This post is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.
“You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear- the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch- beyond life- that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or- I hope to Heaven- ever will again” (1).
When H. P. Lovecraft, Dark Lord of Weird Fiction, penned those words in 1926, little did he know that out of the earth’s primal ooze, another man would arise, one who captured the ancestral memories of fright.
The man was Hans Rudolf Giger. That Pickman-incarnate was born February 5, 1940, in Chur, Switzerland. Giger’s morbid artwork work inspired the Xenomorph extraterrestrial in the Alien movie franchise. The influential director Oliver Stone is not known for delving into existential darkness. Yet, his opinion about Giger’s place in the world of art and culture is noteworthy:
“’I do not know anybody else,’ he said, ‘who has so accurately portrayed the soul of modern humanity. A few decades from now when they will talk about the twentieth century, they will think of Giger’” (2).
And H.R. Giger recently departed from the earthly spheres on May 12, 2014.
Both Lovecraft and Giger dredged the hereditary memories of immemorial fear. Like the Grecian god Charon, they poled the haggard ferryboat to the dark underworld. Upon their return, each man captured in his respective mediums – Lovecraft in prose and Giger in paint – hints of the demons and dreamscapes that vibrate with life beyond the prosaic world.
As one writer put it – and the words might equally be applied to Giger:
“…to define Lovecraft’s fantastic creation. It is…firstly a matter of an ‘art of causing fear,’ seeking to dissipate the anesthetic effects of modern society, hyperrational and reassuring…There is also in his tales…the irruption of the inadmissible, the intolerable, into a world otherwise harmonious, ‘where the laws of nature are…inflexible and immutable’…Lovecraft, entirely respecting the rules of the game…he creates the strange, he excites fear, by turning the world inside out…Lovecraft…replac[es] the reassuring image of the Waking World by alienating ones of great depths…of the abyss” (3).
And Lovecraft himself, described his art:
“The imaginative writer devotes himself to art in its most essential sense…He is a painter of moods and mind-pictures – a capturer and amplifier of elusive dreams and fancies – a voyager into those unheard of – of lands which are glimpsed through the veil actuality but rarely, and only by the most sensitive…Pleasure to me is wonder – the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind the superficial and mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal and ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty” (4).
What inspired each man to his art? Are there parallels among their influences? How did their compositional methods progress over time? And where did they see in stark definition, the photographic realism that hellishly animated Pickman’s paintings?
Together, we will explore those questions.
Parallels in Their Words and Worlds:
During our examination, we will briefly touch on the details of each man’s life salient to our discussion.
Yet, despite the heavy documentation of Lovecraft’s life, there is an enigmatic core to the Master of the Macabre, a mystique that biographers have failed to penetrate. As Michel Houellebecq states:
“…the ‘recluse of Providence’ has now become almost as mythic a figure as one of his own creations. And what is most startling is that all attempts at demystification have failed. No degree of biographical detail has succeeded in dissipating the strange aura that surrounds the character…No matter who one imagines him to have been, Howard Philips Lovecraft was truly a very unique human being…” (5).
And the ink is still too wet on Giger’s death certificate, for an S.T. Joshi-level scholar to write the definitive biography on the Artist’s life.
Both Lovecraft and Giger brought the gruesome details of dissecting table realism to the horrific mediums.
With H.P. Lovecraft, it resulted from an evolution in his style of storytelling. We will describe that development in the following paragraphs.
The Metamorphosis of H.P. Lovecraft:
In his earlier works, Lovecraft often used a tangle of loose metaphors to describe the denizens that populated the Arkham woods and Innsmouth bay. For example, Cthulhu is described as follows:
“Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evident pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful…” (6).
In this manner, Lovecraft allowed the mind of his readers to conjure up the ghastly details that he left blurred.
Elsewhere Lovecraft, in fiction such as The Night Ocean (partially ghostwritten by HPL), only hints at the existence of spectral creatures. The words that describe the demons are shadowy, vague, and surprising few. The reader learns of the sea spawn through the multiple, indiscriminate, random acts of violence they perpetrate against human swimmers. The evidence portrays humans as prey, and the sea beasts as predators.
Between the detailed descriptions of mangled humanity and the vague vision of the sea-born perpetrators, Lovecraft allows the imagination of his audience to summon up their own nightmare images of the marine marauder.
From Formless Outlines to Full-on Dissections:
In his later works, Lovecraft sometimes abandoned the loose-analogous descriptions of his eldritch beings, in favor of a full-on dissection in scientific detail of their physiology.
For example, nothing is left to the reader’s imagination in a sampling of Dr. Lake’s description of the Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness:
“’10:15 P.M. Important discovery. Orrendorf and Watkins, working underground at 9:45 with light, found monstrous barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature; probably vegetable unless overgrown specimen of unknown marine radiata. Tissue evidently preserved by mineral salts. Tough as leather, but astonishing flexibility retained in places. Marks of broken-off parts at ends and around sides. Six feet end-to-end, three and five-tenths feet central diameter, tapering to one foot at each end. Like a barrel with five bulging ridges in place of staves. Lateral breakages, as of thinnish stalks, are at equator in middle of these ridges. In furrows between ridges are curious growths – combs or wings that fold up and spread out like fans. All greatly damaged but one, which gives almost seven-foot wingspread. Arrangement reminds one of certain monsters of primal myth, especially fabled Elder Things in Necronomicon’” (7).
On and on, for several paragraphs, the literary autopsy runs. Lovecraft teased us with photographic prose worth a thousand words. For prosperity, therein Lovecraft preserved his fictional horrors in a factual formaldehyde.
Lovecraft struck in prose, the literary equivalent of what Pickman splattered in paint:
“The unfinished pictures on easels or propped against the walls were as ghastly as the finished ones upstairs, and showed the painstaking methods of the artist…There was something very disturbing about the nauseous sketches and half-finished monstrosities that leered round from every side of the room…it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain…nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet – none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness…It was the technique, Eliot – the cursed, the impious, the unnatural technique!…I never elsewhere saw the actual breath of life so fused into a canvas. The monster was there – it glared and gnawed and gnawed and glared- and I knew that only a suspension of Nature’s laws could ever let a man paint a thing like that without a model – without some glimpse of the nether world which no mortal unsold to the Fiend has ever had…” (8).
Stylistically, Lovecraft broke new ground in horror fiction, with his use of the clinical language of animal physiology, when he described the once vague creatures of myth and legend, referenced in the Necronomicon. Michel Houellebecq spent pages extolling Lovecraft’s pioneering detailed vision:
“…using science’s vocabulary can serve as an extraordinary stimulant to the poetic imagination. The precise, minutely detailed content, dense and theoretical, encyclopedic in its perspective, produces a hallucinatory and thrilling effect…By forcefully introducing the language and concepts of scientific sectors that seem to him to be the weirdest into his tales, [HPL]…exploded the casing of the horror story…What is more astonishing is that he does not limit himself to the human sciences – he tackles the ‘hard’ sciences as well; the most theoretical, those that, a priori, are the farthest from a literary universe…The expository style of the scientific observations used by HPL in his later stories responds to the following principle: the more monstrous and inconceivable the events and entities described, the more the description must be precise and clinical. You need a scalpel to decorticate the unnameable” (9).
Did Lovecraft translate Documentary-style Newsreels into Docu-fictions for the Theater of the Mind?
Next, let us look at an evolution in Lovecraft’s story-telling method.
The whole Novella, At the Mountains of Madness, has the literary feel of an early documentary style of film, collectively known as Newsreels. For example:
“…Universal Newsreel, produced from 1929 to 1967, was released twice a week. Each issue contained six or seven short stories, usually one to two minutes in length, covering world events, politics, sports, fashion, and whatever else might entertain the movie audience. These newsreels offer a fascinating and unique view of an era when motion pictures defined our culture and were a primary source of visual news reporting…” (10).
Did Lovecraft draw his inspiration for the documentary-style telling of tales such as At the Mountains of Madness from Newsreel films?
Silent newsreels detailed events as early as World War I. For instance, the first official British news cinema:
“…was the Daily Bioscope that opened in London on 23 May 1909…In the U.S., newsreel series included The March of Time (1935–1951), Pathé News (1910–1956), Paramount News (1927–1957), Fox Movietone News (1928–1963), and the Hearst Metrotone News (1914–1967)…” (11).
S.T. Joshi notes that during the period of HPL’s mental breakdown/hiatus (1908 to 1913), Lovecraft “had discovered one entertaining form of relaxation—movie-going” (12). Lovecraft wrote of that recreation to Rheinhart Kleiner:
“…As you surmise, I am a devotee of the motion picture, since I can attend shows at any time, whereas my ill health seldom permits me to make definite engagements or purchase real theatre tickets inadvance. Some modern films are really worth seeing, though when I first knew moving pictures their only value was to destroy time…” (13).
In fact, one of Lovecraft’s few jobs was:
“…that of a ticket-seller in a movie theatre. A professor at Brown University, Robert Kenny (1902–83), maintained that he saw Lovecraft go downtown in the evening (he worked the night shift) and sit in a booth in one of the theatres, reading a book whenever he was not actually dispensing tickets…” (14).
So, HPL had many opportunities to have seen dozens of early Newsreels, either as a paying movie patron, or between shows, as sometimes theater employees occupied themselves.
Ironically, several internet HPL fans have turned Mythos Tales like, At the Mountains of Madness, into short, vivid trailers styled after Newsreels of the period. To me, the most notable effort appears on Propnomicon’s Channel, circa September 2, 2008 (15). That work uses images from Lovecraft’s day – the roaring 20s – to translate the viewer to the earth’s deep past and the primal world of the Elder Things.
Even if Lovecraft’s use of docu-fiction in telling At the Mountains of Madness was not based on documentary-styled film shorts, it is interesting how easily the story’s images translate into present-day pseudo-trailers.
Lin Carter summarizes Lovecraft’s use of the documentary-style of storytelling in another of HPL’s great works, The Call of Cthulhu:
“…the thing that gives the story its drama and impact is the suggestive style in which it is told and the peculiar, almost documentary, technique used in telling it…Lovecraft…figured out it was…quite another thing to raise gooseflesh with a tale firmly set in the sunlit world of today…to perform this feat, he…tantalizes the reader with mysterious hints as to exactly what is going on in the story; the tale progresses in a broken and jumbled sequence of bits and pieces of evidence…Lovecraft…leaves it up to the reader to piece the scattered jigsaw fragments together…into a coherent pattern…it…jars the reader from his complacency, and involves his intelligence in active participation in the story…the…documentary technique adds considerable verisimilitude to the incredible marvels that lie at the center of the story” (16).
Why Use a Docu-Fiction Approach?
Lovecraft’s use of docu-fiction helped build a bridge of credibility between himself and his audience.
Several features work together, as rivets and steel girders, to establish a span between the known and the unknown, betwixt the familiar and the fantastic, the prosaic and the profound.
HPL often employed a first-person account. That voice, as opposed to a third-person narration, adds the sense of a first-hand report, an eyewitness to the facts discussed. The approach conveys a sense of, “I was there, and here’s what I saw…” that on some level, disarms a reader’s guard. Howard’s use of the first-person instilled a ring-of-authenticity, despite the audacity of the subject matter.
Also, Lovecraft’s writing in the first-person interweaved commonly-known historic events or generally-held beliefs – the believable – alongside the unbelievable. The mind is predisposed to trust when uncontested facts are first presented.
Lovecraft’s use of “facts” helped suspend the reader’s disbelief, when he introduced elements of the weird and fantastic alongside them. HPL needed only to create a sense of authenticity, the appearance of being true, to gain the reader’s confidence. The facts convict us of his fictions’ veracity.
Related to alloying the believable with the unbelievable, was Lovecraft’s referencing primal events in deep time.
Such fantastic details cannot be verified by science. That fact did not stop Lovecraft from setting some stories in a scientific incontestable framework. Evolution is accepted in most Western circles today, but the source of evolution – Aristotle’s Prime Mover, that which kicked off the first domino in the chain that led to Homo sapiens – need not be a Christian’s god or Zoroastrian’s demiurge.
Why not the Elder Things?
That there was a beginning, a nexus, a starting point where the spark of life took hold, is indisputably established by science. But the gossipy details – the who, what, where, how, when and why – are not the Elder Things’ Facebook-like scribbling’s on the walls of their Cyclopean City more titillating than those found in dry scientific textbooks?
And Lovecraft builds his first-hand framework on things related to his expertise. He uses his understanding of astronomy and deep time, to serve as a backdrop for telling the Elder Things’ story, and their struggles, at the dawn of history, with the Cthuloids and the Mi-go. He establishes, in innumerable consistencies and details, the type of data and knowledge known only to an insider. Thus, HPL constructed a framework of believability, authenticity, and indisputable facts – a world where the appearance of weird details, was not too great a stretch.
In addition, Lovecraft’s pioneering use of the docu-fiction method did not insult his audience’s intelligence. The laying out of clues, layer upon layer, allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.
In many of the great Cthulhu Mythos texts, Lovecraft succeeded with this method of storytelling.
Occasionally, Lovecraft’s expertise about his subject matter was flawed.
For instance, in The Temple, WW I U-boats needed portals, for Lovecraft to detail the Gothic goings-on outside the early submarine. LCDR Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, could not otherwise relay the circumstances of his tale. Lovecraft’s knowledge of submarines probably came from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Under the Sea, where Captain Nemo’s fabulous Nautilus possessed undersea portals.
But, anyone versed in submarine construction knows that, other than deep-sea diving rigs, such as the bathyscaphe Trieste that pierced the mysteries of Challenger Deep, normal subs do not have portals. For some, that factual inconsistency created an anachronism that acted like nails on a chalkboard. As one Lovecraft eZine reader put it:
“…the casual disregard for realities, in the aspects of the story which were supposed to be real-world. Views out a port, for example… really doesn’t happen with a WWI submarine…The overall effect for me…is to make the story so fanciful that it is laughable…” (17).
Additional Literary features of the Docu-fiction Approach:
In At The Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft also uses docu-fiction to prompt a sense of irony in his readers.
One irony Lovecraft explored was that of role-reversal.
What was one reason Lovecraft conducted a full-on autopsy of the Elder Things?
He was later to describe the ancient radiates – in their outline so unlike us – as men in their purpose, intelligence and scientific curiosity. The things, once subject to dissection, themselves became the dissectors.
He wanted to compare the elder things – the men of the Pre-Cambrian Era – with the formless, undefined horrors that destroyed them.
If the evolutionary-superior beings could not stop the Shoggoths from destroying their world, how could we, the shambling simians, prevent the same denizens from ending our civilization?
Two, in another instance of role-reversal, Lovecraft hints at man’s place in the cosmic food chain.
Humanity has largely vanquished its ancient foes. The bear, the wolf, the lion, the shark – each are relegated to obscure environmental niches, largely outside the realm of our collective consciousness.
Beyond the simple predator/prey equation, each of our primal nemeses largely pitted beast against beast, their brutish savagery against our budding cunning.
HPL took the scenario one-step further. He placed his readers at the same level as herd animals, destined for butchering.
Lovecraft uses the terminology of a slaughterhouse to describe the curious condition of the dead at Lake’s camp:
“I have said that the bodies were frightfully mangled. Now I must add that some were incised and subtracted from in the most curious, cold-blooded, and inhuman fashion. It was the same with dogs and men. All the healthier, fatter bodies, quadrupedal or bipedal, had had their most solid masses of tissue cut out and removed, as by a careful butcher; and around them was a strange sprinkling of salt – taken from the ravaged provision chests on the planes – which conjured up the most horrible associations. The thing had occurred in one of the crude aeroplane shelters from which the plane had been dragged out, and subsequent winds had effaced all tracks which could have supplied any plausible theory. Scattered bits of clothing, roughly slashed from the human incision subjects, hinted no clues. It is useless to bring up the half impression of certain faint snow prints in one shielded corner of the ruined inclosure – because that impression did not concern human prints at all, but was clearly mixed up with all the talk of fossil prints which poor Lake had been giving throughout the preceding weeks. One had to be careful of one’s imagination in the lee of those overshadowing mountains of madness” (18).
Homo sapiens are no longer the master of their own destinies, the captains of their own fate.
Man the actor becomes the one acted upon. The Elder Things slaughter modern man, in the same routine fashion that they once butchered the shambling simians that were our evolutionary ancestors. The Elder Things processed the human beings into useful products, carefully preparing the equivalent of salt-pork provisions, for their trek back to their eternal city. The human herd at the Lake camp was harvested, meat-on-the-hoof for the Old Ones.
Three, docu-fiction, as a literary device in Lovecraft’s hands, reframed the Gothic from a supernatural to supernormal setting.
Old gods can exist in a Gothic universe, but not a materialistic universe. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the roosts of ancient demons move from supernatural realms to other dimensions postulated by the String Theory. In fact, demons are a misinterpretations of natural phenomenon, by misinformed observers, dominated by superstitions. To HPL, so-called “demons” are largely extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional in origin. They are creatures, whose natural abilities and superior technologies appear god-like in comparison to humanity. And their motivations appear evil, because they have no concern for the ants that mankind represents, in contrast to the dizzy, evolutionary heights that forms their nature.
As noted Lovecraft Scholar S.T. Joshi observes:
“…A late utterance [of Lovecraft] is highly significant in this regard: ‘The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, and matter must assume a form not overly 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. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt – as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiousity?’ Lovecraft here is actually renouncing the supernatural for what might better be called the ‘supernormal’; that is, the incidents portrayed in his later tales no longer defy natural law, but merely our imperfect conceptions of natural law…” (19).
Claustrophobia and Agoraphobia in H.R. Giger’s Art:
Now, let us turn to Richard Upton Giger.
Giger’s art touches on a full spectrum of humanity’s visceral fears.
Indeed, if there was ever an artist that evoked a horrific realism – one that throbbed with alien life, much like Lovecraft’s fictitious Pickman – it was Hans Rudolph Giger. The full-on, no holds-barred, no gory detail left to the imagination approach of Giger’s art parallels Pickman’s repertoire of creatures.
Giger once said that his paintings “seem to make the strongest impression on people who are, well, crazy” (20).
Unlike the placement of Pickman’s ghouls and gargoyles in prosaic scenes from everyday life, Giger’s biomechanical Chimeras reside in a netherworld, where the laws that safeguard humanity’s sanity are suspended. One interviewer wrote:
“…The artist’s airbrushed paintings were like photographs beamed back from another world. In actual fact, they were reproductions of the mysterious things rolling around in Giger’s subconscious…” (21).
Nightmares should be forgotten after they terrorize the dreamer. But Giger’s night terrors do not end when one awakes. Another interviewer noted:
“…the story of Giger’s art [is]…’He slices our psyches into pulsating pixels, then makes us look at them under blinding magnification,’…” (22).
One does not possess Giger’s art – Giger’s art possesses them.
H.R. Giger’s Use of Monochromatic Hues:
Next, Giger’s art was cast in monochromatic hues, to touch off the terror of those who do not dream in color. For color is a distraction.
HRG also used monochromatic hues, because when some reproduced his artwork in other mediums, they often got the colors wrong, distracting from the experiences he hoped to engender in the beholders.
And, was there a time in humanity’s evolutionary past were, like some animals, the shifting simian saw the world in monochromatic hues? Perhaps, in that fashion, the horrors of Giger’s grey visions ignite deep vestiges of our ancestral fears from the dawn of evolutionary eons.
Giger’s art is claustrophobic and agoraphobic all at once. Claustrophobic in that there appears to be no place for normal human beings in Giger’s universe – except to serve as incubators or fast-food entrees.
Or, Giger is a prophet, who chronicles in art, humanity’s inevitable transition into machinery (23). Human beings appear to be little more than lab specimens to be experimented on, in many of Giger’s works.
We have replaced lab rats, for those who conduct experiments in the greater cosmic void. For their amusement, they mismatch parts, like the Nazis of old, arriving at living, walking, and breathing Chimeras, similar to what Lovecraft penned in Imprisoned with the Pharaohs:
“…I would not look at the marching things. That I desperately resolved as I heard their creaking joints and nitrous wheezing above the dead music and the dead tramping. It was merciful that they did not speak… but God! Their crazy torches began to cast shadows on the surface of those stupendous columns. Hippopotami should not have human hands and crazy torches… men should not have the heads of crocodiles…” (24).
At the same time, Giger’s paintings evoke a sense of agoraphobia. Scenes of vast alien vistas, crawling with inhuman predators, layered in an immense, inhospitable cosmos. One learns quickly to fear the vast emptiness of space.
After all, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Giger’s otherworldly visions, captured in his 1977 art book, the Necronomicon (a title inspired by HPL’s famous fictional grimoire):
“…caught the eye of Alien director Ridley Scott, who hired Giger to design, among other elements, ‘The Derelict’ spacecraft, ‘The Space Jockey’ and the iconic Alien itself. He was part of the special effects team that won an Academy Award for Best Achievement for Visual Effects for its work on the film…” (25).
Where Career Parallels Part:
This is one of the places where the artistic destinies of Lovecraft and Giger differ.
Giger achieved a level of success as an artist before Alien. For example, he designed several album covers, most notably the Brain Salad Surgery cover for Emerson Lake & Palmer (1973).
Once Giger acquired the patronage of Ridley Scott, his career took a meteoric rise.
On the other hand, Lovecraft’s career path almost took off.
Almost took off, like one of NASA’s early rocket films, where a Redstone or Atlas launch vehicle just gets airborne, before it explodes and all the dreams bound up in its precious payload go for naught.
HPL’s patron was the famous magician/escape artist Harry Houdini. Lovecraft’s first collaboration with Houdini – Imprisoned with the Pharaohs – marked what could have become a lucrative partnership for the starving author.
Yet, given the opportunity, Lovecraft might have self-sabotaged the potential partnership, as was his practice. After all, he held a low opinion of Houdini:
“Weird Tales? Boy, what I told yuh afore was only the beginning’! I’m hearing damn near every day Henneberger – the owner of the outfit – and just had a special delivery order to collaborate on an Egyptian horror with this bimbo Houdini. It seems this boob was (as he relates) thrown into an ancient subterraneous temple at Gizeh (who location corresponds with the so-called Campbell’s Tomb…betwixt the Sphinx and 2nd pyramid) by two treacherous Arab guides – all bound and gagged as on the Keith circuit – (him, not the guides) and left him to get out as best he might. Now Henneberger (who is beginning to do some personnel directing over Bairdie’s head [Edwin Baird, then editor of Weird Tales] wants me to put this into vivid narrative form…and Oh Gawd – I forgot to tell ya has come acrost wit’ a cheque for ONE HUNDRED BERRIES!” (26).
Nevertheless, Lovecraft enjoyed the actual writing of the Houdini piece:
“…BOY, that Houdini job! It strained me to the limit, and I didn’t get it off till after we got back from Philly. I went to the limit in descriptive realism in the first part, then when I buckled down to the under-the-pyramid stuff I let myself loose and coughed up some of the most nameless, slithering, unmentionable HORROR that ever stalked cloven-hooved through the tenebrous and necrophagous abysses of elder night…” (27)
Still, Houdini and Lovecraft shared a common passion. Both men thought most spiritualists were charlatans who milked vulnerable people of their hard-earned monies. Houdini saw in Lovecraft, a writer who could bring a scholarly atmosphere to his future anti-spiritualist polemics. As S.T. Joshi noted:
“A revision job of a very different sort on which Lovecraft worked in October 1927 was ‘The Cancer of Superstition.’ This appears to have been a collaborative project on which Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy worked at the instigation of Harry Houdini. Houdini performed in Providence in early October, at which time he asked Lovecraft to do a rush job—an article attacking astrology—for which he paid $75.00. This article has not come to light; but perhaps it supplied the nucleus for what was apparently to be a full-length polemic against superstitions of all sorts. Houdini had himself written several works of this kind—including A Magician among the Spirits (1924), a copy of which he gave to Lovecraft with an inscription—but he now wished something with more scholarly rigour. But Houdini’s sudden death on 31 October put an end to the endeavor…” (28).
We can only speculate whether Lovecraft fortunes might have changed if Houdini had lived. Lovecraft recounted the episode with Houdini as follows:
“As for astrology—since I have always been a devotee of the real science of astronomy, which takes all the ground from under the unreal and merely apparent celestial arrangements on which astrological predictions are based, I have had too great a contempt for the art to take much interest in it—except when refuting its puerile claims. Back in 1914 I conducted a heavy newspaper campaign against a local defender of astrology, [e.g. Science versus Charlatanry and The Falsity of Astrology] and in 1926 I read quite a few astrological books (since largely forgotten) in order to ghost-write a thorough and systematic exposé of the fake science for no less notable a client than the late Houdini. That comprises the sum of my astrological knowledge—the casting of horoscopes never having been included among my ambitions. If I ever employ any astrological lore in stories, I shall most gratefully call on you for realistic detail” (29).
Ancient Egypt influences in Lovecraft:
Next, let us examine the some of the influences of ancient Egypt on Lovecraft’s writing and Giger’s paintings.
The elder myths and legends that enshroud Egypt have long fascinated the West, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Howard Carter. One researcher describes the essence of that attraction:
“In the symbolist model of ancient Egypt, at least two concurrent simultaneous levels are at work in any given instance. One is the study of Egypt as a civilization that existed in a factual geographic place and time, it’s people, mythology, social forms, it’s chronological unfolding, it’s monuments and artifacts, but this is only a backdrop, or support, for another Egypt, which might be called a quality of intelligence. This Egypt is outside of chronological considerations; it is rather, both an ever present and recurring possibility of consciousness” (30).
The aforementioned Imprisoned with the Pharaohs was not Lovecraft’s first or last foray into the macabre, colored by a love for ancient Egyptian mysteries.
One of his most famous gods of the outer spheres, Nyarlathotep, appears in the form of a sinister Pharaoh-figure. Many of the elder evils that taint Lovecraft’s stories use ancient Egypt as a sundial to mark how old and how long a tentacled-tradition has existed. For instance, in the minor yarn, The Cats of Ulthar, HPL wrote:
“…For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten…” (31).
To capture the seminal thoughts behind Lovecraft’s use of Egyptian motifs, I would like to use an extended quote from his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature:
“Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings. It was, indeed, a prominent feature of the elaborate ceremonial magic, with its rituals for the evocation of dæmons and spectres, which flourished from prehistoric times, and which reached its highest development in Egypt and the Semitic nations. Fragments like the Book of Enoch and the Claviculae of Solomon well illustrate the power of the weird over the ancient Eastern mind, and upon such things were based enduring systems and traditions whose echoes extend obscurely even to the present time…
…Thomas Moore also joined the ranks of the macabre artists in the poem Alciphron, which he later elaborated into the prose novel of The Epicurean (1827). Though merely relating the adventures of a young Athenian duped by the artifice of cunning Egyptian priests, Moore manages to infuse much genuine horror into his account of subterranean frights and wonders beneath the primordial temples of Memphis…
…Short tales like Avatar, The Foot of the Mummy, and Clarimonde display glimpses of forbidden vistas that allure, tantalize, and sometime horrify; whilst the Egyptian visions evoked in One of Cleopatra’s Nights are of the keenest and most expressive potency. Gautier captured the inmost soul of æon-weighted Egypt, with its cryptic life and Cyclopean architecture, and uttered once and for all the eternal horror of its nether world of catacombs, where to the end of time millions of stiff, spiced corpses will stare up in the blackness with glassy eyes, awaiting some awesome and unrelatable summons…
…In the volume titled Incredible Adventures occur some of the finest tales which the author [Algernon Blackwood] has yet produced, leading the fancy to wild rites on nocturnal hills, to secret and terrible aspects lurking behind stolid scenes, and to unimaginable vaults of mystery below the sands and pyramids of Egypt; all with a serious finesse and delicacy that convince where a cruder or lighter treatment would merely amuse. Some of these accounts are hardly stories at all, but rather studies in elusive impressions and half-remembered snatches of dream. Plot is everywhere negligible, and atmosphere reigns untrammelled” (32).
Lovecraft was not a monomaniac about his use of Ancient Egyptian themes in his fiction. Yet, he freely borrowed from Egyptian Lore, when a tale called for it.
Giger and Egyptian Mysteries:
Like Lovecraft, H.R. Giger drew much of his stimulus from the Mysteries of Dynastic Egypt.
Part of that influence started in his childhood, at the tender age of six. Every Sunday, young Hans Rudolph journeyed to the civic museum in Chur, Switzerland. There, he spent many hours each week in the museum’s basement, in audience with a beautiful mummified body and her sarcophagus. He thought the mummy was an Egyptian princess. Giger reported that the corpse had a curious aroma, an elder scent of the various perfumes, balsams and other exotic gums and minerals, used to embalm her (33).
One could almost picture, in Giger’s description, a young Richard Upton Pickman holding a ghoulish audience with his beloved dead.
Giger’s father, a pharmacist, once received a human skull as part of a professional promotion. That skull found its way into young Hans Rudolph’s hands. His fascination with skeletal remains later emerged in the many carcass-like images that haunted his art. One wonders if Giger ever recreated the scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the sight of Yorick’s skull evokes a monologue from Prince Hamlet on the vile effects of death.
Such early fascinations led Giger to construct a replica of an Egyptian Burial Chamber – called his “Black Room” – on the third floor of his parents’ home in 1958. There young HRG withdrew from the prosaic world into his own cloistered realm of scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Giger’s escape into his dark lair is reminiscent of young Charles Dexter Ward’s retreat into his alchemist’s attic, to pursue his own antiquarian inspirations.
Inexorably, Giger’s piercing of the mysteries of Egypt’s past blossomed into visions of humanity’s tomorrows.
Take for example, the famous Space Jockey from the seminal Horror movie, Alien (see Giger’s painting of that famous personage). Giger’s inspiration for that creature, found on a space derelict in the far-flung future, was a Seker/Sokar (a falcon god of the Memphite necropolis) funerary barge illustrated from the Papyrus of Ani (see illustration of an Egyptian funeral barge) (34).
Giger used his interpretations of ancient Egyptian death motifs to populate his creations with the shadows of mankind’s fear-haunted past. His art bypasses the intellect, stirring the primal terrors that frightened our ancient ancestors around early campfires. Giger said:
“…I wanted to show people what inspires me. In Egyptian art is a lot of death – in mummies, skulls etc… In my work, too. Besides, the way I’m doing portraits is typically Egyptian – present the view from the front and side…” (35).
One Dicey Dissimilarity:
Though there were parallels in the lives of Lovecraft and Giger, a few startling dissimilarities existed between the two men.
For example, while Lovecraft’s prose were hypo-sexualized, some of Giger’s paintings were hyper-sexualized.
Few if any explicit sexual references are found in Lovecraft’s body of literature. While some writers find HPL’s fiction to be rife with shaded and symbolic allusions to sex, such assertions are largely Freudian conjectures. Michael Houellebecq believed Lovecraft eliminated any reference to sex, because it did not fit into Phillips’ vision of literature as art or his aesthetic universe (36). To Lovecraft, sex was a common biological act that distracted from the wonderment and fascination he attempted to instill in his readers.
Giger, on the other hand, never shied away from sex, as a frequent point of reference in his art. When the band, the Dead Kennedy’s used Giger’s artwork on the cover of their Frankenchrist album in 1985, the group and record label were charged with distributing obscenity to minors (37).
Pioneers in Prose and Paint:
As we have seen, Lovecraft and Giger were unequaled pioneers in their own mediums. Both drew inspiration from the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. Each brought to the light, their own versions of the dark things that rattled in the lightless tombs of the Pharaohs.
Lovecraft and Giger, in each his own way, suffered a sense of alienation, a longing for something lost, that seeped into each story, each canvas. Their demons defined the drama and the darkness each portrayed, either in prose or in paints.
Howard Phillips conducted experiments on his readers, until his refined styles of storytelling left his readers in breathless fear and fascination.
His words blurred the lines between the known and the unknown, between the world of science and the world of shadows. Just behind and just beyond the prosaic world lies his worlds – the “His”, no longer governed or defined by a caring god. Those invisible worlds, the places of wonder, the realms of irrational, unexplainable splendors, the last refuges of the mysteries that stir our imagination – those worlds became Lovecraft’s worlds. The illogical places, such as under the pyramids of Egypt, where in prose Lovecraft “…let himself loose…” have become the places where we can let ourselves go.
Lovecraft looked to the past for release from the devastating ennui of today. He gazed back into deep time, and instead of longing for the delights of Eden, he sought to lose himself at the feet of the dazzling Old Ones. And there, he found his answers, he understood his truths.
Those ancient morality plays speak to today’s technological-worshiping society.
If the Elder Things, at the height of their technological and biological development, could not control the products of their scientific progress, can we stop the Borging of our species? Will we open a technological Pandora’s Box that despite our best devices, cannot be closed?
After all, as the Alchemist Simon Orne warned Joseph Curwen:
“…As I told you longe ago, do not calle up That which you can not put downe; either from dead Saltes or out of ye Spheres beyond. Have ye Wordes for laying at all times readie, and stopp not to be sure when there is any Doubte of Whom you have…” (38).
Hans Rudolph Giger also touched on the existential tensions that confront and confound current generations.
Giger employed the tools of today’s alienated youth. His use of the airbrush allowed HRG to crystallize in paints, the personal estrangement and loss of a sense of self that Graffiti and Tattoo artists strive to express.
In a cosmos, where we have become machines, where we have become functions, in a world where the marks of individuality become fewer and stereotypical – Giger has captured the ultimate mechanization of man. He depicted on canvas a future when we become cogs in the machines. The day many modern philosophers once warned us about – one where man serves machines, when man becomes machine – has arrived. In turn, man finds himself alienated from the evolutionary mechanism – that of nature – that biologically developed him.
Separated from that evolutionary apparatus, who or what will define our biological destiny?
(1) Pickman’s Model, H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(3) “The Depths of Horror”, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, by Maurice Levy, Translated by S.T. Joshi, Wayne State University Press, 1988, p. 71.
(4) An Essay: In Defense of Dagon, H.P. Lovecraft, 1921.
(5) “Ritual Literature”, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, Orion Publishing Group, 2005, p. 41.
(6) The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(7) At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft, 1931.
(8) Pickman’s Model, H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(9) “Will Map Out an Integral Delirium”, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, Orion Publishing Group, 2005, pp. 74-75, 79.
(11) Newsreel, Wikipedia.
(12) “A Renewed Will to Live”, A Dreamer and a Visionary, by S.T. Joshi, Liverpool University Press 2001, p. 105.
(13) H.P. Lovecraft’s letter to Rheinhart Kleiner, 6 December 1915.
(14) “Mental Greed”, A Dreamer and a Visionary, by S.T. Joshi, Liverpool University Press 2001, p. 317.
(16) “The Coming of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, by Lin Carter, Ballantine Books 1972, p. 53.
(18) At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft, 1931.
(19) “Introduction”, H.P. Lovecraft: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Ed. S.T. Joshi quoting and commenting on Lovecraft, Penguin Classics, 1999, p. xvi.
(22) “Alienated: The Biomechanical Surrealism of H.R. Giger”, by George Petros, juxtapoz, p. 52.
(23) Ibid., p. 60.
(24) Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1924.
(26) “The Thing on the Newsstand”, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, quoted by Lin Carter, Ballantine Books 1972, p. 36.
(27) H.P. Lovecraft Letter to James F. Morton, 12 March 1924.
(28) “Paradise Regain’d”, A Dreamer and a Visionary, by S.T. Joshi, Liverpool University Press 2001, pp. 247-248.
(29) H.P. Lovecraft Letter to E. Hoffmann Price, 15 February 1933.
(30) Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice (Art and Imagination), by Robert Lawlor, Thames & Hudson 1982.
(31) The Cats of Ulthar: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1920.
(32) An Essay: Supernatural Horror in Literature: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1927.
(33) “H.R. Giger’s Egyptian Mysteries”, alienexplorations.blogspot.com.
(36) “Utter the Great ‘No’ to Life without Weakness”, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, Orion Publishing Group, 2005, pp. 58-59.
(37) “H.R. Giger’s Cyborg Horror Merges Sex, Tech, Legend”, by Scott Thill, Underwire, 04 Februrary, 2010.
(38) The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, H.P. Lovecraft, 1927.
John A. DeLaughter is a Data Security Analyst who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, daughter Kirsten, granddaughter Riley, two cats, and a dog. He devoured Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness in high school.
“In writing about Lovecraft, one must draw from several sources before a sense of the man comes through. You begin to notice whether a new wrinkle on HPL has the ring of truth or not, based upon the body of evidence you’ve already surveyed. It is a sifting process, where you feel like an archaeologist, hoping to unearth a new relic in relation to this mysterious man.”