“Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species if separate species we be for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” – Lovecraft
In a New York Times feature commemorating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, readers were reminded of Alfred Wallace, who independently conceived the theory of natural selection at roughly the same time as Darwin, and whose publication of a few initial forays finally goaded Darwin into writing what would become “On the Origin of Species.” Wallace eventually, though, gave up on materialism as a complete explanation of the human condition, in favor, in the last instance, of Spiritualism. Darwin came to own the idea of natural selection, then, not just because he was a singular genius or dogged investigator, but because, as Cornell’s William Provine puts it, “Darwin had the courage to face the implications of what he had done, but poor Wallace couldn’t bear it.”
Those familiar with the work of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) may here immediately think of Professor Lake of Miskatonic University. Lake is a researcher in biology who leads an expedition into the Antarctic, only to become unhinged after his discovery of a race older than man and more horrible than his imagination can bear. He is thereafter referred to by Lovecraft’s narrator only as “poor Lake.” Likewise, “poor Wallace,” delved into a dangerous knowledge of natural selection until it drove him something close to stark, raving mad.
Most of Lovecraft’s characters are, like Wallace and Darwin, concerned with matters of natural history, or its more personal version, genealogy. Lovecraft himself was a well-read student not only of Darwin but of a variety of natural historians, and an atheist whose anti-religious vitriol would make Richard Dawkins blush. But he saw the bare and mechanical natural world not as neutral or ‘natural,’ but as the ultimate source of horror. And for all his logic, he was a racist whose pronouncements, both in letters and sometimes in fiction, are vile even in their historical context. We find in Lovecraft a confrontation with the bedeviling consequences of Darwinism that may be more profound than it deserves.
The Terror of Descent
Lovecraft assiduously explored a Darwinian principle whose name now has for us an appropriately sinister and arcane ring – transmutation. Darwin’s theory of species creation is based on transmutation, an achingly slow process by which changes accumulated over time. The theory has what remain rather unexplored implications about the nature of species per se – Darwin repeatedly refers to the difficulty of defining any species at a given time, suggesting that ‘species’ is an empty signifier, a shifting boundary that may at any given time be undermined or crossed in ways large and small.
This clearly enthralled Lovecraft. One early exploration of speciation comes in the story “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, in which a young man discovers that his great-great-great grandmother was an ape, and forthwith sets himself on fire. The story is a trifle, no deeper in its understanding than various editorial cartoons of Darwin’s era depicting him as a monkey or otherwise mocking the “man descended from apes” theory. Those commentators regarded the idea as so inherently absurd that merely restating it constituted a joke, and Lovecraft here likewise presents it as so fundamentally and irrefutably horrific as to stand as a scare story on its own merits.
But as time went on, Lovecraft found much greater complexity in the theme, exploring just why it was so morbidly compelling. Probably the most subtle story in this vein is “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” written more than a decade after “Arthur Jermyn.” Here, again, a young antiquarian makes an unpleasant discovery about his ancestry, finding himself destined to turn into a kind of fish-man. But he refuses suicide – “I cannot be made to shoot myself!” – and as the story ends he is planning, with seeming joy, to “dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones . . . dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.” The reader has already, of course, been made to fear and hate these Deep Ones, and this final sentence produces a shudder rather than any sense of ‘glory.’
Lovecraft’s most famous pronouncement, from the opening of the critical study Supernatural Horror in Literature, is that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But he had a particular idea of this unknown, condemning werewolves, goblins, and vampires as “incompatible with twentieth-century scientific knowledge.” In a letter, Lovecraft offered a cryptic map to his reversal of pure fantasy as the source of horror: “Change is the enemy of everything really worth cherishing. It is the remover of landmarks, the destroyer of all which is homelike and comforting, and the constant symbol and reminder of decay and death.”
What we experience in reading “Innsmouth” is not the terror of incursion or destruction, but the chill of change from within. And neither is it a change into something ‘new’ – to use the parlance, the protagonist was always already a monster. Delapoer, in “The Rats in the Walls,” is doomed to insanity and horrible acts partly by his curiosity, but more than that by the very blood in his veins. What Lovecraft derives from Darwinian principles of inheritance is the fear, not of where we might go or what we might encounter, but of where we are now, and what we might already be.
There is a word for this sense, one that Lovecraft himself evokes above when he laments the destruction of the ‘homelike.’ Freud, following Jentsch, delved deep into the duality of the German word heimlich in his essay “The Uncanny,” pointing out that what is ‘homelike’ is both comfortable and familiar and, at the same time, hidden or secret. What Lovecraft captures in his stories of descent is certainly the uncanny, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Just as the comfortable home becomes, when viewed from the outside, a hiding place for secrets, so does an individual, when viewed as the product of millennia of accumulated traits, become a container for a past that they themselves cannot fully conceive or control.
The uncanny is in part the uncertainty of whether something or someone is self-controlled. Jentsch identifies “the uncanny effect of epileptic fits, and of manifestations of insanity” which “excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity.” He famously identified in the mechanical doll Olympia, from E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, the uncanny ‘intellectual uncertainty’ of whether she was human or not. Freud points to the uncanniness of the double, which represents “all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will” – bringing home our lack of it.
Lovecraft added a new kind of uncanniness to this catalog. The past stages an assault on his characters, replacing their individuality with a kind of species memory and genetic automatism. They have premonitory experiences, as when the protagonist of “Innsmouth” sees carvings made by his fishy forbears and experiences “a certain haunting and uncomfortable sense of pseudomemory, as if they called up some image from deep cells and tissues whose retentive functions are wholly primal and awesomely ancestral.” Before long, these protagonists cease being thinking, human subjects, explorers and deducers, and are turned into mere objects of their genetic history. In both “Innsmouth” and “Rats,” we witness from within the narrator’s surrender to these natural forces, which in fact are him, and always were.
The Terror of Survival
Just as he finds the human body and mind self-deceiving things, Lovecraft finds the earth, mankind’s home, to be quite unheimlich – full of secrets. Through one of the dictionary examples he cites, Freud compares the uncanny to “a buried spring or a dried-up pond. One cannot walk over it without always having the feeling that water might come up there again.” Similarly, in stories like “At the Mountains of Madness,” “Dagon,” and, most famously, “The Call of Cthulhu,” the earth’s crust or the ocean’s surface conceal, until disturbed, profound challenges to human conceptions of the earth, its history, and our place in it.
In “Mountains,” a scientific expedition from the fictional Miskatonic University sets out for the South Pole, toting a newly-developed drill whose improvements over previous models Lovecraft describes at length. Their goal is to take samples of “upper fossiliferous rocks, since the primal life history of this bleak realm of ice and death is of the highest importance to our knowledge of the earth’s past.” What transpires is on one level banal enough – in their drillings, these scientists awaken hibernating, ancient creatures referred to as the Elder Ones, and mayhem ensues. What sets the novella apart is that its terror derives far less from any physical threat than from the knowledge of the earth’s deep past that the protagonists gain as events unfold. This includes, most overtly, the discovery that not only was man vastly preceded by these Elder Ones, but that humans may have been their creations. The idea underlying this is not strictly Darwinian, but is fundamental to the theory of evolution – huge expanses of time. By creating a biological past that is both continuous with our own and hugely mysterious, Darwinian natural history implicitly places monsters both in our family tree and in our earthly home.
The most unsettling moments are those at which the protagonists’ horror at such revelations is mixed with a subtle sympathy. One comes when, in pursuit of the revived Elder Ones, two explorers find sleds their ancient adversaries have been using. “It seems that others as well as Lake had been interested in collecting typical specimens; for there were two here, both stiffly frozen, perfectly preserved . . . they were the bodies of young Gedney and the missing dog.” The human agents, the investigators, have become the objects of investigation, and are given no more or less importance than the dogs that had been their servants. But “Mountains” is ultimately about more than a simple war of the past against the present. Just as much as man himself, the Elder Ones are ultimately revealed as fragile and easily overthrown from any position as subjects of a universal order.
The Uncanny and the Species-Subject
As a whole, Lovecraft’s life and work represents the struggle between a personal sense of terror at the loss of personal and species agency, and the more intellectualized view of self and species as hubristic illusions. The former sentiment has been described by Rebecca Stott, in reference to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, as “a sense of dethronement.” Stott relates Wells’ bleak portrait of a future humanity to the decline of the British Empire, but also, and more profoundly, to Darwinism. Darwin rebuts, après le lettre, the idea that creatures in general become ‘better’ over time. In a Darwinian universe, humanity can be considered neither an end in itself nor truly an actor – only one moment in a process that long predates us and will be around long after we are gone.
Lovecraft locates the vertiginous tipping point between the subjectivity and objectivity of the human race as a whole. There were strains of Enlightenment thinking that sought simply to replace God as the universal subject with a mankind supposed to know, who would master nature and existence through expertise. Lovecraft derides this presumption again and again, both directly and more subtly – as when he follows the technological marvel of Lake’s new drill with his inglorious end. We might imagine the purposelessness of evolution, and the profound insignifigance of man, as the ultimate thing that “poor Wallace” couldn’t face.
Evolution and Morality
Lovecraft is of course not alone in examining the significance of human life in a mechanistic, Darwinian universe. Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies and Charles Dodgdson/Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland give us human characters who become physically distorted and equalized with animals, and who enjoy and benefit from the process. Much later, Julia Kristeva argued that the ‘strangeness of the self,’ one aspect of which is the Darwinian sense in which we contain the multitudes who preceded us, was the possible foundation for universal understanding. This is one vision of the consequences of Darwinism, in which the uncanny loss of agency and superiority is embraced and even celebrated.
Lovecraft was less of an optimist. He could not, ultimately, seal the rift between his intellectually detached nihilism and a more personal experience of subjectivity. He grants the other within us only enough sympathy to truly drive home its uncanny terror. This is what gives him lasting power as a horror writer, for the sense of the uncanny in his work derives exactly from the oscillation between humanity as subject and object – as actor, and the thing being acted on. As he expressed this in another letter, “the only conflict which has any deep emotional significance to me is that of the principle of freedom or irregularity or adventurous opportunity against the eternal and maddening rigidity of cosmic law (emphasis in original).” Though no one knows better than them the insignificance of man, Lovecraft’s heroes often go to great lengths to attempt to save their species – usually with unclear results. By the same token, both Lovecraft’s unbridled racism and his love of New England are expressions of his personal, wholly unscientific attempts to hang on to subjectivity, individuality, and agency.
With about half of America currently saying they do not believe in evolution, Lovecraft has proven a grimly accurate judge, or representative, of human character. Perhaps this is simply because he was a more average human than Kingsley, Carroll, or Kristeva – anyone familiar with his biography knows that his weaknesses were many. Both Lovecraft the writer and Lovecraft the man hold out for us a picture of the human situation whose honesty is found in its self-contradiction. They highlight the gap – perhaps inevitable and inescapable – between ‘knowing’ what we are, and living in accordance with that knowledge. Lovecraft attempts to gives us a taste of the experience of objecthood, of what it means to be a puppet of history, or of evolution. He also, for better or for worse, stands as a lesson of the difficulty of accepting that status.
David Z. Morris is a freelance writer and editor in Tampa, Florida. He blogs about weird fiction, strange music, and drippy art at blownhorizonz.com
1 Note the neutrality of tone here, so similar to scientific monographs such as Darwin’s own “A Monograph on the Fossil Balanidæ and Verrucidæ of Great Britain.” This is not common in Lovecraft.
2 P. xiv, Introduction to “Eternal Lovecraft” by Jim Turner, ed. Golden Gryphon Press 1998
3 In Joshi and Schultz, intro to The Shadow Out of Time, Hippocampus 2001, p. 15