Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft occupies a strange place in the American literary canon. Published mostly in pulp magazines during his own lifetime, the author died in 1937, leaving behind enough stories to fill three or four volumes, enough letters to fill twenty-five, and a small but devoted circle of admirers who took upon themselves the task of keeping his memory alive. Now, over seventy years later, both The American Library and Penguin Books publish his work with other classics, and Lovecraft outsells most of the titles they print alongside him. His ideas have spawned hordes of imitators and dozens of innovators who have built on his work. Among those who pay attention to such things, he’s one of America’s great horror writers, second maybe only to Poe himself.
I count myself among Lovecraft’s admirers. I wrote a whole novel about people who are obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, called The Cthulhu Cult. In aid of that novel, I recently traveled out to Phoenix, AZ for the first of what I hope will be many Mythoscons, an event devoted to Lovecraft and his followers (both writers and fans). One part literary gathering, one part science-fiction convention, and one part Cthulhuoid pep rally, Mythoscon hosted about three hundred people. A really solid turn-out for an inaugural event in a desperate economy at a relatively pricey (but quite lovely) hotel.
At first glance, Mythoscon seemed a lot like any other sci-fi, fantasy, anime, or comic book convention: dealers room, movie room, panels, author readings. If the crowd didn’t have on many costumes (with a few exceptions) there were still many more men than women, and t-shirts most likely came in black and have something obscure (but funny if you get it!) on them. One main difference was that the crowd skewed older, with more attendees in their sixties than in their teens. These demographics helped contribute to a generally more elevated tone, although seldom if ever to the point of pretentiousness. Lovecraftians admire our man, but we know how he’s perceived by the literary community at large. Getting all snooty about it just doesn’t seem right to most of us.
While attendees could play games or watch movies, the core of Mythoscon was the impressive schedule of panel discussions, augmented by the many author readings. The panels were ongoing from morning to evening over the course of the three and a half days of the convention, and offered a crash-course in everything to do with Lovecraft’s life, fiction, friends, and spreading influence. Preeminent Lovecraft scholar and biographer, S.T. Joshi was of course in attendance, and sat on at least eight different panels. Others like Robert Price, Steve Mariconda, and Kevin Faig Jr. also gave excellent multi-panel contributions. An attendee who never knew anything beyond what’s printed in the stories themselves would have come away from the con with a head full of fascinating stories, facts, and anecdotes about Lovecraft’s life and times. Even someone like me, who’s deeply immersed in the subject, learned a lot. All the panels were videotaped, so hopefully those will be online soon.
So why all the fuss about Lovecraft, anyway? First and foremost, many of believe he was an incredibly talented and, more importantly, inventive horror fiction writer. For Lovecraft the essence of true horror was cosmic rather than personal. Humanity’s insignificance in the face of an enormous, hostile universe has the power to destroy or corrupt minds, and it can be a terrifying concept to grapple with. Lovecraft merged science fiction, horror, and a scientific world-view into some very creepy and thoughtful stories. They aren’t all gold of course, but his stories were like nothing that had come before them. The other reason, I think, is the classic artistic underdog story. Lovecraft’s lack of success in his own life is a tragedy, but it makes the narrative of how his writing was preserved and has prospered is kind of inspiring. Inspiring enough to have moved many, many other authors to not only ape his prose, but also build upon his themes and add to the mythical world he started.
None of the readings I attended (and I went to a lot of them) were the kind of Lovecraft pastiches that litter the field of his devotees. Like any great artist, Lovecraft’s influence is most powerful in those he inspires rather than in those who imitate him. Ramsey Campbell read a delightful yet ultimately creepy story consisting of letters from a young admirer to Lovecraft, each letter managing to be amusing on its face but combining to form a real nugget of disturbing horror. Michael Cisco gave one of the best readings I’ve ever seen, more of a performance really, it brought us into the heads of three different cultists and ended on a powerful note that left the audience stunned and then clapping. My only problem with it was that I had to try and follow him at the microphone. Ugh. Cody Goodfellow’s cold war espionage tale, Simon Stratnzas’ disturbing travelogue, Richard Gavin’s personal remembrances of cosmic horror, and Matthew Cardin’s darkly surreal tale of office work all gave their own spins on the themes Lovecraft and others used so well.
If we weren’t all having such a great time, the whole thing might have gotten kind of depressing, but there were also drinks to be had, meals to be shared, and of course the fun and jokey good times of Robert Price officiating at Saturday morning’s Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. I think Lovecraft’s legacy makes for a very unusual but compelling convention experience. The games and current pop-culture currency of Cthulhu lightens things up, while the hard core literary analysis element puts serious meat on the bones. I don’t know if there will be another one next year, but I certainly hope so. I’ll be there in a terrified heartbeat.