Yes, I agree in that for the purposes of casual conversation there's no reason to mix it up with labels regarding what is or isn't "Lovecraftian." But if we want to play the game a little bit and dip our toes into the deeper waters of Lovecratian "scholarship" then there is some value there in analyzing his tropes and literary patterns. For so long literary scholars just chucked Howie into the bin with a bunch of other unmemorable pulp writers. But in recent decades people have been asking the serious question of how a writer of pulps could have SO MUCH influence on modern literature and entertainment.
Horro lit is one of America's greatest contributions to the literary genre. Of course the genius Poe gave the world both the detective story and the horror story. Like Poe, I think HPL transcended the baser aspect of the genre and created literature - and with its grounding in Jazz Age New England, genuinely American literature.
While HPL's literary style, themes, and even his genre evolved I think if you look at his stuff critically you will find an essential core that perhaps even he wasn't aware of. Take,for instance, the Outsider - written in 1921 and very much a representation of HPL's "Poe period." At it's core it's the story of a loner who fills his days with rummaging around an empty "house" reading antique books and wondering what life outside is like. When he finally finds out, it is revealed that his life is an utter lie and he is, in fact, a creature of the tomb. His compulsion to know the truth drove him to discover an even greater horror.
Now Mountains of Madness was written ten years later, but at its core it's about the same story. A team of scientists, alone and driven by their compulsion for knowledge discover that the truth leads to even greater horror and malaise than NOT knowing. In essence, a lot of the story is just window dressing on that same theme.
Ultimately HPL's stories are all autobiographcial. You grow up thinking you're warm and safe and wealthy only to find out your father died in a madhouse of sexually transmitted disease, your mother was also insane, and the wealth you were told you could rely on just wasn't there. Couple that with HPL's loss of faith and the scientific advances of his time and you get a guy who is both fascinated by the terror the future holds but also longing desperately to flee into a safer, more ignorant past.
Today we live in a post-modern era where our idols are smashed on a daily basis. None of us trust our institutions, we all know we're just hairless apes, and every day the news brings another story on the origins of the universe that boggles the mind. We're used to it. But that post-modern mindset was born out of the malaise of the 1920's. Hemmigway captured that anxiety in stories like The Sun Also Rises, but HPL used horror as a way to capture his feelings. And, I would argue, that's a more lasting contribution than Hem's work because, as a horror writer, HPL was not bound by the times in which he was writing. He made himself relevant to all ages.
So that's why I see at least some value in underestanding what it means to be Lovecraftian. August Derleth didn't get it. And Robert Howard had his own fears and phobias. King is a pastiche at best and a parody at his worst. Just throwing in a tentacled monster or a referene to the mythos doesn't make your story "Lovecraftian" - it's the pure terror of the existential crisis that sums up the man's greatest fears. And that involves facing those fears alone. We all have to die alone and that's why it's so damn terrifying.
That's what underlies HPL's writing - that everyone is believing the Big Lie and what is truly terrifying is to fall out of the herd and discover the truth - and that that truth is cold and indifferent like death itself.
Of course, any definition has positive and negative aspects, just like a set of numbers in arithmetic there is "what is included" and "excluded".
I think this above from T. Kelly Lee comes the closest to what I always thought made Lovecraft a sort of "unique set" unto himself. It brings to mind when HPL laments ( to paraphrase ) I have my Poe, my Dunsany, etc. pieces, where are my Lovecraft pieces?, I really feel this is the key point.
Up until Lovecraft, writers of horror were gothic, even if they didn't use dark castles or rattling chained spirits. Even more, they followed a certain rigid recipe of "comeuppance". You could argue there are a few people, like Andrew Bierce, who occasionally pulled at the yoke of fabulism enough to say they were trying to escape it, but all of their tales are fundamentally stuck in a structure where a universal ledger book was being kept in balance.
To whit: someone does something morally terrible, causing static electric charge to build in the clouds above, enter the Poe/Lovecraft discharge of atmospheric cleansing.
Outside Horror, a lot of authors were starting to play with the sort of "there is nothing else" theme long before Lovecraft, maybe going back to Lucian, and it's interesting to note that many of these authors were the ones that were also being banned in conservative locales. But, Horror I think was both a pop art form, and a conservative pop art form, in fact the most conservative pop art form. This seems strange, in a way, as isn't horror about confronting things that are on the edge? Although in a way, perhaps toeing the morals line was the method to keep them off the censor's list.
To me, what I thank Lovecraft for the most was two fold.
First, it was that he dispensed with the old, tired mechanics. He threw out ghosts and elaborate "Oh, they trained a [insert dangerous animal] to do their dirty work!" sort of schemes in Horror, and also the Bluebeard "man with a secret" alternative. Instead, he brought in sci-fi themes and spot welded them into Horror. Although I think as a sci-fi writer, HPL's stuff doesn't rise to the level of "hard" sci fi, it's more "syfy", he did start using them to nose around in the moral implications of a universe which could contain Hell without a wrathful Deity in it to give damnation purpose, which changed the motifs in place going back to "the Monk".
You could say Frankenstein was the glaring exception here where out of control science is the central engine, but I would say Frankenstein is fundamentally a Romantic/Gothic novel, par excellence
, revenants and moral cul de sac
Although, I think that the motifs/monsters is the less important thing.
The second thing he did was in the mechanic of the stories themselves he dispensed with the Poe lightning bolt. Not just as such, but in the metaphorical sense.
Sure, he went back and forth and maybe on the outside you could say "Curiosity killed the cat" was still in his fables, but I think he broke the back of the need for a moral circle in stories. This was something that horror writers seem to have never considered trying. In some of his stories, the awful fates of his characters didn't always have to equate to their deeds like balancing a chemical reaction.
I guess, too, that as a "pulp" or "familiar" art, this was reaching an audience that wasn't going to travel to get "Lady Chatterley's Lover" in the next American State, or the next country in Europe. This meant that it's impact was actually wider, that it hit a willing juvenile audience, and so over time it's result was larger.
Sure, Poe is a better writer, but in the end after reading him I can sort of picture several Victorians whose philosophical growth was stunted around the age of 12, acting scandalized over any of Poe's stories, even though they are fundamentally no more challenging to patrician assumptions than the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In fact, given how ruthlessly materialistic western societies were, that parable should have been more logically more jarring than Poe, by far. Poe's momento mori
short stories are interesting but if anything they reinforce a world view widely accepted, or at least tolerated, in his time of spiritualist churches.
Not all of the Lovecraft stories were auto-iconoclastic, but some of the better ones, the victim/hero is annihilated, or at least his ego as part of the human condition is annihilated, often by his own fundamental nature, not because he is guilty of a sin.
To me, everything else is sort of trimming, and while it's certainly a fingerprint of Lovecraft, just having a tentacled monster or organized legions of space navigating litter box users isn't the core.
Of course, I could be wrong and maybe someone can point me to an example that says otherwise.
Even Conan relentlessly clings to a "survival of the fittest ( most deserving )" thing, often coming close to self parody in the process. Darwin's model allows for creatures that look like action heroes but doesn't allow for real ones. A fish in water is an action hero, a fish out of water is probably dead. To me that swashbuckler strain in the pulps is not really a departure from the "you earned it" awards show that Poe put on. I think Lovecraft is the one who first snaps those chains, not the might thews of Howard, even though they played with similar ideas in the same sandbox.
Even Hemmingway is, to me, a Romantic, in the end. Camus comes closest to replicating the Lovecraft perspective, with his absurdism.... a long time later.
I have no doubt that Lovecraft was being prodded by the scientific understanding of the world in his time, which was just then dealing a new flurry of serious blows to the "revealed truth" assumptions of the past. Couple that with the devastating senselessness of WWI, and the zeitgeist was disillusionment. It leaves one to question how important HPL really was, as these ideas were already grinding up the mental constructs of the past without his help.
I know that literature of every stripe was trying to absorb, embrace, challenge or just make peace with these new realities, but Lovecraft to me took another approach which was something approaching to openly grieve over the pit of the grave they made for the human ego as transcendent, and then to sort of stare into the black hole of the transhuman ( Innsmouth, Dunwich Horror, etc. ) as far as he could, and then to recognize that "wow, this could be a joke... well, it's not funny to me ha-ha as such, but, I mean, if you were an inhuman mass of immortal chaos, it would be a great ice breaker if you had to make a speech at the R'lyeh Brunch when the stars align next time. 'Say, did you ever hear the one about the finite bipedal individualized flesh creatures?'"
Well, maybe I'm totally wrong here, I am making some pretty sweeping claims and it's just my perspective. I haven't even kept up with everything Joshi and other scholars have been doing lately ( 10 years or so behind ), so I'm probably totally wrong/ignorant. As usual, I'm sure I'm ignorant. But I would say Lovecraft has a case, particularly in the kids he influenced, in being the one who opened the doors to pop culture becoming primary instead of secondary.
Wow, never mind, that maybe is more than I can support. Certainly he cast a long shadow.