H. P. Lovecraft’s Grotesque Penguins

Cthulhu_sketch_by_LovecraftH. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, sketched 1934.

At CONduit in May, I had the opportunity to contribute to a panel discussion about the influence of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories on modern fiction and culture. Both the man and his work make excellent fodder for a variety of interesting topics, from historical and literary racism; to an ideological shift of exploring fear through a secular or scientific, rather than supernatural, lens; to phobias and mental illness; to video game and movie industry trends.

For those who may not be familiar, Howard Philips Lovecraft is regarded today as one of the most influential American pulp horror authors of the 20th century, though his stories were little known during his lifetime. Lovecraftian horror is widely considered a subgenre of its own. It is often characterized by fear of or influences from unknown, outside forces; aliens as oppressive gods or apathetic invaders; people losing their minds and their physiological humanity as they turn on each other; and cephalopodic terror (i.e., monsters sporting tentacles). The movie Alien; the TV show Stargate SG1; a variety of games like Call of Cthulhu (video/computer); and, some might argue, even documentaries with interesting individuals who claim that aliens are responsible for our advanced technology, among other things, all have drawn influence to some degree or other from concepts in Lovecraftian fiction.

Lovecraft’s writing is dense and intricate, relying on a sense of mounting dread and vague descriptive qualifiers without as much in the way of plot and mechanical details to escalate tension. Thanks again to good old Audible, I’ve listened to a number of his best-known stories. What fascinates me most is the author’s depth and vulnerability in laying bare a lot of personal anxieties and phobias in his fiction. Both of his parents eventually died in a mental hospital, and he seemed to harbor a deep dread of losing his mind to forces beyond his control, which is a major theme in his stories. His fiction also betrays an obvious disgust for just about anything associated with the sea, be it fishy, scaly, slick, clawed, winged, or tentacled. In At the Mountains of Madness, his characters even describe the penguins they encounter as “grotesque.” Further still, the malevolent Night Gaunts in a poem he wrote by the same name, presumably inspired by imaginary figures he perceived in his own night terrors, are afraid of flying over water.

As someone interested in the psychology of writing horror, I find both the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and his life story fascinating. To learn more about the author, this Wikipedia article isn’t a bad place to start (They even include references to biographies for further digging): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._P._Lovecraft.

If you’re new to Lovecraft’s fiction, I also recommend reading Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and Shadow over Innsmouth for starters. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are widely available in all media forms, and may even be found fully narrated and posted by loving fans and audiobook pirates alike on Youtube. Don’t feed the pirates…but do check out this classic horror author! If you choose to listen, get a text copy and read along with the narrator or separately if you can. The prose is a different experience in different formats.

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association.
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