The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. - HP Lovecraft, The Call of CthulhuThere are only a handful of names that come up whenever a horror writer lists their influences. Among the oldest names are Edgar Allan Poe (of course) and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. For the former, there can be no doubt of the hair-raising qualities of his work. Yet for the latter, despite rabid praise from contemporary authors like King, Barker, Matheson and Johnson (yes, me), I hear lots of folks say they just don't "get" it. People don't like his writing style, don't like his flowery language, don't like (fill in the blank). So why, then, do people like the afore mentioned group of horror Gods (and one shameless self-promoter) love the man so much? I'll attempt to explain.
Lovecraft, to begin with, never referred to his work as "horror," but rather "weird fiction." Horror wasn't really much of a genre to him, but, along with Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, formed some of the longest-lasting images of horror, science fiction, and fantasy (respectively) of anyone. Of Lovecraft in particular, his themes have transcended his own age and moved not only through ours, but, I believe, beyond ours. His theme of forbidden knowledge, particularly, is one that has been the subject of countless movies, books and television series. All of his stories, in fact, resonate in some way the same overwhelming fear: The world you think is real isn't real at all.
Far beyond that, there are two things Lovecraft did better than any other. First, he was a master at bringing the settings, or even inanimate objects, to vivid life, creating an almost sentient character from every brick in each building. Look at The Shadow over Insmouth or even Pickman's Model to see what I'm talking about. The whole town functions as a living, breathing, slime-covered and malignant character in the former, while the single block in which Pickman lives becomes another. And for pure menace, one need only mention the dreaded Necronomicon for people, even those who've never read Lovecraft's work, to shudder. His description of the damned book so inspired people that many refused to believe it wasn't real, and others actually have developed cults dedicated to it. His second area of mastery, one that I subscribe to, was the notion that the things we can't see are, most often, more frightening than the things we can. While to some, his habit of leaving out details is annoying, to me it allows the reader to create the monster in his or her own head, which personalizes the story and makes it all the more frightening.
Now, sure, Lovecraft had his shortcomings. His writing, much like most of that from the time period, is long-winded and difficult. A person has to really want to read his work to develop a taste for it (or they have to be assigned it by a sadistic professor in a Masters level program...hehehe...). He was an unashamed racist (actually, an ethnicist...He didn't like European white folks either), was paranoid, and pretty-much scoffed at the idea of a loving, protective deity. He died a pauper living with his aunts and never really achieved what anyone considers any level of success.
But his influence lives on through his stories. Sure, the man may have had issues, but it's not the man we're looking at here. It's the work. His words, his themes, his technique. Say what you will, but look around at any writer of the modern age and you'll see Lovecraft's influence, if only in a small way.