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Atheism's Mythographer

How H.P. Lovecraft reinvented mythology for the postmodern Age of Science.

 
> Read more about this topic in KNOWING FEAR

"To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law -- to be linked with the vast outside -- to come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and ultimate -- surely such a thing was worth the risk of one's life, soul, and sanity!"
- H. P. Lovecraft, "The Whisperer in Darkness"
 

I: FROM BEYOND
My hometown is not that much different from the rotting and moldering sinkholes that Providence author H. P. Lovecraft invented to house his horror stories. Like the fictional Arkham and Innsmouth, Mass., my city boasts a diseased downtown of crumbling buildings and indifferent shopkeepers peddling strange wares. And since many of the people here are unnaturally white from the non-existent upstate New York sun, it has never been too hard for me to imagine the reptilian cast said to give Lovecraft's gloomy coastal townspeople the "Innsmouth Look."

I first discovered Lovecraft when I was a kid reading an anthology of horror stories with the un-horrifying title of 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories. I instantly loved his fiction, but I have to confess that his archaic and adjective-filled stories made me think the 1920s pulp-writer was one of the 19th century authors in the style of Edgar Allan Poe. Since Lovecraft liked to think of himself as an old gentlemen from ages past, nothing would have pleased him more.

Lovecraft's brand of horror was a unique blend of the traditional monster story and modern philosophy in the Neitzschean bent. He created a universe filled with dread monsters lurking just outside the known world, ever-ready to break through and take over. His stories of a vast, impersonal cosmos with little thought or mind for the puny likes of man transformed the weird tale into a story of cosmic horror. The endless swarms of mighty chaos are ruled by Azathoth, the demon-sultan, who Lovecraft says is "encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paws."

"Although cast in vaguely theistic form," says Joseph Morales of Psychozoan magazine, "with a personal name and titles such as 'daemon sultan' and 'Lord of All,' Azathoth is a sort of anti-god. That is not to say that he is a devil either. Rather he is cast as an idiot, whose pointless noodlings on the flute accidentally give rise to whole universes."

The nuclear chaos sprawling at the center of infinity is similar in form to, and in fact predates by nearly three decades, the Big Bang of our generation. Like the scientific explanation for the origins of the universe, Lovecraft's Azathoth has neither a master plan nor any concern for his creations.

"Lovecraft's description of Azathoth," Morales says, "makes use of our childhood image of a God in charge of all things, but then subverts that image by investing it with the most essential attribute of the mechanistic-materialistic worldview: a total lack of conscious purpose."

Lovecraft's tales of ancient gods generated by a primal chaos in a universe without purpose strike close to the post-modern crisis of man's place in a materialist universe where pure reason concludes that the gods of religion seem to have abandoned man to the wrath of science.

"For Lovecraft," author Erich Davis says, "it is not the sleep of reason that breeds monsters, but reason with its eyes agog. By fusing cutting-edge science with archaic material, Lovecraft creates a twisted materialism in which scientific 'progress' returns us to the atavistic abyss, and hard-nosed research revives the factual basis of forgotten and discarded myths."

The key to the abyss in Lovecraft's world was Science itself. It was through science that the well-spring of horror arose, and this is what captivated the minds of those who read him. Lovecraft introduced a new brand of horror that dispenced with the supernatural as an opposition to the natural order.

In a letter, Lovecraft wrote, "The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, and matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality--when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible and measurable universe."

This is why Lovecraft's monsters are so frightening at a level beyond horror-movie "Boo!" factor.

II: THE CALL OF CTHULHU
Perhaps the best-known of Lovecraft's monsters is Great Cthulhu himself, for whom Lovecraft's body of writing was eventually named by his successors. In the Cthulhu Mythos, the Cthulhu first makes his appearance in 1926's "Call of Cthulhu." In this story, a young man begins to piece together disparate facts and happenings to see the diabolical pattern hiding in between the lines, as it were. The horror of absolute knowledge of the true nature of existence is alluded to in the famous first paragraph of "Cthulhu":

"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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

The narrator later stumbles upon the traces of an ancient cult hiding the dread secrets of the Old Ones, ancient alien dieties who once ruled on earth but are now banished beneath the sea in their city of R'lyeh with their high-priest, the octopoid Cthulhu. The cult can bring them back again, when the stars are right, and Cthulhu and the Old Ones will rule where once they ruled before. Cthulhu talks to men in their dreams and directs them according to his larger purpose, driving them to the brink of sanity.

"The horror of Cthulhu," author Don Webb says, "is that he is an accurate depiction of the human psyche, which has purposes larger than the here-and-now and is seldom awakened. This story is one of the best descriptions of numinous terror available to man."

Once the reader recognizes the mythos monsters as manifestations of man's fractured psyche, it becomes easy to see that the characters in Lovecraft's fiction are representations of Lovecraft himself, so much so that the man becomes almost inseparable from his work.

"Lovecraft reproduces himself in his tales in a number of ways," Davis says. "The first-person protagonists reflect aspects of his own reclusive and bookish lifestyle; the epistolary form of the 'The Whisperer in Darkness' echoes his own commitment to regular correspondence; character names are lifted from friends; and the New England landscape is his own."

"Lovecraft's themes dominated his life," Webb says. "He was like his heroes, seeking a return to an idealized past. He avoided any intrusion in his world, kept his shutters drawn and avoided outside employment like the plague. On one occasion he refused a job in Chicago since the city had no Victorian buildings. He spent far more time writing letters than stories, and far more time idly dreaming than anything else."

Davis says that Lovecraft's autobiographical insertions make him a fascinating figure for his readers.

"This psychic self-reflection partially explains why Lovecraft fans usually become fascinated with the man himself, a gaunt and solitary recluse who socialized through the mail, yearned for the eighteenth century, and adopted the crabby outlook and mannerisms of an old man. Lovecraft's life, and certainly his voluminous personal correspondence, form part of his myth," he says.

So who was H. P. Lovecraft?

III: THE OUTSIDER
Born in 1890 as the last scion of a formerly aristocratic family, Howard Phillips Lovecraft spent most of his life locked away in his Providence home, hiding from the world. His father died at a mental institution when he was young, and his mother raised him under the guidance of his grandfather, the industrialist Whipple Phillips, who entertained the young mythology-enthusiast with weird tales in Gothic style. Thus was born Lovecraft's love of the bizarre, and from his study of Greek myths, the foundations of the Cthulhu mythos.

"As a boy," biographer S. T. Joshi says, "Lovecraft was somewhat lonely and suffered from frequent illnesses, many of them apparently psychological. His attendance at the Slater Avenue School was sporadic, but Lovecraft was soaking up much information through independent reading."

By the age of 16, Lovecraft was writing columns for local newspapers, but his family had fallen on financial hard times. Lovecraft quit school, and by 1917 he began writing fiction, producing two stories -- "The Tomb" and "Dagon" (a foreshadowing of "Cthulhu") that year.

Politically, Lovecraft began life as a right-wing reactionary. His financial situation made him suspicious of outsiders, and he developed a pronounced racist streak, commenting in a 1915 letter, "The Negro is fundamentally the biologically inferior of all White and even Mongolian races."

Philosopher Daniel Ust says that Lovecraft's views of civilization were tinged with his racist opinions:

"He had a cyclical view of history. Civilizations and societies are born usually by crushing older ones, they flower and quickly become decadent. After a period of decadence they are overthrown by upstarts or by the leftovers of the ones they first overcame."

This pattern is most apparent in his fictional works, like "At the Mountains of Madness" where Antarctic explorers discover the million-year-old ruins of an alien civilization called "The Old Ones" who had descended to earth and made life as an experiment:

"When the star-headed Old Ones on this planet had synthesised their simple food forms and bred a good supply of shoggoths, they allowed other cell-groups to develop into other forms of animal and vegetable life for sundry purposes; extirpating any whose presence became troublesome . . . "

But this civilization inevitably decayed into a parody of itself, letting upstarts rule where once the pure blood had ruled before:

"They had been suffered to develop unchecked because they had not come in conflict with the dominant beings. Bothersome forms, of course, were mechnically exterminated. It interested us to see in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable."

Because Lovecraft's childhood wealth gave way to poverty, decline and the deaths of his grandfather and mother, for him modern civilization invariably had to follow the path of the Old Ones.

"It then becomes a matter of keeping things going for as long as possible, which may involve wiping out other races or keeping the decadent strains in one's civilization from becoming dominant," Ust says. "This is similar to Plato's view given in The Republic of using political control as a way of preserving society in the face of inevitable decline."

Ust says this is shown most clearly in Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," where the protagonist learns that the spawn of Cthulhu have interbred with the people of the city, creating a degraded population of fish-men.

"In this tale we also get a whiff of his racism," Ust says. "(Lovecraft) attributes the decline of Innsmouth to the mixing of races not only between various human ones, but also between the human and the nonhuman."

In apparent contradiction to his rule against mixing races, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, a Russian Jew seven years older than he in 1924. They seemed happy at first, though Greene said her husband was only "an adequately excellent lover." After more financial trouble they divorced in 1929.

During his marriage, he lived with Greene in New York, and "he became increasingly depressed by his isolation and the masses of 'foreigners' in the city," Joshi says. Lovecraft then wrote some of his most racist and xenophobic fiction, including "The Horror at Red Hook," set in the seedy mixed-ethnicity neighborhood where Lovecraft lived after separating from his wife.

He returned to his hometown of Providence in 1926, the same year he wrote "Call of the Cthulhu." He moved back into his old home with his two aunts and experienced period of high productivity that lasted through his death. During this time he wrote his greatest stories, including At the Mountains of Madness, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and "The Colour Out of Space."

During this time "he became concerned with political and economic issues," Joshi says, "as the Great Depression led him to support Roosevelt and become a moderate socialist; and he continued absorbing knowledge on a wide array of subjects, from philosophy to literature to history to architecture."

He died of intestinal cancer in March 1937 without ever publishing a book. His literary creations were spread across a series of pulp magazines like Weird Tales, so his friends formed Arkham House publishers to issue a hardcover volume of Lovecraft's writings. The book, The Outsider and Others appeared in 1939.

IV: THE LURKING FEAR
Read as a whole, Lovecraft's stories took on a greater meaning than any one tale ever could, thanks in large part to Lovecraft's use of the weird tale to house his philosophical ideas about man and the universe. However, not everyone liked Lovecraft's writing. Famous literary critic Edmund Wilson called Lovecraft's stories "hack work" in a 1945 New Yorker review. Even today, critics like Jack Stenz do not believe Lovecraft ranks high on the literary scale:

"Let's put it this way: a student caught reading For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Great Gatsby during a high school English lecture would probably get a pat on the back and extra credit. But let the teacher spot that student perusing the pages of [Lovecraft protege Robert E.] Howard's "Conan the Cimmerian" or Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and the young offender would likely end up in detention instead."

In my high school days, Lovecraft was a perfectly acceptable topic for an English class term paper on a major author, but I will let that comment pass. Stenz takes issue with the way "high-modernist literary authors like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are getting inexorably hijacked by the lurid, undomesticated pulp writers of the same era."

Stenz admits Lovecraft is more popular than ever but denies this makes any difference in his literary ranking: "Of course, popularity is one matter and respect another, and certainly Howard and Lovecraft have a long way to go before being accepted into the canon of Major American Writers."

Stenz believes he knows the problem with Lovecraft, "what one might delicately call the language problem. Namely, the easily parodied, adjective-rich prose style that Lovecraft developed under the influence of his hero Edgar Allan Poe and British fantasists Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany. Already somewhat archaic in his own day, his writing, long on atmosphere, short on plot and characterization, looks even more unwieldy in an age that worships action and dialogue, and whose primary literary form is the screenplay."

Oddly, Stenz believes Lovecraft's "unwieldy" language is his biggest defect because it detracts from the cinematic quality of modern writing. Are we to understand that cinema is the only true literature, and that image should triumph over idea? Stenz obviously believes as much.

V: THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME
I am neither the first nor the last kid to discover Lovecraft in some dread volume lurking in the back-aisle of a bookstore. Much like the Lovecraftian protagonists who discover dread secrets about the universe from the worm-eaten pages of Lovecraft's fictional tome, The Necronomicon, two generations have now discovered in their own ways the cosmic horror that Lovecraft fused into his stories, guaranteeing a kind of immortality for his creations, even the extraterrestrial Fungi from Yuggoth.

Davis says, "In France and Japan, his tales of cosmic fungi, degenerate cults and seriously bad dreams are recognized as works of bent genius, and the celebrated French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari praise his radical embrace of multiplicity in their magnum opus A Thousand Plateaus."

"By endlessly playing out a shared collection of images and tropes," Erich Davis says, "genres like weird fiction also generate a collective resonance that can seem both 'archetypal' and cliched. Though Lovecraft broke with classic fantasy, he gave his Mythos density and depth by building a shared world to house his disparate tales."

Lovecraft added verisimilitude by grounding his fiction in a dark legendry of forbidden books that housed the esoteric and occult visions from the fartherst corners of Lovecraft's mind.

"He created a number of fictional texts," Don Webb says, "such as the Necronomicon or the Pnakotic Manuscripts, as triggering devices for his readers. The trigger works as follows: the reader reads a tale in which the protagonist reads a text partially concealed. Suddenly, the reader has the frisson of glimpsing a partially obscured part of their own imagination."

Lovecraft liked to share his creations with his friends, so that they would use the same fictional names and places in each other's works to further give an air or reality to his partially obscured texts.

"Lovecraft," Webb says, "pushed this technique by seeding other writer's tales with these forbidden books, and encouraging his friends to drop references to them in their own work. This illusional reality convinced many Weird Tales readers of these books' existence, just as it convinces many modern readers first encountering the Cthulhu Mythos today."

"Lovecraft's supreme intertextual fetish, the Necronomicon stands as one of the few mythical books in literature that have absorbed so much imaginative attention that they've entered published reality," Davis says.

Today there are several published versions of the Necronomicon, though all of them are hoaxes, spoofs or forgeries. Writers like Colin Wilson or Parker Ryan have attempted to prove that the forbidden book, said to have been written by an eight century Arab sorcerer called Abdul Al-Hazred, really existed. This despite the fact that Lovecraft himself confessed that Al-Hazred was a name "I used to call myself when I was five years old [and] eager to be an Arab" and Necronomicon "occurred to me in the course of a dream."

During the 1960s, students discovering Lovecraft for the first time would often place fake index card listings for the Necronomicon in library catalogues as a practical joke.

"It rather amuses the different writers," Lovecraft wrote in a 1934 letter, "to use one another's synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stories--so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon ... & so on. This pooling of resources tends to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendry, & bibiliography--though of course, none of us has the least wish to actually mislead readers."

However, those who are unaware of Lovecraft's literary deception and those who seek to twist his creations into a justification for their own views deny that the mythos is fiction. The most popular justification is that the Cthulhu channeled his dreams to Lovecraft, but others cite Francis Bacon's Invisible College.

"[Author Robert] North gives this Invisible College idea a shamanic twist, asserting that prehistoric Atlantian tribes who survived the flood exercised telepathic influence on people like John Dee, [Madam] Blavatsky, and Lovecraft," Davis says.

In this way, Lovecraft has become a hero of the New Age, the prophet of Erich von Däniken's alien astronaut gods and Graham Hancock's lost civilization. He has influenced countless authors, including Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and T.E.D. Klein. His Cthulhu made a guest appearance on the "Ghostbusters" cartoon, and Lovecraftian story-telling came to television in the form of the "X-Files":

"In particular, Fox Mulder's New England patrician origins, strange phobias and warped, stunted sexuality make him a very Lovecraftian protagonist," says Jack Stenz.

Spanning the distance from the demon-sultan thrashing at the center of infinity to the octopoid manifestation of the human psyche dwelling the sunken ruins at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Lovecraft gave a bodily form to the impersonal forces working quietly in the cosmos. Lovecraft's gods do not care about humanity, and the scientifically material universe does not either. The godless infinity science envisions has no purpose, no drive and no goal. Humanity is adrift, and Joseph Morales says that Lovecraft's unique cosmic vision will play an important role in the future as humanity struggles to comprehend the vast realms of new knowledge opened by the far-reaching gaze of science.

"Since the forms of religion are resistant to change, and those of science are couched in technical terms, in modern times it may be the creative artist who has the most important role to play in generating new myths to help us internalize our changing knowledge of the world," he says.

Lovecraft himself was an atheist and scientific materialist. He may very well have been atheism's first mythographer.

Read Lovecraft's work on-line

Read more about Lovecraft






BIBILIOGRAPHY

Davis, Erik. "Calling Cthulhu" Gnosis. Fall 1995 / www.levity.com

Joshi, S.T. "Howard Phillips Lovecraft: The Life of a Gentleman of Providence." April 2001/HPLovecraft.com

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Del Rey Books. New York: 1982.

----------. The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death. Del Rey/Ballantine Books. New York: 1995.

---------. The Transition of H.P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness. Del Rey/Ballantine Books. New York: 1996

Morales, Joseph. "H.P. Lovecraft and the Myth of the 20th Century." Psychozoan: 1997.

Stenz, Jack. "Return of the Weird." Sonoma County Independent (Metro Section) January 2, 1997.

Ust, Daniel. "The Philosophy in Lovecraft's Art" Full Context: February 1994.
 
Webb, Don. "Why Lovecraft Still Matters." NOVA Express. i14: 1997.

© 2001 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.