This post is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.
“In dim abysses pulse the shapes of night,
Hungry and hideous, with strange miters crowned;
Black pinions beating in fantastic flight
From orb to orb through soulless voids profound.
None dares to name the cosmos whence they course,
Or guess the look on each amorphous face,
Or speak the words that with resistless force
Would draw them from the halls of outer space.
Yet here upon a page our frightened glance
Finds monstrous forms no human eye should see;
Hints of those blasphemies whose countenance
Spreads death and madness through infinity.
What limner he who braves black gulfs alone
And lives to wake their alien horrors known?” (1).
From the mind of one man, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, stirred the Great Old Ones. They sprang forth as primal shadows cast from the dawn of time. They embodied the fears of our ancestors. No one species, no tribal god, no one alien race, no ancient taboo nor obscure pantheon explained them. They expressed the tangible dark, the teeming life in the shadows, life without light. Though everyone knows them, no one living has seen them.
They are vague shadows that shift and scurry in the dark abyss, like amoebas in pond water.
Where did the Great Old Ones first appear? In the abyss of the universe? Or in the abyss of humanity’s collective unconscious?
In this essay, we explore the following questions:
1. Who were Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones?
2. What are four possible sources of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones?
3. How would humans respond to the Great Old Ones, if they were real?
1. Who were Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones?
“Of such great powers or beings there may be conceivably a survival…a survival of a hugely remote period when…consciousness was manifested…in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity…forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds…” (2).
As we approach Lovecraft’s pantheon of extra-terrestrials, I want to limit the discussion to his original “Old Ones”. The “Great Old Ones” was a term Lovecraft often used to describe generically any Lovecraftian entity that predates humanity.
During Lovecraft’s lifetime, he adopted entities from other authors into the circle of the Great Old Ones. In particular, Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua – a primeval dark gelatinous entity – was a fast addition to the Old Ones, though with HPL’s own creative variations on a theme. Robert M. Price notes:
“Lovecraft’s Tsathoggua and Smith’s differ at practically every point.’ Lovecraft, dropping Smith’s bat and sloth comparisons, refers to the entity in The Whisperer in Darkness’ as the ‘amorphous, toad-like god-creature mentioned in the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon and the Commoriom myth-cycle preserved by the Atlantean high-priest Klarkash-Ton’–the priest’s name a tip of the hat to Tsathoggua’s creator” (3).
Lovecraft’s extravagant descriptions of his dark denizens are a field of study all their own. I chose to categorize Lovecraft’s Old Ones by their substance. In that process, I will select one Lovecraftian alien whose traits typify his beasties within that group.
First, let us consider the Corporeal Old Ones. The Elder Things from Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness epitomize Lovecraft’s entities in this group:
“…But to give it a name at this stage was…folly. It looked like a radiate, but was clearly…more. It was partly vegetable, but had three-fourths of the essentials of animal structure. That it was marine in origin, its symmetrical contour and…other attributes clearly indicated; yet one could not…limit…its later adaptations. The wings…held a persistent suggestion of the aerial. How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so to make Lake…recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake…” (4).
Second, let us look at the Semi-Corporeal Old Ones. Cthulhu and the Mi-Go represent Lovecraft’s cosmic entities in this category. For instance, looks how Lovecraft described the Mi-Go:
“As to what the things were—explanations…varied. The common name applied …was ‘those ones’, or ‘the old ones’…But the Indians had the most fantastic theories …While different tribal legends differed, there was a…consensus of belief…it being unanimously agreed that the creatures were not native to this earth.
…The Outer Beings are…the most marvellous organic things in or beyond all space and time—members of a cosmos-wide race of which all other life-forms are…degenerate variants. They are more vegetable than animal, if these terms can be applied to the…matter composing them, and have a…fungoid structure; though the presence of a chlorophyll-like substance and a very singular nutritive system differentiate them…from true cormophytic fungi…the type is composed of…matter totally alien to our part of space—with electrons having a…different vibration-rate. That is why the beings cannot be photographed on the ordinary camera films and plates of our…universe, even though our eyes can see them…” (5).
Notice too how Lovecraft described the plasticity of Great Cthulhu, probably his most famous ancient alien:
“These Great Old Ones, Castro continued, were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape—for did not this star-fashioned image prove it?—but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live…
Then…great Cthulhu…began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency…But Johansen…Knowing that the Thing could surely overtake the Alert…resolved on a desperate chance; and, setting the engine for full speed…reversed the wheel. There was a mighty eddying…in the noisome brine…as…the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth…The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder…a stench as of a thousand opened graves…For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where—God in heaven!—the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened…as the Alert gained…steam.” (6).
Third, let us examine the Non-Corporeal Old Ones. Yog-Sothoth, as detailed in The Dunwich Horror, exemplifies this type of Lovecraftian beastie:
“’…’Nor is it to be thought,’ ran the text as Armitage mentally translated it, ‘that man is…the oldest or the last of earth’s masters…The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread…Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now…’” (7).
2. Four Potential Sources for Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones:
Next, the question arises, “Where did the Great Old Ones come from?” Was Lovecraft, like Wilbur Whateley, trafficking with the outside? What pool did Lovecraft dip into when he dreamed vividly?
In this section, we will examine four possible sources for Lovecraft’s fiction:
2.a. He was actually in touch with the reality behind the fictions.
2.b. He borrowed heavily from an ancient thread such as Necronomicon.
2.c. He used vestiges of a primal collective unconscious we share with our ancestors.
2.d. His imagination alone.
As we begin, one of my guiding principles is, “We must be careful in deriving the facts of the man from his fictions”. That is why wherever possible, I like to give you, the reader, a chance to review Lovecraft’s own words on a matter. As you do that, you can make up your own minds whether certain stereotypes peddled by some—August Derleth, L. Sprague de Camp, as well as HPL’s contemporary critics—are valid.
2.a. Was Lovecraft in Touch with Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones?
“…The spells that preserved Them intact likewise prevented Them from making an initial move, and They could only lie awake in the dark and think whilst uncounted millions of years rolled by. They knew all that was occurring in the universe, but Their mode of speech was transmitted thought. Even now They talked in Their tombs. When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshly minds of mammals…” (8).
Some believe that, when Lovecraft penned those famous words, they were more than a literary device he used to heighten the tale’s weird atmosphere. They think that HPL was unconsciously recounting elements of his own life experience. They are certain that Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones existed before he was born. They feel that what Lovecraft could not accept with his rational, conscious mind, he accepted through his irrational, unconscious mind.
They contend that if you shut the front door on somethings, they will inevitably backdoor you.
I will sample individuals and organizations who hold such opinions and disseminate them to others. The beliefs are strongly held, based on the originators’ experiences with the Lovecraft texts. Ultimately, there is no way to validate Lovecraft’s own non-fiction words concerning his fictional Old Ones. We cannot question the man unless someone employs Joseph Curwen’s interrogation methods on his Shade.
I take HPL’s letters at face value.
However, followers of original thinkers–whether the sages are ancient or avant-garde, sacred or secular–find different means to make the master’s words relevant to their present experience. Others express that in a kaleidoscope of creative manners; just look at any Lovecraft group on Facebook or the myriad of blogs dedicated to HPL. Each honors Lovecraft’s memory in his or her own fashion.
Donald Tyson and Lovecraft’s Dream World:
One prominent author in the occult Lovecraft movement is Donald Tyson. In his book, The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe, Tyson lays out alongside a decent biography of Lovecraft’s life his own occult speculations on what he sees as the non-materialistic side of HPL’s life, namely his fiction and his dreams.
To that end, Tyson first objectifies the entities Lovecraft detailed in his fictional visions. Tyson’s account of how the “real” Great Old Ones took notice of Lovecraft parallels HPL’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where the disembodied Joseph Curwen, who preserved his consciousness in the outer spheres, waited for his avatar-like grandson, Charles Dexter Ward to be born and provide a re-entrance of the wizard Curwen into the terrestrial sphere:
“…It cannot be denied that the supernatural, in its various forms, had an interest in Lovecraft. It harried his thoughts day and night, by turns in seducing him in his musings and terrifying him in his dreams. Writing down his dreams was Lovecraft’s way of objectifying them and controlling them…Yet, despite Lovecraft’s almost fatal fascination for the beauty and joys of dreaming, he was never willing to take the ultimate and irrevocable step in his philosophy, and equate dream reality with waking reality” (9).
The similarities between Tyson’s partial recasting of Lovecraft’s life story, as it parallels HPL’s fictional Charles Dexter Ward are entertaining and enticing. Similar to Lovecraft use of historical facts to draw his readers into the fictional world of Joseph Curwen, Tyson lays foundational truths about HPL’s life alongside his own fantastic conjectures. Tyson does so to draw his readers into an agreement with his occult conclusions concerning HPL. Though Tyson is hardly dogmatic, he in nonetheless persistent throughout his book in regards to his occult claims about Lovecraft.
Next, history notes that Lovecraft was an individual who was a study in contrasts. On one hand, Lovecraft was a towering intellectual – as revealed by the range of subjects in his letters. In contrast, HPL’s attempts at getting a job while in New York and married to Sonja Greene demonstrates his impractical side. Tyson uses the vague ebb-and-flows in Lovecraft’s nature to validate his occult claims about the man:
“Lovecraft never asserted that the Old Ones are real, and he…mocked those who made the suggestion…but he did put forward…the premise that alien races such as the Old Ones could be real and might…have visited the ancient earth in her long and unknown history. Below…his cynical scoffing at all forms of spirituality and the supernatural was the nagging awareness that the Old Ones arose from his dreams, and that his dreams came from some unknown place beyond his control and beyond his conception” (10).
The crux of Tyson’s arguments—and the foundations of his interpretations of Lovecraft’s life—rest in the experiences of occultists who treat Lovecraft’s fictions as fact:
“A few serious modern magicians…have decided to treat…the Necronomicon and the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s dreams as real, if not on the physical plane of…waking consciousness, then on the astral level of dreams and visions…they believed Lovecraft could never have conceived the Necronomicon or the Old Ones unless they had some existence in a different dimension or in an alternative reality…the Old Ones do exist and can be reached…because Lovecraft reached the Old Ones in dreams…” (11).
Accordingly, while one might respect Lovecraft’s opposition to the supernatural and magic, to an occult practitioner, HPL’s views are immaterial. The proof is in the pudding. The emotional precedent establishes the priority of who is right, Lovecraft or the party invoking the Old Ones. As the famed wizard, Aleister Crowley noted:
“…In this book it is spoken of…Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things certain results follow…” (12).
One could almost hear in Lovecraft’s words his reaction to this point. While he himself could not intellectually “indulge in silly metaphysical ‘let’s-pretend-ism’”, he did say such supernatural stances towards life were a symptom of modern existence:
“…We’re only cooking up a passable substitute for a…delusion which the dying orthodox civilisation of Platonick-Christian…took for granted & worked for a kick under the amusing impression that it was reality!…Every…bimbo to his own brand of gin…” (13).
HPL’s “…Every…bimbo to his own brand of gin…” is reminiscent of the phrase, “To each his own”. In modern usage, the truism means, “we’re all different and we all like different things”. Though the teetotaler Lovecraft was not one to make politically-correct statements, during the Prohibition Era from 1920-1933 and the days of bathtub Gins, people drank all manners of homemade alcoholic concoctions to escape reality.
Lovecraft and the Esoteric Order of Dagon:
Second, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a seminal group focused on Cthulhu, offers a clear exposition about the validity of Lovecraft’s Old Ones and HPL, as an oracle, despite his denial of metaphysics:
“Lovecraft’s fiction…presents an internally consistent cosmology, constructed through the literary realizations of the author’s dreams and intuitive impulses. This cosmology came to be known as the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’…These stories…contain hidden meanings and magickal formulae unknown even to their creator.
…Lovecraft suffered from an…inferiority complex, which prevented him from personally crossing the Abyss in his lifetime. He…retained a rational, skeptical view of the universe, despite…glimpses of places and entities beyond the world of mundane reality, which his dream experiences allowed him. He never learned the true origin of the tremendous vistas of cosmic strangeness that haunted his dreams. He never realized that he was himself the High Priest ‘Ech-Pi-El’, the Prophet of the dawning Aeon of Cthulhu…” (14).
It is interesting the phrases that the Esoteric Order of Dagon uses in its description of Lovecraft. I would like to touch briefly on five elements of those statements. They are:
2.a.i. Did Lovecraft suffer from an inferiority complex?
2.a.ii. Was the “High Priest ‘Ech-Pi-El’” the name of a historic wizard/seer?
2.a.iii. Did Lovecraft compulsively write things he did not understand?
2.a.iv. Did Lovecraft derive his fiction largely from his dreams?
2.a.v. Did an element in Lovecraft’s life prevent him from completing an occult initiation?
2.a.i. Did Lovecraft suffer from an Inferiority Complex?
First, consider the phrase, “Lovecraft suffered from an…inferiority complex”. The notion, peddled by L. Sprague de Camp in Lovecraft: A Biography, pictured HPL as a broken recluse whose low self-esteem prevented him from achieving much in life. That idea has been disproven by modern scholarship. Lovecraft’s problem was not an inferiority complex. It was HPL’s dogged determination to live his life as a “gentleman amateur” – a lifestyle where the idle rich pursued pastimes for pleasure’s sake, rather than profit. Despite Lovecraft’s infatuation with Victorian Decorum, in actuality, he was dirt poor.
Also, in a largely patriarchal society, the man of a house was expected to work, provide a roof over the family’s head, and to win bread for the family. With the early death of his Father, then his Grandfather, there were few role models to teach Lovecraft how to earn a living. Later, HPL’s Mother raised him as if they had money, while their funds inexorably dwindled. Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, then his two maternal aunts Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips, ran the households where Lovecraft lived, a fact that largely shielded him from the dire-straits of their financial situations.
In addition, during the 1920s and 30s, there was no government cradle-to-grave safety-net or unemployment to provide Lovecraft a minimum income. Though HPL understood the cost of things – he ate meager meals, boasting of his frugality in his letters – often, his addiction to the “gentleman amateur” bubble burst, when he had to step in and manage the household finances:
“…My aunt [Annie E. Phillips] has always been the family banker, but now that she is down I have charge of all papers and accounts, & can see in stark plainness the utter desperateness of our financial situation. With the bottom completely out of revision, & with no knack whatsoever for commercial fiction, I am certainly up against a stone wall as to how to get the cash to stay alive…” (15).
So rather than an inferiority complex, Lovecraft was hobbled by his upbringing and own inflexible lifestyle choices. For better or worse, HPL lived life on his own terms.
2.a.ii. Was the “High Priest ‘Ech-Pi-El’” the Name of a Historic Wizard/Seer?
Second, look at the expression, “…he himself was the High Priest ‘Ech-Pi-El’, the Prophet of the dawning Aeon of Cthulhu”. The mystic-sounding name “Ech-Pi-El” lends a sense of mystery and authority to the Esoteric Order’s view of Lovecraft.
However, where does the name for that mythic figure come from? Ech-Pi-El is not the name of a historical occult practitioner from antiquity. It is one of the many nicknames Lovecraft and his correspondents liked to employ when writing to each other, an early “MENSA” exercise. Ech-P-El was simply the initials of his name HPL spelled out phonetically to resemble the name of an ancient wizard (16).
2.a.iii. Did Lovecraft compulsively Write Things he did not Understand?
Third, notice the idea that Lovecraft was compelled to write things that he did not fully understand, the process that led to his writing, nor fathom their origins.
To start, Lovecraft knew the source of many of his tales. HPL’s voluminous Supernatural Horror in Literature documents the many and varied heritage from which he drew inspirations. Plus, instead of assigning the origins of his mythic beasts to unknown impulses, HPL pointed to less mysterious ancestries:
“It delights me…to hear that my nameless cosmic monsters have an air of originality about them! Shapeless, unheard-of creatures are not original with me…although Poe did not use them, they figure…widely in minor horror-writing since his time…they tend to be exaggerations of…known life-forms such as insects, poisonous plants, protozoa, & the like, although a few writers break…wholly from terrestrial analogy & depict things as abstractly cosmic as luminous protoplasmic globes. If I have gone beyond these, it is only subtly & atmospherically—in details, & in occasional imputations of geometrical, biological, & physico-chemical properties…outside the realm of matter as understood by us. Most of my monsters fail…to satisfy my sense of the cosmic—the abnormally chromatic entity in The Colour Out of Space being the only one…I take any pride in” (17).
So, even though tentacles became Lovecraft’s trademark – they seldom found their way onto the usual rabble of ghosts, vampires, werewolves that haunted the pages of common horror – he felt only The Color Out of Space at this stage of his writing career fully reflected his cosmic horror.
Also, while many authors feel a certain compulsion to write, Lovecraft was not involved in automatic writing, as the language used by the Esoteric Order of Dagon implies. In “trance writing”, the words are supposed to flow from a spiritual, occult, or subconscious agency rather than the conscious intentions of the writer. Lovecraft was anything but a simple stenographer taking shorthand from the Great Old Ones while in a trance. And, such a view diminishes the contribution of the author’s creativity and talent to the written enterprise.
2.a.iv. Did Lovecraft derive his Fiction largely from his Dreams?
Fourth, ponder the notion that HPL’s writings were primarily drawn from his dreams.
HPL’s dreams were the supposed avenues through which the occult entities – the real Great Old Ones – channeled themselves and their words.
While some tales such as Nyarlathotep were taken directly from his dreams, most of Lovecraft’s fiction resulted from a conventional writing process. For instance, of the 112 stories HPL penned or co-wrote in his lifetime, only 13 were “dream-infused.” That amounts to 12% of his tales (18). If Lovecraft’s mystic knowledge, as it impregnated his tales, flowed primarily through his dreams, then a full 88% of his stories were not “divinely-inspired”, i.e. channeled from the Old Ones.
Plus, there is irony to the assertion that Lovecraft, “… never learned the true origin of the tremendous vistas of cosmic strangeness that haunted his dreams”. While we will examine Lovecraft’s thoughts about his dreams later, let us consider the 88% of HPL’s tales, where he knew their origins.
One, Lovecraft’s non-dream fictions appear to be filled with as many “…glimpses of places and entities beyond the world of mundane reality…” as his dream-sourced tales.
Two, think about HPL’s words about constructing the mythic worlds featured in his stories:
“…I get no kick…from postulating what isn’t so, as religionists and idealists do. That leaves me cold – in fact, I have to stop dreaming about an unknown realm (such as Antarctica…) as soon as the explorers enter it & discover a set of real conditions which dreams would be forced to contradict. My big kick comes from taking reality…as it is – accepting all the limitations of…orthodox science – & then permitting my symbolising faculty to build outward from the existing facts; rearing a structure of indefinite promise & possibility whose topless towers are in no cosmos or dimension penetrable by the contradicting-power of the tyrannous & inexorable intellect. But the…secret of the kick is that I know damn well it isn’t so…” (19).
Lovecraft got his kick from the knowledge that all the extravagant environments and extra-terrestrials that filled his stories – those atmospheric elements that imparted a sense of awe in HPL – did so, even though he consciously knew that none of it was real.
2.a.v. Did an Element in Lovecraft’s life prevent him from Completing an Occult Initiation?
Fifth, let us reflect on the idea that Lovecraft’s “inferiority complex…prevented him from personally crossing the Abyss in his lifetime…” HPL lived a documented life. Lovecraft’s fiction, his broad selection of non-fiction articles, essays and his roughly 20,000 existing letters to others leave few unknown corners in his life. Seldom in a non-internet age, have so many details of an individual’s life been authenticated. While Lovecraft’s stalwart materialism and atheism are evident, any claims to his initiation into an occult tradition – one that could be interpreted as “…crossing the Abyss…” – is missing.
As we finalize this section, consider the following. In defense of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, many such faith-based websites – whether they follow Christ, Cthulhu, the Qur’an or another creed – are generally used as recruitment tools. Their contents are veiled sales pitches that gloss over the deeper details of the faith, not meant for just-off-the-street newcomers. Only those disciples in the inner circle of such cabals have their pineal gland sufficiently opened to receive psychic impulses directly from the Old Ones.
The Idea that Cthulhu was Real puzzled Lovecraft:
As we move on, the thought that the Old Ones exist and that Lovecraft was their mouthpiece is not new.
In Lovecraft’s lifetime, there were correspondents in his circle that believed HPL and other contributors to the emerging mythos were agents of outer entities. Lovecraft wrote of William Lumley – his revisionist client for the collaborative work, The Diary of Alonzo Typer (1935) – as:
“…an unique survival from the earth mystical childhood…He is firmly convinced that all our gang – you [Clark Ashton Smith], Two-Gun Bob, Sonny Belknap, Grandpa E’ch-Pi-El [Lovecraft himself] and the rest – are genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension…Indeed Bill tells me that he has fully identified my Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep…so that he can tell me more about’em than I know myself…” (20).
Lovecraft felt amused at Lumley’s beliefs and his client’s simplicity.
2.b. Did Lovecraft borrow from an Ancient Tradition such as the Necronomicon?
Some systems of magic and religious devotions to the Great Old Ones are built around the idea that Lovecraft believed in black magic and based his tales around that creed.
The source of that idea was August Derleth.
During the decades between the death of Lovecraft and the search for the historic Lovecraft under scholars like S.T. Joshi, Dr. Robert M. Price, S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Derleth was the only channel of “truth” about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
In 1937, Derleth attempted to track down the many letters Lovecraft wrote for prosperity. One of those correspondents was Harold Farnese, who hoped to set two stanzas from Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth to music.During Derleth’s back-and-forth letters, Farnese recalled from some of his correspondence with HPL–which later, he could not produce:
“…Upon congratulating HPL upon his work, he answered: ‘You will, of course, realize that all my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on one fundamental lore or legend: that this world was inhabited at one time by another race, who in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside, ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’ ‘The Elders,’ as he called them…” (21).
Though Farnese’s recollection was not sourced from an actual Lovecraft letter, Derleth seized on the idea. As Lovecraft Scholar, David E. Schultz noted:
“…He [Derelth] first used it in print (with minor changes) in an article written about the time he received Farnese’s letter of 11 April 1937, entitled H.P. Lovecraft, Outsider. In that article Derleth singlehandedly started at least four long-standing errors of fact about Lovecraft: (1) That Lovecraft was an “outsider” or recluse; (2) That Lovecraft created the “Cthulhu Mythos”; (3) That Lovecraft’s pseudo-mythology was a clear parallel to the “Christian Mythos”; and (4) That Black Magic was the motivating factor of all Lovecraft’s stories. Derleth tirelessly used the Black Magic quote side-by-side with his own description of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos…’” (22).
Further study demonstrated that Farnese, not Lovecraft, was obsessed with Black Magic. He probably read things into HPL’s Yog-Sothothery that the author never spoke of, nor placed there.
Therefore, until the rise of modern Lovecraftian scholarship, early occult practitioners, and mythos organizations may have constructed their mythos-based belief systems on a faulty foundation. Namely, that Lovecraft formed his tales around a belief in Black Magic’s validity when the opposite was true.
What about Lovecraft’s use of the Necronomicon?
The search for the historic Necronomicon has taken on the aura of a conspiracy theory. Occult researchers have combed the libraries of Great Britain and other ancient seats of learning across Europe for the John Dees’ English translation of the infamous tome, the Latin translation by Olaus Wormius, or the original great text penned by the mad Abdul Alhazred himself.
Was the “Book of Books” suppressed by the Vatican? Did Galileo discover the four satellites of Jupiter based on reading about their existence in the Necronomicon? Did Nostradamus consult with a lesser demon summoned with Necronomicon spells when he wrote his timeless Quatrain prophecies? And how did the priceless spell-book fall into Lovecraft’s hands?
Like many conspiracy theories, there is more excitement in the hunt for an object than what actually exists. Searching for the Necronomicon is like looking for a bar of gold in a Russian “Matryoshka” doll. Each time you open a larger doll, a smaller one appears until nothing appears in the final unveil.
In another article, I examined the idea that Lovecraft came into possession of the Necronomicon through his estranged wife, Sonja Greene’s, alleged affair with Wizard Aleister Crowley, before HPL’s union with her. That story turned out to be an internet hoax based upon its originator’s confession (23). Yet rumors abound across cyberspace that Lovecraft’s fictional invention does exist, if not in the imaginations of his untold followers.
Lovecraft’s Necronomicon is a derivation of a plot device known as “Gothic Counterfeit”. Many Gothic novels use the “Gothic Counterfeit” theme, in which a story is told by claiming that it is a found text, a diary entry, a series of letters, etc. Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula used the Gothic device extensively and effectively.
Lovecraft often used that plot device in his tales. For instance, here is a short-list:
• In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, HPL uses both letters and Joseph Curwen’s encrypted diary.
• In The Temple, Lovecraft uses the Diary of a Dead U-Boat Captain – Manuscript found on the coast of Yucatan.
• In Dagon, HPL uses a drug addict’s suicide note.
• In The Thing on the Doorstep, Lovecraft uses the statement of a convicted murderer.
Lovecraft often set his fictional occult volume alongside existing occult works. That way, the fictional Necronomicon was simply an undiscovered work in a long-chain of occult texts, stretching back to the dawn of time.
It was common in Lovecraft’s time to establish One’s religion as the only true Faith, based upon reference to a previously unknown mythic text or a new understanding or Gnosis uncovered in an authoritative religious book. People were looking for novel religious experiences when the old faiths had been drained of their vitality. “Gothic Counterfeits” in literature temporarily filled that void in some. The “Gothic Counterfeit”:
“…gives an illusion of authenticity, heightening the drama and horror of the events recounted by the author. The ‘Gothic Counterfeit’ heightens the horror and drama of the events that the author recounts. It gives the story a feeling authenticity…The ‘Gothic Counterfeit’ theme is used by claiming that it is a found text…Gothic fiction can also contain surreal or surprising events like torture, murder, suicide and mental insanity. This empirical manner creates a tension between science and the supernatural” (24).
Lovecraft knew the true power of the Necronomicon lay not in what it might actually contain, but in what people imagined it contained. That is why, when pressed by his circle of correspondents on more than one occasion to produce a Necronomicon, HPL declined:
“As for writing the Necronomicon – I wish I had the energy and ingenuity to do it! I fear it would be quite a job in view of the very diverse passages and intimations which I have in the course of time attributed to it! I might, however, issue an abridged Necronomicon – containing such parts as are considered at least reasonably safe for the perusal of mankind!” (25).
And elsewhere, Lovecraft wrote:
“As for bringing the Necronomicon into objective existence—I wish indeed I had the time and imagination to assist in such a project…but I’m afraid it’s a rather large order—especially since the dreaded volume is supposed to run something like a thousand pages! I have ‘quoted’ from pages as high as 770 or thereabouts. Moreover, one can never produce anything even a tenth as terrible and impressive as one can awesomely hint about. If anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it” (26).
Therefore, the empirical evidence points to Lovecraft’s imagination – not some mystical, magical tome – as the primary source for his classic monsters.
2.c. Did Lovecraft tap into some ancient, collective unconsciousness we share with our Hominin Ancestors?
“Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras—dire stories of Celaeno and the Harpies—may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition—but they were there before. They are transcripts, types—the archetypes are in us, and eternal…” (27).
Lovecraft believed, “…The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown…” In the evolution of humanity from primitive hominins, that fear from the dawn of our time predates words.
We derive from our ancestors a collective racial unconscious, where undefined forms in the dark can throw us into a fight-or-flight autonomic panic.
The undefined shadows in the teeming darkness, to the human mind and the base instincts of the primitive in us, act as Rorschach Inkblots. Scrying or reading Lovecraftian tales invokes the way the brain processes and associates what it sees as all things are part of the same patterns. Yet, as Rorschach from the movie The Watchmen observed, “Existence is random. It has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long”.
In other words, the primitive basis of our brains assigns dangers and autonomic responses – such as pouring adrenaline into our bloodstreams – when confronted by overwhelming unknowns. That is a trait of our species; an evolved survival instinct that predates conscious thought. Lovecraft simply touched off with words the visceral fears and emotions that shake us to our primitive cores. He put into fresh words the archetypes that exist in our primitive natures, and eternal. HPL described the process as follows:
“…The only permanently artistic use of Yog-Sothothery, I think, is in symbolic or associative phantasy of the frankly poetic type; in which fixed dream-patterns of the natural organism are given an embodiment & crystallisation…” (28).
Ultimately, as noted earlier, some of Lovecraft’s dreams found their way into his tales. But only a few.
2.d. Did Lovecraft create the Great Old Ones out of his Imagination Alone?
“…It is only the inferior thinker who hastens to explain the singular and the complex by the primitive shortcut of supernaturalism…” (29).
So, for the remainder of his non-dream-infused tales, Lovecraft wrote on the cutting-edge between fact and fiction, materialism and myth.
Materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. Myths refer to an underlying system of beliefs, especially those dealing with supernatural forces. Materialism and science defined Lovecraft.
Yet, Lovecraft knew that our understanding of this world and the known cosmos is incomplete. He wrote his stories against the backdrop of what S.T. Joshi termed a “supranatural” universe vs. a traditional “supernatural” one:
“…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 curiosity?’ 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…” (30).
Supranatural infers that his “gods” operated within the known natural laws. And when they did something that appeared outside those natural laws, it’s because our preschool science hadn’t reached their understanding of the mechanics of the cosmos.
To Lovecraft, the universe was largely a blank canvas, and science, a fledgling palette of primary colors to an imaginative writer. The truths we know are like primary crayon colors used by children in coloring books. Artists, like the Monet and Van Gogh, used primary colors as springboards, exploring in their great paintings all the subtle and stunning spectrum of secondary colors that existed outside the lines of normalcy. They also investigated the moods those alternate colors conveyed, as daylight turned to twilight, a sensual movement from the dawn to dusk to dark.
Lovecraft described his process of painting moods with words as follows:
“The imaginative 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 lands which are glimpsed through the veil of 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 superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty” (31).
For instance, Lovecraft began with an earth seeped in evolutionary drama, a constant back-and-forth in nature of the survival of the fittest. HPL simply recast the Cosmos in an – eat or be eaten – evolutionary terms.
Through empirical thought and method, we arrived at far-reaching understandings of the known. While Lovecraft respected scientific explanations for the known, he used the framework of science to explore the possibilities in the unknown.
Lovecraft concepts and their influences on his tales grew over his writing career. For example, as HPL’s wrote his mature stories, like The Shadow Out of Time, he had the self-sense to understand the great themes in his literature and explain those theses to others:
“…In my own efforts to crystallise [a] spaceward outreaching, I…utilise as many…elements which have…given man a symbolic feeling of the unreal, the ethereal, & the mystical — choosing those least attacked by the realistic mental and emotional conditions of the present. Darkness — sunset — dreams — mists — fever — madness — the tomb — the hills — the sea — the sky — the wind — all these, and…other things have seemed…to retain a certain imaginative potency despite our actual scientific analyses of them. Accordingly I…tried to weave them into a…shadowy phantasmagoria which…have the same…vague coherence as a cycle of traditional myth or legend — with nebulous backgrounds of Elder Forces & transgalactic entities which lurk about this infinitesimal planet…establishing outposts thereon, & occasionally brushing aside other accidental forces of life (like human beings) in order to take up full habitation…Having formed a cosmic pantheon, it remains for the fantaisiste to link this ‘outside’ element to the earth in a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This…is best done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition of the ‘outside’ forces by men — or by those terrestrial entities which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales…have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder forces on the placid surface of the known — either active intrusions, or revelations caused by the feverish & presumptuous probing of men into the unknown…” (32).
3. How would human beings respond to the Great Old Ones, if they were real?
In Lovecraft’s tales, the protagonist often dies, goes crazy, commits suicide, or seeks a drug-induced oblivion.
Delusions of our importance and place in the universe mask our primitive make-up, our fragility, our lack of robustness, and the thousands of ways we can die versus the few if any, ways the Great Old Ones might perish. What if something innocuous in their makeup is disastrous to us?
Moreover, where will humanity first encounter one of the races known as the “Old Ones”? The ties that bind us to this earth become the ties that blind us to what lies beyond its confines.
Once humanity enters space, human relationships and institutions become meaningless. It will be several decades or more before we travel at the speeds available to advanced humanity in Star Trek. Until then, it will take years, perhaps decades for interplanetary travel, beyond Mars. Deep space means deep sleep to human beings.
What awaits us in the Teeming Darkness, when we awake from a long hibernation? The fictitious scenario from Alien? What if the Space Jockeys are not dead?
Think how would you narrate a catastrophe going down around you? What happens when we are confronted by the cold-blooded reality of a serial killer? The brazen cruelty, that wanton disregard for life. Consider the carnage found at Pabodie’s Camp in At the Mountains of Madness. If we are powerless before minor aliens, what of the greater?
Plus, how will we be viewed? Science fiction propaganda would have us believe we are a “promising species” as the advanced aliens known as the “Metrons” declared humanity in “The Arena”, Season 1, Episode 18 of The Original Star Trek series.
Beyond rosy space-opera propaganda, how will we truly be seen? An infestation to be eradicated? A pet? An amusement? A food source? A slave? A source of genetic diversity, such as seeds in seed banks?
What if the aliens keep us like chickens? Will the Old Ones use our immediate young as food of one kind, while the elders of our race as another?
What if there exists no means to communicate with them, where they would recognize us as a “sentient” species before they crushed us underfoot?
Will something colorful about us, like tropical fish, attract their eye? Or will they keep us as parrots, who can cleverly recite something the Great Old Ones said? But too limited in intelligence to understand what we are reciting by rote? Perhaps the Matrix is a birdcage for some Alien’s amusement.
Will they try to destroy us, such as the Engineers did in Prometheus?
Maybe we need to construct Trojan Horse versions of the Great Old Ones such as in Avatar, armored up disguises, so we are not consumed during our first encounter with them. The Mi-Go might help in this venture since they are always tinkering with the placement of disembodied brains in alien bodies. However, the weak-link in that scheme – the human mind – cannot be armored.
And why was our insignificant world important to them?
Was the early Earth designated as a penal colony? Is that why such a remote, out-of-the-way planet such as Ours became the focal point of so many tribes of the Old Ones descending en-masse, wave-after-wave, to our planet? Was Earth the Old Ones’ version of Australia?
“Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.” Joseph Stalin.
The serial killers of history and today, whether they be the heads of state – such as Joseph Stalin of Russia, Chairman Mao Zedong of China, or Pol Pot of Cambodia – or the garden-variety mass-murderer – like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and
Jeffrey Dahmer – have exposed the tenuous existence of human beings. Such human predators have risen to places in the celestial food-chain once reserved for Cthulhu.
Perhaps unknowingly, we have reached the time when:
“…mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom…” (33).
Until Great Cthulhu appears, their literature – whether in Lovecraft’s seminal tales or the talented additions to the Great Old One’s Pantheon by yesterday’s or today’s Lovecraftian Circle – breathes afresh the icy touch of cosmic fear on the palpitating mind of its readers.
Therefore, whether you celebrate Howard Phillips Lovecraft as the unwilling occult prophet of the Great Old Ones or as Cthulhu’s seminal rationalist creator, as HPL exclaimed, “…Every…bimbo to his [or her] own brand of gin…” (34).
(1) “To Virgil Finlay Upon his Drawing Of Robert Bloch’s Tale ‘The Faceless God’”, by H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1 July 1937, p. 17.
(2) The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(3) “About ‘The Seven Geases'”, by Robert M. Price, The Tsathoggua Cycle, 2005, p. 8.
(4) At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P, Lovecraft, 1931.
(5) The Whisper in Darkness,___________, 1930.
(6) The Call of Cthulhu, _______________, 1926.
(7) The Dunwich Horror, ______________, 1928.
(8) The Call of Cthulhu, _______________, 1926.
(9) “Dream Traveler”, by Donald Tyson, The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life,
His Demons, His Universe, 2010, pp. 89-93.
(10) “Yog-Sothothery”, Tyson, pp. 129-130.
(11) “That is not Dead…”, Tyson, p. 217.
(12) Magick in Theory and Practice, by Aleister Crowley, 1929.
(13) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to James F. Morton, 1 April 1930.
(14) Esoteric Order of Dagon, esotericorderofdagon.org.
(15) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Alfred Galpin, 24 June 1933.
(16) “The Origin of G Ech-P-El”, Godwin’s Cabalistic Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide
to Cabalistic Magick, p. 650.
(17) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Elizabeth Toldridge, 8 March 1929.
(18) “13 Dream-Related Stories by H.P. Lovecraft”, by Kelly Bulkeley,huffingtonpost.com, 26 May 2015.
(19) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to James F. Morton, 1 April 1930.
(20) ____________________ Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Oct 1933.
(21) Harold Farnese’s Letter to August Derleth, 11 April 1937.
(22) “The Origin of Lovecraft’s Black Magic Quote” by David E. Schultz, Crypt of Cthulhu, St. John’s Eve, #48, 1987.
(23) “H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of an Accidental Shaman”, by John A. DeLaughter, The Lovecraft eZine, 3 April 2014
(24) “An Online Essay: ‘What Are the Conventions of the Gothic Horror Genre?’” By Ann Trent, an eHow Contributor.
(25) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Robert Howard, 7 May 1932.
(26) ___________________ James Blish and William Miller, Jr. 1936.
(27) The Dunwich Horror, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1928.
(28) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Robert E. Howard, April/May 1935.
(29) The Temple, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1920.
(30) “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.
(31) In Defense of Dagon, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1921.
(32) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Harold Farnese, 22 September 1932.
(33) The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(34) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to James F. Morton, 1 April 1930.
John DeLaughter M.Div., M.S., is a Data Security Analyst and Lovecraft Essayist who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, one dog, two cats, and a chicken coop. He devoured Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness, in high school. His work has appeared in The Lovecraft eZine, Samsara: The Magazine of Suffering, Tigershark Magazine and Turn To Ash. John is presently editing an original epic fantasy work, Dark Union Rising.
I just found this site while nosing around looking for books similar to “Carter and Lovecraft” that I just finished. Then I read your article. Wow! If your essay is any indication of the level of writing here, well I am home!
Thank you mr. De Laughter!
Roy, thank you for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! The Lovecraft eZine features several of my articles in its archive, along with other great articles by Acep Hale and others. Do stay tuned, as the eZine features great fiction and Lovecraftian news from across the Globe. Again, I appreciate your words, and thanks for takin the time to leave a note!
Great essay. Is there a collection of your work available?
Hey Acep, thank you for taking the time to read the essay and leave a comment. Everything I’ve written about Lovecraft appears in the Lovecraft eZine’s archives at present. One of my goals, now that I’ve reached 100,000 words since contributing to the eZine, is to produce such a compilation on Kindle, grouping the essays around emerging themes and writing a short introduction to each section. Again, I appreciate your time and response and I look forward to reading your continuing contributions to the eZine, especially around HPL’s Cosmicism!