Rise of the Great Old One: H.P. Lovecraft Within Pop Culture

Lovecraft is now mainstream. But how did this happen?

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Re-Animator

Lovecraft is now mainstream. But how did it happen?

Once again, dear boils & ghouls out there, we will discuss the man who single-handedly gave us all the tropes we know as Cosmic Horror. That’s right, it’s time for another editorial about the one and only H. P. Lovecraft! He who gave us Yog-Sothoth, the City of R’lyeh, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and the big one himself, Cthulhu. From starting off as a series of somewhat interconnected tales appearing in Weird Tales, to a series of movies (some better than others) including Stuart Gordon’s cult classic Re-Animator (1985), Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019) all the way to games and even a rock opera, there seems to be this idea that Lovecraft and Cthulhu are now… mainstream!

But how did this happen? Why did this happen? Well, that, my dear reader, is what we are here to discuss.

“I am Providence, & Providence is myself…”

Letter from H. P. Lovecraft to James Ferdinand Morton, 1926

Humble Beginnings

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 to Winfield Scott Lovecraft and Sarah Susan Lovecraft that August in Providence, Rhode Island and is most known for creating the Cthulhu Mythos (more on that later). There has been much written about his childhood and the troubled upbringing he endured from other, more well-known authors, and I shan’t go into too much detail about this. Lovecraft died aged 46 in 1937, and this affected his ideas, creativity and view of the world.

All of his writings, from At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Hound (1924), Herbert West-Reanimator (1922), The Dunwich Horror (1929), The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936) and The Call of Cthulhu (1928), require research and various books read that helped him to shape his contribution to the horror genre.

Lovecraft loved reading, and it was this love that inspired him. That love as well as the countless family tragedies that befell the family. Lovecraft’s biggest literary influence was Edgar Allan Poe, who Lovecraft called his own “God of fiction”. Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Oswald Spengler, Robert W. Chambers and Lord Dunsany also helped to influence his narrative and style of writing. For just like his influences, Lovecraft used archaic language and a style that was from a time before his. These helped him to take his nightmares, philosophical views and ideas about humanity and its place in the cosmos and imbue them with this pessimism and bleak outlook that we now know as Cosmic Horror.

This can be problematic for those new to him, but fear not! The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society has released audio dramas and the complete collection of his tales as audiobooks.

And it was from these dreams that his most well-known creation was born.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
(In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.)

The Call of Cthulhu”, 1926

Cthulhu Wakens

His most famous creation, The Great Dreamer known as Cthulhu, is the most iconic and recognizable creation to come from the Mythos was conceived back in 1919 from out of a dream Lovecraft had. He wrote it down in what he called his Commonplace Book, under the 25th entry:

“Man visits museum of antiquities—asks that it accept a bas-relief he has just made—old and learned curator laughs and says he cannot accept anything so modern. Man says that

‘dreams are older than brooding Egypt or the contemplative Sphinx or garden-girdled Babylonia’

and that he had fashioned the sculpture in his dreams. Curator bids him shew his product, and when he does so curator shews horror. Asks who the man may be. He tells modern name. “No—before that” says curator. Man does not remember except in dreams. Then curator offers high price, but man fears he means to destroy sculpture. Asks fabulous price—curator will consult directors.

Add good development and describe nature of bas-relief. [Cthulhu]”

Entry #25, H. P. Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book

From this seedling of an idea, Lovecraft would write the entire of The Call of Cthulhu. But where did the actual idea of Cthulhu come from? This has been debated among fans and scholars for many a year.

For example, Phillip A Schreffler in The Lovecraft Companion suggested Lord Tennyson’s “The Kraken” (1830) while Robert M. Price dismissed the idea in the introduction to The Cthulhu Cycle (1996), and suggested that the tentacled nature of Cthulhu owed something to M. R. Jame’s “Count Magnus” (1904), and further points out the similarities between Cthulhu as an aquatic giant in the last part of The Call of Cthulhu and the depiction of Dagon in Lovecraft’s Dagon (1917).

Like all creatives, Lovecraft took from various other influences, even himself. But there is another thought, S.T. Joshi, in his book An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, puts forth the idea that The Call of Cthulhu is a re-worked version of Dagon. He shows what the similarities between the stories are: unwitting seafarers end up on an island in the South Pacific where they encounter strange structures suggesting ancient and forgotten cultures. This before coming in close contact with a sea-beast god, after which they barely escape back to civilization where they worry that certain astronomy (“a waning gibbous moon” in Dagon, “aligned stars” in The Call of Cthulhu) will resurface the island and bring the monster/beast/deity to bear on humanity.

After writing The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft developed the idea further, putting Cthulhu as the leader of an extraterrestrial race of “Cthulhi/Cthulhu-spawn” in At the Mountains of Madness and a Great Priest and cousin to the Old Ones in The Dunwich Horror. You can read more about that in Price’s Cthulhu Elsewhere in Lovecraft in H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos.

There was a kind of intoxication in being lord of a visible world (albeit a miniature one) and determining the flow of its events.

Letter from H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 1933

The Mainstream

But the question remains, how did a pulp fiction author, who when he died was unknown except to his circle of friends and a few die-hard fans, and his mythos of otherworldly deities and existential dread become part of pop-culture and the mainstream?

Well, it begins with how people find out about Lovecraft and their first experiences. For J. C. Walsh author of Death Highway (2016) what got his attention originally was:

Tentacles and the amount of dread that something with so many moving appendages has that kind of an advantage. I have this crazy obsession with tentacles; I have the tattoos to prove it! Believe it or not, that obsession didn’t originally start with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It started with Peter Benchley’s The Beast and Brian Keene’s Earthworm Gods (originally The Conqueror of Worms when I first discovered the novel).  At the time I didn’t even know The Beast was a novel or that Peter Benchley wrote Jaws until the Television adaption of The Beast came out in the late 90s. Being a huge fan of Jaws growing up, I had to watch it. It was the giant squid version of Jaws and instilled a new fear of the ocean for me. Imagine being at the beach standing in the water ankle high and a giant squid could be out there, reaching with one of its slimy tentacles, slithering towards you and you wouldn’t even know it until it wraps around your ankle and you are pulled underwater. Pulled into its hungry mouth. When I started reading Lovecraft I enjoyed his earlier works before I dove into the Cthulhu Mythos, but I lost interest because his work was hard to read at times. When I read Earthworm Gods by Brian Keene and reached the second part of the novel that featured Cthulhu, I freaked out both in a good and bad way. I realised I was mad at myself for not continuing to read Lovecraft and was worried I was missing out. I immediately read Call of Cthulhu after finishing The Earthworm Gods, then I began devouring anything related to the Cthulhu Mythos. Reading Lovecraft’s Mythos brought back the feeling of dread of being pulled into the mouth of the squid from The Beast. Images like that relate to the terrors of  Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Just about every damn creature, whether in space, in the ocean, or stuck between worlds had tentacles. I find that terrifying. The man wrote about a Squid headed God in 1926. I really feel creating something like Cthulhu truly made him ahead of his time.

Which is a common tale for newer fans of Lovecraft. But then you have this tale from Andrew Leman, cofounder of The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society:

I had never heard of Lovecraft until I played Call of Cthulhu, the TTRPG by Chaosium that is based on his works. My high school friend Sean Branney invited me over to his house in the suburbs of Denver one night in 1984 along with some other friends and it was the most fun game I ever played. The scenario was The Fungi from Yuggoth by Keith Herber, and I still viscerally remember the thrill we had in exploring the catacombs under Baron Hauptman’s castle in our imaginations, and the creepy books we found in his library, and the bizarre alien monsters we learned about before it was all over. I was completely hooked by the imagination and the worlds of Lovecraft by that game, and it literally changed my life. There are lots of roleplaying games in which you might have fun exploring catacombs and reading creepy books, but one thing that makes Call of Cthulhu so compelling to me is that it is set in the real human world. It is not set in a fantasy realm, but in the real world with real historical context. Its monsters coexist with (occasionally monstrous) humans. You could encounter Charles Lindbergh or Harry Houdini or Al Capone just as easily as a ghoul or ghost or a Deep One. Lovecraft’s world is the 1920s and ‘30s, the same world that Indiana Jones lived in. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom were recent films when I was introduced to Lovecraft, and that absolutely was part of what made his world so exciting to my imagination. And while it’s the “real world”, it’s the real world of the past, not the one we currently live in, and that gives you some aesthetic distance which makes it both realistic and enjoyable.

This is part of the reason Lovecraft has endured for almost 100 years. As Andrew Leman says:

Lovecraft’s writing, for better and worse, came from his own deeply seated and sincere fears and ideas and beliefs. He was not just chasing the commercial trends of popular/pulp magazine fiction, but trying to express himself. His writing is based on an amazing level of thought and theory and historical background, so it rewards study and re-reading. His vocabulary and style are deliberate and challenging. You can’t consume it like popcorn: it’s a steak dinner. He often incorporated real events, real science and real books into his stories, which blurs the line between fiction and fact and leads to fascinating speculations. His stories are weird and unforgettable. And he fostered young writers in his own time and influenced generations who came after him. Even if you’ve never read Lovecraft’s work, you have read or seen something that was inspired by it.

Which brings us to part of the reason why lots of creatives are drawn to Lovecraft and the mythos. For J. C. Walsh it was:

Honestly, it was a beautiful accident when I noticed his ideas affected me as a creator. The first time I heard the term “Lovecraftian” was when I took a writing course at World Horror Convention in Toronto, 2007. I was teamed up with two other talented writers and we had to critique each other’s work.  I wrote a tale called Jessica’s Infidelity, which appears in my upcoming collection, and one of the writers who critiqued it wrote on the back of the first page, “The tone of this story is very Lovecraftian.” That was right around the time I started digging deep into Lovecraft’s mythos, so when I reread the story I found that the writer was right, Lovecraft’s tone of dread had somehow bled into my craft.  Before Lovecraft, I’ve always enjoyed a lot of dark fantasy, most of that came from being a fan of A Nightmare on Elm Street films and Hellraiser. A lot of stuff I wrote in my twenties was dark like that, but there was never any intention to try and tackle Lovecraft. Since that day at WHC 2007, those were the horror stories I wanted to continue to write about.

And we can see this in a lot of references from other shows and movies. South Park had the Great Old One devour Justin Bieber. Bloodborne, True Detective, Supernatural and even songs from Metallica all reference Cthulhu or some part of the mythos. Hot Topic sells t-shirts with both Lovecraft and his creation appearing on it. Not to mention the plushies and even a Funko of Cthulhu. It is hard to go anywhere and not see some reference to Lovecraft.

Part of the reason is, as Andrew Leman says:

I think Chaosium’s game and its sequels have played a huge role in mainstreaming Lovecraft, as have the movies of Stuart Gordon in particular. There are a number of rock musicians who have paid tribute, and more recently Cthulhu’s appearance on South Park has probably made an impact.

His partner in the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Sean Branney adds:

Lovecraft really entered popular culture back in the 80s when Chaosium released a role playing game based on his works: Call of Cthulhu®. That and the release of Stuart Gordon’s film Reanimator brought him out of obscurity and I think fan interest has snowballed from there. Nowadays I can go out wearing a Cthulhu t-shirt and people who may have never heard of Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu on sight.

But all of this isn’t to say that there is a problem with Lovecraft regarding his racism and misogyny, which is apparent once you read his work. There is this trend to either right the wrongs or re-write his work in a more ‘enlightened’ light. But why is this?

For J. C. Walsh it’s a matter of:

It’s important to address it. A reader can be a fan of Lovecraft’s work and recognize the importance of it, and not like who the man was. Thankfully, a lot of great writers have right the wrongs of Lovecraft’s racism and sexism by not only denouncing his beliefs, but have kept them out of their own work and successfully using his other themes of fears of the unknown to tell a damn good story.  Even writers of color are tackling Lovecraftian horrors and doing it in their own way.  As horror authors, it’s imbedded in us to address the darkness of who we are, the surrounding people, and the world and write about it. It’s only fitting to address the darkness of a man whose work has inspired so many.  I see this infatuation with Lovecraft similar to how we are with serial killers. We don’t like the crimes Ed Gein committed, but we sure as hell love the character inspired by him, the horror genre’s beloved Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  By taking Lovecraft’s themes and making them our own, we can repair the harm he’s done using his craft. We as a community can come together and make the Cthulhu Mythos better than they were before so that everyone can enjoy them.

And for Andrew Leman:

We absolutely need to battle racism, but no one needs to battle Lovecraft. He’s dead and cannot change. Lovecraft had some sadly limited and incorrect views about race, motivated — it would seem — by fear and entitlement and a sense of personal loss. For some people his racism is a deal breaker, and I don’t blame them. But I think it is more productive to confront it and learn from it. He was wrong, but he wasn’t stupid. Let’s not ignore him and let’s not let ourselves off the hook by saying he was a “product of his times”. Let’s enlist him in the battle against racism by confronting his well-documented views head on, examining them, and humbly trying to understand how a man who was otherwise brilliant and open-minded and imaginative could never see past his own prejudice in this area. Maybe we’ll learn something about ourselves. It doesn’t matter what Lovecraft thought about race: it matters what WE think. Racism isn’t only Lovecraft’s problem. It’s a curse that is very much with us today. It’s very hard to talk about (especially in a short interview answer!) and I know I have a lot to learn. I’m for more humility and less judgment, if possible.

And Sean Branney:

Nothing good comes from ignoring a problem. But I think people can see his beliefs for what they were and come to terms with them. You don’t have to like Lovecraft’s beliefs to enjoy his works any more than you like that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner to appreciate his contributions to the founding of this country. They aren’t mutually exclusive. By acknowledging the narrowness of HPL’s thinking, hopefully we can move further away from that kind of ideology and still find wonder and delight in his creativity.

The Lovecraft Community

Another reason for the mainstreaming of Lovecraft is the community that loves and enjoys him. Even when he was alive, Lovecraft fostered this small group of authors who he freely allowed to use the Mythos. These ‘allies’ included Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian & Solomon Kane) and Robert Bloch (Psycho).

After Lovecraft’s death, these authors continued to praise and use the Mythos in their own writings, slowly allowing more and more people to become involved and love Lovecraftian horror. From there groups like the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society were formed and now in the digital age of Facebook and Quora, there are groups for all aspects of and for the Lovecraft fan.

The Historical Society has produced movie adaptations of The Call of Cthulhu, The Whisperer in Darkness, a rock opera adaptation of Dreams In The Witch House and countless prop replicas, artwork and other items for the fan.

HPLHS’s The Call of Cthulhu Trailer

Go to their Facebook group and you’ll see thousands of like-minded individuals all coming together to enjoy and be part of the Lovecraft fandom and community. This is one of the chief reasons that Lovecraft has entered the mainstream more and more. There are more people talking about him and his works.

This brings us to what some are calling a ‘Lovecraftian Renaissance’.

Movies, Games & TV

2019 saw the release of Richard Stanley’s adaptation of Color out of Space starring one Nicolas Cage, and many people have touted it as the beginning of a Lovecraftian Cinematic Universe. The director is already planning a trilogy of movies based on Lovecraft’s works and when the movie was originally announced it shocked many with the casting of Nic Cage.

J. C. Walsh’s reaction to the casting and movie was:

I never thought I’d live to see the day we get to watch Nic Cage go crazy in a Lovecraftian film. Color Out of Space is a great adaptation and I can’t wait to see what Stanely does with Dunwich Horror, which is one of my favorite stories by Lovecraft. I don’t know if I’d consider it a Lovecraftian renaissance. But then again, maybe it is!  With Stanley pulling a Stuart Gordon (not a bad thing), planning on filming more Lovecraft adaptations, plus recent releases and upcoming horror films that use Lovecraftian themes or their own take on Cosmic horror, it’s almost as if we are preparing to face our own fears of the unknown. These films reflect our anxieties with the current situation, with the pandemic, what’s going on with society, and so many other events taking place in our lifetime.  We will definitely continue to see an explosion of Lovecraftian terrors unleashed, that’s for sure.

And as for your humble author, I absolutely loved the movie and cannot wait for the rest of Stanley’s Lovecraft adaptations. He captured the other-worldliness and dread of Lovecraft’s writings and honestly, for me, every Lovecraft adaptation needs to have Nic Cage in it or at least in a cameo.

Which brings us to the next big Lovecraft inspired work. HBO’s adpatation of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country.

Many are expecting the series to be a hit with Get Out’s Jordan Peele serving as a producer. From the looks of it, the series seems poised to correct a lot of the problems associated with Lovecraft’s own writings. Hopefully, it does this but also treats the source material and even Lovecraftian Horror with the respect it deserves.

Some of you will cry out, “It’s not an adaptation!” True, Lovecraft Country is not an adaptation of the man’s tales, but it is instead inspired and takes much from the Mythos. This is the great thing about Lovecraft and the fact that he had no problem with others adding or mixing the Mythos with their own ideas. For, as stated earlier in this editorial, all creatives take from each other, whether it is conscious or unconscious. And this is where games come into it.

Video games are leading the charge in becoming more cinematic and more of a competition for TV and movies. Bloodborne from FromSoftware is not an adaptation of Lovecraft but includes references and uses the themes and ideas that H. P. Lovecraft wrote about. There are countless videos explaining this perfectly.

Then you have games that are direct adaptations of Lovecraft. There are two games based on The Call of Cthulhu, 2018’s Call of Cthulhu from Cyanide and 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Both have their merits and faults, but they both capture the tale and the feeling of Cosmic Horror perfectly.

But, for me, one of the best examples of a game that shows exactly why Lovecraft and his special breed of horror have gone mainstream is 2019’s The Sinking City. All you need to do is watch the cinematic trailer (included here for your enjoyment) and all arguments are null and void.

As you can see, video games are the perfect medium for Lovecraft and the dark and terrible nasties he created. Just check out this list from thegamer.com. Many of the Lovecraftian games coming out are from independent studios and creators. There is just something about Cthulhu, Dagon, Azathoth and the rest of the deities and monsters that breeds creativity and inspiration.

For example, check out our recent interview with the creator of the upcoming game The Shore: https://phasrmedia.com/the-shore-an-interview-with-aris-dragonis/

The Future is Dark and Full of Eldritch Horrors

So, what does the future hold for H. P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu and the rest of his creations? It’s hard to tell, but for the HPLHS, both Sean and Andrew think:

With the imminent release of Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country series on HBO, it seems quite possible that HPL will be even more well-known (and/or notorious) in the near future. I won’t be surprised if it results in a complicated conversation, but I hope that HPLHS can be a productive part of it.

Andrew Leman, H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society

I think at the moment his star is ascendant and he seems to be winning over new fans all the time. He’s a challenging figure and his works are challenging, but there seems to be something in them which speaks to the modern world more loudly and clearly than it spoke to readers in his own age. I’d say in times like the present, humankind does indeed feel very small and insignificant, as it’s being buffeted about by unseen forces that are both indifferent to us and capable of our destruction.

Sean Branney, H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown

H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, November 1925 to May 1927

A massive thanks to J. C. Walsh, Andrew Leman and Sean Branney for taking the time to be interviewed and give their thoughts on this subject.

You can find them at:

H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society: https://www.hplhs.org/about.php
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/HPLHS

J. C. Walsh: jcwriter.wordpress.com
Twitter: twitter.com/jcwhorrorwriter

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