Lovecraft. Lovecraft. Everywhere.
Lovecraft is a titan of the horror genre. No one can deny the lasting and far-reaching grip of his legacy. However, he was a commercial failure in his time. He had a pretty miserable life and he felt pretty miserable about his life most of the time.
You don’t have to delve far into his biographical material to start to understand where he got his ideas about the universe and its existential horror. He was haunted by nightmares and afraid of everything from new scientific discoveries to people who didn’t look like him. His fiction reflects his fears and attitudes. “The fear of the unknown, and the unknowable pervades Lovecraft’s work just as the dark depression of Edgar Allan Poe pervaded his,” according to Ciaran Conliffe.
And ever since, and especially now, authors continue to loudly and passionately argue with the legacy of this creative and complicated man. As a fan of horror tropes, it can be a lot of fun to trace this through an increasingly intertextual landscape —
— wait, what?
What is Intertextuality Anyway?
Intertextuality is the conversation that books have with each other, to put it prettily. It’s the way that, as Seanan McGuire says, everyone is actually writing fanfiction all the time: “Fuzzy Nation? Fanfic. Wicked? Fanfic. Every X-Men comic written since Claremont stopped? Fanfic. Your beloved Hamilton? Real-person fanfic. Songfic, even.”
For this kind of analysis, intertextuality doesn’t usually even have to scrub the names and serial numbers off; it directly addresses the texts in question. You may read a book that doesn’t require knowledge of the other books being addressed (say, Wicked), but you’ll get more out of the story if you understand what the author was referencing (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). Intertextuality is everything from the casual reference (or, let’s be fancy: literary allusion) you make about your coworker’s nose growing to imply that he’s lying, to the many iterations of Alice in Wonderland.
Intertextuality is the conversation these texts are having with each other — maybe even more so than their authors. It can be intentional or unintentional (though for the sake of simplicity we’ll stick with intentional examples here), and it can involve anything as subtle as allusion and or as direct as a parody. There’s an argument to be made that all writing is intertextual (there are only seven basic plots, nothing is original, etc.), but something interesting happens when writers do this on purpose, again, and again, and again.
A World of Monsters
My first (knowing) experience of this intertextual playground was reading Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. Zelazny creates an almost purely adventurous escapade of mythic monsters, from Dracula to Sherlock Holmes to the witches of Macbeth. This was also my first experience with Lovecraftian mythology, though I didn’t recognize it at the time (I just thought that section in the middle with the through-the-gateway dreamscape was REALLY weird).
It takes some time in the story to reveal the Lovecraftian tendencies of the world Zelazny is building, but they turn out to be one of the most vital components of the book. Zelazny borrows Lovecraft’s mythology in the same way he borrows all the rest of it, only symbolically signaling to the reader who the characters are. He never says “Dracula” or “Cthulhu” or “Jack the Ripper,” but more often than not, the reader is able to catch the references. (There is a rumor among fans that the story was written as a bet that Zelazny couldn’t write a story in which the reader wanted Jack the Ripper to win.)
My early experience is proof that the reader doesn’t have to catch all the references to enjoy the story, but having read Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Macbeth, and The Call of Cthulhu makes A Night in the Lonesome October richer and more rewarding than reading it without awareness of the multiple layers at work.
Zelazny’s book is a fun romp, but given the problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s texts, there are other ways to address the mythology.
Many authors, especially recently, have chosen to not just incorporate the fun parts of the mythos, but also to grapple with the problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s writing.
While Lovecraft created a fascinating and horrifying cosmos, his writing is also full of racism and sexism. Most modern readers are aware of this, and there are certainly apologists out there who look to excuse his attitudes. While I can understand the urge to defend a beloved story from any criticism, I don’t think it strengthens the text in the end. It may be more effective to consider it, flaws and all because it gives us so much more room to play.
Consider Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle does not so much rewrite “The Horror at Red Hook” as he reimagines it from the perspective of the villain’s lieutenant, Charles Thomas Tester, a man who becomes a tragic figure caught up first in the racism of New York City, and then the cosmic horror beneath it.
Much like the Zelazny book, a reader can appreciate Black Tom without having read the Lovecraft story. LaValle traces an entirely different arc of the events. Each story works independently, but they add to each other, rounding out the overall story in a way that becomes more cohesive when they work together. LaValle addresses not only the mythology and the events in the story, but also the inherent racism and xenophobia in Lovecraft’s original. In fact, it is some time before the cosmic comes to intrude on Tester as more than a hint of strangeness creeping in around the edges; for the first half of Black Tom, the narrative only addresses the cultural horror running rampant among the cops and white citizens of New York.
It is difficult to go back and reread “The Horror at Red Hook” without LaValle’s version intruding on the narrative (especially as LaValle’s novella is far more coherent). I find that I can’t read Red Hook without looking everywhere for Black Tom and his tragedy. He is hardly there except in vitriolic hints around the edges of the story. The effect is additive.
Let’s Go Around Again
But we don’t have to stop at one layer.
Neil Gaiman’s short story, “Only the End of the World Again,” starts a few years (presumably) after Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October ends, pulling the werewolf Larry Talbot (not even original to Zelazny) on another Cthulian adventure, and adding depth to the character that then plays back into Lonesome October. This iteration is certainly dark but allows a bit of Zelazny’s playfulness to shine through. Having read Gaiman’s story, it’s hard to go back to Zelazny’s and take Talbot’s character at face value.
Intertextuality goes forward and backward: the new texts never erase the old texts, but add layers and meaning to all that came before (and all that will, inevitably, follow). And all these layers speak to each other, and not only the one that came immediately before or after. (Now that’s a sentence you could stick into a cosmic horror novel — go ahead, you can have that one.)
Of course, there are tomes of scholarly texts dissecting Lovecraft’s work and the themes therein. Nothing wrong with that, and much of it is culturally important work, but the fun of intertextuality is that we can all play with these ideas in fiction. New works can address the old works as clearly as any nonfiction (and perhaps a bit more subtle at times). And beyond that? What are the next stories that will riff on these stories?
Hate the sexism? Write your own version.
Think that knowledge is power, and not something to be afraid of? Write your own version.
Want to debate whether cosmic or cultural horror is scarier? Write your own version.
This is a vast cosmos, with many ancient and terrible unknowns; there is room here for all of us to explore and play.
Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska where she looks at mountains and daydreams a lot. She has a Creative Writing degree from Pittsburg State University.