H.P. Lovecraft understood the terror of the unknown. This is why film adaptations have fizzled and new theatre productions are thriving, observes Jason Zinoman ...


When Guillermo Del Toro announced he would not be directing the film adaptation of “The Hobbit”, the groaning among fanboys and girls was quieter than you might expect. The reason was simple: this meant Del Toro, the most gifted director of fantasy films working today, could focus on his version of “At the Mountains of Madness”, H.P. Lovecraft’s most ambitious story. So when that project was shelved this month after a dispute over ratings, the reaction bordered on apocalyptic. Many were disappointed to learn that they would never set eyes on the monsters Del Toro had already designed. More pressingly, the news confirmed a widely held suspicion: Lovecraft, whose following is as devoted as that of Tolkien or Poe, cannot be adapted.
No less significant a figure than Stephen King has called H.P. Lovecraft the greatest horror-story writer of the 20th century. Robert Bloch, who went on to write “Psycho”, counted him as a mentor. You would be hard pressed to find a director in the horror genre from the golden age of the 1960s and '70s who would not cite him as a literary Godfather. Yet he remains obscure because film adaptations of his macabre tales have been few and flawed. The one complete success might be Stuart Gordon’s “The Re-animator”, but its comic tone is anomalous for Lovecraft, perhaps because he wrote this story for a humour magazine.
Lovecraft, who died in 1937, hated the movies. In the same year that he wrote “Mountain of Madness”, Universal Pictures released “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” Lovecraft walked out of “Dracula”, and says the only reason he didn’t do the same with “Frankenstein” was out of respect for Mary Shelley. Cinema, he wrote in a letter, “cheapens and degrades any literary material it gets a hold of—especially in the least subtle or unusual.”
One wonders if he was thinking of his own work here. The reason he has proved so difficult to adapt to the screen is that while his weird tales are full of monsters and curses and spooky books—all suitably cinematic—they are also peculiarly literary. The quality of these flourishes is up for debate. Lovecraft always indulged in adjectives and purple prose, and critics complain that his stories lack recognizable human beings. But Lovecraft was a voracious reader, sensitive to language. He wrote with purpose.
Films may be unable to truly capture a sense of what Lovecraft called “cosmic awe”. But another form not generally associated with horror has recently proved to be a more natural home: the theatre. To appreciate why Lovecraft is a perfect writer for the stage, it’s necessary to understand his worldview—what you might call his philosophy of fear. Simply: man is an irrelevant detail in the great story of the universe, powerless, at the whim of chance and blind to his own role. The idea that we have any control over our future is pure arrogance.

His stories were not about relationships between people so much as man’s relationship with a Godless cosmos. Lovecraft was long interested in astronomy. Gazing into the heavens taught him that what we don’t know is vastly greater than what we do. “By my thirteenth birthday,” he wrote in a letter. “I was thoroughly impressed with man’s impermanence and insignificance.”
H.P. Lovecraft Radiotheater Two years later, he wrote one of his first and most powerful stories “The Beast in the Cave”, which is now being brought to vivid life in the East Village by Radiotheater (through April 3rd). With “Things at the Doorstep”, the Manhattan Theater Source also recently presented a gothic tribute to Lovecraft and his story "The Hound". On the other coast, Stuart Gordon has staged a hit musical version of “The Re-Animator”, now on at the Steve Allen Theater. But it’s doubtful any show could capture his spooky enigmatic quality better than Radiotheater, which mounts six Lovecraft stories (along with “The Dunwich Horror” and “Pickman’s Model”) performed by four actors speaking into microphones in solitary spotlights. Creepy music, a few light cues and a burst of smoke are the only design. This chilling production concentrates attention on the voice, the words and, most importantly, the darkness. Like so many Lovecraft tales, this story takes place in blackness. 

In this case the darkness is found in a cave, where a man with a philosophical bent is lost. Alert to the odd sounds around him, he convinces himself that a monster is crouching unseen nearby. It’s a simple portrait of a mind unravelling, and you can see the germ of many future Lovecraftian tales: an invisible monster, a rational mind haunted less by present fears than future imaginings; and a palpable, vast sense of the unknown that fills up space and time. The evening of stories ends with an actor reading the critical first sentence of Lovecraft’s book “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The minimalism of this production is not merely style. It faithfully supports Lovecraft’s philosophy. If the strongest fear is of the unknown, then the monster itself is less terrifying once it is revealed. Lovecraft gets around this problem with his oft-mocked prose. His monsters are often described as mongrel mixes of men and goat or men and fish—creatures that don’t evoke a picture so much as an idea. He prefers words like “eternal”, “endless” and “limitless”, perhaps for the way they fail to describe the limits of something. His strings of adjectives have the effect of cancelling each other out. In other words, Lovecraft preserves the unknown by constantly evading the concrete. Lovecraft’s stories are about what we don’t know. They are meant to be experienced in the dark.
H.P. Lovecraft Dreams and FanciesThat’s not easy to accomplish on film. Even the most fantastical movies are rooted in some sense of place. Modern theatre, on the other hand, is built for departures from realism. No one expects to see a heaving monster onstage (particularly off and off-off Broadway), but in today’s haunting blockbusters, you are expected to deliver the special-effects goods.
Clay McLeod Chapman, a playwright and performer, delivered an evocative Lovecraftian monologue in his annual macabre series “The Pumpkin Pie Show”, which took place in a small black box off-off Broadway in October. And when Mike Daisey performed a spooky meditation on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Barring the Unforseen” last year in New York, ushers led audience members one by one to their seats in a pitch-black room.
These theatre artists appreciate what Lovecraft understood: that the essence of horror is mystery and an actively wandering mind. No film director has made monsters with as much creativity and innovation as Del Toro, but if he directed “At the Mountains of Madness” he would give shape to its creatures, which would in turn domesticate them. As horrible as they looked, they could not approach the terror of what they might have been. Dormant, the project will receive an arguably happier fate, as fans can only imagine what they missed. The perfect cult film is the one never made. Lovecraft would surely understand.


Jason Zinoman writes about theatre for the New York Times. His book "Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror" (Penguin Press") will be released in July. Picture credit: old Lovecraft book covers chronicled by Marxchivist (via Flickr)