H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown
The man behind the Mythos.
Howard Philips Lovecraft, though virtually unknown during his lifetime, has by now been granted his rightful position as this Century’s greatest practitioner of the horror story. His “Cthulhu Mythos” has spread across culture from literature to film to video games to art to comics to role playing games, creating a whole new legion of fans along the way. Indeed, everyone has heard of H.P. Lovecraft and his creations whether or not they’ve even read a story of his. Finding Lovecraft’s literature is not too difficult (though finding some related works most certainly are) and there is plenty of biographical information available, including L. Sprague deCamp’s Lovecraft: A Biography and S.T. Joshi’s Lovecraft: A Life, but who reads any more? As far as media is concerned, it’ll be a rare day when the Biography Channel gives us a documentary when they could just do another SNL member. As a lifelong fan of Lovecraft, I am always on the lookout for material and I can always put Mexomorph on the job and together we found a 2008 documentary called H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown in Blu-Ray, no less (never fear those of you who haven’t joined the high-definition revolution. The doc is also on DVD)! Now, just because they release something doesn’t make it good so is this documentary worth the view?
H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown is one of those rare documentaries that straddles the line between providing information for people who know nothing about the subject without alienating those who have a more prodigious knowledge and it accomplishes this very well. The documentary covers Lovecraft’s life from his birth (August 20, 1890) to his death (March 15, 1937) and covers every major event in his life from his self-seclusion to his subsequent marriage and divorce. The driest stuff to me in documentaries is the early childhood period and Lovecraft’s was no picnic with an over-protective mother who wanted a little girl so bad she kept his hair long and dressed him as a girl until age 5. DeCamp’s biography spends an inordinate amount of time on the subject so the information is available but the documentary does an excellent job of giving you the salient information without boring you to death in the process. Not to give you the impression that the documentary under-informs; it gives a fair accounting of Lovecraft and his numerous flaws including his xenophobia and borderline racism but it excels at pacing so nothing feels long or overwhelming. It does what it is supposed to by painting a picture of a man who considered himself an outsider or anachronism and how that feeling combined with his background contributed to his artistic genius. Overall, it gives a great accounting of the man and his work in a very intellectual manner without going overboard with detail.
The interviews interspersed are a veritable who’s-who of Lovecraft including authors Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin Kiernan and Peter Straub; directors Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro and noted Lovecraft scholars S.T. Joshi and Robert M. Price. The scholars are engaging to listen to and supplement the factual information very well and it’s great to be able to listen to what originally drew Campbell and Gaiman to Lovecraft’s work. The directors are just as well-versed in Lovecraft’s work as the authors and it was fun listening to del Toro discuss “At the Mountains of Madness” and his assertion that the story The Thing was based on (“Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell, Jr.) was a direct rip-off because I had the good fortune to discuss “Madness” and Lovecraft in general with him for an hour at the Hellboy 2 Premier and it brought me back there but I digress. The director was wise enough to know that most documentaries suffer from “talking head” syndrome so besides spacing the interviews between factual information they ran tons of pictures of Providence and surrounding areas and included Mythos artwork from some of the best Lovecraftian artists around (including period artist Virgil Finlay!) They even had a separate narrator (Isaac Bradley, I believe, listed on IMDb as “cultist mouth”) read selections from Lovecraft’s work and made it sound like an old gramophone recording which, when all put together, gave you a real sense of period and place and drew you even further into the already engrossing subject matter. The documentary is laid out very well and contrives to give you the best overview it can in the most engaging manner possible.
The documentary also covers the high points of the major literature he produced (but not nearly all. I believe that “Shadows Over Innsmouth” is one of the greatest stories he ever wrote but it’s given short-shrift here) but the documentary isn’t supposed to be a 90 minute critical examination of all his works – The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft and More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi will fill that need but to ignore what made him famous would be criminal (and also a waste of time for the interviewees, who can’t wait to discuss his work). The documentary begins with his first published sale, “Dagon,” and moves through more well known works like “The Outsider,” “Rats in the Walls,” “Call of Cthulhu,” “Whisperer in Darkness,”"The Dunwich Horror” and the aforementioned “Mountains of Madness” and “Innsmouth,” among others. The documentary even covers the period of ghost writing for Hazel Held and Houdini, though more could have been done here. Same with the correspondence. The bulk of Lovecraft’s writing is not his horror; rather, he was an incredible letter-writer and struck up friendships with the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert “Psycho” Bloch, Frank Belknap Long and the creator of Conan, Robert E. Howard and wrote huge, sprawling missives to his friends, testing out new stories and commenting on others he’d read and enjoyed yet this is only covered briefly. No mention at all of his influential essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” or his “Commonplace Book” where he sketched out ideas for future stories but in an hour and a half overview some stuff has to be left out, though we must mention it in the interest of fairness (and to be critical. I rather liked this documentary).
The end of H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown delves a little into the pervasive influence Lovecraft has had today with a tiny bit on merchandising and influences and how this unknown writer blossomed into this cultural force. Donald Wandrei and August Derleth compiled a collection of Lovecraft’s stories as a tribute to their friend when informed of his passing and passed it around New York publishing houses and when they received no positive assessment, pooled their money and founded Arkham House Publishers and released The Outsider and Others, a hardback of about 1300 copies that took years to sell but sell it did, enough for Arkham House to continue to put out Lovecraft’s material, along with material by others who wrote in the Mythos, like Ramsey Campbell. It was the keeping Lovecraft in print, as well as other authors like Stephen King (“Jerusalem’s Lot”), Fritz Leiber (“To Arkham and the Stars”) and Brian Lumley (Titus Crow) continuing to write in the Mythos that finally broke Lovecraft through to the mainstream. This is actually the shortest section of the documentary but, again, this was an overview of the man and his works, not an in-depth, topic-specific look at his pervasive influence. It is covered but if that’s all you’re looking for, this documentary is not it.
The only real criticism I have about H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown is why Blu-ray? The DVD and Blu-ray are indistinguishable in terms of the 75 minutes of bonus interviews and art gallery and, once again, this is an overview of Lovecraft, the man and his work. How much clarity do you need to learn stuff? If this was a documentary on tornadoes or antarctic exploration I could see how high-definition would enhance the beautiful vistas and the power of nature but how much is it going to enhance a picture of Lovecraft’s childhood home from 1908? Neil Gaiman looks good but how much more will that bring to his view on “Call of Cthulhu?” Make no mistake, H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown is an excellent documentary about Howard Philips Lovecraft and the three people I watched it with were of varying degrees of knowledge about Lovecraft and they were all completely hooked and thought it was outstanding. Definitely worth the view but not a one of them said “damn, that Blu-Ray really made the documentary for me.” If you’re going to get this, the DVD would be just fine as you’re not missing any of the features and the quality difference will be marginal. Regardless of how you lay your hands on this gem, I can wholeheartedly recommend H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown for an excellently paced and fairly balanced critical look at H.P. Lovecraft, the writer and the man without sacrificing entertainment. The information is solid, the art amazing, the interviews engrossing and it’s well-paced. No matter your Lovecraft knowledge, watch this brilliant look at one of the progenitor’s of the horror genre. You’ll be glad you did.