Carl Sederholm’s new book The Age of Lovecraft examines how modern culture has been influenced by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.
PROVO, Utah (August 24, 2016)—Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in 1937, destitute and obscure. With no family of his own, he was survived only by his writings. In life, his short stories and novellas divided readers and critics, unsure what to make of his cosmic horror. He imagined and put to paper dark gods from other dimensions waiting to destroy humanity, incomprehensible terrors sleeping beneath the sea and the madness that befell humans who tampered with knowledge beyond their capacity. Lovecraft only ever saw his work published in the pulp magazines of the day; he never would have expected to become one of the 20th century’s most influential writers.
The Age of Lovecraft is the first book to examine the extent of Lovecraft’s influence on modern culture. It does so through a series of essays, collected and organized by Carl Sederholm, chair of the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters and Jeffrey Weinstock, a professor of English at Central Michigan University.
“Lovecraft is more popular now than he ever was in history,” Sederholm says. “This project was a way to capture that moment and answer ‘Why now?’ and ‘Why him?’”
In the essay he contributed to the book, Sederholm examined how Lovecraft’s own fears influenced his writings, especially his fear of intimacy. Sederholm explains, “He was notoriously afraid of women and relationships with women. His stories don’t have that many women characters, and they don’t really develop. He doesn’t really know what to do with that particular topic.” As a result, women typically appeared in the peripheral of Lovecraft’s stories or else as harbingers of torment for the protagonist, as in the “Dunwich Horror,” where the character Lavinia Whateley gives birth to a half-human monster.
But that fear gave way to a larger question, one that Sederholm sees revisited in numerous Lovecraftian tales: How do human beings get along with one another, especially under extreme, even hopeless circumstances? Lovecraft’s monsters are not werewolves that can be killed with silver bullets; they are as vast as space itself, more likely to destroy humanity by accident than actual malice. Rarely do Lovecraft’s heroes have any hope to succeed.
“One way to think about horror’s value is to consider the ways it sheds light on how people behave under extreme circumstances,” Sederholm explains. “Horror explores fear, anxiety, suspense and terror. It also looks at the way people may differ under the same circumstances.” Much of Sederholm’s past work has examined how the horror genre uses these scenarios to address human frailty and then question the purpose of life. “Because horror so often deals with death, it’s a genre that forces us to think about our time on earth – what gives it value, what matters most, etc.”
These ideas did not die with Lovecraft; to the contrary, his writings have inspired work in literature and film that have explored these ideas to greater depths. A dedicated letter writer, Lovecraft corresponded frequently with Robert Bloch and encouraged his literary career. Bloch in turn emulated Lovecraft’s cosmic horror before developing his own style, eventually writing Psycho, the novel that in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film.
“Psycho is one of the most important horror movies ever made, and it was written by a Lovecraft fanatic. Horror movies wouldn’t be the same without him,” Sederholm says. Many other creatives have listed Lovecraft as a chief influence on their work, including authors Neil Gaiman and Stephen King and directors John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro. Though each has made their own unique styles and works, it was Lovecraft’s forays into the dark that helped them to do so.
“He created a playground, that larger universe of the Cthulhu Mythos,” Sederholm says, referring to the literary world Lovecraft imagined. “He didn’t really use that term, but he knew he was creating it, and he invited other writers to contribute, write stories that took place in that playground. And people want to keep playing in that sandbox.”
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)