Studying the Dark: Science in H.P. Lovecraft’s Work

Science blog post imageThis post is by Matthew Stevenson, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

In Lovecraft’s work, science is, more often than not, a force for evil. Whenever it appears, it brings catastrophe. It never aids the hero constructively, and never provides useful information. This seems odd, given Lovecraft’s significant, mostly self-taught, knowledge of the sciences. For someone to be so dedicated to a subject that they kept absolutely up-to-date with the latest developments within it, it’s a little strange to see it so consistently represented in his writings in this way. True, he was a writer of mostly horror, and it seems natural for him to use science as a source of evil, but it is the invariable treatment of science in this way that stands out. One can write horror incorporating elements of science without it being an antagonist. Take The Thing for example. In this movie, science is quite helpful, as it enables the characters to devise a blood test to determine who is not what they seem. It doesn’t help them in the end, but it does advance the plot without being purely evil.

There are a variety of instances where science brings horror and madness to Lovecraft’s stories. In Herbert West: Reanimator, the title character uses his knowledge of science to develop a way to reanimate the dead. This does not end well at all for him, or several other characters. In fact, every new step he takes in his studies seems to end in a nightmare of one form or another. In From Beyond, Crawford Tillinghast uses his scientific prowess to enable human beings to see (and be seen by) the inhabitants of other dimensions. This leads to his insanity and and a wholesale loss of life within his serving staff. The Elder Things, as described in At the Mountains of Madness, used their advanced technology to create the amorphous plastic shoggoths, who turn on their masters in a spectacular fashion. Walter Gilman’s advanced studies in quantum mechanics in Dreams in the Witch House allow him to travel between dimensions, but lead to heartbreaking consequences. In the The Mound, advanced science is used to create an eternal purgatory for a pair of unlucky characters. Even the results of science, as technology, are a regarded as a source of evil. As Lovecraft writes in Nyarlathotep:

“Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare.”

So, science is a cause of grief, but what would science be without scientists? The mundane and nondescript scientists of Arkham University, when they appear, aid malign forces passively by being perfectly useless, as in The Color Out Of Space or The Dunwich Horror. The real trouble, though, comes from the scientists with a true passion for their work. These impassioned characters attack their research with vigor and ruthlessness, they battle the less insightful, they toil in makeshift laboratories, but in the end, all fall prey to their own hubris and create nightmares. Lovecraft sums up these characters best in From Beyond:

“That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator, for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair if he fail in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.”

With a lot of other authors, it would be possible to pass off the constant use of science as an enemy as coming from fear due to ignorance of the field. With Lovecraft, this is manifestly not the case. He produced scientific journals (one in chemistry and one in astronomy) while he was younger indicating an early interest in science. Lovecraft never attended a university, but he definitely kept extremely up to date with the science of his time.

His incorporation of Pluto as Yuggoth in the Whisperer in Darkness is certainly timely, and often commented upon, but this discovery made headlines around the world when it occurred, and doesn’t imply any remarkable knowledge of astronomy. However, looking at the science in Dreams in the Witch House tells a different tale. The knowledge shown by Keziah Mason involves some of the less well-known characters of the day:

“Gilman could not have told what he expected to find there, but he knew he wanted to be in the building where some circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the seventeenth century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.”

Plank laid the foundations for quantum theory back in 1900, and with Heisenberg and others contributed greatly to the development of Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. This work, which involved Erwin Shroedinger of indeterminate cat fame, described how matter can be described as a wave-function which tells the probability of finding a particle in a range of space as opposed to earlier physics were one could exactly locate the particle. An aspect more relevant to the story is that it gives a finite chance of finding a particle where you wouldn’t expect it, such as on the other side of a wall in a sealed off attic space. Willem de Sitter, hardly a household name, worked with Einstein on gravitational effects combined with general relativity, his fame lying in an area not often visited by laymen, but with bearing on the story as it deals with the manipulation of space-time. This becomes more apparent from this later quote:

“One afternoon there was a discussion of possible freakish curvatures in space, and of theoretical points of approach or even contact between our part of the cosmos and various other regions as distant as the farthest stars or the trans-galactic gulfs themselves—or even as fabulously remote as the tentatively conceivable cosmic units beyond the whole Einsteinian space-time continuum.”

This reference to space-time curvature is a direct reference to general relativity, and its use here shows a working knowledge of a fairly advanced concept in physics. These elements feature quite strongly in The Dreams in the Witch House and form the core elements of the plot. In moving between dimensions one can certainly envision having to apply each of these concepts, and using them here shows an understanding of some fairly advanced, and very recent (to the author), physics. Lovecraft didn’t just use the names of discoveries to give a more scientific feel to his writing, he applied these concepts properly.

So, it seems that Lovecraft presents a bit of a dichotomy. He expends what one would think to be some serious effort in keeping up with the latest scientific advances of the times, but consistently portrays science as an enemy, as a source of madness and strife. There are probably many reasons why this may be the case, but two seem to stand out.

First, Lovecraft was writing in the shadow of World War I, a war that, with its incredible brutality and number of dead, made an indelible impression on the people of that time. Apart from its magnitude, this war was notable for its use of science and technology. The use of poison gas as a weapon, the advent of incredibly large and long range artillery, and the development during the war of the process to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere for use in nitrogenous compounds used to make ammunition, all were clear demonstrations of science’s darker side.

A second plausible reason was the advent of quantum mechanics. The deterministic, predictable, universe was replaced in the first quarter of the 1900’s by a probabilistic one. The underpinnings of our understanding of the universe had changed from the predictable to the vague. Throughout his work, Lovecraft regards chaos as evil (Azathoth personifies this) and the rise of the probabilistic quantum mechanics could certainly be interpreted as a move towards chaos. In addition, the elegant, deterministic, science of the past had been lessened and made to seem primitive. This could be seen as an affront to the history that Lovecraft so admired.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, Lovecraft’s attitude towards science certainly makes for a good read, and it also provides a useful caution. If you pursue scientific research, don’t get too caught up in it, as we know how it’s going to end if you do…

3 responses to “Studying the Dark: Science in H.P. Lovecraft’s Work

  1. Great article – do you know of any statements fron HPL’s nonfiction writings that give any more insight into this tension?

  2. Hey Matthew – enjoyed the article!
    It is ironic how HPL loved science but frequently made it a source or cause of evil in his stories. In a way this is similar to a lot of Michael Crichton’s work. Science is the cause of all of our problems and if we only stayed in the trees, ate bananas and picked parasites off each other we would have been better off.
    However, when you look at some of Lovecraft’s other, non-fictional writings, particularly in Astronomy, you see that he had a great love and respect for science. Check out his articles / notes “Science versus Charlatanry” and “The Cancer of Superstition” and I think you get a better favor for what Lovecraft thought of science.
    I think science was an effective plot devise that Lovecraft loved to use on a regular basis. I agree the horrors of WWI and experiments with radiation were probably dancing in his head while he wrote his stories, just as genetically engineered plagues or self aware machines are in the head of many people now a days, but I believe Lovecraft was a true fan of science. I do think Lovecraft wanted to warn us in his stories that science can go too far and when humanity does, that is when the real horrors begin!
    Fred Lubnow

  3. To be honest, I haven’t spent a ton of time with HPL’s nonfiction work, so I don’t know. Reading through those writings might be an interesting next step for me to take with this analysis, though.

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