He wouldn’t have known it when he died in 1937, but Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft is undoubtedly one of the major influences on what we consider modern science fiction. When he broke onto the writing scene – he did it in Weird Tales magazine in October 1923 with a short, modern horror-fantasy story he titled ‘Dagon’, but he would later pen a number of tales that set into motion many of the darker visions we have in Science Fiction today. For instance: ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ ,wherein mankind stumbles upon evidence of an ancient alien race of that once ruled Earth (and isn't entirely finished demonstrating why), ‘Shadow out of Time’ where body snatching aliens travel through space and time to do deeds for reasons only they understand, and the somewhat brief ‘In the Walls of Eryx’, a story about a mining prospector on the jungle planet Venus…
Lovecraft often gets dismissed as nothing more than a horror fantasy writer with a penchant for archaic prose. This is wrong minded because much of what he wrote is as much science fiction as the tales of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. The difference is that where Wells and Verne focused on the wonder and magnificence of science - Lovecraft pointed out the horror and terror of it. Lovecraft paints a vision of unfathomable, eons old, extra dimensional, telepathic alien monstrosities that are salivating hungrily in the pitch darkness just outside of human perception. In his tales, these things rule(d) the universe as Elder Gods and Old Ones that commanded lost technologies and powerful mental powers.
Not exactly the stuff of an upbeat party conversations, but it was a point of view that easily lent itself to a scientific bent.
Lovecraft’s protagonists are often men of letters and learning. They use fantastic devices and inventions, travel to forbidden and alien locations to face off against an entire mythos of strange and otherworldly beings and peoples with entire histories and unusual cultures. Of course, they also run across ancient slumbering evils that ultimately drive them completely bonkers for their trouble because, to Lovecraft, the human mind is not built to comprehend the greater mysteries of the universe within which it is trapped.
Through the map he set out in his stories, Lovecraft helped lay the foundation for the careers of many authors that followed - guys like Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Clark Aston Smith, August Derleth, Fritz Lieber, Stephen King, Brian Lumley, T.E.D. Klein, and Ramsey Campbell...just to mention a few.
Next time you think on Lovecraft…and his tales filled with unrelenting dread, inscrutable mysteries ‘from beyond, and characters driven past the limits of sanity…
…remember that his heroes are explorers of an actively hostile universe where alien beings and incomprehensible science held sway. Not too much unlike what we readily accept as science fiction in movies like Event Horizon or Ridley Scott’s Aliens series, TV shows like Babylon 5, and in dozens, if not hundreds of written stories ranging from classics like Herbert's 'Dune' to stuff like Abnett's works in the 40k Universe. All of these are science fiction...and clearly found their way to us along a path lit by a lamp HPL ignited long ago.