Poe and Lovecraft, masters of literary horror

By Liz Fuga

The name Edgar Allan Poe is one most common in high school English classes, and for good reason.  Poe has proven to be one of the most influential writers in American history.  Not only was he a gifted literary critic but he also set the standard for modern short stories and had a profound impact on the horror genre.  There have been many movies, episodes of television shows, and music based on Poe’s life and work.  Additionally, he has inspired many other writers including H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft, however, is a name you may not be quite as familiar with.  His works are not often required reading and he doesn’t have nearly as many direct adaptations to his name.  But, if you are in the right circles, the names Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, and Cthulhu may ring a bell.  Both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are considered to be masters and fathers of the horror genre and they are two of the most influential writers to ever live.  Yet, in the mainstream, Poe is far more well-known than Lovecraft.

While Lovecraft and Poe both wrote horror, they wrote very different styles of horror.  Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the macabre, wrote what I like to refer to as intimate psychological horror.  Meaning that we are closely associated with only one character’s point-of-view (whether it was an innocent bystander, or a truly disturbed madman).  His stories are extremely fast-paced so most time in the story is spent building the plot and characters.  The terror, therefore, comes from the fact that we are seeing madness root and fester in the brain of someone we now know quite well.

Lovecraft’s horror, however, comes from the universe within the story.  While Lovecraft also frequently wrote from the first-person perspective, it is often passive, as in someone researching an event that has already taken place.  When it isn’t a passive voice, the character has little bearing on the plot.  Events simply happen to him, he doesn’t usually affect a change.  Lovecraftian stories are also paced rather slowly, taking time to build the clinical, cold, indifferent atmosphere.  The horror comes from the fact that everything is more powerful than humanity and completely indifferent to its fate; even the story doesn’t care about the character.  We are relating to someone who cannot, no matter what he does, affect a change.  This makes the audience feel very insignificant on a universal scale, and, in a way, that is scarier than any murderer could be.

As I said, both writers have had a profound impact on popular culture, but Poe’s contribution may be more overt than Lovecraft’s.  Poe has had movie adaptations (like most of Roger Corman’s filmography), and that is not even including the fact that he popularized psychological terror that could conceivably be found in everyday real life.  However, Stephen King created a universe that all of his works fit into because of his admiration for Lovecraft’s universe.  The video games Eternal Darkness and the Silent Hill series take inspiration from Lovecraft particularly when it comes to tone and cold, uncaring atmosphere.  My personal favorite, though, is Arkham Asylum, where most of Batman’s rogues gallery is locked up, is named after the fictional town in the Lovecraft universe where many stories take place.

But why is Poe more popular than Lovecraft?  I would love to espouse on the idea that it is because the terror that Poe describes has an immediacy that Lovecraft’s does not.  That most people simply don’t see the universe as described by Lovecraft, and would, in fact, be more willing to see a fellow human being driven insane or even dead than accept the fact that the universe is so apathetic to their existence.  But I don’t think that’s it.  Poe’s work is simply fast-paced which is more suited to a modern audience.  Additionally, his work was published in a mainstream, popular newspaper and, even at the time, held literary clout.  Lovecraft’s work was published in pulp magazines which, while popular amongst a certain crowd, never quite garnered mainstream status.