The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and this admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form.” —H.P.Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

With these words, H.P.Lovecraft began his classic essay. It remains one of the best surveys and analyses of the form, and it was classic Lovecraft in another way, in that he spent nearly a year researching and writing it, and received not one dime in payment for it.

Lovecraft frequently acknowledged his debt to Poe, and he remains, as latter-day horror “king,” Stephen King, said, the “dark, baroque prince” of horror, “the Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

But of course the horror tale was with us long before Lovecraft. It is probably true that not long after humans developed language, they gathered around their fires at night to tell tales of the horrors lurking out there in the dark. The Greeks (Euripides’ The Bacchae) knew about horror, as did the tellers of tales in the Dark Ages (Beowulf). There is horror in Chaucer (“The Pardoner’s Tale”) and in Shakespeare (Hamlet). Horror found its fullest expression in 18th and early 19th Centuries with the rise of German Romanticism. In English, its practitioners were linked with the Gothic, with its emphasis on death and decay and the grave. Poe found his natural home there, and after his death Bram Stoker carried on with his classic Dracula. Even Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes–the master of “rational” detection–a vampire story.

But it was H. P. Lovecraft, in the 1920’s and 1930’s who seized on the horror form and gave it full life. “Respectable” critics pooh-poohed the horror tale (forgetting or ignoring its longevity), but its appeal remains. We are afraid of the unknown that lurks in the dark, whether it is a saber-toothed tiger waiting to devour us, or some hideous revenant rising from a shallow grave in our neighborhood cemetery, wanting to frighten us to death.

Lovecraft’s tales have gained stature in the years since his death in 1937, until today he is regarded as our master and guide not only to horror, but also to science fiction and what his biographer L. Sprague deCamp called the “macabre imaginative tale.” His influence is everywhere, from the enthusiastic followers of the cult of alien gods, to the science fiction-cum-horror of the “Cthulhu mythos.” Like some strange, eccentric bachelor uncle (although he was briefly married), Lovecraft haunts our imagination with his tales of ordinary landscapes, mostly in his native and much-loved Providence, Rhode Island, or in Massachusetts, suddenly invaded by creatures from some ghastly otherworld.

Like Poe, like vanGogh, like many other artists and writers, Lovecraft died largely unappreciated—and certainly not compensated enough to make a living. Introverted, neurotic, possibly agoraphobic, he lived, like Poe, almost as if he intended to sabotage whatever career he might have had. He spent much of his life in his beloved Providence, Rhode Island, where he could dream and imagine his tales in the company of a few elderly relatives who gave him shelter.

As his biographer deCamp put it, Lovecraft’s career was “a horror story of a different kind,” much of it spent doing revision for other would-be writers, writing thousands of letters, many of which did not survive and for none of which was he paid, and presenting himself to editors in an extremely negative way as someone who was accustomed to having his work turned down and expected the current editor to turn it down also.

If recognition came late, it came with a vengeance. In 1938, a year after his death, his ancient aunt carried a batch of his papers to the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence. Nothing much was done with them until 1971, when a new director began to catalogue them and thus make them available to both scholars and the public. In 1939, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded Arkham House to publish Lovecraft's work. The press is still in existence. In 2005, The Library of America–a bastion of the classic American canon–added H. P. Lovecraft to its list. Brown University in Providence has hosted a seminar on Lovecraft. His work is entirely in print. Like Poe himself, Lovecraft lives.

Further Reading

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

H.P. Lovecraft: A Life by S.T. Joshi

Lovecraft: A Biography by L. Sprague DeCamp

Supernatural Horror in Literature by H. P. Lovecraft, edited by S. T. Joshi

The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture by Jason Colavito

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. Jack Sullivan, ed., with an Introduction by Jacques Barzun
The Lovecraft collection
An annual Lovecraft convention