Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

New Documentary on the Master of Horror

By David Luhrssen
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A small circle of admirers mourned H.P. Lovecraft’s death in 1937, many of them pulp fiction writers familiar with his stories from horror and science fiction magazines. Seventy years later he was recognized as one of the 20th century’s most important authors, honored by inclusion in the Library of America series and recognized for opening new paths in weird fiction by everyone from Jorge Luis Borges to Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King. The film Alien would have been unthinkable without his enduring influence. Even Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean resembled one of Lovecraft’s fishy monsters.

Although no one has succeeded in transforming Lovecraft’s fiction into a great film, the producers of Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown have made a first-rate documentary. Based largely on interviews with film directors Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter and authors such as Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub, and making good use of archival photos, Fear of the Unknown follows Lovecraft’s life and fiction through a difficult childhood, a lonely adulthood, an unsuccessful marriage and an early death.

The scion of decayed New England gentry, Lovecraft educated himself from an enormous inherited library. Paradoxically, he was an antiquarian who grasped the implications of the most advanced science, imagining parallel dimensions, non-Euclidean geometry and a universe vaster than human comprehension. Lovecraft may well have found modernity inhospitable to a man of his tastes, magnifying his social anxiety to a cosmic scale. If so, it resulted in a brilliant transmutation. The recurring theme in much of Lovecraft concerned entities with names unpronounceable by human tongues, alien and incomprehensible, lurking malignly beneath the surface of our reality, waiting for some alignment or catastrophe that would allow them to regain their sovereignty over our world.

As the talking heads in Fear of the Unknown agree, Lovecraft’s baroque language was capable of registering the strangeness and enormity of a universe that might contain colors that aren’t colors and creatures that are neither physical nor immaterial. In his writing, he expressed the fear that human knowledge could open forbidden doors, triggering the destruction of the Earth as we know it. As a metaphor, his concern continues to resonate past the origins of the atom bomb and into the age of genetic engineering. Perhaps the most unsettling implication of Lovecraft’s writing was that the monsters and their minions might be living among us.

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