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Anna Braun, year 2 “The reception of Lovecraft in Popular Culture”

Popular Fiction Course

‘The reception and influence of H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture’

A Table of Contents

1. Introduction
The notion of Popular Culture, Lovecraft, reminiscences
2. Characteristic Features of Lovecraft’s writing
What are the characteristic features of his writing?
Why is Lovecraft still popular?

3. Still present.
a) Film
b) Comics
c) ‘Call of Cthulhu’ (Role Playing Game)
d) Collectibles, computer games
5. Summary
Why is Lovecraft still popular?
6. Bibliography

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Anna Braun, year 2 “The reception of Lovecraft in Popular Culture”
Popular Fiction Course

Introduction
Although today’s teenage culture occupies itself mainly with the spectacular success
of Harry Potter and books about his adventures are the very first association that comes into
the mind of a person with superficial knowledge about fantasy literature, Lovecraft seems to
have found a particular niche for his works, which has made him even more famous and the
interest shown for his works back in XIX century has never died out, what is more the interest
has transformed and adapted into a new pop cultural context. It is very common nowadays
that Lovecraft has become his own trade mark on the new ground that is modern popular
culture. Lovecraft became a name representing all the qualities which prevailed in his stories.
What follows, it can be noticed that in order to describe a fictitious character and to create a
certain image of a character some authors1 without a greater effort tend to resort to simply
mentioning that X used to read Lovecraft in the childhood, or was obsessed with Cthulhu
world. The picture of X reading and showing interest in Lovecraft’s domain automatically
creates the image of the person in the reader’s mind. Lovecraft’s reminiscences can be found
in many places. Not only literature draws on the knowledge of the author’s characteristic
language and own mythology. Surprisingly, Popular Culture as a commercial machinery
found Lovecraft ‘an interesting product’, which can turn out to be a lucrative business if
advertised properly. We can assume without doubt that Howard Phillips Lovecraft is deeply
ingrained in world’s popular culture regardless of geographical localization.
In order to talk about a presence of his phenomenon in Popular Culture, I believe, that it is
necessary to explain the meaning of the latter term:

According to the Collins Dictionary of Literary Terms, Popular Culture “is a term
describing forms of cultural expressions that exhibit wide popularity, such as a detective
story, a western, or a television sitcom (...) It has been viewed from two contrasting
perspectives. For the theories of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist-oriented
intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany and settles in the United States, popular culture was an
arm of capitalist ideology, functioning as the cultural equivalent of its economic practices.
These critics saw popular culture as a commodity to be consumed by the population like any
other product. The result, in their view, was that the spread of popular culture was destroying
the last vestiges of independent, critical thinking among the masses. The term they frequently
employed was mass culture. An alternative view is that associated with the movement known

1
Chabon, Michael. Wonder Boys . US: Villard Books. 1995.

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Anna Braun, year 2 “The reception of Lovecraft in Popular Culture”
Popular Fiction Course

as cultural studies. Like the Frankfurt School, many of the proponents of Cultural Studies
have a leftist or neo-Marxist point of view, but they differ from the Frankfurt School in
asserting that popular culture is not a simple case of mindless consumerism by an
unquestioning mass. Instead, they argue that a close study of examples of culture should
include not just the products themselves but also what use people make of them. That is,
Cultural Studies critics argue that popular culture is the site of a negotiation between the
individual and the product. The individual may, and frequently does, subvert the intended
‘meaning’.

Another definition of popular culture appears in “The SAGE Dictionary of Cultural


Studies”:
Popular culture „Traditionally, the idea of popular culture has referred to that which
remains after the canon of high culture has been established and/or as the massproduced
commodity culture of consumer capitalism. Here popular culture has
been regarded as inferior both to the elevated cultures of Art or classical music on
the one hand and to an imagined authentic folk culture on the other. Apologists for
maintaining the distinction between high and popular culture do so on the grounds
of alleged aesthetic quality arguing that high cultural forms are more subtle,
complex and adequate in their formal expression of content than those of popular
culture. Popular culture is accused of standardization and a levelling down that
encourages, and indeed demands, conformity.
However, the criteria that are used to police the boundaries of’ ‘good works’ are,
from the standpoint of cultural studies, derived from an institutionalized and classbased
hierarchy of cultural tastes. Equally, the argument that draws a contrast
between popular culture and an authentic non-commodity culture cannot be
sustained since there is no longer, and probably never was, any authentic folk
culture against which to measure the ‘inauthentic’ character of commodity culture.
While contemporary popular culture is primarily a commercially produced one,
many writers in cultural studies have argued that audiences make their own
meanings with the texts of a commodity culture. That is, readers or audiences of
cultural texts bring to bear their own cultural competencies and discursive resources
to the consumption of commodities. Thus, popular culture can be regarded as the
meanings and practices produced by popular audiences at the moment of
consumption. This argument reverses the traditional question of ‘how does the
culture industry turn people into commodities that serve its interests?’ in favour of
exploring how people turn the products of industry into their popular culture
serving their interests.
Cultural studies understands popular culture to be an arena of consent and
resistance in the struggle over cultural meanings. In this sense, cultural studies holds
a political conception of popular culture as a site for the struggle over significance;
that is, an arena where cultural hegemony is secured or challenged. Understood in
this way, judgements about popular culture are not concerned with questions of
cultural or aesthetic value per se, but concern issues of classification and power.”

Both definitions seem to partly explain the phenomenon of Lovecraft’s cult and
admiration. Particular terms/ideas might be repeated if we tried to deliver another definition
of popular culture. However, the most important notion in almost every definition that
perfectly applies to the topic of the essay is the dialogue between the work and its recipients
(“subvert the intended meaning”). I believe, therefore, that Pop culture is a name for
a particular environment and set of conditions for a literary (or artistic) work to develop its

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Anna Braun, year 2 “The reception of Lovecraft in Popular Culture”
Popular Fiction Course

interpretation and provide inspiration for another works (intertextuality). Every critical
approach has its basic assumptions and the angle from which it decides to interpret a given
work. Popular Culture is a very tolerant critic, once it decides to approve of the work, it
immediately disseminates its popularity inspiring the use of a theme in almost every cultural
domain. It is the very thing which is happening to the Lovecraft’s literary works. His stories
are very much inspiring, and numerous references and allusions to them can be found in the
modern culture.

We can thus easily observe various aspects of the presence of ‘Lovecraftian’ elements and
mythology not only in literature, film and art but also in comics, computer games and toy
industry, all of which elements constitute the term Popular Culture. It has brought undoubted
popularity to Lovecraft’s stories among the young teenagers who thanks to the Popular
Culture upbringing knew the weird fiction author before they read any of his stories.

In my short essay I would like to briefly discuss the reception of the H.P. Lovecraft as
well as to focus on the his presence and influence in the Popular Culture. I would like to take
a look on the individual fields of the Popular Culture (literature, art, film, entertainment) and
present the way in which he is introduced.

2. Characteristic Features of Lovecraft’s writing

An important point that should be made first and foremost is the reason why the figure
of H.P. Lovecraft is being nowadays still mentioned in the works of art in spite of that he died
in the last century. One of the reasons can be that the interest is still fueled thanks to the
activity of several individuals and societies concerned with the popularity of the given
subject. Three most important influences hail from S. T. Joshi, an Indian and American
literary critic, and the leading authority on Lovecraft; an American ‘H.P. Lovecraft
Historical Society’ and French journalist and writer: Michel Houellebecq, who has recently
reminded the readers about Lovecraft in his essay. Another important cause for the interest in
the Lovecraftian world is mentioned in the introduction to the popular game, “Call of
Cthulhu”. Very important question is asked by the author and immediately answered. We
agree that Lovecraft’s works have been remembered for better part of century, but it is not
easy to answer beforehand why Lovecraft in particular gets more appreciation among others
writers from his time producing similar works of pulp fiction. It is the meticulous care about

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Anna Braun, year 2 “The reception of Lovecraft in Popular Culture”
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verisimilitude that is the explanation: “Lovecraft’s stories are created to seem like actual
accounts, with references to (usually fictional books), events, myths and people. His writing is
almost in the manner of an academician or a journalist. To further strengthen these
imaginary proofs – all the more to make the horror seem real to the reader – he used the
same references repeatedly. We read of the ‘Necronomicon ‘, Cthulhu, and the Esoteric
Order of Dagon in one story, and the names carry credibility because we know we read them
somewhere else, even if we can’t quite remember where.”

The same references began to be used by other writers and friends of the author in their own
weird tales. Something new was always added and thus the Cthulhu Mythos has been
developed. It has become a communal conceit which enables writers to create stories sharing
a sort of secondary reality (initiated by Lovecraft). His approach to the universe appeals to our
darker side: “Lovecraft’s stories aren’t just horrors because of gore, or terrible monster with
big claws. They horrify because they state that we are not – as we should love to believe – at
the centre of everything. We are not vital and important. We cannot accomplish anything
significant. We will not live forever.”

3. Still present – reminiscences


a) Film

This domain of the Popular Culture easily adopted the Lovecraft convention and transplanted
some main ideas to its own environment. One of the significant proofs supporting the thesis of
Lovecraft’s greatness is the huge number of new productions based on his stories. One of the
biggest internet movie service, The internet Movie Database (an Amazon.com company),
in a small section on their website dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft inspirations proclaims the
writer to be “Universally considered to be the father of modern horror.” Also, it later
attributes to him, rather daringly, the inspiration for such stories of success as Stephen King
("The Shining"), John Carpenter ("In the Mouth of Madness"), Robert Bloch ("Psycho"),
Clive Barker ("Hellraiser") and Anne Rice ("Interview with the Vampire"). No wonder of
the authors of the website meticulously list about eighty titles closely inspired by or directly
adapting some of the writer’s most interesting stories. Two movies are worth special
ivestigation, since they seem to represent two distinct kinds of approach towards handling
Lovecraft’s artistic legacy in a modern context. First of them is The Call of Cthulhu (2005),
directed by Andrew Leman. Lovecraft’s most famous story is here featured in a black-and-

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white mute picture, the production of which was supported by The H.P. Lovecraft Historical
Society. Without doubt, it is the representative of a rather epigonic current, which strictly
follows the conventions and faithfully re-tells the story presented in the book. The realisation
is conservative to such an extent that the film seems to be a 1920’s picture. Viewers in pursuit
of novelty are likely be rather disappointed with the final outcome. Nevertheless, a great deal
of effort put in the realisation as well as respect for the original story should be here
appreciated. Another but completely different approach can be found in LovecraCked! The
Movie (2006), where the entire ‘Lovecraftian’ world is just a pretext for improvisation and
playing with conventions. From the official advertisement we learn the following about the
picture: “LovecraCked! The Movie”, the debut feature film from BiFF JUGGERNAUT
Productions, is a horror/comedy anthology, inspired in part by influential author H.P.
Lovecraft (“Re-Animator”). Following in the tradition of George A. Romero's “Creepshow”
and “Tales From The Darkside”, the film is an international collaboration of directors from
the USA, UK and Sweden, combining over-the-top comedy in the irreverent style of “Monty
Python” with bone-chilling horror, to have you clutching your gut one moment and cringing
the next. The story follows the exploits of a bumbling investigative journalist as he struggles
to deduce the truth behind the author H.P. Lovecraft and his work. Along the way, hilarious
and horrific tales play out, pulling us deeper into the mysterious world of the author.“

b) Lovecraft in Comics

Another Lovecraft-friendly field prone to drawn on ‘Lovecraftian’ elements are comics. The
situation of Lovecraft’s popularity in comics’ world is similar to that of cinematography.
Again we can distinguish comics evidently/directly featuring Lovecraft’s stories and works
including some of the characteristic elements. Comics particularly attracted to this charms of
the ‘disturbing world’ of Horror will collect the most important scenes and illustrate them in a
characteristic shortcut. Some recent examples of works treating about Cthulhu Mythos as well
as the author himself are:

• “Lovecraft Country: Return to Arkham” story by Shannon Appelcline (a published


roleplaying and short fiction author and a line editor for Call of Cthulhu for a few
years), illustrated by Saffronrage Solutions and published in 2005 by Cafe Press.
The comic is also wholly available on the Internet2.

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http://www.lovecraftcountry.com/comic

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• Boom! Studios publisher has been releasing comic books featuring Cthulhu stories
since May 2006 until the present day.

Having read a few of the publications one can notice that almost every story has a similar
manner and the same pattern for delivering the events. Very little onomatopoeia is present in
the stripes (contrary to the popular tendency in comics). Expository element of the story is
introduced almost immediately. Very little knowledge from
Lovecraft stories is presented. Events and characters are
introduced in the stereotypical way with much more focus
on the ‘scary element’. Fright is emphasised and very often
exaggerated. Facial expressions play the leading role in
conveying the atmosphere. The favourite motif in the comics
(as we may conclude) seems to be the madness of the main characters. The advantage of the
comic stripes over the literary works (not visual) is the opportunity to present the monsters
and countenance of the characters in a way which the reader would not be able to imagine
himself. Monsters are drawn in a detailed and careful way. Prevailing colours in the pictures
are rather balanced and dark.

c) The Call of Cthulhu RPG

The most important and influential


source of the inspiration for the modern fan of H. P. Lovecraft is the Role Playing Game
“Call of Cthulhu”, which adapted the world and mythology featured in the novel under the
same title (as well as other stories) and used them to create rules for the game.

A few words about RPG’s phenomenon should be given. The phenomenon of Role Playing
Game appeared in the 1970s when the first game of this kind appeared (Dungeons & Dragons
now called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons). It is a game of imagination, a sort of real-time
story telling where all the players assume the roles of fictional characters (personalities which
were previously created in great detail, very often through a dice rolling), including the way
of acting, skills, appearance etc.). Each player can easily influence the story in which he or
she participates through the decisions that are made to act in a particular way. One of the
players known as the ‘gamemaster’ leads the character-players through adventures. Among

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one of his responsibility is to create a story (scenario) of the adventure and to make decisions
about controversial/important matters for the game.

The Call of Cthulhu is similar to many other games of their kind (on the basic level of the
idea) with regard to its distinct elements which are unique of the qualities determined by the
world. The game was first published in 1981, soon after release was translated into several
other languages (Finnish, French, Polish, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Italian) The Call of
Cthulhu is a certain guidebook from which we can learn the rules governing the mechanisms
in the world we are to move. The guidebook is divided into several sections (and subsections)
and chapters dealing with the different aspects of the game.

a) In the very beginning we are invited to create a character (our


protagonist who will be the performer of our decisions throughout the
adventure). Character has six abilities: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution,
Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Each ability describes the
character and affects some of it’s actions. At the start of the game player
rolls (using special dice) six abilities scores randomly and assigns them to his or her
character’s abilities in order they like (character creation). Strength measures character’s
muscle and physical power (important in hand-to-hand combat), Dexterity measures hand-eye
coordination, agility, reflexes and balance. Constitution represents character’s health and
stamina. Intelligence determines how well the character learns and reasons.

b) One of the section is devoted to explain some of the jargon terms peculiar to the game.
One of the most important factor in the game is the measurement of sanity of our characters.
Every character is sane, regardless of the number of Sanity points, unless 0 Sanity points has
been reached, or unless the keeper has announced that a state of temporary insanity or
indefinite insanity has been reached by a character because of mental trauma.
We distinguish three levels of Sanity: Indefinite Insanity: when an investigator (a general
name given to all players’ characters) loses 20% or more of his or her current Sanity points
within an hour of game time, the result is insanity as the keepers sees fit. Permanent Insanity
occurs if an investigator’s current Sanity points reach zero, he or she is deeply insane for a
period of months or years, and perhaps institutionalised. Temporary Insanity: if an
investigator loses 5 or more Sanity points as the consequence of a single Sanity roll, he or she
suffered major emotional trauma. The player must roll D100.

A few general terms which reveal the spirit of the game:

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Popular Fiction Course

Players can be divided into two groups; Investigators: a game term for player character while
and the Keeper who is the person running the game. He or she knows the secret of the plot,
describes the situation and non-player characters, and determines what skills and rolls to
apply.

d) Collectibles and artefacts

The side effect of the great interest in The Cthulhu World and Lovecraftian cult is the desire
to make money on the fans’ enthusiasm for this subject. Some examples are very surprising
(and amusing at times) with the ideas behind the products that are always ready to be sold
to anyone who decides to buy something connected with their field of interest.

Internet shops offer numerous toys, statuettes as well as


elements of garment (e.g. gloves and plush hats) inspired
particularly by the films, comics and games with the Cthulhu
Mythos as the main theme. A few of them mention worthy
examples should contain such articles of clothing as the plush Cthulhu slippers (“These
plush Cthulhu slippers can keep your feet warm even as they damn them to a thousand
nameless hells.”) and t-shirts illustrating monsters from the stories as well as witty slogans
(“Cthulhu loves you”, “Cthulhu for President – why settle for a lesser evil?”) or quotations
from Lovecraft (“The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind”); and the author
himself. Another creative idea realised in the selling industry is the production of the
souvenirs from the fictitious places from the Lovecraft’s stories (e.g. Miskatonic University)

Toys and statuettes seem to be a dominating product. An unusual and


extraordinary idea is the children’s toy “My Little Cthulhu” designed
by John Kovalic (an award-winning editorial cartoonist for
the Wisconsin State Journal whose work has appeared in the New York
Times and Washington Post), which is a green rubber monster (name is
a clear allusion to a famous line of colourful toy ponies marketed
primarily to young girls) with even more amusing additional toy victims (“Little Victimes”).

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Popular Fiction Course

Collectibles are especially addressed to the more involved fans, who are willing to spend
some more money on their hobby. The Great Cthulhu Figure is a Giant 16" HorrorClix
artefact, released by WizKids company offering collectible miniatures games (a form of
miniature war-gaming incorporating figures and modelled terrain as the main components of
military simulation games). Some of the objects offered to the Lovecraftians can cost up to
300$, the existence of products of this kind, which are still offered to sell and are still popular
with customers would suggest that H.P. Lovecraft is interesting and can attract the attention of
the reader regardless of the age (toys for children, products for adult collectors).

5. Summary

H.P. Lovecraft as it has been presented in the previous


examples is present in the Popular Culture. New
productions are being released (comics, films, toys,
newspaper articles). Our interest is also aroused by the
presence of works inspired by the Lovecraft’s heritage. The
author was an interesting and controversial figure himself, which makes many biographers
interested in his life as well. In 2005 a French

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