My short story The Happiest Place on Earth is now available for purchase in the LOLcraft anthology of Lovecraftian humor. Which is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Just as when the same publisher included one of my stories in an anthology of Lovecraftian romance, it has me pondering the title question: what makes a story 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 the occasional pure fantasy (Quest of Iranon). The stories that get the “Lovecraftian” label are primarily those that tie in with the Cthulhu Mythos, as that’s HPL’s signature contribution to the horror world. Stories by other people got the adjective “Lovecraftian” when they —
- Use mythos entities such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth;
- Create similar entities such as Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua;
- Follow the structure of a Lovecraftian story.
The structure is typically built around the protagonist discovering some strangeness which he foolishly investigates. He discovers hints of a cosmic nightmare, investigates more, discovers more and gets the big reveal, a culminating moment of utter horror. The true identity of the protagonist’s host in The Whisperer in Darkness. The final confrontation with Wilbur Whately’s brother in The Dunwich Horror. The attack of the shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft considered that culminating moment the essence of horror fiction, the purpose of the story.
Countless Lovecraftian stories have followed this pattern. Some are depressingly unimaginative HPL knockoffs, others show real flair within the traditional structure. Robert Bloch’s Mysteries of the Worm starts with his painfully derivative early attempts. Over time the collection shows his increasing skill with the formula, then eventually he uses mythos material in entirely different ways (plus writing a shit-ton of other stuff, of course).
Many other writers have gone their own way, myself included. The Happiest Place on Earth is about 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 (“Now it’s time to say goodbye/And face insanity/H-A-S/T-U-R/He’s our destiny.” — though I couldn’t work that theme song into the story). Signs and Hortense, my story in Eldritch Embraces, is a ruefully sad tale about a devout young woman in a world where the cults of the Great Old Ones are normal mainstream religion.
Neither of those, nor most of the other stories in Eldritch Embraces, would fit HPL’s concept of horror. That doesn’t mean we’re doing Lovecraft wrong, only that “Lovecraftian” is a much broader term now. Anything that takes the Lovecraftian entities or concepts of cosmic horror and repurposes them qualify, whether it’s for humor, action, character study or paranormal romance. Or making the protagonists women (e.g., Mollie Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin) or black men dealing with early 20th century racism (e.g., Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom). Or the HP Lovecraft Appreciation Society’s musical parody, A Shoggoth on the Roof. My friend Ross Bagby coined the term Wimpy Lovecraft, for stories which aren’t necessarily horror, but resemble HPL’s whining about a world that refuses to subsidize sensitive aesthetes such as himself, instead requiring them to (gasp!) earn a living.
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.
#SFWApro. Cover by Don England.