Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Thus far, I have reviewed fictional adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, and I have briefly discussed the appeal of the horror writer who passed away nearly seven and a half decades ago. Still, it’s hard to summarize everything that fascinates me; the man wrote dozens of fictional pieces, a fair amount of poetry, numerous essays (the current best collection is five volumes), and over 100,000 letters, 20,000 or so of which remain. His stories have influenced tons of people in both obvious and non-obvious ways.
Moreover, the man himself was intriguing, painted as a recluse, racist, ignorant, and pulp writer—some of which have truth in them, certainly, but more-so reflect skin-deep acknowledgements when said without context—yet adored by the many people who knew him. For reference, one book, Lovecraft Remembered, collects the numerous memoirs his friends and associates were compelled to write after his passing, long before he would become famous. So why? Why Lovecraft?
That’s a complicated question, one that has yielded some fascinating biographies like L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) and S. T. Joshi’s 1200+ page I Am
Providence (2010). Of course, any attempt to answer could involve a rabbit hole of literature that would put off anyone who wants a nice, clean answer. Luckily, the 2008 documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown manages to answer a lot of these questions and provide some nice details on the man’s life in a short hour and a half. The amount of information handled and people interviewed (including Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, Caitlin Kiernan and some other recognizable faces) is impressive, even if the movie is imperfect.
I want to immediately say that the opening is somewhat distasteful, treating the mental breakdown of Lovecraft’s father, Winfield Lovecraft, as a scene from one of his stories. It feels exploitative when it’s a serious matter, and the scene is incongruous with what comes after. Still, following that, the opening cleverly dispels a common misconception of Lovecraft’s work, which is that the “Cthulhu Mythos” is a singular mythology meant to be consistent and fleshed out. In fact, details can differ on the same horrific being between his own stories. Instead, the Mythos reflects his “cosmicism,” or belief in a universe that does not care about the insignificant trifle of humanity. I think that this scene is a more appropriate opening, as it recognizes the public perception of him and then focuses on his actual aims and successes as an author.
Following is a basic documentary technique of outlining key events in his life; some intriguing details are left out—the relationship to his grandfather feels underdeveloped, and there is the ever-curious dodging of the gender identity mixing when he was a toddler, which Lovecraft fans and scholars alike are unreasonably defensive about—but that is the nature of a short documentary meant to capture the entire lifetime of a human being. There are also occasionally lazy or downright bizarre lines in the narration, such as one claiming two odd intrigues in a xenophobe’s life are travel and women. The first one I understand, but I can’t see why a male xenophobe would be inherently opposed to women. Maybe they meant that his wife was a Jewish woman? Either way, minor quibbles. The point is that the biography is competent.
There are also interesting examinations of some of Lovecraft’s major works, which utilize the celebrity interviews. In terms of biography, most of the conversations with scholars, directors, and authors are trivial and provide no unique insight, spare some of Gaiman’s quips. When these people are given a chance to talk about what about the stories fascinates them, you get both a proper usage of these brilliant men and women (or woman, rather) and a sense of why anyone cares about Lovecraft.
The discussion of key works allows for a diverse consideration of his stories that maintain staying power, although obviously many good ones (The Shadow Out of Time and “The Music of Erich Zann,” to name a couple) get left aside. The interaction of biography and cursory literary analysis allows for a basic discussion needed at the introductory level, and ultimately that is Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown‘s purpose and success. The ending, which considers the influence of the author’s work, shows the extent to which his stories have reached into bafflingly wide-spread popular culture. Although worthy of a lot more discussion, I again can forgive the cursory nature based on the director’s presumed intentions.
This documentary is Lovecraft 101, an introduction to the man and his work that might inform those who have only read a tale or two, or others who have heard of him and always wondered why people care. For the well-versed both in biography and bibliography, the interviews can provide a couple of interesting insights, especially if you’re a fan of the interviewees. Fear of the Unknown accomplishes its goals with only occasional missteps that are ultimately forgivable given its short-yet-comprehensive purpose. If you’re looking for an introduction to the man and the mythology, or a warm reflection on what you already know, then this documentary will satisfy your interests.