“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Thus spake H. P. Lovecraft, and with this singular manifesto, and the body of work it guided, often collectively called the Cthulhu Mythos, the influence of this writer was chiseled into the foundations of horrific and bizarre art for eternity. There are few writers in the last few centuries to whom can be ascribed the monumental influence over literature, music, visual media, and entertainment possessed by Lovecraft. His dark visions, although borrowing thematic elements from his contemporaries and predecessors, cast a singular visage of terror on American society and still linger on the periphery of modern man’s consciousness, gnawing in the darkness like some nameless horror and pushing us ever closer towards insanity.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born August 20, 1890, was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, penning dozens of short stories, novellas, novels, and letters throughout his short life. Lovecraft spent most of his time in New England, a setting that would establish itself as a permanent fixture in his strange tales. His first story, published in 1916, was the Alchemist, and Lovecraft would go on to write numerous stories, both under his own name and as a ghost-writer for Harry Houdini, many of which appeared in the magazine Weird Tales. Lovecraft is often credited with cofounding the genre of “weird fiction”, along with his contemporaries August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith. His style, drawing heavily upon a variety of techniques meant to obfuscate the truth and confound readers, was informed by other authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsany, and Algernon Blackwood. Amongst all these authors, though, Lovecraft’s foreboding shadow looms the longest upon modern art.
Although he is most famous for his short story, the Call of Cthulhu (1928), Lovecraft’s work can be divided into three cycles. The first, the early cycle, recalls the gothic romanticism and supernatural horror of earlier writers like Poe and mostly eschewed the later unity of the mythos for independent, terrifying tales of reanimated corpses, visitors from other worlds, changelings, and pagan ceremonial rites. The Dream Cycle followed the early cycle and began to delve into the eldritch horrors spawned within the confines of Lovecraft’s macabre mind. My personal favorite Lovecraft story, “The Rats in the Walls,” was written during this period. The third and most famous cycle typified the Cthulhu Mythos and is easily the most widely known of his periods, largely due to the influence of the titular Great Old One on later media.
“Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath!
Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!”
Lovecraft’s work is characterized by a number of distinct (often termed Lovecraftian) characteristics. First, narrators within his tales are often highly unreliable. Lovecraft’s characters often suffered terrible fates and witnessed atrocities akin to the worst horrors only dreamed of in the minds of death metal vocalists. These witnesses to the unknown and unknowable would then simply attempt to tell a tale cobbled together from the fragments of shattered sanity, leading readers to question the veracity of their words and blurring the lines of reality. Second, Lovecraft had a penchant for describing the indescribable with just enough detail to inform the reader that something was terribly amiss; like a master caster of shadows, Lovecraft most often left the accompanying mystery surrounding one of his ancient horrors to be puzzled out by the reader’s fevered imaginations. Lovecraft never described great Cthulhu in the stunning level of detail in which we are accustomed to viewing him; no, Lovecraft allowed that image to slowly bore and worm its way into collective consciousness until it took the shape it has now. Last, Lovecraft eschewed human concepts such as morality in his stories. To the Great Old Ones, humans were simply chess pieces to move about and discard as they saw fit; these monstrous beings, reigning from dimensions beyond description and understanding, aligned themselves to neither good nor evil. Morality was a toy for mortals.
Alas, H. P. Lovecraft passed away at the age of 46 due to malnutrition and cancer. His life, marred by obscurity and melancholy, remained of little import until later writers discovered his brilliant work. We owe a debt of gratitude to August Derleth for preserving Lovecraft’s work and to H. P. himself for allowing his mythos to pass out of copyright so that future authors could attempt to etch their own names into the non-euclidean monuments laid by their forebear. Today, Lovecraft’s indelible mark can be found in all corners of art, and the Cthulhu mythos itself fully reached the public’s consciousness when Cthulhu was included in an episode of South Park (Coon and Friends). Thankfully, Lovecraft’s legacy did not slip into the abyss that so often threatened to consume characters in his stories, and his tales have captivated the minds of many artists for decades.
“He did not employ the music-rack, but, offering no choice and playing from memory, enchanted me for over an hour with strains I had never heard before; strains which must have been of his own devising. To describe their exact nature is impossible for one unversed in music. They were a kind of fugue, with recurrent passages of the most captivating quality, but to me were notable for the absence of any of the weird notes I had overheard from my room below on other occasions.”
Lovecraft’s fantastical tales have stitched themselves inextricably into heavy metal, the genre most susceptible to the influence of Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors. To the extent of my knowledge, the first song that directly mentioned Lovecraft’s mythos was The Call of Ktulu by Metallica.
Numerous other artists have since gone on to allude to the mythos and draw lyrical inspiration from Lovecraft’s haunted pages. However, there is another, more subtle influence that Lovecraft has had on heavy metal, and this is apparent in bands that possess an “otherness” to them. This sense of extra-dimensionality is difficult to convey in words, but it should be apparent to fans of groups like Gorguts and Dodecahedron.
It is a feeling of structured chaos, of modes and rhythms that just are not quite right, of tones and atmospheres that hide a colossal, cyclopean darkness somewhere behind the confines of a song. Lovecraft has left his mark on metal in two distinct fashions. In the next two installments of this post, Masterlord SteelDragon and I will discuss both of these branches of Lovecraftian metal and provide some outstanding examples of each. For now, I’ll leave you with Morbid Angel’s Gateways to Annihilation, an album that somehow straddles the line between to the two.
“The most merciful thing in the world… is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”