There’s been odd, unlikely literary afterlives in history — Nostradamus springs to mind — but my nomination for the strangest thriving-legacy of a 20th century writer goes to H.P. Lovecraft, especially given how sunk he seemed by his death at 46. He’d never had a book published. Never appeared in periodicals that weren’t considered junk.
One advantage he’s had in hindsight is his association with Providence, R.I. — a place with a limited roster of heroes. And he’s gone from cult to official —
The pulp horror that Lovecraft wrote was considered the dregs of the dregs as literature during his lifetime, but cultural trash regularly becomes treasure later so have to add right away that, while he could evoke moods like crazy for a stretch, he was a terrible prose stylist — I would call it Nerd on Steroids — which makes his revival even more far-fetched. (Indeed, my friend Bill Marx, theater critic and editor of Arts Fuse, was Just. Outraged. that Lovecraft was chosen for a volume in the American Library series. I argued that it was his innovative horror concepts that were being honored, not his writing as such. After all, the hardboiled-detective genre got similar treatment. And while Lovecraft is no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, is he worse than Mickey Spillane? Probably not.)
The article linked above mentions the 1975 L. Sprague De Camp biography as the point where Lovecraft broke beyond his enduring cult which was sustained for decades by the Arkham House publishing operation created by Lovecraft buddies August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. The de Camp book is itself wacky, though, spending so much energy on what a foppish, racist layabout Lovecraft was you wonder why the author bothered. (And Lovecraft’s dated, uglier attitudes no more infest his work than say, the outlooks of Edgar Rice Burroughs taint his — less, even.)
Thing is, Lovecraft had a cult like the Velvet Underground had a cult — those fans formed bands, Lovecraftians became horror writers themselves, including Steven King for one. For another parallel, just as Philip K. Dick realized that the most profound level of science fiction was not about hardware and technology, Lovecraft realized that modern horror had to become not only post-Christian but even post-folklore.
For the most familiar incarnation of Lovecraft’s new mythology, consider “How Chthulu Works’:
(Note: the “Bloop” sidebar in the How Stuff article is bogus: the noise is almost certainly the sound of glacial ice breaking off of Antarctica.)
In yet another convolution of kooky, “The Chtullu Mythos” is Lovecraft’s imaginative legacy, but Chthulu is a minor character and “The Call of Chthulu” is a bust according to me (I do enjoy the “South Park” embodiment quite a bit, however). My selections for an ideal Lovecraft sampler would be:
“The Colour Out of Space” (not part of the Mythos, and the first Lovecraft story I remember reading; his best job of sustaining an uncanny mood and not only as inventive as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, but a lot more in tune with what we know now about how an “alien invasion” might occur)
“The Dunwich Horror” (this has typically clumsy structure in that it climaxes twice but the finale is the most horrific confrontation with a monster that Lovecraft ever devised — fans should check out the trashy-but-vigorous movie based on this)
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (this is about a third too long, but is a must for New England residents; the subtext by an insider about the insularity/inbred quality of small NE towns is an absolute hoot; some claim it’s unintentional but I’m sure it’s Lovecraft’s only long stretch of subtle humor)
“The Shadow Out of Time” (I apologize for not having gone back to this novella before writing about it here — been many years since I looked at it — but it’s uncharacteristic in that it’s strongly sci-fi in tone and has moments of eerie poetry in its vision of vast time and deathless civilizations; there’s a depressing arc to Lovecraft — our world is doomed to fall under the control of all-powerful monstrosities — but this story offers a glimpse of the chapter after the last chapter, where beings as different from us as the monstrosities eventually take over and rule the world, but with grand beneficence; as close as he ever got to a happy ending and a final peculiar foreshadowing of his life after death)
I’m out of time here, but if I find the strength later, I will take up a couple horror-fantasists who inspired Lovecraft and whom I prefer in some ways.
PS: Ho-lee crap! Turns out there’s at least five Lovecraft-themed XMAS SONGS (including a “Shadow Over Innsmouth” one). For the two videos that have been removed from the list, just Google ’em.
PS PS: I would be screwing up if I didn’t include the finest Lovecraft-themed cartoon I’ve ever seen, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, “Prank Call of Cthulu”:
EDIT, years later: The whole short was here, honest, for a goodly long time. But hey, don’t want to include truly pirated stuff in Miles To Go.