The following article is by D. Allen Crowley.
In the early part of the twentieth century, a unique sub-genre of fiction emerged on the pages of magazines with titles like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories. The stories found therein were lurid tales about space exploration, alien monsters, ancient horrors, and strange worlds that bore an eerie and uncanny similarity to our own. These stories laid the basis for what would become known as the weird fiction genre. A mongrel mix of science fiction, fantasy and horror – and sometimes all three – these “pulp” magazines laid the groundwork for the work of later writers and some of these were the precursor to what would become a widely accepted subgenre of horror literature, although that acceptance was slow in coming. And it was amidst this exploration of unique fantasy and horror that one eccentric, bookish writer rose above the other authors of the time. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a reclusive descendant of New England’s founding fathers, wrote and labored and created a unique mythos that – even today – remains an indelible part of horror writing and popular culture.
Much has been written of Lovecraft – his introversion, his quaintly anachronistic Victorian principles, and his reluctance to publish his own work – but his legacy remains an undeniable part of American literature. The period in which weird fiction arose was unique, and Lovecraft’s fiction represented that. He was a patrician: a man born out of his time who lived his life as an English gentleman. At the same time, he was a rationalist and an atheist, a learned man of scientific bent with a love for astronomy and hard sciences. These seemingly incongruous worldviews, rather than hinder him creatively, were the very things that make him so powerful a writer.
Lovecraft’s writing can be divided into three distinct periods. The first two consisted of less original works, pastiches of his two greatest influences: Edgar Allan Poe and Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany – more commonly referred to as Lord Dunsany (De Camp 151). It is the final period, however, where Lovecraft grew into his own as a writer and contributor to horror fiction. Commonly referred to as the Cthulhu mythos period in reference to his story and creature of the same name, this latter part of his life is that which he is best known for. Beginning roughly around 1925, after the dissolution of his marriage to Sonia Greene and his return to Providence from New York, Lovecraft’s mastery as a writer reached its zenith (Joshi “More Annotated…” 6). To be precise, however, it should be noted that there is some overlap in the periods and he wrote stories that would be considered Cthulhu mythos-like in nature throughout his life – but the lion’s share of the works that are now considered classic Lovecraftian were written mostly after 1925.
In the early 20th century, there was a powerful amalgam of science at odds and in reconciliation with the “old” and mythical. Lovecraft’s monsters were beings of science, but also mythical in proportion. His protagonists were exemplary of this dichotomy as well. Men of science, they are scholars who find solace in their knowledge and comfort in their modernity. This reassuring logic, however, needs to be reconciled against the backwoods voodoo of the uneducated and illiterate. His heroes were reflections of himself – the quiet, reposing scholarly gentleman who is faced with the incomprehensibly backwards myths of a world long gone. The result of this irreconcilable mixing of the old and new was invariably madness and death for the protagonists and supporting characters. It was a time of exploration as well, and there were still undiscovered swaths of wilderness or barren locale and empty places on the map -places of mystery and wonder and, possibly, terror.
While there are three distinct traits that make Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos unique, the focus for the purposes of this essay will be on the Cthulhu mythos and the development of Lovecraft’s unique literary mythology and the role that location played on the development of his unique vision. Specifically, how Lovecraft’s worldview, his atheism, and his rationality subverted the standard archetypes of classical literature to create a distinctly different universe — a modern take for the 20th century, as it were.
Prior to Lovecraft, the gods were looking out for us. The hero might likely survive because the gods were benevolent. Lovecraft changed that. He wrote of the indifference of the cosmos and the insignificance of man. Despite several thousand years of religious belief and the inherent hubris of humanity, he posited that humankind — instead of being unique and the masters of all we see — were in fact insignificant when compared to the backdrop of the larger universe.
Religion has argued that we are the center of the universe, science has argued otherwise, and Lovecraft’s fiction falls squarely on the side of science. We are not the center of the universe; our impact on a cold and unforgiving universe is infinitesimal. Lovecraft said as much himself when he wrote to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, in July 1927:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form – and the local human passions and conditions and standards – are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible race called mankind, have any existence at all (Joshi “Nightmare Countries” 102).
Lovecraft was aware that he was developing his own unique mythology. He was a voracious reader, self educated and amazingly literate, and was undoubtedly aware of earlier explanations of the universe. Whether biblical or mythological, the order and makeup of the world had been written of before, but Lovecraft was moving in a different direction.
The mythological world – and the plane where humans exist – has been explored numerous times throughout written history. However, there has been some commonality to the structure. At its simplest, the world is divided into realms – heaven, hell, and the central realm where humanity dwells – what was known in Old English and ancient Norse mythology as Midgard. This same Midgard – which J.R.R. Tolkien would put to use as Middle Earth in his own opus, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930’s (Wettstein) – is a special place between the celestial bookends of the upper and lower worlds. This motif has resonated throughout literature, whether it is the medieval concept of the Chain of Being, or the delineated worlds of Milton in Paradise Lost.
As Northrop Frye explained,
…the physical world has usually been not only a cyclical world but a “middle earth” situated between an upper and lower world… The upper world is reached by some form of ascent, and is a world of gods, or happy souls…. The lower world, reached by descent through a cave or underwater, is more oracular and sinister (58).
In other words, this particular mythological view has been divided between a higher plain of good where God(s) and angelic beings reside, Hell – where torment and demons await, and the middle ground, where we toil and strive to ascend. Earth and natural life lives or resides in Middle Earth. Then there is the underground, or underwater world, which is a place of punishment and darkness. It is from here that we must work out of, or, as Virgil wrote, “It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air – there’s the rub, the task.”
Lovecraft, while undoubtedly knowing this historic literary view, altered it to better match his own individual worldview. The changes, while subtle, were powerful in their implications. Lovecraft’s view of the mythological world was tempered by his own love for science and his own atheism. Lovecraft did not have an upper level. There was no heaven. To Lovecraft’s mind, humanity is sandwiched between the dead, forgotten underworld and the cold, uncaring cosmos or higher level; or, as Fritz Leiber observed, “[Lovecraft] …altered the focus of the supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space” (Joshi “Nightmare Countries” 103).
Examples of this can be found in Lovecraft’s preference in the Cthulhu mythos for abandoned forgotten places, and the chance encounters his characters had with the cold and uncaring universe. In “At The Mountains of Madness”, a scientific expedition to Antarctica uncovers a monstrous mountain range and the remnants of a millions-of –years-old city. There, amidst the unforgiving ice, they discover the corpse of a resident of the ancient city, a barrel-shaped and winged creature known as an “Old One”. The narrator, Professor William Dyer, and another member of the expedition, arrive at the newly established camp after the discovery and find their comrades and their sled dogs dead – horribly mutilated by the Old Ones who were not dead, only frozen. The scientists, in their zeal for knowledge, had thawed it. Left to their own devices, Dyer and Danforth explore the city and discover through the study of the ruins and bas-reliefs in the Old Ones’ city that the old ones themselves were not the greatest threat. The Old Ones, as horrible as they are, were destroyed by their own creations – slaves and beasts of burden called shoggoths. Dyer and Danforth go deeper and deeper into the ruins, only to find a shoggoth. They flee the city, pursued by the creature, a horrifying, unnatural, insanity causing “formless protoplasm” (Lovecraft “Best of…” 312).
In “At The Mountains of Madness”, we see some of the hallmarks of established mythology. In fact, while the Antarctic was a frequent location for pulp fiction of the era, Lovecraft went beyond the normal representation of it as a barren locale devoid of humanity. Elizabeth Leane observed in her article about the Antarctic as an alien space that Lovecraft, in placing “At The Mountains of Madness” where he did, centered his classic story on ideas and images that link the story …”with earlier literary and mythological constructions” (227). There is the earth, and its inhabitants represented by the scientific expedition. There is also the labyrinth beneath the Old Ones’ city representative of the underworld and a place of darkness and terror. However, Lovecraft altered the standard by giving the location a cosmic origin. The Old Ones came to Earth millennia ago from the stars. They are not of this earth, or from heaven for that matter. They have God-like powers in their ability to manipulate genetics and create another race – much as God did with Adam and Eve; but the creation was less a matter of divinity and one of practicality. The shoggoths were simply a ready-made workforce that rose up and threw off its masters.
The idea of tombs and underground catacombs that hide ancient secrets are replete throughout the fiction of Lovecraft. Whether it’s the underworld of the city of the Old One’s in “At The Mountains of Madness”, or the forgotten tombs beneath the Australian desert in “The Shadow Out of Time”, or the horrifying catacombs beneath the Exham Priory in “The Rats in the Walls”; Lovecraft created an underworld of mind-boggling antiquity and decidedly inhuman origin. The underworld and the things found there supersede and deny Christian – and older – human religions.
It is this denial of religion for the cold, logic of science that separates the fiction of Lovecraft from the earlier representations of the Chain of Being. Lovecraft was an unrepentant atheist. He was a disciple of science – with a special love for astronomy and chemistry. As Joshi observed, “The entirety of Lovecraft’s philosophical (and perhaps even literary) career can be seen as a gradual weaning away from the dogmatism, positivism, and optimism of the late nineteenth-century science, art, and culture to the indeterminancies of relativity and modernism” (Joshi “The Decline…” 5). In other words, Lovecraft was a man of the 20th century. His writing style and political views were anachronistic and Edwardian, but his scientific and religious bent clearly leaned towards the darker and more pragmatic realism of the day.
This realism and denial of religiosity reflected in the mythology he created. In Lovecraft’s decidedly non-religiously based mythology our Midgard is a thin precipice – a tiny island of humanity occupied by chance. Instead of being the center of the universe and the beloved of a benevolent God, we are here solely at the whim of the ‘others’ – monstrous creatures to whom we are inconsequential. To these creatures we are, at best, ants scurrying about and, at worst, a food source. On the other side of the equation, there is no reward for good behavior. The closest we come to Paradise in Lovecraft’s vision is through his Dunsanian-like Dreamlands earlier in his writing career, which he abandoned as pretentious later in his life and as he developed his Cthulhu mythos.
Further supporting the idea of an underworld or underwater world where the horrors of the cosmos lurk hungrily can be found in the sea-related stories of the Cthulhu mythos – not least of which is “The Call of Cthulhu”.
“The Call of Cthulhu”, the most well-known and best example of Lovecraft’s unique mythology is a story that was built gradually over his writing career. There are images of it in the earlier story, “Dagon”, and there are echoes of both stories in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. “Dagon”, while preceding the accepted beginning of the Cthulhu mythos era of Lovecraft’s writing, was the genesis for the mythology he would later be credited with creating. Though written at the onset of his career, it has been observed that:
“Dagon” plants the seeds for not only the nature of his mythos creatures, modes of narration as in the epic journeys and telling pre-history via archaeological remains, “Dagon” even hints at the cosmic view which underlines the later developments in the mythos and which has been averred to be the true nature of the nebulous link between what are known as the mythos stories” (St. Pierre 17).
“Dagon” was, in other words, the seed that grew into “The Call of Cthulhu”.
“The Call of Cthulhu” represented a seismic shift in Lovecraft’s writing and the mythology that have been previously discussed here. As Joshi observed, “The Call of Cthulhu” changes everything because it introduces to Lovecraft’s work a “… coherent and plausible use of the theme that would come to dominate his subsequent tales: alien races dwelling on the underside of the known world (Joshi “Poe, Lovecraft and the Revolution in Weird Fiction”). Through “The Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft uses the ocean and its black, unfathomable depths as a stand in for the previously mentioned tombs, catacombs, and underground hells in which we find his loathsome alien creatures.
“The Call of Cthulhu” is a study in perfection in terms of Lovecraft’s mythology. The story builds slowly and the mysterious evil of the sea stands as a surrogate to the cold expanse of outer space. Cthulhu is a being that came here to Earth before history and who yet still lives, sleeping beneath the waves. As he occasionally turns, coming close to wakefulness – his dreams cause madness and terror around the world. The narrator, Francis Waylon Thurston relates the story of having become the executor of his late great-uncle, Professor George Gammell Angell of Brown University. It is in the late professor’s papers that the narrator discovers and resumes a quest begun by his great uncle. The story builds with a methodical pace and we learn that Cthulhu – Lovecraft’s greatest creation – is an alien worshipped by voodoo tribes in the steamy swamps of Lousiana, and by degenerate esquimaux tribes in the Arctic north. Thurston eventually learns of a harrowing, terrifying encounter with the creature by a crew on a merchant ship. This story has many of the traits for which Lovecraft is known. The Necronomicon, the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazrad, and – not least of all – Cthulhu himself, a creature who personifies all that Lovecraft hated about the ocean.
Lovecraft’s hatred for the sea was well known. He hated sea food in all of its forms and that hatred extended to its source. De Camp observed that Lovecraft “often used the sea, along with the cold, wet, and darkness as a symbol of evil in his stories” (78). Lovecraft himself even went further and once said to Donald Wandrei, “I have hated fish and feared the sea and everything connected to it since I was two years old” (De Camp 78). It is this hatred that makes the sea-related Cthulhu mythos stories so wondrously chilling. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, while less a Cthulhu mythos story than others we’ve mentioned – and more a New England based horror story – still manages to capture the horrifying alien quality of his demons. The demons of Lovecraft’s mythology, as opposed to the fallen angels of classical literature, are outside of human understanding or definition; and the croaking, bleating Cthulhu- or Dagon-spawned monsters of this and his other sea stories only further reinforces Lovecraft’s mythology. We now have the yawning chasm of an uncaring cosmos above us, and the dark depths of earth below us. Add to that the forbidden, cold waves of monster filled oceans surrounding us, and Lovecraft has effectively bound us on all sides by evil and horror. Midgard, classically a place of light and human residence, is suddenly a sliver in an indifferent universe.
In almost all of Lovecraft’s stories, the narrator or protagonist is a scholar, someone of high education, good social breeding and standing, and possessing of a healthy skepticism. In other words, the characters were in many cases reflections of Lovecraft himself. His rationalism and disdain for religion in all its forms built upon established classical mythology and resulted in something new and revolutionary. The reflectiveness of his narrators only scratches the surface. Lovecraft’s mythology is also a reflection of his own worldview, his own feelings of alienation. It is a profound recognition of the changing face of horror literature in the early part of the 20th century. “The previous century’s stories of the ghost, the vampire, the werewolf, the sorcerer, the haunted house, an so on… had simply become too implausible in the wake of advancing human knowledge” (Joshi “Nightmare Countries” 103).
At the time when weird fiction was growing and becoming a literary sub-genre on its own, Lovecraft was redefining both it and what had came before. While he may not have meant to do so, he established a new way of looking at science fiction and horror. He may have been simply looking to tell a good story, but his encyclopedic knowledge of classic and, at that time, modern literature was such that he developed a new view of our place in the universe. As Lovecraft himself said in Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The one test of the really weird [story] is simply this–whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”
De Camp, L. Sprague. “Lovecraft: A Biography.” New York: Ballantine Books, 1975. Print.
Frye, Northrup. “New Directions From Old”. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. 2009. Print
Joshi, S. T. “Nightmares Countries: H.P. Lovecraft – The Master of Cosmic Horror.” New York: Metro Books, 2012. Print
—. “H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West.” Berkley Heights, NJ: Wildside Press, 1990. Print.
—. “Poe, Lovecraft, and the Revolution in Weird Fiction.” Ninth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore MD. 7 October 2012. Web.
—. “More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft.” New York: Dell, 1997. Print
Leane, Elizabeth. “Locating the Thing: The Antarctic as Alien Space in John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There”.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, July 2005. 225-239. Print.
Lovecraft, H. P. “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft.” London: Carlton Books. 2010. Print.
—. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. 25 September 2013. Web.
St. Pierre, Ronald. “Never Fully Realized: Birth of a Mythos. H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon”. Shoin Literary Review, No. 37, 2004. 15-36. Web.