Lovecraft - A Pillar of Modern Science Fiction

Jedi Mind Trick
Jedi Mind Trick's picture

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.












Well That's Why He's Remembered

He didn't just do horror schlock. It's very different from Mary Shelley, as his era was very different, but it taps into the same sense of destabilization that science creates in a culture. He read up on the science of his day, and it seeped in. For example, "The Colour Out of Space" clearly resonates with the idea of atomic devastation and fallout. He couldn't have known about the atomic bomb when he wrote it, but he was attuned to this idea of contamination, of new things not so pleasant, new types of energy and harm. Channeled the future a bit on that one.

There's also this quote: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. ” So, yeah, he certainly qualifies as science fiction, at the very least for significant parts of his work.

Read him when I was a teenager. Great stuff to discover back then.   

The thing I always responded to...

Kevin Long's picture

I attempted to channel Lovecraft a bit in my story "Bubba's Burger Barn."  The first two thirds are a pastiche of Philip K. Dick in his gonzo 1960s short story days, then the last third I shifted gears into attempt at Lovecraft town. I was trying to sucker-punch the audience: Get them to accept a goofy premise by laughing at it, then once they've done that, whack 'em over the head with a nightmare.

I don't claim to have done either chunk of the story as well as the people I was hommaging, but still.

The thing that I always responded to about him was that the universe was quite literally beyond our comprehension. Mere mortals couldn't grasp more than a tiny piece of it, but it wasn't strictly speaking fantasy. The idea that these were not supernatural beings or real gods or whatever somehow made them much more frightening becuase they might have reasons for doing things, but we'll never understand it any more than a flea understands what a dog is doing.

Also liked his somewhat-vague descriptions that imply more than they spell out. Again: Scarrier, and they allow each reader to subconsciously fill in his own details.

Here's one of those Babylon 5 scenes that JMT talked about. The good stuff starts at 33 seconds. Honestly, the first time I saw this 20 years ago, it gave me chills


Kevin Long

Love Craft

Jim Stiles's picture

One time I read a story where the protagonist asked an AI for literature by H.P. Lovecraft and the AI asked him if the literature was erotica.

hmm. Lets see if we can get

Jedi Mind Trick's picture

hmm. Lets see if we can get this back on track. What is your favorite Lovecraft technology? Why?