July 20, 2015

Celebrate H.P. Lovecraft's 125th Birthday This August

Cancel that clambake and skip the trip to the beach. This August you need to celebrate the 125th birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft!

H.P. Lovecraft, for those who don't know, was one of America's most influential fantasy and horror writers. Born into a wealthy Providence family on August 20, 1890, Lovecraft should have led a life of privilege and ease. Things didn't quite work out that way. His life is almost was almost as strange as his fiction.

After his father died in an insane asylum, little Howard and his mother went to live with her father in his Providence mansion. As a boy he was spoiled by his aunts and grandfather, but his mother told him he was too ugly to be seen in public and let him believe until he was three that he was a girl. Unsurprisingly, his mother also later died in an insane asylum and Lovecraft himself suffered from unspecified nervous and mental disorders throughout his early years.

H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft was quite intelligent. He never finished high school due to those nervous disorders but did read widely in his grandfather's extensive library. (It even included an original copy of Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, which makes me jealous!) When his grandfather lost his money and died Lovecraft and his two aunts fell into poverty. Due to his many neuroses and his belief that he was of a superior social class Lovecraft never found full-time work. Instead, he dabbled in amateur journalism and wrote an estimated 100,000 letters. That's right - one hundred thousand letters. And they were long! At one point he sent one aunt a forty page letter every week.

Because he wrote so many letters, we know that he was quite racist. In his letters he railed against blacks, Jews, Mexicans, the Irish, French-Canadians, Asians, Italians, and even people from Finland. In short, he said didn't like anyone except white people of Anglo-Saxon descent. He also expressed strong homophobic opinions in some letters. On the other hand, he briefly married an Eastern European Jewish woman, and was good friends with several gay writers, including the poet Samuel Loveman, who served as his muse for several years. These actions seem to contradict all vitriol he included in his letters, and even the racism in those decreased as he grew older. He died in 1937 at the age of 47.

Lovecraft was a big tangle of neurotic contradictions, but in spite of this - or maybe because of this - he posthumously became the 20th century's most influential horror writer. He moved horror fiction away from the standard Gothic tropes of witches, ghosts and old castles into a new direction featuring extra-dimensional alien gods, hidden lost races, and secret tomes of blasphemous horror. He also liberally sprinkled New England history and folklore into his stories. If you've never read any of his fiction, "The Dunwich Horror," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," and "Dreams In the Witch House" are good places to start and have a strong New England flavor.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

There are two big celebrations happening this August to mark Lovecraft's 125th birthday. For you cineastes, the Brattle Theater in Cambridge is holding an H.P. Lovecraft film festival from August 20 to August 24. They are showing a nice assortment of movies. Some are based closely on Lovecraft's writings, like the recently filmed but retro-spooky black and white films Call of Cthulhu (2005) and The Whisperer in Darkness (2011), which try to capture what a Lovecraft movie would look like if it were filmed during his lifetime.

The Crimson Cult (1968)
Other films update his stories and put them in a more contemporary setting. The Dunwich Horror (1970) takes Lovecraft into the Age of Aquarius, with Dean Stockwell as a dreamboat wizard aiming to destroy the world and Sandra Dee under attack by psychedelic hippies, while The Crimson Cult (1968) sets "Dreams In the Witch House" in swinging England, with Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele as a body-painted witch, and a brawny guy in a leather jockstrap. The New England flavor is gone, but these movies are so groovy it doesn't matter!

From Beyond (1986)
From Beyond (1986) gives Lovecraft the 1980s schlock treatment. When a group of scientists stimulate their pineal glands, they suddenly see the invisible extra-dimensional monsters that constantly surround us. Uh-oh! The monsters can see them as well. Rubbery special effects, leopard print lingerie, and lots of slime ensue.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Other films are inspired by Lovecraft but aren't based on a specific story. Hellboy (2004) makes Lovecraftian monsters and sorcery into an action blockbuster. John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1994) features a book so terrifying it drives its readers insane - and maybe worse. Lovecraft's work is quite popular overseas; in the Japanese film Marebito (2004), a lonely man exploring tunnels below the Tokyo subway system encounters a mysterious woman with strange appetites.

I'm sure that diehard fans will be flocking to Providence for NecronomiCon, a convention about all things Lovecraftian happening August 20 - 23. The convention features a wide variety of activities. If you're feeling brainy, you can listen to panelists discuss topics like "The Undying Leaders’: Ultraterrestrial Demonologies, Cthulhoid Conspiracies and the Rise of Lovecraftian Parapolitics." And when your brain tires out, there are games, an art show, the Eldritch Ball, and readings from horror authors. A good spooky time for everyone!


bairdduvessa said...

nevermind almost the entire batman mythos...

Peter Muise said...

Very true! Where would the Arkham Asylum be without HPL?