Why is Lovecraft so successful?

Like Dr. Frankenstein, much less known than his creature, HP Lovecraft (1890-1937) is best known for being the father of Cthulhu, a creature that has fertilized the imagination of thousands of creators since its birth a century ago. From manga Go Tanabe through a film project (unfortunately abandoned) by Guillermo Del Toro, hundreds of video games or of comics or by the figurines Cthulhu Funko PopLovecraft’s monster is everywhere in pop culture. Beyond the octopus-headed giant, Lovecraft-esque fantasy horror is a benchmark.

The “Nerd Cthulhu Pop!” is the perfect illustration of the impact of Lovecraft’s work in the world of pop culture – Funko

And it’s not from yesterday. The call of Cthulhu, cult role play, began to spread the Lovecraftian imagination in the minds of millions of geeks in 1981. This influence of the writer is all the more palpable since his work fell into the public domain. What is new, however, is the critical recognition that Lovecraft has been gaining lately. After a reissue by Mnémos editionsand an ambitious new translation by David Camus, it is the prestigious La Pléiade collection which is preparing (not before 2025, that said) to publish the complete Lovecraft.

A completely complex author

“Lovecraft has become an absolute reference in pop culture while being rather little known in the background, remarks François Baranger, artist who got down to editing a fully illustrated integral of Lovecraft’s work published by Bragelonne. In the street everyone knows Tolkien, nobody knows Lovecraft, some know Cthulhu…” Daria Schmitt, designer, has the same analysis: “In geek circles, he is very well known. I worked in video games where everyone knows it without having read it. I didn’t want to be one of those cohorts so I decided to read all of Lovecraft! »

The Cthulhu monster seen by François Baranger, who illustrates an integral Lovecraft edition Bragelonne
The Cthulhu monster seen by François Baranger, who illustrates an integral Lovecraft edition Bragelonne – F.Baranger

The author having written relatively little – mostly short stories and a lot of correspondence – reading all of Lovecraft is within reach of a human being. Understanding it, on the other hand, is a more difficult task. “The author is a bit complex, and the reception of his work is sometimes biased, notes Lawrence Martin, historian specializing in the cultural history of the contemporary world. A superficial reading of Lovecraft makes it possible not to see the very unpleasant aspects of his work, such as his assumed racism which, of course, is part of an era, but is still very marked. »

The temptation of madness

Despite this anachronism, the personality and work of Lovecraft have for several decades found an echo in contemporary psyches. “A bit like with Tolkien, Lovecraft’s work is sufficiently protean to lend itself to all interpretations, including contradictoryobserves Laurent Martin, author of the splendid work imaginary universes (Citadels & Mazenod). One can have a left-wing or right-wing reading of Lovecraft, which fascinates racists attracted to authoritarian regimes as well as left-wing anarchists and ecologists. »

“Lovecraft’s characters are prey to powers that surpass them, they are victims of the modern fear of being overtaken by uncontrollable forces,” continues Laurent Martin. Lovecraft’s work describes an individualism, but distraught and panicked. According to Lovecraft, if human beings knew how to connect all the partial knowledge they have of the world around them, they would have a lucid picture of reality. But he would go mad looking at this painting. Lovecraft’s heroes indeed have an unfortunate tendency to lose control. In the face of terrible reality, the only refuge is to lose one’s mind…”

Play to be (very) scared

At a time when mental health has become a major issue, reading Lovecraft becomes a task of public health. Madness, central in Lovecraft’s work, is also in The call of Cthulhu. The role-playing game is not only the second best known in the world, but is still regularly reissued, modified, increased new versions and supplements. A new role-playing game in the Lovecraft universe, Cthulhu Originsis also in preparation for 2023, at Black Books Editions. Alicia and Raphael Hamimi are the authors and do not intend to betray the (damned) soul of Lovecraft’s work. “We imagined a faithful dive into Lovecraftian horror. Like many players of the original role-playing game, we wanted to rediscover the subversive and visceral side of Lovecraft, in particular with a more intuitive game mechanics and by returning to literary origins. »

Cthulhu Origins game screenshot
Cthulhu Origins Game Screenshot – M.Lauffray

Whether The call of Cthulhu is an undeniable success, it also has its detractors, who consider it too hard. “There are a lot of role-players who don’t like their characters dying or going crazy… Our game is centered around characters who are ‘witnesses’, ordinary people who will come across horror and fantasyand not “investigators” who would seek to rub shoulders with the occult and destroy monsters. »

In their rereading of Lovecraft, Alicia and Raphaël Hamimi have also rediscovered a work where mental health is a common good. “Lovecraft offers an introspection on the human being, on the consciousness of the inconceivable, on the immensity of elsewhere. But his characters are truly human. In the game, we translate this with a system where the group of players must take care of each other. Benevolence and solidarity matter more than smashing monsters…”

Cthulhu as social remedy

Beyond role-playing, which has done a lot to popularize Lovecraft’s work, the author inspires hundreds of board games. Gothic teens grew up and rather than mock black masses with a 1987 Quid turned into Makeshift Necronomiconplay, for example, now at Cthulhu: Death May Die. In this very rich set of figurines, cooperative, the players must again fight against both the creatures and the madness that awaits them. The “investigators” even have a safe room where to rest their tortured spirits. Pleasure comes from the difficulty, diabolical, of the game. As with Lovecraft, most games end badly for the players who perish or sink into madness.

However, reading Lovecraft would, according to its aficionados, do a lot of good for morale. “Lovecraft’s madness is also a moral issue,” says Raphaël Hamimi. What do we agree to do in the name of knowledge? And what attitude to have towards popular cultures and folklore – that we discover at the time of Lovecraft – that make us uncomfortable? When we discover esoteric, often exuberant cultures, and become interested in them, we become mad in the eyes of others, but is the scholar mad or just more cultured than the others? »

Alicia Hamimi goes further: “When I discovered Lovecraft, I was in very bad shape. I had health problems and was rejected for it. I did not feel considered. Will play The call of Cthulhuto explore various dimensions of different characters perceived as crazy, it helped me to speak, to assert myself, to know where I was going. »

The Challenge of the Unspeakable and the Indescribable

Lovecraft and his creatures, including Cthulhu but not only, also have the virtue of presenting, for artists, and by extension readers, an Everest of the imagination. Francois Baranger therefore rubbed shoulders there for his fully illustrated edition of Lovecraft “I wanted to be faithful to the spirit of the time, with supernatural and fantastic images which may seem a bit naïve today. The authors and readers did not have the enormous visual culture that we have today. I am also an author and when I write, I can rely on that. If I’m talking about a monster “A la Alien”, everyone sees what I mean and I can avoid descriptions. Lovecraft had to rely on what his readers knew. That’s why he turns to almost biological descriptions, with animal analogies. Cthulhu has an octopus head and bat wings. I respected that because it’s part of the charm. »

Image from the comic strip The Bestiary of Twilight, by Daria Schmitt
Image from the comic book The Twilight Bestiary, by Daria Schmitt – D.Schmitt

In a different style, Daria Schmitt has, for his album The Twilight Bestiary, chosen to represent Lovecraft and his creatures in the context of a modern park. “Lovecraft describes conical monsters in a kind of leather, with shrimp antennae, kinds of amphibians too… I placed him among these monsters by changing the scales, so that they seem to populate his strange daily life. In his time, readers were frightened just by reading the terms “unspeakable terror” or “cosmic horror”. For us, Lovecraft continues to be creepy thanks to the uncanny weirdness of his descriptions. A witch nursing a rat scares me more than Cthulhu…”

In the general opinion of Lovecraft fans interviewed by 20 minutes, however, there is one last step to take for the author to reach the rank that his genius deserves. “It would take a film or a series of magnitude, like Peter Jackson’s trilogy for Tolkien, which would give him access to the very, very large public” according to Laurent Martin. For Daria Schmitt, “Lovecraft was recognized as a creator of universes, he is recognized today as a literary figure, he should be recognized in the future as a genius of the 20th century. ” And nothing should oppose it in the future according to François Baranger: ” Everyone has already experienced in his life the existential anguish of grasping that we are a dust placed on a dust which drifts in infinity. That’s Lovecraft, that staggering vertigo. »

Why is Lovecraft so successful?