H.P. Lovecraft: Portrait of an Honest Atheist

Featured Image: “Shoggoth” by Nottsuo (2016)

A devout Roman Catholic jump-started a generation’s interest in elves, wizards and quests. An ascetic Providence atheist gave us a much different vision of the reality behind the old myths. J.R.R. Tolkien’s heroes could look toward the West and a light unending. H.P. Lovecraft’s protagonists stared into the gaping abyss of vigintillions of years to face unfathomable horrors. Tolkien’s work inspired the Brothers Hildebrant and Led Zeppelin: Lovecraft influenced H.R. Giger and metal musicians innumerable. And while Tolkien was arguably the single person most responsible for sparking the mid-20th century’s interest in Neopaganism — a movement which sent to stir-fried shit when Rowling replaced Tolkien as their primary literary inspiration — Lovecraft remains enormously popular amongst modern occultists.

So how did a Catholic kickstart Wicca and how does an atheist’s vision of inhuman Elder Gods inspire modern-day sorcerers? Authors don’t choose their audience: their work is laid before readers who interpret and use it as they see fit. Perhaps they write for the joy of creating their own worlds and languages. Perhaps they write to make sense of the nightmares which haunt their nights. More often they do not know why they write, they only know that they must. The closer their stories approach Truth, the more strongly they will appeal to those hungry for truth. And those who approach closest will find themselves leaving the land of story-tellers and stumbling into the realms of Myth.

Upon discovering Santa Claus was not real, a five year-old Howard Phillips Lovecraft wondered if God was not also a myth. His disenchantment with New England Protestantism led to a brief period where he declared himself a “Mussulman” named Abdul Alhazred: by eight he was an ardent Pagan with a “half-sincere belief in the old gods and nature spirits.” An autumn vision of Pan dancing with dryads fanned his fervor till a study of physics and astronomy laid bare to him the scope and indifference of the universe. Writing in the February 1922 issue of Brown University’s The Liberal , Lovecraft stated “I have no particular wishes, save to perceive facts as they are.” A few months later he would publish the prose-poem “Azathoth” and describe a lonely man trapped in “the waking world and the greyness of tall cities,” whose love for the distant and barely visible stars bridges a gulf between his shabby room and the great spaces beyond.

There came to that room wild streams of violet midnight glittering with dust of gold; vortices of dust and fire, swirling out of the ultimate spaces and heavy with perfumes from beyond the worlds. Opiate oceans poured there, litten by suns that the eye may never behold and having in their whirlpools strange dolphins and sea-nymphs of unrememberable deeps. Noiseless infinity eddied around the dreamer and wafted him away without even touching the body that leaned stiffly from the lonely window; and for days not counted in men’s calendars the tides of far spheres bare him gently to join the dreams for which he longed; the dreams that men have lost. 

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think” Lovecraft wrote four years after his Liberal essay “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” That story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” became the cornerstone of the Cthulhu Mythos. For nearly 100 years and counting writers have penned tales about the Elder Gods. Frank Belknap Long (“The Hounds of Tindalos“); Robert E. Howard (“The Black Stone“); Robert Bloch (“Notebook Found in a Deserted House“); Neil Gaiman (“I, Cthulhu“); Stephen King (“Gramma“) — these and other famous authors have set stories in Lovecraft’s universe. Several Cthulhu stories have been made into films of varying quality while other movies (notably Ridley Scott’s Alien series) owe a great deal to his vision.

The Necronomicon was an ancient tome compiled by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred from pre-human sources. One of the few surviving copies was kept under lock at key at Miskatonic University (a stand-in for Brown) to protect it from overenthusiastic grad students or scheming sorcerers. Today’s aspiring defilers of the cosmic order needn’t travel to Arkham (home now both to Miskatonic and the Joker’s favorite asylum). Amazon lists Necronomicons compiled by occult luminaries like Colin Wilson and Simon, among others. The Necronomicon gets referenced in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. And in the 2002 Simpsons episode “Brawl in the Family” the Springfield Republican Party is treated to Bob Dole reading from Alhazred’s forbidden grimoire.

Lovecraft’s philosophy has been described as “Cosmicism” or “Cosmic Horror.” As Matthew Baldwin describes it:

The defining feature of Cosmicism is not evil, as is the case with Gothic horror, but the utter insignificance of man. As the current trend of “sexy supernatural” fiction demonstrates, there is an allure to being desired, even when your suitor is of a supernatural, even malevolent ilk. But Lovecraft gave his readers no such solace. His existential universe is one in which no one and nothing cares about us one way or the other, where the only “gods” are beings of a scale we mortals cannot readily process.

For Lovecraft’s protagonists there is no victory, only survival. Whatever knowledge they gain is more likely to bring madness than wisdom. The narrator of “Dagon” throws himself out a window when he can longer blot out his memories. The grave-robber who disturbed “The Hound” puts a revolver to his head in search of ” the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable.” And the explorers who find themselves “At the Mountains of Madness” discover that terrestrial life is

the products of unguided evolution acting on life-cells made by the Old Ones but escaping beyond their radius of attention… 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.

Like Tolkien, Lovecraft sailed toward his true harbour. He saw a great, yawning, indifferent abyss and mapped it to the best of his ability. Within the constraints of his truth his map is painfully accurate. He showed his readers the full ramifications of the scientific ideology. He illuminated our existence as organic life forms crawling about the face of an insignificant planet revolving around an unimpressive star hanging in a great emptiness. He reminded us of how brief our lives are when measured against the scope of aeons. And yet though he sailed unflinching into that abyss, he did so looking back towards the peace and comfort of a brighter age.

Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square, 1933

In a 1933 letter Lovecraft complained that most plays, movies and radio dramas were “all the same–flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations.” Yet that same year he saw Berkeley Square four times. Based on John Bradeston’s popular 1928 play, Berkeley Square tells the story of Peter Standish (Leslie Howard), a 20th century American visiting a London house that once belonged to his family. There, by force of will, he travels back in time to 1787 and steps into the body and life of his ancestor, Captain Peter Standish. Lovecraft said of that movie:

It is the most weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memories that I have ever seen–for all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age and insane jazz age into the sane reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780 . . . the age of the white steeples and fanlighted doorways of the ancient hill, and of the long-s’d books of the old dark attic trunk-room at 454 Angell Street. God Save the King!

In 1892, when Lovecraft was two, Lord Kelvin estimated Earth’s age at 100 million years: he would later reduce that to 20 million. The development of radiometric dating soon made it clear the earth was much, much older: in 1927, Arthur Holmes suggested the Earth was between 1.6 to 3 billion years old. As our telescopes improved, we began to grasp the vast distances between our Sun and those other sparkling lights in the sky. The universe of Lovecraft’s adulthood was far older, larger and emptier than that of his childhood. His commitment to seeing facts as they were never waned. Neither did his terror of the void.

The world once neatly mapped by Newton was now being overturned by the work of Einstein, Bohr and Schrödinger. “Strange angles” and “non-Euclidean geometries” are frequently mentioned by Lovecraft. A sailor trying to escape R’lyeh trips and is swallowed up “by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.” Walter Gilman’s knowledge of Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics, mixed with folklore and ghoulish Gothic tales, leads to nightmarish “Dreams in the Witch-House.” And after experiments during a 1919 solar eclipse provided evidence supporting Einstein’s General Relativity, Lovecraft lamented that the experiment “removes the last hold which reality or the universe can have on the independent mind.” (He would have been distressed to learn that a few years after his death Einstein’s theories would open the Atomic Age with some very big bangs).

The Origin of Species left Lovecraft a believer in evolution. But where most scientists of the day took Homo sapiens to be the pinnacle of creation, Lovecraft saw mankind as clever apes who happened to be ruling the planet for a brief stretch. What’s more, he reasoned that anything which can evolve can also sink back. “The Lurking Fear” gives us a thunder-maddened clan transformed into monsters through isolation and inbreeding. Amphibious hybrids between humans and Dagon-worshipping ocean dwellers cast “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia was rooted in terrors he learned from science books. His enthusiasm about those subjects was noteworthy even for early 20th century America, but his views were supported by many scientists. Margaret Sanger never named her cat “Niggerman” but in a 1921 article said:

In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.

Birth Control is not advanced as a panacea by which past and present evils of dysgenic breeding can be magically eliminated. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.

Lovecraft’s name is on this cover. Trust me.

The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already, even in Ransom’s own time, begun to be warped, had been subtly manoeuvred in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result. Babble about the élan vital and flirtations with pan-psychism were bidding fair to restore the Anima Mundi of the magicians. Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of Man as God. The very experiences of the dissecting-room and the pathological laboratory were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnances was the first essential for progress. And now all this had reached the stage at which its dark contrivers thought they could safely begin to bend it back so that it would meet that other and earlier kind of power. Indeed, they were choosing the first moment at which this could have been done. You could not have done it with nineteenth-century scientists. Their firm objective materialism would have excluded it from their minds; and even if they could have been made to believe, their inherited morality would have kept them from touching dirt.

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 1945

Had Lovecraft been any less committed to objective materialism he might have fallen prey to one of the many “Occult Sciences” which were common in his day. Spiritualists were still trying to get photos of ectoplasm; scholars were testing for telepathy and clairvoyance; psychologists and doctors were presenting all kinds of dubious miracle cures for body, mind and soul. He could have looked to Theosophy and given us benevolent alien gods dispensing soothing wisdom. Instead he took Blavatsky’s blandly optimistic hints of preterhuman civilizations and turned them into eldritch nightmares.

Many ghost stories of Lovecraft’s day ended with natural explanations to supernatural phenomena: everything was resolved with the fraudster caught and punished. (Our Scooby-Doo stories are a modern version of that tradition). Lovecraft rejected the supernatural as surely as those enthusiastic hoax-hunters. But instead of soothing our fears with the comfort of logic and reason, he reminded us that the universe is beyond our understanding. His Elder Gods were incomprehensible as Yahweh and even more unpredictable. And while many of his fellow pulp writers were dreaming of visits to the stars, Lovecraft expected mankind to become:

as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

The works of Tolkien and Lewis are stained glass windows through which the Light they found in Christianity and European mythology shone on a world lost in shadow. Lovecraft’s work is a message in a bottle telling us the oceans are unfathomably deep and filled with monsters. All of them contain a spark of that Light because their writers sought Truth. Tolkien and Lewis sailed toward Avalon because they had faith they would find it. Lovecraft set out without that faith and gave us a chronicle of the Void. That spark of Light shone brightest in him when he recognized its horrors. It shines brightest in us when we recognize them as well.

Notes From The End of Time 5: H.P. Lovecraft, Atheist Mystic

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