Ever since being published in Eldritch Embraces, an anthology of Lovecraftian romance, I’ve wondered how exactly we define “Lovecraftian.”
HP Lovecraft’s own work extended from outright horror (The Whisperer in Darkness, Call of Cthulhu) through dark fantasy (Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath) to more pure fantasy (Quest of Iranon). “Lovecraftian” usually refers to the works that tie in with this Cthulhu Mythos, which I think are seen as his distinctive work, the new thing he brought to the horror world (as opposed to the more conventional horror of Horror at Red Hook). Works by other people got the adjective “Lovecraftian” when they a)used mythos entities such as Cthulhu or Azathoth; or b)created similar entities in the same mold such as Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua; and c)followed the structure of a typical Lovecraft story. HPL believed that the goal of a short story was that it should build up to a culminating moment of utter horror. Frequently, the protagonist discovers some strangeness, investigates, discovers hints of cosmic horror, learns more, and ultimately gets a horrific encounter or revelation: the true identity of the host in Whisperer at Darkness, the final confrontation with Wilbur Whateley’s brother in Dunwich Horror, the attack of the shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness.
Countless Lovecraftian stories by imitators, fans and admirers have followed a similar pattern, but I think that pattern’s long gone. Consider my own contributions to the Mythos:
•The Adventure of the Red Leech which came out in the early 1980s. Sherlock Holmes investigates a mysterious death. A sorcerer summoning mythos creatures is responsible.
•The Happiest Place on Earth, in New Myths is about the beloved children’s icon Mickey Mi-Go (“Baby boomers say you warped their minds better than LSD!”) who’s just learned studio head Walt Alhazred is canceling the Mickey Mi-Go Club.
•And in Eldritch Embraces I have Signs and Hortense about a lonely young woman in a world where the Cthulhu Mythos is the mainstream religion.
I don’t think any of them fit HPL’s concept of his work. Neither do most of the stories in Eldritch Embraces, though there are some that fall into the traditional structure, but with a love interest added. I don’t mean by that “We’re doing it wrong!” — it’s more than “Lovecraftian” has expanded way beyond the style of Lovecraft and his early followers/imitators (who included Frank Belknap Long and Robert Bloch). It includes stories in the traditional style but also anything that takes the Lovecraftian entities or basic concepts of cosmic horror and repurposes them — humor, action, character study, or paranormal romance. Some with genuinely happy endings.
I think it’s quite a compliment to Lovecraft that his ideas have proven so much more flexible than he probably imagined. I’d hope that wherever he is now, he’s both flattered and amused. It would be sad if he were disappointed, because it’s a safe bet the genie ain’t going back in the box.