Today, for a change of pace, I thought I’d talk about some recent—and weird—references to H. P. Lovecraft in the news. Let’s begin with Escape from Zombie Earth, Scotty Richards’s comic book mini-series inspired by Lovecraft and set in an Arkham, Massachusetts overrun with the undead. According to Kalkion writer Patrick Dooley, the comic took its inspiration from “one of the first zombie stories ever written, H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Re-animator.”
Now that’s an interesting assertion. In the six-part serial, which ran in Home Brew in 1922, medical student Herbert West develops a serum whereby he can chemically reanimate corpses, and these corpses become violent and eventually kill their resurrection artist. The great horror anthologist Stephen Jones considers the story an early specimen of zombie fiction, including it as an exhibit in the Mammoth Book of Zombies. Kevin Boon, writing in Better Off Dead, says that Herbert West makes the first link between zombies and cannibalism, and Marcus F. Griffin, writing in All About Zombies, called the story “the first known work of fiction to feature zombies that bear semblance to their modern-day counterparts.” I’m not sure how much we can agree with that, since the “zombies” of Herbert West cannot reproduce through biting, and they do not spontaneously generate. The idea that the ravenous dead feed on humans can be traced from vampires and ghouls back at least to the Greek Heroes, who took sustenance from blood sacrifices, which the Greeks believed were originally human before the substitution of animals.
The idea of a risen corpse was not particularly unusual, certainly not for a horror writer as well-read as Lovecraft. For example, the 1902 horror story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs contains the gruesome suggestion that the rotted corpse of the protagonists’ son has shambled its way home. Poe, too, has a sort of precedent in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” where a corpse is hypnotically preserved in living death. Lovecraft, in Supernatural Horror in Literature, writes of risen corpse stories dating back to Classical times, particularly the “Philinnion and Machates” tale (also known as the “Bride of Corinth”) given by Proclus in his commentary on Plato. Lovecraft cites, too, the animated corpse from The Monk, and that of Poe’s “Ligeia,” and similar tales.
But the closest precedent is of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which shares many similarities with Herbert West. Both feature young students who engage in unhallowed art and who bring the dead back to life. Both protagonists use science for their unholy ends, and both are pursued and suffer death at the hands of their vengeful creations, who hate them. The “cannibal things” the West undead do are amplifications of the Frankenstein Monster’s murderous rampages, just as the multiple undead in West amplify the one and a half undead Victor creates in Shelley’s novel.
S. T. Joshi refuses to see an influence from Frankenstein on Herbert West, and he on at least five occasions (reprinting the same text in different volumes) writes that the two cannot be related except through “the most general influence” because the Creature was a patchwork of corpses while West reanimates whole bodies. Being different, they therefore cannot be related. This is ridiculous. In 1825, a Gothic chapbook knockoff of Frankenstein called “Monster Made by Man; or, the Punishment of Presumption” involved scientist Ernest Wahlberg injecting a chemical elixir into a clay sculpture of a man and bringing the monster to life. Not only did it replicate the content of Frankenstein (though reversing the central tension of the novel by making Ernest love and accept his monster), it even borrowed part of the title of the stage version of Shelley’s novel: Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein. Does the change from jigsaw-corpse to clay eliminate the influence? Joshi posits that “the core of the story is so elementary a weird conception that no literary source need be postulated.” It’s true that necromancy is indeed an old and weird conception (Odysseus called up the dead, who consumed wine in lieu of blood), but the parallels between Lovecraft and Shelley are too close to attribute to the random operation of chance.
That brings us to Adam Wynn’s sports column in the Barrow County News, who for whatever reason decided to devote a column to advice from Lovecraft. Here’s a bit of what Wynn said:
I’ve been reading a lot of this guy’s stuff lately. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s best known for being one of the earliest true horror writers.
Now, let us stipulate that Wynn is not a literary critic, but even so, is it even possible to write for a living and remain unaware that horror fiction existed prior to the 1920s? I guess when Stephen King is your yardstick for genius, everything else fails to measure up.
The bizarre part is that Wynn decided to write about Lovecraft as part of a column on the importance of diversity. Now, to be fair, Wynn specifies that he’s not referring to ethnic diversity but rather to diversity in one’s athletic endeavors; nevertheless, the fact that he read Lovecraft and failed to realize that the horror writer was a virulent racist casts an eerie pall over his discussion of Lovecraft vis-à-vis diversity and smart life choices.
Finally, in building on my discussion from the other day on the Slender Man stabbing, I offer this bit of trivia: The creator of Slender Man, Eric Knudsen, said that Lovecraft was one of the influences behind the fictional character, according to Rolling Stone: “I was mostly influenced by H.P (sic) Lovecraft, Stephen King (specifically his short stories), the surreal imaginings of William S. Burroughs, and [a] couple games of the survival horror genre; Silent Hill and Resident Evil.” I imagine the tentacles must have derived from Lovecraft, though if you squint the whole of Slender Man seems like an out of focus caricature of Lovecraft himself. The faceless character, however, seems to me to share elements with the Dick Tracy villain The Blank (1937), the comic book character The Question (1967), and also the masked slashers of 1980s horror, particularly Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees, not to mention the Buffy villains The Gentlemen. The background-lurking of the Slender Man is damnably close to the similarly-dressed Observers from Fringe (2008-2013), themselves modeled on the mythical Men in Black from UFO mythology. The closest analog would be the Doctor Who villains The Silence, but they didn’t show up until two years after Slender Man.
Now to tie it all together: The Men in Black have folded into their folklore with the Black Man of the Woods, a demonic figure identified with the devil. He famously appears in Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” but he also shows up as an alternate name for Nyarlathotep in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Do you know what else Nyarlathotep was? Well, in “The Rats in the Walls” he is also “the mad faceless god” at the center of the earth!
Now since we’ve already given Lovecraft credit for Slender Man and for the zombie genre, we might as well go for the trifecta and note that another story that heavily references Nyarlathotep, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” is also one of the very first modern alien abduction narratives, complete with a backwoods setting, strange surgical experiments, and the aliens’ ability to leave behind no trace of their existence. And not only that: “Whisperer” was explicitly modeled on Arthur Machen’s Novel of the Black Seal because Lovecraft was fascinated by that story’s tales of strange supernatural creatures that live in the deep woods—where the Slender Man makes his home! In “Whisperer,” by the way, Nyarlathotep is said to “put on the semblance of men, the waxen mask and the robe that hides…” So, essentially, here he again looked like Slender Man or Michael Myers or Scream’s Ghost Face. But now with 75% more extraterrestrials.
So, in sum, Lovecraft has played a role in the development of ancient astronauts, alien abductions, Reptilians (with an assist from Robert E. Howard), zombies, Men in Black, Slender Man, etc. etc. etc. As much as I love his fiction, perhaps our culture might have been a bit better off without his unintentional influence on occult and fringe culture.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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