Had he not died of intestinal cancer in 1937 at the age of 46, Howard Phillips Lovecraft would turn 119 today -- an appropriately venerable age for the man who adopted the pose of an aged gentleman long before he'd attained such a status. As I noted last year at this time, Lovecraft's short life proved a remarkably influential one and nearly all of us in this hobby today are his creative heirs. It's hard to imagine what contemporary fantasy might be like if HPL's story of eldritch horrors and dread secrets hadn't attained the popularity they did after his death.
Of course, had Lovecraft lived longer than he did, I suspect contemporary fantasy's trajectory would also have been different. Influential though he is, Lovecraft is still very much a "back room" influence on most modern fantasy. That is, lots of writers of fantasy make use of Lovecraftian themes and elements, but very few of them employ anything like his cosmicism -- the belief that Man and his works are, in the great scheme of things, insignificant. That's hardly a good foundation for heroic fantasy in most people's eyes (though I disagree), which is why many gamers are content to call tentacled monsters "Lovecraftian" and not give a second thought to just what that adjective means.
There's nothing wrong with that approach, of course, and I'm as guilty of it as most. Partly that's because I don't share HPL's philosophy and partly that's because I can't deny the appeal of the Lovecraft "brand" even when it's utterly divorced from the worldview that gave birth to it. Still, I've often pondered what fantasy might look like today if Lovecraft rather than Tolkien -- or even Howard -- had had a greater direct influence over its development. Some of my thoughts on this question have informed my work on Shadow, Sword & Spell, the pulp fantasy RPG Richard Iorio and I have been writing. Others I've used as I developed Dwimmermount or worked on projects like The Cursed Chateau. In each case, I've tried to use Lovecraft's unsentimental attitude toward humanity as a basis for recasting heroism as more than just slaying dragons and seizing their treasure. That's not to say that such actions aren't heroic, but rather that they're not the only kind of heroism. Carrying on and doing the right thing after staring cold, hard reality in the face is heroism too and it's the kind that's all the rarer in a Lovecraftian world, since cosmicism often engenders despair.
As readers of this blog know well, I do share Lovecraft's love for the past, which is why I make a point of observing memorials to the individuals whose ideas have proven influential in this hobby. HPL is definitely one of the foremost members of the pantheon and we all owe him a huge debt. Here's hoping that more of us will grapple with his ideas and not just the means by which he conveyed those ideas. Amused though he might have been by it, I think Ech-Pi-El deserves to be remembered for more than just tentacles.