24 Aug

From Providence it came! Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown.

Posted by Bryan White | Monday August 24, 2009 | Reviews

lovecraft fear of the unknown reviewMy 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.

10 Comments 

  1. August 25, 2009 2:03 pm

    Kiarna

    Another HPL fan and I have discussed the racism quite a bit. It’s uncomfortably structured into the fear hierarchy of Otherness HPL and his contemporaries, like Robert E. Howard, are sourcing. On one hand it’s abhorrent and makes it difficult to recommend the work without some sort of disclaimer. On the other it is a function of the genre to roll up one’s sleeves and get into the ugliness of our primal terrors. For me as a contemporary reader part of that ugliness is the fear of other humans and the warped lens through which they are judged as subhuman. It adds a layer of repugnance I doubt was intended by the author but it can work within the framework.

    The text of Reanimator (http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/reanimator.htm) reveals some particularly revolting use of racial stereotypes. I’d encourage readers not to dismiss these comments but to incorporate them and to mindfully parse the horror of a mind that sees other humans this way. It’s fucked up.

    My goal is not to excuse the racism in HPL’s work or hand wave it away as merely as an artifact of a distant age. We live with it every day and it is truly horrifying.

  2. August 25, 2009 2:54 pm

    Bill

    HP is one of the top 5 best horror writers ever and to be honest, easily one of the best authors ever simply because of the breadth of his writings. He is extremely literate and has that definite knack for writing that allows images of the world he creates to creep into your mind allowing you to visualize what is happening and he actually gives real world emotions such as dred or despair.

    I was always paticullary fascinated with the fact all of his stories Ive read all seem to be within some alternate earth, even if they are completely unconnected at different points in time and in different regions of the world I always felt they were still within this world he has created as they have a sense of familliarity in them. His world he created is like our earth we know only with this black veil draped over it full of wonder, madness, magic and evil. I love the fact everything he does has this touch of the the cthulhu mythos behind it, even things not involving cthulhu directly still have this feeling of it there as if it influences all the dark deeds in his stories.

    The only sad thing about HP is that I came upon him to late in my life as when it comes to reading I love to very much but I am extremely slow going at it and I am very picky. It requires the right amounts of every variable for me to be sucked into a book and truly enjoy it. Id always been aware of his name but I never really sat down to read his work till last year and after the 3rd story in the book I was hooked. Even despite the hours it took me to get a feel for his wording and descriptions I still didnt want to stop reading.

    And for anyone who read the previous comment on racism, disregard it honestly. I never really personally considered anything in any of his books racist and alot of it is there if the reader wishes to see it and nothing more. His books are purely horror and fiction any offending type of remarks are there purely for the sake of the story and characters. Because lets be honest if you read a book or see a movie and you dont like a character in it or are offended by the character then their job has been served quite well because they gotten a real life emotional response from you. Far to many people set out to find offensive things to bark at in our world and not differentiate between something that is blatantly offensive just for the sake of being so and whats offensive because its part of that character or part of that story. Because trust me when I say this, if HP.L was black the statement you read previously would not be there and no mention of racism would have ever been used in the negative. Thats whats called reverse racism. So if you read the story and dont like it thats fine, but dont read it and dislike it just because of some supposed racial stuff in there because thats very very petty.

  3. August 26, 2009 1:31 am

    John Eno

    Excellent deployment of circular logic, Bill. “If you read racism in a text it’s because you were looking for racism in the text; therefore, this text isn’t racist, because I didn’t read any racism in it.”

    Amusingly, I happen to know that Kiarna is a huge HPL fan. Her point isn’t that she dislikes his texts or that you shouldn’t like his texts, just that you should be mindful of the racism in them. Obviously, you aren’t, but it’s kind of amazing to me that you can read something like “The Late Arthur Jerymn and His Family” and fail to perceive the completely unsubtle subtext therein.

  4. September 6, 2009 1:36 pm

    JP Ward

    There’s actually an entry on “Nigger-Man” in The Lovecraft Lexicon. “Since this cat’s name raises more eyebrows today than it does laughter, it should be noted that at the time – the year 1923 – most of the American reading public would have thought it an unexceptional name for a black cat; some large percentage of the same reading public would have thought it an unexceptional thing to call a black man. The only pet that HPL ever owned really *WAS* a black cat called “Nigger-Man”… praised this cat as ‘one of the most fascinating and understanding creatures I’ve ever seen…'” (Pgs 300-301, New Falcon Press 2005).

    I wish more people would take into account that Lovecraft expressed his views in the sanctity of *private correspondence*, he wasn’t a race baiter or propagandist (like, for instance, the very public Henry Ford). It must be considered that most of the negative things you know about Lovecraft are because of the posthumous publication of that which he wrote in *privacy*. You would hate *ALL* your favorite artists if the bulk of their private correspondences were made public.

    One final note: yes, the “negroes” described in a few of his tales are quite unflattering… but so are most of the inbred white Yankees that populate the backwoods of Dunwich. Lovecraft feared his own genetics just as much as the foreigners. Genetics & sexuality are very complicated themes in his work that can’t be dismissed by the mere tag of “racist”.

  5. October 17, 2009 9:55 am

    This Week in Lovecraftian News | The Contrarian

    [...] here’s the trailer for the-released documentary, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. Look — it’s our pal Guillermo del Toro! (I haven’t seen this flick yet, but [...]

  6. January 25, 2010 1:55 am

    Ed Rogers

    Very interesting comments. I have been reading Lovecraft for over 60 years and must say, I had not really noticed much, if any, racism in his works. Perhaps I attributed it to a character(s) in his stories, or just considered it a product of the times. I believe he died in 1937, or thereabouts. Some folks spoke of many documentaries, but this was the first one I had heard of. I would like to know the titles of others. It was also of interest to me to know that he revised, or ghost wrote a number of works for others. I would hope that everyone would carefully read what he or she has written, as some comments needed proofreading or spell checking.

  7. March 18, 2010 1:36 am

    Dimitri

    There are just one point to say about the Lovecraft’s racism: in that years this were normal for almost all people. Don’t try it to consider his point up today. Great writer.

  8. March 18, 2010 8:15 am

    Bryan White

    That really is the point that a lot of the writers in the documentary try to make. Lovecraft was a product of his time. Other pulp writers at the time like his friend Robert E. Howard were the same way. In the modern context it’s shocking but it doesn’t have a lot of weight. It’s just there.

  9. July 22, 2010 5:08 am

    Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, on DVD « TENTACLII :: an occasional Lovecraft blog

    [...] are reviews at: Dread Central | Cinema Suicide | Scott Kenemore | Fatally [...]

  10. June 29, 2013 3:57 am

    t smith

    the comments here show some unfamiliarity with the man and his writings… his wife remarked how livid and on the verge or rage while in crowds of black people in new york. he did in fact keep his racism mostly in his writings as best we know, but he was far from normal as the time goes… we aren’t talking the 17- or 1820s here this was the 1920s and far from the deep south. for an eye-opener google the poem he wrote with the line “…and called it a nigger,” about gods creation of the lowest form of life.

    as for his writing, i’m a huge fan but he wasn’t exactly a great writer. original and a great stylist though, yeah i enjoy it very much.

    probably the only racist i’d want to share a conversation with, and of course he’d have nothing to do with me. a horrid person to meet if you weren’t white and very educated.


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