Science-Fiction

Punching Cthulhu in the Face

Although his prose and his politics can be problematic for some readers, the influence of weird fiction writer HP Lovecraft is substantial and reaches out from beyond the grave like one of his indescribable elder gods. Although not particularly successful financially — which is really just another way of calling him a writer — Lovecraft influenced not just generations who would rediscover his forgotten fiction generations later, but also writers who were contemporaries of his and who formed, through their shared correspondence and tendency to write about one another in the letters columns of whatever magazine happened to be publishing their work, sort of a society of oddball pulp writers that seemed to orbit Lovecraft, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. And while Lovecraft was doubtless influenced by some of his fellow weird tales writers as well as those who came before him, their hold on him pales in comparison to his on them. Few were the writers of that brief, fertile era that didn’t try their hand at what became loosely known as “the Lovecraft Mythos,” stories involved in some way (often only tangentially) with the pantheon of monsters, gods, and otherworldly beings that populated Lovecraft’s writing.

It was, perhaps, a combination of things that led to this mythology being so widely tapped by other authors. Obviously, there was something strange and enticing about the world viewed through the eyes of Lovecraft, where every gambrel rooftop building contained untold menace, where every hill and glen was the home of some ancient race of creatures and the human thralls who worshipped them in dark and profane rituals, where everything from a frog-man to a crab to a weird color to geometry could be the source of unparalleled and indescribable terror. But maybe even more than that, much of what Lovecraft created provides an author with a sort of sandbox in which to play. His monsters were so often vaguely described, the mythos that surrounded them only hinted at. There was plenty of room for another writer to pop in and have a go with the framework Lovecraft had put in place.

With the exception of August Derleth, both the greatest preserver of Lovecraft’s legacy as well as one of the most unabashed imitators, few of the authors of that time were as committed to playing in the mythos as Lovecraft’s pen-pal, Robert E. Howard. The two men were similarly devoted to their mothers. Both led exceptionally unhappy lives that ended tragically and at a young age. Howard committed suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. Lovecraft died of stomach cancer the following year, at the age of 46. Howard, who did his best to live the tough-guy life and whose specialty was adventure stories, wrote several works set within the terrifyingly indifferent universe conceived by that gloomy New Englander with the long face, including overt mentions of Lovecraft’s monsters, mythical locations, and “the black gods of R’lyeh.” And few writers were as ill-suited for playing in that mythos as was Howard, whose stock in trade was “for he was incapable of feeling fear” characters like Conan the Barbarian,the demon-slaying Puritan Solomon Kane, and the skull-cracking Pictish king Bran Mak Morn.

"Elder god, eh? You're just another wise guy to me!"

“Elder god, eh? You’re just another wise guy to me!”

Even as a fan of Lovecraft’s writing, I admit that you often have to meet the author halfway, willingly buy into his world and accept that you need to be terrified of things that, in all honesty, don’t seem particularly terrifying. Once you accept Lovecraft on his own terms and buy into his world populated almost entirely by quivering academics who collapse into fits of hysterical terror at the merest sign of uneven architecture or the realization that they are not the most important thing in the world, then there is much about Lovecraft to be appreciated and loved. In contrast, however, Howard, despite his affection for Lovecraft as a man and as a creator, seems incapable of himself buying into that world and translating it into his own work. And while Howard’s stabs at the “Cthulhu mythos,” are often quite entertaining, they are also glaring examples of how Lovecraft’s brand of horror doesn’t work when, instead of timid, high-strung professors, your world is populated by characters who would rather grab a disturbing frog-man and punch him in the face than cower in the bushes as the creature worships contentedly at the altar of Dagon.

When writing a story about a one-off character, Howard was usually a fair variation on the Lovecraft theme. The first of his “mythos” stories, 1931’s “The Black Stone” is perhaps the closest Howard comes to successfully imitating the mood of a Lovecraft tale, concerning as it does a scared narrator, a frolicking cult, and the oft-mentioned toad-monster. Tales in the Lovecraft mythos are as horrified of toad-men as old carnival spook houses were of gorillas. However, when Howard tried to take one of his established (or what would become an established) characters and plant them in the middle of a Lovecraftian tale, problems arose — almost all from the fact that Howard’s stable of regulars were a bunch of grim-faced, fearless warriors who regularly grimaced in the face of death and who, when confronted with ancient and terrible evils, would usually react with a flexing of their “muscles like corded rope” and a battle cry. They’re the type who, when confronted by the twisted goat-man form of Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror,” would just grab the fiend in a headlock and taunt him. “Why do you hit yourself, Wilbur? Why do you hit yourself?”

wtHis second stab at Lovecraft mythology, “Worms of the Earth,” was published in Weird Tales in November of 1932 and is one of Howard’s best Bran Mak Morn stories, and one of his best attempts at the Lovecraft mythos while failing utterly to grasp what it was Lovecraft was aiming for. The main character of the story, Bran Mak Morn, is a man for whom feeling fear is utterly foreign. He responds to situations that would reduce a Lovecraftian protagonist into fits of mad weeping by cracking his knuckles and bellowing, “Let’s get it on!” When confronted with the unholy spawn of man and the ancient races who inhabited the world before the ascendency of humanity, he responds not with terror, but by tossing the witch across the room and making sweet, sweet love to her. When the denizens from deep within the earth, those keepers of unspeakable powers, amass to confront the warrior-king, rather than letting the revelation of these powers destroy him, Bran steals their sacred artifact, bullies them, threatens them, then when they have served him, throws rocks at them and tells them to piss off back to the depths of hell.

While perhaps not fully grasping what made the horror in Lovecraft work, the one thing Howard does well — perhaps better than any other author I’ve ever read — is create fully fleshed out, believable, and imposing ancient civilizations. In that regard, “Worms of the Earth,” with its mist-enshrouded moors and decaying fortresses and creepy barrows, is a wonderfully satisfying success. This is a feat he accomplishes time and again, in story after story. The Solomon Kane tale “Moon of Skulls” is as notable for its bald-faced racism as it is for the striking beauty and horror of the lost civilization Howard describes. It is easy to lose oneself in the sprawling worlds and crumbling remains of ancient civilizations that are the stock of Robert Howard, the man who said he wrote while convinced that the apparition of Conan stood behind him, threatening to behead him if he did not write the tales.

It’s a bit odd, I think, that he felt the need to write within the mythology of Lovecraft when his own mythology was so rich and wonderfully realized. However, the one thing, more than name-dropping Cthulhu, and despite the difference in the temperament of their protagonists, that spiritually binds the work of Howard and Lovecraft into a sort of cohesive whole is the assumption that vast and ancient civilizations existed before the dawn of modern man, and we would be wise not to meddle with whatever might remain hidden in the Highlands of Scotland, the jungles of Africa, or the dark and foreboding mountains of New England. There are things that came long before us, and perhaps we should be a little more wary of our own hubris as masters of the world.

Note: For peanuts, you can own everything both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote. Check thee out the ebooks The Complete Collection Of H.P.Lovecraft for 99 cents and Complete Works of Robert E. Howard for $2.99.

2 replies »

  1. Pah! Let’s see how Conan or Bran would cope when faced with a GAMBREL ROOF… or Brown Jenkin, which always struck me as a uniquely unpleasant little beast.

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  2. An amusing example of the difference is the story ‘The Challenge From Beyond’ (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Challenge_from_Beyond).

    It was a ‘serial story’ written by, among others, Lovecraft and Howard.

    Lovecraft’s section ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he’s trapped on an alien planet in “the loathsome, pale-grey bulk of one of the great centipedes.”

    Howard’s section begins with the protagonist realising that this is awesome, and setting off to conquer his new world.

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