My mom gave me a Sunday edition of The Boston Globe back in the late 80’s that had an article about H.P. Lovecraft in it. I’d never heard of him at that point, even though I’d seen a few yellowed paperbacks on our bookshelves around the house. Upon reading the article, I immediately scoured those shelves again and pulled out those yellowed pulps, this time devouring the eldritch horrors of Innsmouth, Charles Dexter Ward, Miskatonic University and Cthulhu. I was completely swept away by the utter hopelesness of his world, a place where people who dare to look deeper, behind the veil, found only unspeakable horror and madness. His prose is a little tough to process at times and at other times, impenetrably dense and dry but the imagination at work is unlike anyone else. Lovecraft is easily one of the most important horror authors of all time, not that that is any kind of grand revelation, this is a widely accepted belief.
I chose Lovecraft as the topic of a paper I wrote in seventh grade and if my teacher hadn’t already thought I was freaking insane, this was the final nail in the coffin. From a young age, I had learned just about everything there was to know about the guy so watching a documentary like Fear Of The Unknown didn’t exactly provide me with any new insight but it is a fairly deep examination of all things Lovecraft that dedicated Cthulhu cultists and casual readers alike can appreciate.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, to put it lightly, was a complicated dude. Raised in the face of declining Victorian attitudes about everything and living with the constantly lurking spectre of mental illness, Lovecraft’s entire world-view was colored by a constant feeling of inescapable doom. Couple that with a fascination with astronomy that gave him insight into the actual role of mankind on a cosmic scale and it’s no wonder that his characters were constantly going crazy when they discovered the true forces at work in the universe. Through interviews with John Carpenter, author Caitlin R. Kiernan, Guillermo Del Toro and Neil Gaiman, to name but a few, we gain insight into the mind of Lovecraft, himself, as well as the impact on culture that his work left behind.
On the topic of Lovecraft, Fear of the Unknown isn’t saying anything new. There is no shortage of Lovecraft documentaries out there but what makes this one such a worthwhile entry is that it is presented to you from the mouths of people whose own work was heavily influenced by the Lovecraft Mythos. If anyone is going to understand Lovecraft, it’s going to be someone like Stuart Gordon, featured herein, whose career is best defined by a series of wildly divergent but entertaining Lovecraft adaptations that maintain the fundamentals of Lovecraft’s original stories.
Among the greater discussion, to illustrate the story and add context are images and illustrations from the pulps and journals that published Lovecraft’s work and the patchwork story of his life told by just about everyone involved. When they’re not explaining the details of his life, they’re analyzing the stories and how the era in which they were written influenced the outcome. Also, for once, this is a biographical document that takes on Lovecraft’s outspoken racism without glossing over it or apologizing for it. Though, it’s easily the worst part of Lovecraft’s legacy, it’s also a large part of the fuel for his fear. Throughout his lifetime, many people shared his outspoken opinions about anyone not white anglo saxon. It’s a shame, really. Because naming a cat Niggerman or being “jostled by a nautical-looking negro” are not important parts of his stories. Rather, they always seemed like petty and cowardly digs. Thankfully, this aspect of his life, an easy target for his critics, is not dwelled upon. Since we’re trying to see the most detailed picture of his life in Fear of the Unknown, it’s important that this portion of Lovecraft is not ignored.
Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown isn’t a particularly remarkable documentary, as there are many on the topic, but it stands out because of a killer line-up of authors, biographers and filmmakers that not only know what they’re talking about, but can speak on the topic of Lovecraft at length and in an engaging manner while providing insight into Lovecraft’s own influence on them. It adds context that most other Lovecraftian documentaries lack. Being a fan of Lovecraft helps out a lot and it certainly made me want to break out that musty old Del Rey paperback collection of his short stories but Fear of the Unknown is also a great introduction to those who may be unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft. It’s definitely one of the better docs out there, a solid biography of one of horror’s finest most important minds.