H.P. Lovecraft And The Shadow Over Horror

Scary tentacles

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H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are among the foundations of modern horror. He has an entire subgenre named after him (Lovecraftian horror, also called cosmic horror). His stories can still wring shivers from the modern reader; his gods and monsters are cloned, adapted and mutated by new authors every year (I’m one of them). I don’t actually know how many anthologies include either his name or his iconic creation Cthulhu in their titles — though a sample make up a largish shelf among my books, and then there are the movies, songs, role-playing games and plush abominations (another shelf). During the 2016 election, a Washington Post op-ed claimed Cthulhu’s endorsement for Donald Trump.

But Lovecraft was a bigot. He was a bigot by the standards of our time and his. He hated and feared African-Americans, Jews, poor people and anyone who had the temerity to speak languages other than English in his presence. He once wrote a poem called “On the Creation of [N-words]” and a story in which the horrific punchline was that the femme fatale with monstrous, man-strangling hair was “a negress.” Though sometimes less overt, his terror of humans who were not upper-class Anglo-Saxons pervades his stories. One celebrated classic […] ends by recognizing a strange and alien race as “men” like the reader — men whose civilization collapsed because of a revolt by their monstrous slaves. Those slaves, the shoggoths, appear as boogeymen throughout Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

What to do about the darkness gnawing at horror’s roots? Perhaps Lovecraft’s own metaphors are best: Can this ancestral taint be denied, or does it warp its descendants even today? Could we destroy it, even if we wanted to? If we did, what would remain of our modern branches? Could we instead transform it? Horror excels at making thought-provoking beauty and terror out of the most vile seeds. Can we work such metamorphoses with our own foundations?

Every time someone raises this topic, traditionalists accuse them of forced amnesia. “You’re trying to bury Lovecraft’s memory. You want us to forget him.” Yet modern horror has repeatedly chosen transformation over suppression. Victor LaValle, Caitlin R. Kiernan, N.K Jemisin and Matt Ruff are only a few of those now penning Lovecraftian stories in which bigotry itself is the horror.

Pervasive in cosmic horror is the conflict between attraction and repulsion. Lovecraft’s narrators stumble into terror because they can’t look away: The only thing worse than knowing things man wasn’t meant to know is putting down the book. I feel the same way about Lovecraft. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” begins with the town’s amphibious inhabitants being forced into internment camps; my first novel resulted from yelling at the story until I had to put my fury down on paper. Yet “Shadow” also contains moments of strange sympathy for its monsters and a protagonist who ultimately discovers himself to be one of them, and transforms to “dwell amidst wonder and glory” beneath the waves of the Atlantic.

Lovecraft, too, was conflicted — though in his short life he never found the courage to let his attraction to difference overcome his repulsion. Perhaps we keep building on his creations in the hope that we can finally complete that half-hinted transformation.

Lovecraft’s repellent assumptions still make their way into modern work; even beloved modern authors sometimes show hints of that taint. If we know that a story or author [we’re discussing] is problematic, we’ll tell you — and no shame on anyone who doesn’t care to dip their hands into that particular variety of putrescent pool. There are a few I won’t touch myself. But for those who can’t turn away from what glints at the heart of the slime — or who seek imperfect materials to sculpt into strange new forms — we’ll do our best to map the abyss.

By RUTHANNA EMRYS, August 16, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Editor’s Note:

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series and co-writes Tor.com’s Lovecraft Reread. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. with her wife and their large, strange family. You can find her on Twitter as @r_emrys.



Author Birthdays – August Continued

Danielle Steel (b. August 14, 1947, New York, NY)

Did she always have red hair?“Sometimes, if you aren’t sure about something, you just have to jump off the bridge and grow your wings on the way down.” Read more quotes here.

For more on Danielle Steel and her books, click here.

Sir Walter Scott (b. August 15, 1771, Edinburgh, UK; d. September, 21, 1832, Melrose, UK)

Why do I keep thinking that he looks like a baby?“The race of mankind would perish did they cease to aid each other. We cannot exist without mutual help. All therefore that need aid have a right to ask it from their fellow-men; and no one who has the power of granting can refuse it without guilt.” Find more quotes here.

For more information on Sir Walter Scott, click here.


Georgette Heyer (b. August 16, 1902, London, UK; d. July 4, 1974, London, UK)

I always want to use the word handsome when describing women from the first half of the 20th century - which is not at all a bad thing. Just odd.“I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense…. But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.” You can find more quotes here.

For more information on Georgette Heyer, click here.


H.P. Lovecraft (b. August 20, 1890, Providence, RI; d. March 15, 1937, Providence, RI)

Honestly, have you ever seen a photograph of this man where he didn't look at least a little scared that a monster was going to leap out of the camera?“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Read more quotes here.

For more on Lovecraft, click here.



Ray Bradbury (b. August 22, 1920, Waukegan, IL; d. June 5, 2012, Los Angeles, CA)

The man.“Collecting facts is important. Knowledge is important. But if you don’t have an imagination to use the knowledge, civilization is nowhere.” Read more quotes here.

For more on Ray Bradbury, click here.

  Nelson DeMille (b. August 23, 1943, New York, NY)

How did I miss him?“We’re all pilgrims on the same journey – but some pilgrims have better road maps.” Find more quotes here.

For more information on Nelson DeMille and his books, click here.


Jorge Luis Borges (b. August 24, 1899, Buenos Aires, Argentina; d. June 14, 1986, Geneva, Switzerland)

One of those great old guys that had mad hair in every picture.“In the order of literature, as in others, there is no act that is not the coronation of an infinite series of causes and the source of an infinite series of effects.” Find more quotes here.

For more information on Mr. Borges, click here.


Paulo Coelho (b. August 24, 1947, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Wise AND cool.“You’re always learning. The problem is, sometimes you stop and think you understand the world. This is not correct. The world is always moving. You never reach the point you can stop making an effort.” You can find more quotes here.

For more information on Paulo Coelho, click here.


Orson Scott Card (b. August 24, 1951, Richland, WA)

Hmmmmm....“There’s a reason why every human society has fiction. It teaches us how to be ‘good’, to behave in a way that is for the benefit of the whole community.” Read more quotes here.

For more on Orson Scott Card and his works, click here.


John Green (b. August 24, 1977, Indianapolis, IN)

And I thought Sue looked happy.“Read a lot. Read broadly… Tell stories to your friends, and pay attention to when they get bored… Write a lot.” Read more quotes here.

For more on John Green and his books, click here.



Ira Levin (b. August 27, 1929, New York, NY; d. November 12, 2007, New York, NY)

Gimli?“Being happy or unhappy – is that really the most important thing? Knowing the truth would be a different kind of happiness – a more satisfying kind, I think, even if it turned out to be a sad kind.” Read more quotes here.

For more on Ira Levin, click here.