Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft died in poverty in 1937, mostly unknown and treated with derision by the reputable literary world, to the degree that it acknowledged him at all. But over time, he found increasing cult popularity—his works have been filmed at least 40 times—and a more grudging but genuine critical acceptance. The new Lovecraft anthology Lovecraft: Tales, part of the prestigious Library Of America series, is the clearest indication yet of his rising reputation, and a victory both for Lovecraft and for the often-disrespected genres he worked in. Edited by Ghost Story author Peter Straub, Tales collects 20 of Lovecraft's best stories, including "The Call Of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," and "Herbert West—Re-Animator."
Lovecraft's life was nearly as strange as some of his fictional creations. He was born the scion of a genteel, down-on-its luck New England family, but both his parents were institutionalized and he suffered three nervous collapses before he was 18. He remained sickly throughout his life, and suffered an unusual condition called poikilothermy which made him almost literally cold-blooded. He worked as an amateur journalist and astronomy columnist, but his heart was in the science-fiction-tinged horror he wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s, most notably Weird Tales.
Building on the poetically atmospheric style of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, Lovecraft spun macabre yarns about bloodthirsty cults, horrid multidimensional monsters, and scholars seeking Things Which Man Was Not Meant To Know. Underneath his sometimes-cartoonish plots, however, lurked a more potent and thoroughly modernist terror—the creeping feeling that humanity's place in the universe was insignificant at best.
Lovecraft certainly had his weaknesses as a writer and a human being. Especially in his early works, his prose could be ludicrously florid. Worse, his racist views too often infiltrated his fiction—though it's also true that he married a Jewish woman, and changed his opinions radically in later life. But whatever his defects, the power of his imagination can't be discounted. His work still has the power to induce nightmares. And he's also capable of some terrific writing, as with this delightfully morbid opening sentence: "It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer."
Tales' chronological arrangement makes it easy to appreciate Lovecraft's growth as a writer, as well as the ongoing elaboration on his recurring "Cthulhu mythos," which centered on shared elements such as the squid-headed beast-god Cthulhu, and the black-magic tome called the Necronomicon. Lovecraft encouraged other writers to expand on his ideas, which was probably instrumental in keeping his own work from being forgotten; the mythos still thrives in the hands of modern authors.
Lovecraft stands now as an elder statesman of the horror story, with an enormous influence on continuing generations—his eldritch shadow looms over Stephen King's books, the Alien films, the Hellboy comic book, and hundreds of others. In a way, like many of his graveyard-haunting characters, he's found a way to come back from the dead.