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H.P. Lovecraft In Popular Culture by Don G. Smith

1/8/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy H.P. Lovecraft In Popular Culture in the USA - or Buy H.P. Lovecraft In Popular Culture in the UK

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pub: McFarland & Company, Inc. 173 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: $35.00 (US), 32.95 (UK). ISBN: 0-7864-2091-X.

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This book is an attempt to review and critique the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on modern popular culture, specifically fiction, music, cinema and games. But while author Don G. Smith broadly succeeds in giving an indication of the breadth of that influence, his survey is curiously uneven and the quality of his analysis somewhat patchy. At least one reason for that is suggested in the preface, where the author states that he follows Lovecraft studies at an 'amateur level'. So what tends to happen is that Smith is most comfortable when describing his professional interest, cinema, he is much less authoritative when it comes to things he appears to know less about, like gaming and music.

The first chapter is essentially a summary of Lovecraft's major stories. The exclusion of his essays and especially his poetry is a little odd here since some of these other works, perhaps most notably 'Fungi From Yuggoth', are important and influential parts of the Lovecraft legacy. A few stories are listed merely as titles, but the majority of entries include a summary of the plot, the publication date and the magazine where the story was originally published. Where relevant, co-authors are given and, in some cases, literary connections with earlier writers are suggested, most commonly Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Dunsany.

Smith uses the second chapter to outline what has come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos, the 'shared world' created by Lovecraft and subsequently expanded by horror fiction writers from the late 1920s to the present day. In some ways, this chapter is one of the least satisfying. A large part of the introductory section is simply quoted from the 'Bibliography Of The Cthulhu Mythos' by Chris Jarocha-Ernst, while the list of 'Cthulhu Mythos' stories is that of Lin Carter's, published in 1972. There aren't any entries more recent than that, remarkable given the 2006 publication date of this book. There is at least one error in this section as well: 'The Diary Of Alonzo Typer', published in 1938, is listed (p.30) as being written by Brian Lumley and revised by Lovecraft; it was in fact written by William Lumley, an American contemporary of Lovecraft's and not Brian Lumley, a British writer who was only one year-old in 1937. A more minor quibble is Smith's use of the word 'gease' in the section on 'The Seven Geases' by Clark Ashton Smith; the singular should actually be 'geas' and that's the word used in the story. Taken together, though, these sorts of errors do suggest that Smith is in somewhat unfamiliar territory when discussing fiction rather than his specialist subject, cinema.

It's no surprise that the third chapter on cinema is where Smith finally comes into his stride. This is by far the longest chapter of the book, a whopping 82 pages of a total page count of 184. Some of these films, like 'Re-Animator' are well-known adaptations of Lovecraft stories, but most of the others are quite obscure. Smith has published several books on cinema and it's clear that this is a topic he's comfortable with. Fifteen films are reviewed in considerable depth, mostly but not exclusively American ones. Each film is summarised, critiqued and perhaps, most importantly of all, its faithfulness to Lovecraft's original story is discussed. Compared to the preceding chapters, there's a lot more analysis here, resulting in a satisfying read as well as a good summary of Lovecraft's influence on cinema. One quirk is the 'rating' given for each film: since there's no scale provided anywhere in the chapter, it's hard to know if Smith's rating is out of 5, 10 or a 100. On the other hand, Smith provides a very perceptive and wise conclusion to this chapter in his analysis of Lovecraft's cinematic significance. Among other things, Smith observes that Lovecraft's fear of degenerate outsiders should resonate with Americans frightened of illegal aliens and foreign terrorists, but at the same time Lovecraft's racism and xenophobia make him a difficult subject for movie companies anxious not to offend their audiences.

The fourth chapter is just a few pages long and brings together nine films that are not normally considered adaptations of Lovecraft stories, but have Lovecraftian elements in them nonetheless. There are some interesting choices here, but Smith handles the material well. The case for including 'Alien' for example draws not so much on the details of the story but its atmosphere. As Smith explains, the titular alien isn't 'good' or 'evil' but merely trying to survive and doesn't see humans as having any significance beyond their value as prey. The idea that alien beings have their own agendas utterly indifferent to our own is quintessential Lovecraft.

Television is very briefly dealt with in the fifth chapter. There's not much here, most notably a couple of episodes from an American series from the 1970s called 'Night Gallery'. Part of the problem with this chapter is that Smith only surveys US television; British serials such as 'Quatermass' with obvious Lovecraftian elements are left out. But arguments could be made for a bunch of American shows as well, perhaps most obviously 'Buffy', 'Angel' and 'Babylon 5'.

The sixth chapter covers comic book adaptations of Lovecraft's works. It's a brief, weak chapter that essentially boils down to a list of adaptations with a few comments at the start and finish.

Chapter seven covers music. This isn't a weak chapter, but rather an wildly incomplete one. Eight of its nine pages covers the work of a single band from the late 60s called H.P. Lovecraft. The name of this band aside, there's little in Smith's text to suggest that this band produced music that was genuinely Lovecraftian and in many cases the text seems to suggest the very opposite. In any case, almost everything here comes down to the author's obvious and slightly geeky enjoyment of this kind of music rather than any demonstration of Lovecraft's influence on the genre as a whole. Tacked onto the end of this chapter is a brief comment about Lovecraft's a strong influence on heavy metal, together with a token listing of four such bands. Frankly, the brevity of this part of the chapter is inexcusable when compared to the inordinate detail of the rest of it. While it's understandable that Smith may prefer one type of music to another, a scholarly book really needs to reflect its subject more fairly. Heavy metal, and to some degree goth and electronic music, could easily be argued as the musical genres where Lovecraft's influence is most obvious and leaving out relatively mainstream recordings like 'The Call Of Ktulu' by Metallica makes no sense at all.

In a similar way is chapter eight, Smith's survey of Lovecraftian games, also fails to hit the mark. The first line does give fair warning though, Smith stating that there are numerous games based on the works of Lovecraft, but declaring that his personal favourite is 'Call Of Cthulhu'. Clearly, he takes that preference to mean he needn't write about any of the others. This chapter consequently comes across as a few of Smith's random thoughts on this one particular role-playing game, albeit a game that is widely regarded as one the best of its kind. There's no context or sense of where this game came from or how it altered role-playing more generally. This chapter is further weakened by the very obvious absence of 'Delta Green', the other major Lovecraftian role-playing game, one in which the Cthulhu Mythos is brought forward into the present day. Slightly less serious is the absence of 'Dungeons & Dragons' from the chapter. This has lots of Lovecraftian monsters - aboleths and mind flayers for example - and back in 1980 there were even straight adaptations of Cthulhu and various other Mythos monsters in the first edition of the 'Deities & Demigods' sourcebook. It's also most remarkable that Smith says nothing at all about video and computer games. Given the publication date of this book, it's understandable why the 2006 title 'Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth' isn't mentioned, but 'Alone In The Dark' (1992) and 'Quake' (1996) certainly should have been included, amongst others.

The final chapter is nominally a discussion of Lovecraft's legacy, but the first three pages cover writers who influenced Lovecraft, rather than the other way around. Smith argues that this is to show Lovecraft in his 'proper place' but it's hard to see why that's done here rather than in the preface. Be that as it may, there are brief biographies here of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and various other nineteenth century writers. These are followed with some entries on Lovecraft's contemporaries and near-contemporaries, though oddly only a couple of his literary colleagues get mentioned: Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard. Notable by their absence are Lin Carter, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, amongst others. Only a single modern writer is included, Stephen King, and that seems a gross oversight. Where is Brian Lumley for example? Few modern authors have cranked out as many Cthulhu Mythos stories as Lumley and he's also significant for writing stories set in Lovecraft's other major literary world, the Dreamlands.

The book is rounded out with a two-page bibliography. Paradoxically for what's meant to be a primer to Lovecraftian studies, this is almost the only place where S.T. Joshi's name appears. He's arguably the most important critic of Lovecraft's work and his near-total absence from the rest of the book is surprising.

The bottom line is this: in 'H.P. Lovecraft In Popular Culture', Smith does a first-rate job when it comes to cinema; a somewhat less thorough job in terms of books and authors, and a patchy-to-poor job surveying music, television and games. The irony is that the influence of Lovecraft on popular culture is so great and so pervasive that providing an even survey of the subject shouldn't have been all that hard. It's a shame that what Smith has ended up writing is an excellent book on Lovecraft-inspired films with a few other topics bolted on. As such, this is a book that can only be recommended with reservations.

Neale Monks

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