Most readers and publishers consider horror stories as part of popular fiction, together with romantic novels, science fictions, and all possible shades of grey. Yet there are some authors of horror novels that received a wider acclaim. One is Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories are much more than just horror tales: in some of them it his hard to tell what happens inside the characters’ mind from what takes place outside, while others can be considered the start for detective fiction in general and Sherlock Holmes saga in particular. A second one is Stephen King, whose books inspired many Hollywood directors to make good, great, or just average movies.
The third most famous writer of horror fiction is probably Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I cannot tell any of his stories that was turned into a brillant movie. On the other hand, the atmosphere from his works has been an incredible source of inspiration for novelists, directors, and even game developers. This is because the imaginary worlds he created are more uniform, hence more easily recognizable, than those by Poe or King: little shady towns hidden in the woods of New England; forbidden books whose readers are driven mad; heinous gods…
“…of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”
[H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulu, 1928]
On the other hand, it is hard to find any relevance in Lovecraft – and any interest in his work – other than the “atmosphere” mentioned above. So readers that are not fascinated by horror fiction tend to simply skip him.
His 1929 short story The Silver Key is somehow an exception. On top of being a classical Lovecraftian tale – with mysterious events happening in a baroque style – it is a manifesto for his whole life of daydreamer. The main character of the story is Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s alter ego who appears in several other stories. In which we find out that Carter has a number of supernatural experiences, many of them connected to his ability to travel in his dreams to a fictitious world. But something changes in The Silver Key:
“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. “
Something must have happened for him to lose his ability to dream of enchanted worlds. We find out what in the next paragraphs.
“He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away. […] Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish. […] They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world.”
People around him despise his ability, and force him to connect himself and give importance to real life.
“So Carter had tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies of rare and delicate souls. He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony, which he dimly remembered from his dreams; and under their guidance he cultivated a painstaking sense of pity and tragedy.”
But you cannot be forced to love something you despise, hence Carter quickly loses interest in real life.
“Amidst this chaos of hollowness and unrest Carter tried to live as befitted a man of keen thought and good heritage. […] He walked impassive through the cities of men, and sighed because no vista seemed fully real; […]. Travel was only a mockery; and even the Great War stirred him but little, though he served from the first in the Foreign Legion of France. […] Having perceived at last the hollowness and futility of real things, Carter spent his days in retirement, and in wistful disjointed memories of his dream-filled youth.”
After a series of Lovecraftish events (including: dreaming of long time dead ancestors, night walks in scary woods, and the mysterious Silver Key from the title), Carter disappears, probably having left to the dream world “wise people” wanted to bring him away from.
“Carter’s relatives talk much of these things because he has lately disappeared. […] There is talk of apportioning Randolph Carter’s estate among his heirs, but I shall stand firmly against this course because I do not believe he is dead. […] It is rumoured in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular labyrinths.”
As said above, the whole story can be seen as a manifesto for the life Lovecraft chose for himself. A life that he spent almost entirely in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was seldom seen outside his house and died in poverty, having never really found a real job. Nothing was more important to him that his fantasies, and the stories he could get from those. Sufferings and hopes of average people do not interest him: those that matter are only “rare and delicate souls“. Bored by real life and confused by hard sciences, he claims the right of dedicating his whole life to daydreaming.
“There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has merely found a way to traverse these mazes. “
Everybody who is strongly passionate about his job – let it be literature, science, or anything else – has to fight with the same demon Carter finally succumbed to. But Lovecraft’s manifesto concerns a much wider public: it applies to anyone who gives up a reality he/she despises or simply cannot understand. Lovecraft’s answer to this feeling may be dangerous; it is for sure dangerous for our society. But his merit lies in having been able to put all this into words, reaching out far more people than any of his other works.