“Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”—Death
Born in Providence (the one in Rhode Island) in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft began writing at an early age, although his first commercially published story didn’t appear in print until 1922. To say that he was considered to be a hack would be an overstatement, because he wasn’t considered at all. All of his writings were printed in pulp magazines, and he was regarded as being no more talented than any of the other writers who couldn’t get their work published anywhere else. It wasn’t until years after his death in 1937 that his work was rediscovered and he came to be considered one of the great horror writers of the 20th century. Funny how that so often happens. It’s as if there’s some unknown force that won’t allow certain people to benefit from their brilliance.
Despite the subject matter of his stories, Lovecraft was an adamant atheist and scientific materialist. Some may wonder, as I did, how a materialist could (or would even want to) write horror, but therein lies his genius. What he saw in the cold, mechanistic view of the universe was no different than what sickened Walt Whitman (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer Speak”), and Herman Melville called the “colorless, all-color of atheism.” It’s no different than the horror felt by the devoutly religious in those moments when they contemplate the possibility that their prayers might be wasted and that no loving God watches over them. The difference is that Lovecraft embraced this nihilistic view as his inspiration. In a universe with no God and His angels to watch over us, you don’t need demons to fuel your nightmares. In such a universe, love is merely a biological tool to ensure the survival of the species, and morality is a fiction that we have created out of the fear of being victimized. In this sort of reality, where the older, more intelligent beings know for a fact that there is no righteous, vengeful deity who rains the fire of judgment down upon the wicked, it makes sense that the strongest creatures would be amoral and hedonistic. Weaker, more sentimental beings would be seen as nothing more than pawns to be used for their own gratification and amusement. Jesus doesn’t love you, and Cthulhu thinks you taste like chicken…and he and his friends are coming to dinner.
While he wrote many stories that stand alone, Lovecraft’s greatest contribution to horror was the collected works that make up what is now known as the Cthulhu Mythos. While only a few of his human characters appear in more than one story, some of his nonhuman ones are mentioned repeatedly in various tales, though they rarely put in a personal appearance. Extraterrestrial, extratemporal and extradimensional beasties like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep and Shug-Niggurath (Lovecraft was very fond of “g”s and “th”s, as well as tentacles) are always waiting behind the curtain of our quotidian reality to burst through the veil and devour our minds and bodies.
The greatest of his Outer Gods, Azathoth, the blind idiot “god” who sits outside of time and space at the center of the primal chaos is the perfect personification of the cold, impersonal forces that govern Lovecraft’s mechanistic universe without thought or mercy. He perfectly symbolizes a cosmos that simply “grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.” Although Lovecraft never directly stated this, it is implied that Azathoth created the various universes. Whether he meant to do so or was even aware that he had created anything is equally unclear. H.P.’s lack of a description of what exactly Azathoth is and what his motivations are is consistent with his “gods.” Doubtless he felt that maintaining a little mystery in regards to these beings only made them even more sinister and enigmatic.
Despite his scientific materialism, Lovecraft was blessed* with vivid and persistent nightmares that inspired many of his stories. Of course, one can have a Freudian field day psychoanalyzing the rationalist who writes horror stories and is plagued by dreams of demonic monstrosities. Jungians would probably be more apt to talk about the archetypal imagery contained in such nocturnal visions and attribute them to an unconscious rebellion against his conscious mind’s rejection of its very existence. Whatever Lovecraft may have thought about this seeming contradiction between his waking and dreaming life, two things are known: that he used his nightmares as the inspiration for much of his writing, and that he used dreams as a conduit through which the horrific creatures that populated his fictional universe could communicate with/manipulate/afflict whatever humans their malevolence resonated with or those whose ill-fated curiosity caught their attention.
This naturally raises the question of why these devastatingly powerful and malicious beings didn’t just conquer and enslave our planet. Why are they relegated to only being able to manifest themselves peripherally through dreams and arcane rituals? The simple answer, other than the fact that this wouldn’t make for a very compelling story, is that there is always some vague influence keeping them at bay…at least for the moment. The implication is that the invasion of our world and our subsequent subjugation to these alien and incomprehensible forces is forthcoming, and that this sudden, unimaginable assault on our conception of reality by beings that we can barely conceive of will be devastating to us both physically and psychologically. The best bet for those traitors to humanity who are aware of these beings is to align themselves with these overwhelming forces in the hope that their servitude will spare them the fate that awaits the rest of us poor fools, but that isn’t likely. Collaborators and lackeys are generally the weakest of the weak, and flattery will only get you so far. You might end up being one of the last human salad sandwiches, but you’re still going to get eaten in the end.
Lovecraft’s stories rarely contain accounts of people being butchered by masked psychopaths or attacked by monsters (at least not the main characters). His brand of horror was far more psychological. He preferred to create an aura of tension and foreboding to compel the reader to turn the page. A common theme was that the main character would start off having no idea what they were getting into or what dark secrets they would be confronted with. Their eventual discovery of these sinister, otherworldly beings and the realization of the true nature of the universe would frequently cause his protagonists to lose their minds, at least to some degree. Of course, the reader has figured out that the hero is delving into things that he would be better off not knowing about long before he does, but each of us would be equally hesitant to accept the reality of such things were we to find ourselves in the same position. The idea that there really are monsters under the bed is just too ridiculous to keep us from peeking to see what’s really making that growling sound.
One method that Lovecraft used to simultaneously enlighten and derange his characters was their discovery of bizarre texts which reveal the nightmarish truth of our place in the universe. By far the most famous of his fictitious tomes is the Necronomicon, supposedly written by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred in 730 AD and translated into English by none other than John Dee. So well-known is this book that there are those who believe that it is an actual work – a “myth” which is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that you should have no trouble finding a copy of it for sale at your local occult bookstore. What the naïve do not frequently know is that the book was a literary fabrication in the first place. They think it’s an authentic book of forbidden magic. What the somewhat less naïve but equally mistaken believe is that Lovecraft didn’t invent this work but was referring to an actual book of ancient spells. What they don’t know is that the book that you can buy on Amazon was actually written by someone who is known only as Simon, and that it actually bears little resemblance in its content to the one described by Lovecraft. (Actually, there have been several versions of the Necronomican published, but this is the only one that has enjoyed any real success – over 800,000 copies sold and counting.)
Reading some of the misinformed reviews out of the 300+ posted on Amazon would be nothing but comical to me if I hadn’t personally known two guys who actually performed one of the invocations from the book when they were in high school. Even two years after the fact, all that one of them would tell me was that he didn’t want to talk about it. The other one told me that he got the impression that whatever they had called up had realized that it was dealing with a pair of ignorant fools and had taken mercy on them by departing on its own after a few minutes. I find this interesting because certainly none of Lovecraft’s demonic creations would have been so compassionate. Then again, Abdul Alhazrad, a fictional character, didn’t write that spell; it’s all fiction no matter which way you look at it. So what, if anything, did these two guys call up that night that so frightened one of them that he still wouldn’t talk about it two years later? Beats the hell out of me. But any way you slice it, there’s still no actual connection between Lovecraft and anything in that book.
Nevertheless, there are still some who believe that Lovecraft was greatly influenced by supernatural powers, his staunch materialism notwithstanding. Most of these people point to his bizarre dream life as proof of this, most notably Kenneth Grant, founder of the Typhonian OTO and a protégé of Aleister Crowley. Grant seems to have believed that Lovecraft and Crowley both explored some of the same astral realms: Crowley on purpose, and Lovecraft through his dreams. As proof, he cites the similarity of some terms used by both men in their writings. Make of this what you will. Personally, I think they’re all grasping at straws and I wonder why it seems to be so important to them to link Lovecraft to the Western Occult tradition. I doubt very much that such a connection would give them any greater credibility or legitimacy in most people’s eyes.
The thing that most fascinated and disturbed me upon first reading Lovecraft is what I think of as the “innocent evil” of his malevolent beings. They struck me as being like nothing so much as kids incinerating ants under a magnifying glass. Why would otherwise harmless children commit such a barbaric act? The disturbingly simple answer is that it’s fun. It’s fun to reduce them to a speck of charred meat on the sidewalk and a tiny wisp of smoke. It’s not anything that the ants did; the kids are just bored and amusing themselves. They’re just ants, after all. Who cares what children do to ants? That question becomes much more sinister and horrifying when one considers that there might be creatures out there who feel the exact same way about us. Welcome to Cthulhu’s world.
A number of movies have been made out of various Lovecraft stories, but most of the ones I’ve seen were bad at best. The reason for this is obvious. Most of his stories just don’t lend themselves well to film. Unfortunately, it now seems that the one that might have had the best shot at living up to Lovecraft’s original story might never get made. Director Guillermo del Toro was all set to start filming the movie adaptation of the novella At the Mountains of Madness in 2006, the screenplay for which he co-wrote, but Warner Brothers demurred because they didn’t like it that there was no love interest or happy ending to the story. Movie studio executives today clearly don’t “get” Lovecraft any more than did the literary critics of the 1930s. In 2010, an announcement that the film was soon to begin production with Tom Cruise in the starring role appeared on some websites under the headline “It’s Xenu vs Cthulhu,” which is pretty darned funny provided that you know who both of these critters are. However, Universal backed out at the last minute over creative differences with del Toro, and the project is currently shelved.
Ironically, one of the best examples of what you will not find in a Lovecraft story is precisely what you do find in the 2011 film version of “The Whisperer in Darkness.” The first two-thirds of the movie follows the original story pretty closely. The protagonist eventually travels to remote Vermont and discovers that the diabolic alien presence on Earth is real. But rather than fleeing for his life upon discovering this, our hero decides that he must combat this alien menace, and the last third of the movie transforms into a typical Hollywood sci-fi action/adventure flick, albeit one with a surprising and somewhat improbable ending. While I wasn’t too pleased with some of this, I will admit that it isn’t half bad and is well worth checking out if you’re not too much of a Lovecraft purist.
Unlike modern writers who jealously guard their copyrights, the fraternity of horror writers in Lovecraft’s day borrowed freely from each other’s writings and built upon their colleague’s creations. Rather than being seen as an infringement on their intellectual property, it was taken as a compliment. Lovecraft himself took part in this to a very limited extent. He made several passing references to Hastur and the Yellow Sign in a few of his stories, both of which were taken from a collection of short stories entitled The King in Yellow (1895) by Robert Chambers. Much more often, however, it was Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos that was borrowed and expanded upon by other writers – a practice that continues to the present day and one which Lovecraft actively encouraged. As you could probably guess, most of it isn’t very good, and some of it misses the point of Lovecraft’s dark surrealism completely. Nevertheless, the dark dream continues…for better or worse. There are even Lovecraft/Cthulhu Mythos role-playing and video games if you’re into that sort of thing. Personally, I’ll just stick to the stories.
Happy Beltane everybody.
* I say blessed because I share this “affliction” with him, and I find nightmares to be far more interesting than the normal, “fluffy” dreams which just annoy me.