Let me say right up front that I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s work. Not all of it, to be sure, but I think even the most die-hard Cthulhu-hat-wearing devotee of old Howard has to admit that his work covers a wide range of quality. People just tend to disagree on which pieces occupy which ends of the spectrum. I personally rate Herbert West: Reanimator and The Colour Out of Space as my favourites, although I’m less fond of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ such as it is.
Anyway, none of that is the point. The point is that Lovecraft isn’t scary, and I think I know why.
Back in the 1930s faith in God was strong and people believed in human agency. Lovecraft’s invitation to imagine that the universe was a vast and meaningless place full of things which could casually snuff us out without even noticing our presence was a pretty big deal. His writing said ‘What if you’re wrong?’ What if there is no God, no eternal life ever after, and we’re just specks in a huge void? And people read it, shuddered, and thought ‘That’s terrible; good job God is real and looks out for us!’
Side note: this ‘what if’ underpins a lot of horror. From Lovecraft to SAW, the thought is always ‘What if this was me?’ If the answer is too easy – something like ‘I’d kick the obvious bad guy’s ass’ or ‘I’d get in my car and drive away’ – then the horror falls flat. If we have no empathy with the victims or, worse, find them obnoxious (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you) the horror falls flat. The trick to effective horror is to take real, sympathetic, average Joes, isolate them, make them helpless, then do terrible terrible things to them. And it’s really hard.
Back to the main point: Fast forward 80 years to the early 21st century. Modern science tells us that the universe really is cold and meaningless, full of uncaring cosmic forces that could end us all with little or no thought, there really isn’t a God or an afterlife, we really are just specks in the void, and by the way we’ve put a computer in your telephone so that over a significant chunk of the earth’s surface all of humanity’s collected knowledge is at your fingertips. (Googling for the scale of outer space while sitting on the toilet pretty much sums up the modern age.)
When a modern reader reads Lovecraft, the response is a resounding ‘so what?’ There’s nothing in his central premise to scare us because, hey, turns out he was right. It also turns out that the human mind really can’t comprehend the vastness of the universe and really can’t operate while cognisant of our cosmic insignificance – but we also have a battery of psychological defences to shield us from the effects of this knowledge, so Lovecraft was at least wrong in his estimation of our mental resilience.
Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt.