"For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming..."
- – H.P. Lovecraft, defining what is to be, at core, an elegan/tg/entleman
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer of horror fiction for 1920s pulp magazines, mostly the now defunct but famous at the time Weird Tales. He is lauded one century later as the pioneer of the idea of "cosmic horror". In his stories (and the genre that evolved from it) the horror doesn't arise from prosaic fears of death and dismemberment, but from the idea that the universe itself is utterly alien and either indifferent or actively malevolent towards mankind, full of incomprehensible horrors that our minds are ill-equipped to cope with because some asshat didn't make it OSHA-compatible. This idea replaced the traditional spooks, werewolves, vampires and psychos with tentacled monstrosities from beyond space and time, dark gods sleeping beneath the ocean, and secretive cults carrying out terrible rites to bring their masters back to the world of the living. His influence can be felt throughout our culture as cosmic horror became a core concept of both fantasy and science-fiction - Mind Flayers in D&D, the insidious cults and corrupting influence of the gods of Chaos in Warhammer, and of course Call of Cthulhu.
The message of most of his writings is: life sucks, history and culture are precious, foreigners are weird with inferior cultures and probably worship aliens (he was pretty racist for his day, early in life anyway), and - most importantly - man is hugely smaller and weaker than he thinks he actually is on the cosmic stage. Essentially, cosmic horror's grimdark value comes from the fact that really bad, really powerful things exist, and we can neither stop nor understand them. Sure, lesser things of his Mythos aren't all that bad, relatively speaking. You can exorcise a ghost, kill a werewolf, or bring down a Deep One with the right knowledge and equipment, but Lovecraft's big monsters can't be stopped. They're essentially immortal gods, you are at their mercy, and the best that you can do is, maybe, briefly, slow them down or temporarily boot them out of the world. Worst of all is that you either know this or are made painfully aware of it as the story unfolds: you might know these eldritch beings exist and their plans down to the very letter, but you also realize you can't do anything about it, like knowing the exact yield and placement of every nuke in World War III. Therein is most disturbing thing in Lovecraft's stories: the simple fact that the entirety of human existence is microscopic to the universe, its true nature beyond the physical scope of our comprehension.
Much of the horror of his works plays on the fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar. Considering just how weird and incomprehensible a majority of the antagonists are, though, it's no surprise that protagonists of his stories tend to end up batshit insane under the burden of the knowledge that, even though they might have temporarily disrupted those things' plans, it is but a hollow and temporary victory at the very best, and in some ways they were better off not becoming aware to begin with. Lucky(?) for us, most of these beings don't know or don't care enough about us to ruin our day, and some are even benevolent - by comparison, at least. With his concepts being all but public domain, it's not uncommon to find later media in what would come to be considered "Lovecraft Lite" that take liberties with the themes of cosmic indifference and hopelessness, for better and for worse; sometimes the existential and extraterrestial horrors are more actively malevolent towards humanity and its domain, and sometimes they can be dispatched in a more permanent manner. Sanity loss will usually still occur, though. He, like many authors, wrote what he knew and it's found in his works for better (Lovecraft disliked sea creatures, which is why many of his races and Great Old Ones resemble them to varying degrees plus the tentacle motif) or worse (any human/alien pairings and the resultant - always destuctive - progeny were a negative allegory of interracial couples and mixed race people).
Being a recluse, Lovecraft was also a prolific writer of letters. Lovecraft corresponded with many of the other authors of the time, including Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and even a young Robert Bloch (Psycho). While his writing was associated with nihilism and hopelessness, he was described as a decently happy and pleasant, albeit occasionally neurotic, guy to be around, and even though he much preferred being alone he was part of a sizable social circle of writers with whom he developed strong friendships. Howard's suicide in particular was known to have affected him greatly, and in turn Lovecraft's passing was met with deep mourning by his fellow authors, who aimed to make his otherwise obscure legacy known to the world by leading efforts to collect and publish (or republish) his writings.
Many of his correspondents wrote pastiches of his distinctive style of horror; in fact, Bloch and Lovecraft each wrote stories in which the other made an appearance (and died in a suitably gruesome way). This in turn helped some authors, borrowing many ideas and notions from Lovecraft and added them to their works as well: the most famous example would be the Conan universe, which is also set in the Mythos that Lovecraft created (although in this case a much, much earlier time). Lovecraft himself encouraged his friends and other authors to draw from his work and made no attempts to keep it as purely his own, spurring on his posthumous popularity and influence in media. Though he didn't have much financial success in his lifetime, he resolved to write when and what he wanted to, and to not "set down the dream for a boarish Publick."
Some of Lovecraft's stories
- Call of Cthulhu - Artists round the world go mad as an eldritch god stirs in its slumber.
- Shadow of Innsmouth - Man goes on trip to backwater ancestral hometown to learn more about his family. What he finds is not what he was looking for. Important background for Delta Green.
- The Colour Out of Space - A meteorite whose color cannot be described lands on a farm, contaminates the soil and water, drains the crops and livestock of their vitality, and drives the family into insanity before consuming them. Then it flies away to do the same thing to some other world.
- Dagon - Short story on one of the Deep One gods.
- The Dunwich Horror - A physical manifestation of the cosmic order had a baby with a normal human. As investigation on this strange boy deepens, people realize things are horribly wrong, as the blood and noises around the house suggest.
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: An intrepid investigator showing a certain descendant how to be awesome.
- At the Mountains of Madness - An Antarctic university expedition went missing, so a second mission is sent to find them. Little do they know about the billion-year-old horrors in wait. John Carpenter's The Thing was not an adaptation of this work, but it shares a lot of common elements.
- The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath - AKA Adventures of Mary Sue. It is nice though. Also clearly demonstrates Lovecraft's immense love of cats.
- The Cats of Ulthar - Don't ever kill a cat, especially not if the cat belongs to a gypsy. You will pay!
- Herbert West: Reanimator - Mad scientist insists on reanimating the dead, despite the fact that they make it very clear that they would rather not come back.
Influences on Tabletop Gaming
Not counting the games directly based upon his work:
- Any number of D&D monsters -- Mindflayers, though inspired by an image of tree roots growing from beneath a skull, gradually became stand-ins for Cthulhu and his spawn, gibbering mouthers are low-grade shoggoths, kuo-toa are much like the Deep Ones minus their strange breeding habits, etc...
- The Far Realm of D&D, a place outside creation home to unspeakable madness.
- The Jabberslyth in Warhammer Fantasy (shoggoths)
- The concept of Chaos in both the Warhammer Fantasy and 40,000 settings owes much to his work, in conjunction with Michael Moorcock.
- Magic the Gathering's entire Eldrazi set, as cheesy as it was, was about the Old Ones awakening.
- The Pathfinder RPG gets a lot of mileage out of Lovecraftian themes, like the stuff about aboleths creating the human race, the Vault Keepers, Aucturn the Stranger, and the Dark Tapestry. Eventually, many Mythos figures, including the C'ster himself, made appearances as pants-shittingly dangerous endgame bosses, and their creatures got (mostly pretty good) write-ups as encounter-able monsters. You can even play a Deep One Hybrid or Yaddithian.
- Xoriat, the Realm of Madness, home of the Daelkyr, from the Eberron setting is pure Lovecraftian horror.
- While Genestealers originally took their inspiration from the horror movie Alien, their cults are most definitely reminiscent of Shadow of Innsmouth mixed with the more apocalyptic cults devoted to alien gods.
- The lord of nerds and just as planned, the Chaos God Tzeentch is very reminiscent of some of Lovecraft's strangest creations, most notably Nyarlathotep.
Cthulhu Mythos and works based on it, including:
Other /tg/-relevant sci-fi authors: