Unsurprisingly, for a man whose work had such influence on the world of horror fiction, Lovecraft read widely and eclectically. Many of the authors that had the greatest impact on his work have since passed into obscurity. To be a true Lovecraft fan then is almost to become a true Lovecraftian character: forever poring over forgotten texts, looking for evidence of hidden worlds.
These are a selection of the authors and stories that shook Lovecraft’s world and became the foundation of his literary career.
The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen
There is in Machen an ecstasy of fear that all other living men are too obtuse or timid to capture, and that even Poe failed to envisage in all its starkest abnormality. – H.P. Lovecraft
A book that horror titan Stephen King once described as the greatest horror story in the english language, The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen contains a great deal of elements that we would now define as ‘Lovecraftian’. It was also a shocking text for its time, with the Scottish Herald ending its review by prescribing ‘a smart turn in the brisk air to cleanse the feelings’ for anyone unfortunate enough to have read it.
Like Lovecraft himself, Welsh author Arthur Machen is a flawed writer, often lapsing into purple prose. In his 1890s tale, a man agrees to bear witness to his scientist friend’s strange experiment: performing brain surgery on a woman so that she can have spiritual experience that he calls ‘seeing the great god Pan’. The experiment is not a success. Years later, the protagonist learns of a woman who appears to have mystical powers, performs pagan rituals and leaves a trail of madness and suicide in her wake. Could these two events be connected? (Yes.)
Machen’s stories have an undercurrent of Christianity vs. Celtic paganism, his villains all in some way arising from communion with the natural world. Although Lovecraft’s tales are avowedly atheistic, and his villains profoundly unnatural, there’s definitely something in The Great God Pan that speaks to his obsession with drawing back the veil of reality, experiencing a momentous truth, and suffering terrible consequences.
The Yellow Sign – Robert W. Chambers
I think The Yellow Sign is the most fascinating product of Chambers’s pen, and altogether one of the greatest weird tales ever written. The brooding, gathering atmosphere is actually tremendous. – H.P. Lovecraft
Recently popularised by having been centrally referenced in the TV series True Detective, Chambers’ work had a huge influence on Lovecraft, who borrowed characters and settings from him for his own stories.
Chambers’ collection The King in Yellow features tales loosely connected by the presence of a banned play, a play which causes a reader to lose his or her mind by the third act. The play, which describes a fantastical city in an alternate reality called ‘Carcosa’, draws easy parallels with Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, another text whose profound truths can shatter it’s reader’s psyche.
The Yellow Sign, a sigil that allows the mysterious King in Yellow to control the minds of the unwary, is described in terms that could be lifted straight from one of Lovecraft’s tales: ‘a curious symbol or letter in gold. It was neither Arabic or Chinese, nor as I found afterwards did it belong to any human script’.
These motifs, some first found in the stories of Ambrose Bierce, appear in Lovecraft’s work and continue to crop up throughout weird fiction and pop culture in general. Fans of Game of Thrones will find Carcosa on the easternmost edge of George R.R. Martin’s map.
How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles – Lord Dunsany
Truly, Dunsany has influenced me more than anyone else except Poe—his rich language, his cosmic point of view, his remote dream-world and his exquisite sense of the fantastic all appeal to me more than anything else in modern literature. – H.P. Lovecraft
Lord Dunsany had an enormous impact on Lovecraft, who went so far as to divide his own stories into ‘Dunsanian’ and ‘non-Dunsanian’ groups. There are some Lovecraft fans today who curse the interest that Lovecraft took in Dunsany, feeling that there is far too much of Dunsany in Lovecraft’s overwrought prose.
In this story Nuth, a renowned burglar, plans to steal large emeralds from the house of some gnoles, and winds up sacrificing his young apprentice. It’s a fantasy tale with little of the bite of Lovecraft’s work, but there’s something about the veneration with which Dunsany treats the amoral Nuth that echoes the rejection of traditional moral values found in Lovecraft’s stories.
Thematically, Lovecraft most resembles Dunsany in his Dream cycle stories. The emphasis on created mythology, preoccupation with fantasy dream worlds, and references to Greek and Roman mythology are all Dunsanian standards.
Although the two never directly corresponded, Lovecraft scholars have cited a 1919 lecture by Dunsany that Lovecraft attended as having revived Lovecraft’s interest in a writing career.
The Willows – Algernon Blackwood
I am dogmatic enough to call The Willows the finest weird story I have ever read. – H.P. Lovecraft
Although he was critical of a lot of Blackwood’s output, Lovecraft reserved a rare respect for his short story The Willows.
Both this story and the equally excellent The Wendigo paint a portrait of the weird that is subtler that Lovecraft’s visions, but no less powerful. In this tale, two friends are canoeing down the Danube and pitch up to camp, surrounded by willows that fill the narrator with a sense of unease. Paranoia and distrust set in amongst the two men as they come to believe that the willows are malevolent beings that are preventing their departure and demanding sacrifices.
Similarly to a typical Lovecraftian antagonist, the trees are not evil as such, but operate on a plane beyond the knowledge of mortal men: ‘where great things go on unceasingly… vast purposes… that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with mere expressions of the soul.’
The only thing that really separates these stories from Lovecraft’s, apart from a subtlety of style, is the focus on the natural world as a source of agency, purpose and danger. In Lovecraft’s tales, the danger is always otherworldly.
On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies – Albert Einstein
All the cosmos is a jest, and fit to be treated only as a jest, and one thing is as true as another. – H.P. Lovecraft on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity
Perhaps ‘author’ is an unusual descriptor for Einstein, similar to calling Neil Armstrong a ‘pilot’, but it’s an undeniable truth that his published works had as profound an effect on Lovecraft’s stories as any fantasy writer.
Einstein’s ‘miracle year’ in which he described his special theory of relativity, shook the world of science and irrevocably altered our perception of the universe. H.P. Lovecraft, who followed developments in science, felt the seismic nature of these discoveries more keenly than most.
The sense that our perceptions and experiences of space and time are flawed, and that our being shackled to single perspective limits our ability to comprehend the true relativistic nature of the universe, infuses Lovecraft’s work and draws parallels to his famous quote that the human mind has ‘an inability to correlate its contents.’
Lovecraft’s work contains frequent references to Einstein, either directly or indirectly. Einstein’s discoveries seemed, in Lovecraft’s mind, to have confirmed some of his deeply held suspicions about the cruel, indifferent and nonsensical nature of the universe. It’s not fair to say that Einstein is responsible for the bleak nihilism of Lovecraft’s work, but he certainly gave the author a bit more ammunition.
Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook – M.R. James
M.R. James joins the brisk, the light and the commonplace to the weird about as well as anyone could do it—but if another tried the same method, the chances would be ten to one against him. – H.P. Lovecraft
Where Lovecraft was concerned, there was no greater author for combining the mundane and the supernatural, and thereby revealing the weird that exists in the gulf between them, than M.R. James. There are many parallels between James and Lovecraft, although James took his inspiration from English landscapes and folklore, whereas Lovecraft invented his own mythology to draw horrors from.
The best way to demonstrate the link between the two authors is to compare James’ Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook to Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model.
Published in 1895, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook tells the story of an amateur historian holidaying in southern France. He purchases a rare manuscript from the Sacristan, and begins to examine it. Although there are hints at something malevolent about the content, the true horror comes to fruition with the final illustration. It is a terrifying demon and richly described, but the unnerving realisation is that it may not be a fiction: ‘One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: It was drawn from the life.’
This twist is mirrored almost word-for-word in Lovecraft’s tale Pickman’s Model, with the discovery of the photographs on which Pickman’s terrifying paintings are based. What separates Lovecraft from James is the intensity with which his version of the weird encroaches on our world. In James’ story, the terrors, no matter how disquieting, are anecdotal and ambiguous. In Lovecraft’s, proximity to the true horrors leaves normal people paranoid and insane or with crippling phobias of underground spaces.
For James, horror is something that you encounter while on holiday, and that gives you a shiver whenever you think of it. For Lovecraft, horror is why you are in the asylum.