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Filming the Unfilmable: The Fiction and Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft (Part One)

“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

The above quotation is the first line in H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. It is also the driving force behind much of his fiction. With the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft is the most important writer of horror and science fiction. He worked mostly with short stories, dabbled in poetry, and produced the occasional novella. In his work he has created a vast interweaving of evils that spans universes and centuries. He wrote of rustic New England towns harboring horrible secrets in the most earthbound of places, as in “The Dunwich Horror”, and of cosmic evils totally off the scale of human comprehension, as in “At the Mountains of Madness”. As diverse as these tales are, he somehow managed to tie them all together with the creation of perhaps his most significant achievement, the “Cthulu Mythos”. Lovecraft was a cynical, misanthropic man and these traits fueled much of his work. Understanding the man himself provides insight to a great many of his stories: the paranoia that fueled tales such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and the misanthropy that allowed humans to become the failed and abandoned experiments of far superior ancient races in so many of his works. In addition to these manifestations of Lovecraft’s personality, his own literary theory was in practice, resulting in reoccurring themes that can be traced throughout much of his fiction.

The man himself.

Two prime examples of the various aspects of Lovecraft’s work are the short stories “The Colour out of Space” and “The Dunwich Horror”. Both are loaded with Lovecraft’s personal philosophies, literary theories, and trademark atmospheric horror. They have much in common, both being set in New England and dealing with families estranged by their communities. A third story of Lovecraft’s, “Herbert West: Reanimator” is unique in that it follows none of the author’s usual themes and patterns. Despite being an anomaly among Lovecraft’s work, “Herbert West: Reanimator” is related to “The Colour out of Space” and “The Dunwich Horror” in that all three have had films based on them, films that are representative of the range of cinema adaptations of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft adaptations are a mixed lot: some are closely linked with a source text, others take extreme liberties, and some are completely unrelated but carry the disclaimer of “inspired by”. The one thing that they all seem to have in common is that they’re not very good. There has never been a Lovecraft blockbuster, and most have simply sunk into obscurity. It seems the best that these films can hope for is a dubious cult legacy among connoisseurs of genre films. In addition to not being very good films, those that attempt to recreate a specific work usually fail miserably.

By looking at these three stories and their respective screen adaptations, one can see why Lovecraft’s works are difficult to turn into films. In 1965 “The Colour Out of Space” was turned into a largely ineffective schlock piece titled Die Monster Die!. Five years later “The Dunwich Horror” was made into a film of the same name which maintains the integrity of the source material to a certain extent. It is the new angles invented by the filmmakers that ultimately change the story into something entirely different from Lovecraft’s original vision. “Herbert West: Reanimator” was filmed in 1985; the movie is titled simply Reanimator. Although the story is updated into the 1980s and radically altered, it succeeds in capturing the spirit of the original story. The major tenets of Lovecraft’s literary theory are essentially unfilmable, and therefore damn his cinema to a legacy of failed aspirations.

“... in many respects the existence led by this great loner, this pitiable paranoiac ... was compelled ... to live in an era in which he manifestly had no business.” - Maurice Levy, Lovecraft scholar.

In the introduction to his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, H.P. Lovecraft essentially outlined his own literary theory. Many remarks he makes are easily picked up in his writing. A true “weird tale” (as he was fond of calling his work) “has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”. He continues, saying that “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present” (Lovecraft 2). This is evident in almost all of his fiction, from seminal works such as “The Outsider” to more complex, fully realized stories such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. The outer forces certainly dominate in “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Dunwich Horror”.

The most telling comment in this essay is “Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is ... the creation of a given sensation” (Lovecraft 2). In “Colour”, it could even be said that the atmosphere is the source of the horror. It is a rare story of Lovecraft’s in which atmosphere does not dominate action, and those that do rely on action are usually regarded as subpar. A case in point is “Herbert West: Reanimator”, universally derided by critics and by Lovecraft himself.

Herbert West, Medical Deviate.

The examples of H.P. Lovecraft’s biographical material manifesting itself in his fiction are many and varied. There are characters who share personality traits with their creator, and there are stories that are deeply influenced by Lovecraft’s own personal tendencies. Most of Lovecraft’s feelings of alienation stem from his antiquarianism which caused him to feel uncomfortable in his own era. This particular trait can be seen in many of Lovecraft’s characters, most notably the young Charles Dexter Ward who is described as “an antiquarian from birth”. A touch of Lovecraft’s extensive letter writing can be seen in Wilbur Whateley engaging himself in epistolary discussions with far-off librarians about ancient arcana.

Lovecraft’s personal feelings of misanthropy and isolation constantly reflect in his works, almost all of which feature people and / or locales that are isolated. His stay in New York resulted in stories featuring characters that retreat from horrors in New York to the safety of Rhode Island towns. Lovecraft’s fiction has been critically characterized as “almost pathological in its use of characters alienated from normal human society” (Dziemianowicz 160). In “Colour” and “Dunwich”, both locales are described as being isolated. The opening description of Arkham paints it as being both naturally secluded (deep woods that no axe has ever cut) and associated with the “outsideness” (not good for the imagination) that infects the human mind (Dziemianowicz 177). Forks in roads are not usually denoted with “right” and “wrong”, but Lovecraft’s directions to Dunwich include taking the “wrong” fork in the road. By making the town essentially a mistake, Lovecraft isolates it from the rest of the world in its unnaturalness.

Both families in these towns are also isolated. The Gardners are isolated in that their farm lies on the outskirts of Arkham, and they eventually become shut off from the townspeople as they deteriorate further and further into the unknown. What begins as simple gossip, blaming the bad fruit on “poison in Nahum’s ground”, grows into general shunning of the Gardners: “something was wrong with all of Nahum’s folks”. The Whateleys of Dunwich are shunned throughout the story for their reputation for black magic and physical strangeness. Lavinia is a “somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman” and her spawn Wilbur is a “dark, goatish infant”. As Lovecraft scholar Donald Burleson points out, the name Whateley contains the question “What?”, and it is unclear exactly how human this bizarre family is (Burleson 131). They, like the Gardners, live in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town, but their physical isolation has nothing to do with farming.

“You see man as a rather dismal creature.” - Ed Begley in The Dunwich Horror

Upon submitting “The Colour Out of Space” to the seminal pulp magazine Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote to the editor; “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large” (Dziemianowicz 178). This theme is certainly at work in “Colour”, as the Gardners are helpless as the strange force of the meteor from space has its way with them. “The Dunwich Horror” touches upon this theme; it is the forces of the “cosmos-at-large” that the Whateleys seek to awaken. Human beings at the mercy of these strange forces can be tied to a common theme in Lovecraft, that of denied primacy. This theme, another which arises from Lovecraft’s personal cynicism, is described by Donald Burleson as “the theme that as human beings on this planet we were not first, will not be last, and have never really been foremost” (Burleson 136).

A passage from Lovecraft’s mythical tome, the Necronomicon sums up this idea: “man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now”. The capitalized “They” are the race of superior beings of alien origin that have been referred to as the Other / Elder / Outer Gods or Ones, creatures with horrible names such as Cthulu, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath. These creatures figure largely in much of Lovecraft’s fiction, but do not dominate in the stories examined here. They drive the narrative of “The Dunwich Horror” but only make a short appearance. They do not appear in “The Colour Out of Space”, but the presence of a Necronomicon-esque book in Die Monster Die! implicates them.

Boris Karloff in Die Monster Die! (pic from The Bad Movie Report).

Another aspect of Lovecraft’s personal makeup that is instrumental in understanding his fiction is his love of his native New England. In a letter to a friend he proclaimed, “How compleatly, O Mater Novanglia, am I moulded of thy venerable flesh and as one with thy century’d soul!” (Eckhardt 78). It is Lovecraft’s fervent love of New England that has garnered him his not quite deserved reputation as a shut-in; he lived in New York for a short while and his largest work was a travelogue describing the city of Quebec (Joshi 35). Most of the settings, both fictional and actual, that Lovecraft favored were in New England. Of his use of these settings Lovecraft said that his New England was “a dream New England - the familiar scene with certain lights and shadows heightened ... just enough to merge it with things beyond the world” (Eckhardt 80).

Two of Lovecraft’s favorite fictional settings were the town of Arkham and its institution of higher learning, Miskatonic University. Both make their first appearance in “Herbert West: Reanimator” (Shreffler 75). Arkham is also the setting of “The Colour Out of Space”. The town of Dunwich is an amalgam of several sites around New England most closely resembling the hilly regions southeast of Springfield, Massachusetts. Its stone structures are similar to those found at Mystery Hill in southern New Hampshire. The mysterious Devil’s Hop Yard is modeled after a state park in Connecticut that is actually called Devil’s Hop Yard State Park (Shreffler 59-62).

The Devil's Hop Yard from The Dunwich Horror.

Lovecraft borrowed not only the landscapes of New England, but also aspects of New Englander behavior. For example, both “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Dunwich Horror” make extensive use of New England dialects (Eckhardt 94). Nahum Gardner’s final words are nearly incomprehensible: “... ye know summat’s comin’ but tain’t no use ... I seen it time an’ agin senct Zenas was took ... whar’s Nabby, Ammi? ... it’ll get her ef we ain’t keerful ...”. Also evident in certain works of Lovecraft’s is the New Englander’s sense of cautiousness, an inheritance from Puritan forebears (Eckhardt 84). This is evident in how quickly the Gardners of Arkham are shunned, and in the degenerate families of Dunwich.

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