of his caused such genius to flow from him?
I think from what I know now, that his greatest asset was his engagement. He engaged so deeply with the things he pursued. He thought very critically and did not shy away from true engagement and true connection with the material he studied and with the people behind the material. He connected and engaged with other connected and engaged people, which enhanced not only his own life but also his friends and correspondents lives and careers.
True expertise I think comes from this true connectivity and engagement. It takes patience and it take insistence. Yet the one quality I see Lovecraft having is that engagement. The same type of engagement Roosevelt was talking about when he spoke of the man in the arena.
Thank you sincerely for reading! My name is Evan River Welch. I’m a digital marketing learner with Simplilearn, a professional skills bootcamp provider. Feel welcome to write any comments that popped up for you. And do not hesitate to contact me!