Column: Writing the Mythos: Cosmic Mojo, Part 2: The Americans

By G. W. Thomas

edgar_allan_poeThe authors of cosmic creepiness mentioned in the previous piece, “Cosmic Mojo Part 1”, were English, for Lovecraft was an anglophile of the first order. That being said, though, his idol was not a Brit but the New Englander, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). In his long essay, The Supernatural Horror in Literature, HPL writes of Poe: “In the 1830s occurred a literary dawn directly affecting, not only the history of the weird tale, but that of short fiction as a whole and indirectly moulding the trends and fortunes of a great, European æsthetic school. It is our good fortune as Americans to be able to claim that dawn as our own, for it came in the person of our most illustrious and unfortunate fellow-countryman, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s spectres thus acquired a convincing malignity possessed by none of their predecessors and established a new standard of realism in the annals of literary horror. The impersonal and artistic intent, moreover, was aided by a scientific attitude not often found before, whereby Poe studied the human mind rather than the usages of Gothic fiction and worked with an analytical knowledge of terror’s true sources, which doubled the force of his narratives and emancipated him from all the absurdities inherent in merely-conventional shudder-coining.”

HPL acknowledges the craft of Charles Brockton Brown (1771–1810) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), to him, they are not essentially horror writers. While you can make a case for certain stories by Hawthorne in particular, their moral rather than cosmic perspective does not interest Lovecraft. Instead, he chooses another American to follow in Poe’s footsteps: “Closer to real greatness was the eccentric and saturnine journalist Ambrose Bierce (1842 –1914?). Virtually all of Bierce’s tales are tales of horror and whilst many of them treat only of the physical and psychological horrors within Nature, a substantial proportion admit the malignly supernatural and form a leading element in America’s fund of weird literature.”

yellow_signOne of the best of the Americans to influence him was Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933), an author who is best remembered for his historical fiction. But before that, Chambers wrote a few books with horrific tales: “…The King in Yellow, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier’s Trilby.” Like the tomes of James’ ghost stories, the evil nature of The King in Yellow helped to inspire the cosmic terror of tomes like The Necronomicon. In particular from that volume, “The Yellow Eye” gave the Mythos some of its creepiest inhabitants.

lucas_whiteEdward Lucas White (1866–1934) was another American who was influential to a smaller degree. “Very notable in their way are some of the weird conceptions of the novelist and short-story writer Edward Lucas White, most of whose themes arise from actual dreams.” Some of the stories written from his dreams included “The Song of the Sirens”, “The Snout” and “Lukundoo”. Lovecraft himself took ideas from his vivid nightmares for stories. It is largely the influence of White that gave the Mythos its dream elements in stories like “Dreams in the Witch-House” and “The Call of Cthulhu”.

Of contemporary writers, Lovecraft does not mention many. One exception is his friend and correspondent, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961). “Of younger Americans, none strikes the note of cosmic horror so well as the California poet, artist and fictionist Clark Ashton Smith, whose bizarre writing, drawings, paintings and stories are the delight of a sensitive few.” returnThis may have been simply a favour to a friend, but I think not. Smith’s weird-but-colorful tales and poems must certainly have pleased Lovecraft. Smith and fellow correspondent, Robert E. Howard, became the first writers to be drawn into Lovecraft’s circle of Mythos creators.

I can’t say that HPL’s American picks are any better or worse than his English ones. Their stories fall within the same tradition as the Brits. Their biggest influence on Mythos fiction is largely one of locale. The effete New York, the inbred and moldering new England, these Lovecraft takes from his fellow Americans. The modern urban “American” brand of horror is yet to come, from those who followed Lovecraft, writers like Fritz Leiber, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.