The Horror on the Wall

Essay by S.T. Joshi

H.P. Lovecraft's opinion of film was not high. This should not be surprising: to one so devoted to the written word, the crude films of Lovecraft's early years could only engender a shudder of aesthetic disgust. Moreover, Lovecraft's first love in the performing arts was drama, and on the whole he preferred the stage to the cinema. He wrote in 1934: "I first saw a play at the age of 6. Later, when the cinema appeared as a separate institution (it had been part of the Keith vaudeville circuit since 1898 or 1899), I attended it often with other fellows, but never took it seriously. By the time of the first cinema shows (March, 1906, in Providence), I knew too much of literature and drama not to recognise the utter and unrelieved hokum of the moving picture."

All this may, however, be a bit disingenuous: Lovecraft's early letters testify to a considerable enjoyment of films of the 1910s and 1920s--not merely horror or fantasy films, but comedies and melodramas as well. In 1915 he actually wrote a poem to Charlie Chaplin ("To Charlie of the Comics"), and about this time he declared himself "a devotee of the motion picture," remarking that "Some modern films are really worth seeing, though when I first knew moving pictures their only value was to destroy time."

On the whole, however, Lovecraft was highly disdainful of the film medium, especially when it attempted to venture into horror and the supernatural. His most notorious utterance occurs in a letter of 1933: "As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly 'horrible' play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same--flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat made me drowse back in the early 1920's--and last year an alleged Frankenstein on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh! And the screen Dracula in 1931--I saw the beginning of that in Miami, Fla.--but couldn't bear to watch it drag to its full term of dreariness, hence walked out into the fragrant tropic moonlight!"

But there are some words that can be said on the other side. Consider Lovecraft's raptures over seeing The Phantom of the Opera in September 1925: ". . . what a spectacle it was!! It was about a *presence* haunting the great Paris opera house . . . but developed so slowly that I actually fell asleep several times during the first part. Then the second part began--horror lifted its grisly visage--& I could not have been made drowsy by all the opiates under heaven! Ugh!!! The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off . . . & the nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared beside & behind the owner of that face when the mob chased him into the river at the last!" Lovecraft reserved those double and triple exclamation marks only for state occasions. He also saw The Lost World in October 1925, but we have no letter testifying to its reaction to it; one would imagine he would have been impressed by this film, a landmark in its use of special effects in depicting dinosaurs in South America. Lovecraft also regretted missing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), "for it was by all accounts the best fantastic cinema ever produced." One would like to think he would have appreciated the nightmarish futuristic visions of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, since they coincide so starkly with Lovecraft's own foreboding prophecies of a future controlled by soulless machines.

Films are not entirely absent even from Lovecraft's fiction. In their introduction to The Lurker in the Lobby Andrew Migliore and John Strysik point out the clear cinematic imagery found in the early prose-poem "Nyarlathotep" (1920). One of Lovecraft's last works, "The Shadow out of Time" (1934-35), was manifestly inspired in part by the striking historical fantasy *Berkeley Square* (1933), based on a play by John Balderston. Lovecraft saw this film four times in late 1933; its portrayal of a man of the twentieth century who somehow merges his personality with that of his eighteenth-century ancestor was clearly something that fired Lovecraft's imagination, since he had written a story on this very theme himself--the then unpublished The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927). Of the film Lovecraft writes: "It is the most weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memories that I have ever seen--for all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age and insane jazz age into the sane reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780 . . . the age of the white steeples and fanlighted doorways of the ancient hill, and of the long-s'd books of the old dark attic trunk-room at 454 Angell Street. God Save the King!" In his letters Lovecraft keenly dissects some possible conceptual flaws in Berkeley Square, especially in regard to the element of time-travel; he felt that he had eliminated these flaws in his masterful novella of mind-exchange over time.

Perhaps Lovecraft did not approach films in the proper light, especially films that adapted existing literary works. He seems to have believed that the sole criterion of excellence in such works was the faithfulness of their adaptation of the original text. But a "film adaptation" is very much an adaptation--a transference of moods, images, and effects from one medium to another. Many have asserted that Lovecraft's tales are "unadaptable" to film or any other medium; and in a sense that is true, if one assumes that such an adaptation will mechanically seek to duplicate the effect of the written word onto the screen. Such an undertaking is futile from the start. But as the The Lurker in the Lobby demonstrates, the true value of a "Lovecraft adaptation" is the degree to which filmmakers have used Lovecraft's works as a springboard for the release of their own imaginations.