We need to have a conversation about Lovecraft.
Specifically, we need to do away with the idea that talking about Lovecraft signals any sort of deeper understanding of the masters of pulp fiction. In the grand scheme of things, HP Lovecraft’s name serves as a talisman for basic-tier fans of the pulps. His writings are so influential, inspiring everyone from Stephen King to Gary Gygax, and so easily distilled into three or four basic bullet points* that mentioning his name makes for a fine and relatable way to signal that you are a real fan familiar with the depths of the pulps without all of that messing around with reading a wide and varied collection of pulp works. It’s no more a sign of knowledge of the roots of horror than talking about Star Wars is a sign of knowledge of the roots of sci-fi.
To be fair, there’s a reason everyone has heard of him. It’s the same reason that everyone has been influenced by him. He really was that good. He really was that creative. He really was that popular. His books linger in the individual consciousness long after they’ve been read, and the constant churn of capitalism has meant that his works linger in the collective market long after they have been released as well. It’s hard to find a used book store that doesn’t have a full shelf of Lovecraft titles tucked in the horror or fantasy shelves.
More power to Lovecraft, and more power to you if you appreciate the man’s long shadow, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Name dropping Lovecraft doesn’t signal anything but a basic understanding of the pulps. It’s an easy signal that requires little patience and little direct experience. His stories are so pervasive that they are a part of the sf/f canon, a foundational part of it that shows up so often as to have generated its own tropes.
My own hunt for deeper experiences with the masters of fiction has proven a humbling experience. The field runs both deeper and farther afield than I imagined prior to reading Jeffro’s seminal work, “Appendix N”. During my recent excursions into the pulp mines in search of the gems that litter the hallways, I recently fell headlong into the deep pool of works written by Clark Ashton Smith.
Clark Ashton Smith isn’t some lost author so obscure that I have to don my fedora and problem glasses before talking about him. While it’s true that the works of Clark Ashton Smith are not often found in remainder bins or on the used book store shelves, his name isn’t exactly obscure. He made Gygax’s list of influential works, after all. Widely understood to have been a contemporary and frequent correspondent of Lovecraft’s, he seems to have a reputation as a sort of Lovecraft Lite – a writer whose works are not quite as nihilistic, are not quite so unusually creative, and whose prose isn’t quite up to Lovecraft’s snuff. Mistaking the path of exposure for one of development, my own understanding of Smith’s place in the annals was of a sort of “little brother” to Lovecraft. A contemporary who shone bright at the time, but whose works are dimmed somewhat for having been produced in the shadow of the master.
The more I read of Smith, the more I think the conventional wisdom has it backwards.
Lovecraft conducted the sort of wild experimentation that was breathtaking, but he ultimately pushed the boundaries of fiction so far into the realms of the unknown that he left the common man behind. His prose is first rate, but his subject matter is so expansive that it lends itself all too easily parodied, pastiched, and regurgitated as simplistic formulae. (See my own bullet list below.)
Clark Ashton Smith, on the other hand, takes the massive, universe shattering ideas of Lovecraft – the theosophic concepts of past and future lives, cultures of the long dead past and far flung future, alien entities that operate by rules beyond the ken of we mere man things, and distills them down to a far more accessible and relatable experience.
To take one example, consider “The Charnel God”, a fairly straight ahead fantasy story in which a man must rescue his wife from the clutches of a strange cult of death eaters. The description of the cult itself walks a delicate line between evil and merely uncaring until the final reveal, with the real antagonist taking the form of a necromancer named Abnon-Tha. It includes a vaguely understandable elder God that would fit right into the Lovecraft cycle, and its not-quite-human servitors, but the action proceeds with a Howardian matter of factness that never leaves the reader out so far on a ledge that neither the action nor mystery, and hence the threat, ever becomes too academic and thus the final confrontation in the temple of the death eaters hits the reader with more emotional impact than it might in lesser hands.
Or consider the fate of the apprentice Pharpetron, his master Avycetes, and the undead wizard Oigos. Like Lovecraft’s doomed dabblers in things man was not meant to know, their experimentation in “The Double Shadow” unleash an alien entity that pursues them slowly and inexorably both through the halls of their gothic castle on the sea cliffs and the gentle rolling hills surrounding it. Unlike Lovecraft, the three victims of the shadow monster don’t encounter a monster they cannot explain or understand – they knew the risks of prying into lost knowledge and their minds do not warp at learning the world is not as they thought. These are wizards of a sort, they know such things exist, and rather than blank stark terror of facing an unspeakable nameless thing, they experience the grinding dread of a doom that they can see and sense, and one so real that they can recognize the hour and minute at which that doom will finally catch up to them. Their fate is no mystery, and the inescapable nature of that fate results in a tale of tangible suspense that mimics the experiences of so many of us.
“The Double Shadow” presents a story relatable for anyone. The approach of the shadow entity mimics that of a child, having broken a vase, waiting for the imminent approach of Mom or Dad and the swift punishment to follow. Or the long hours spent at the bedside of a parent or friend at the tail end of a fight against a wasting disease. It might be a story about shadow monsters, but it’s also an experience to which everyone can relate. It makes for a much more touching read than does following the experience of a man facing unspeakable horrors from beyond time or finally grasping the meaningless of mankind in the grand and infinite incomprehensibility of the universe.
Perhaps my own judgement has been clouded by thirty-plus years of exposure to the ideas of Lovecraft and his lesser imitators. Perhaps my tastes have mellowed in my middle age. Perhaps it’s an end to the youthful flirtations with grandiose ideas about the uncaring universe that comes to men facing the prospects of old age. Smith’s works might spring from a dark imagination, but they hook the reader with the talons of much more relatable characters, much more intimate suspense, and much more tangible threats than his better-known contemporary. For these reasons, CAS has moved ahead of Lovecraft in my own estimation.
If you think you’re ready to delve a little deeper into the relatively obscure lore, you can find a solid overview at the Swords and Stitchery (D&D) Blog.
* For the record, these bullet points are:
• New England professors poking about in musty places they really shouldn’t
• Man is meaningless and when he finally realizes it, he like, can’t even
• Big, obscure words
• Tentacles, yo
Analyzing his work often includes a requirement to throw a pinch of that old “Racist” Brand Incense on the coals to appease the god of the braying goodthink mob, but that’s not required. Just recommended if you want to appreciate Lovecraft’s work without actually appreciating the man’s talents.