The life and work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, which includes hugely influential stories like “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu” – are treated by his acolytes like the stuff of cult lore. Lovecraft’s xenophobia and propensity for clunky, adjective-heavy descriptions of “unknowable” Gods and monsters make his writing an acquired taste, yet the depth of maniacal feeling that he invested in his writing is infectious. You can see that effect in the way that devotees as famous as John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman talk about his work in Fear of the Unknown, a smart, approachable portrait of Lovecraft and sharp case for why his writing remains truly original. As horror writer Peter Straub puts it, Lovecraft was very much influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, especially stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” yet he also effectively “invented his own genre.”
WATCH THE LOVECRAFT: FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN TRAILER
Directed by Frank Woodward, Fear of the Unknown presents Lovecraft the person and Lovecraft the writer as a single inseparable entity. His stories, which are often written from a first-person perspective, give you the inimitable impression that you just spent time with somebody that’s plumbing his psyche and putting his id on the page. Lovecraft’s mythic monsters may be characterized by his inimitable style of purple prose but his stories are wildly influential because of their unmistakable potency.
Woodward’s interviewees know this and talk about Lovecraft’s most enduring creations, like the malignant, chimerical god Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, the ancient Book of the Dead, with a loving mix of reverence and cheeky humor. For example, Gaiman aptly calls the Necronomicon “a strange combination of urban legend and bad joke.” This is not meant as an insult. Gaiman is just referring to the way that totems of Lovecraft’s writing, like the Necronomicon, were frequently alluded to in his other stories, like those belonging to contemporaries like Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard and later in pop culture works ranging from The Thing from Another World to Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu.”
It’s refreshing to see smart, articulate Lovecraft scholars praise their idol one minute and poke fun of him the next. Carpenter, when referring to Cthulhu’s octopus-like head, says of Lovecraft, “He must have had something about fish that really bothered him.” Del Toro even goes so far as to make an off-hand joke, saying that since Lovecraft “…was an Anglophile…he was definitely not a guy that got laid much.”
These jokes are particularly noteworthy because, as Gaiman says at the end of Fear of the Unknown, “We only parody things that have life. There is no point in parodying something dead. There is no point in parodying something in which one has no interest. There is no pointing in parodying something that doesn’t matter. And almost 100 years after his death, Lovecraft still matters.”
Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.
WATCH LOVECRAFT: FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN ON FANDOR