Things We Were Not Meant to Know: H.P. Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror
By Mack Knopf
18 June 2001
Howard Phillips Lovecraft died poor in 1937 at the age of forty-seven, the vast majority of his work no longer in print. He was born and died in Providence, Rhode Island, the last son of an old New England lineage. Scorned by most magazines, he sold almost exclusively to Weird Tales. Only one story of his, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," was published in book form in his lifetime, and it was a miserable failure, riddled with publisher's errors. Of the four hundred copies printed, only two hundred were actually bound; if you had a copy of the book now, it would be quite the collector's piece. By 1937, he had written no known original fiction in a year, supporting himself on ghostwriting and textbook work. A magnum opus of a horrific dynasty in New England, cursed with some horrible version of lycanthropy, was spoken of, but never brought to pass. Up to his last few days he was writing letters, recording a diary of his illness (intestinal cancer, perhaps linked to his abnormal sensitivity to cold) and calmly arranging his affairs for the end. When he died, his own words "I am Providence" were recorded on the tombstone, for the town that he was born in and lived and loved so much.
Nowadays, we remember him as the greatest creator and inspirer of what is called "cosmic horror." Indeed, in some ways it's as if he never died, or rather, as if he passed a legacy on to our generation, transcending the oblivion he expected. All his works are currently in print and in high demand; there is an entire publishing venture, Arkham House, devoted to him, while other companies print his works and stories set in the universe, now called the Cthulhu Mythos, that he created. In addition to popular fan fiction, scholars publish works on him in a variety of languages; conferences on his work are held, and his articles on the nature of horror are still discussed. Stephen King and Anne Rice write books inspired by him (the alien menace of It immediately comes to mind in King's case, while Rice mentions his stories in The Tale of the Body Thief), and Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges make references to him in their own works. A popular roleplaying game, The Call of Cthulhu, lets you play an investigator trying to solve the riddles of Lovecraft's world, even as you feel your sanity slowly slip away from you with each new revelation. New adaptations of Lovecraft in music, television, and movies appear constantly, while many other creations are inspired by him (H.R. Giger claims him as a major source, for example). Computer games let you explore and fight horrific, Lovecraftian monsters and mysteries, while comic books such as Warren Ellis's Planetary show Lovecraft bringing creatures across the vast alien divide to baffle and horrify the heroes.
Stylistically, Lovecraft tended toward a somewhat old-fashioned, florid style that nowadays seems purple, full of obscure words and convoluted sentences. He was influenced by writers such as Poe and Lord Dunsany, and loved to evoke the beauty of the exotic and baroque. Though this can be irritating to our modern sensibilities, Lovecraft was trying to achieve a certain atmosphere. His style has been often imitated, as it so easily makes for pastiche, but elements of his writing can be still seen in the fantastic otherworldly settings of some of Clive Barker's works, the indefinable-yet-defined monstrous creatures of King, and the occasionally florid and romantic passages of Rice with their longing for the past.
His precision of language in describing mundane things contrasted well with the often nebulous nature of his menaces, so that when left vague they still seemed concrete, because of the detail of their surroundings. His long sentences produced an atmosphere of brooding horror and rising suspense; by the time he reaches the end of a story, the reader often suspects what is coming, but still finds the need to keep reading just to see his suspicions confirmed. Lovecraft's endings tend to be minimalistic -- they give enough information to confirm and solidify the horror, but not so much that our imaginations aren't given free play to work. However, in the stories where the creatures are not left vague, they are described in excruciating detail, as in "The Shadow Out Of Time," that anchors them quite solidly in our imaginations, and allows illustrators to produce a host of pictures of them. Even in those stories, though, there is usually something even more horrific than the revealed monstrosities that is hinted at: revelation of one thing only makes way for an even worse unknown, that even those creatures fear.
Even if you've never read Lovecraft, you may have heard the words "Cthulhu" and "The Necronomicon," which probably evoke images of a horrific tentacled monster and some sort of book for summoning demons and the dead. More popular than he was in life, Lovecraft has become a pop icon, as have his ideas. What's more amazing than that is that his ideas have come through remarkably intact, albeit with occasional misunderstandings. Why the popularity?
Lovecraft wrote mainly in the period between the two World Wars, a time when the slaughter of the first war had given new impetus to the Western world's spiritual crisis and search for meaning. Spiritualism and theosophy were already well-established trends in Europe and America before the Great War, along with mesmerism and the influence of Romanticism on mystic thought. Many were shocked by the violence and horror of WWI: science had unleashed a genie called modern warfare, and the world recoiled. Some sought answers from the spirit world even more fervently, and the new scientific theories were not always understood; sometimes, if they were, it only made the confusion worse.
Now, in the twenty-first century, the tenor of the times of the '30s has come around again, with fear of science, of knowledge, and of the unknown; even when science enlightens us, there are many who do not like the answers it provides. There is little room for religion in the methodology of science, and materialism tends not to admit the evidence of the spirit world. Science is also not easy to understand -- it is frequently counterintuitive (the sun does not revolve around the earth), and many its discoveries take training to understand. More and more people turn to "pseudoscience" as a result, as we can see from the proliferation of theories of Atlantis (few want to hear it might be an island called Thera destroyed by a volcano), the alien-abduction phenomenon, and other conspiracy theories. Religious sects proliferate as answers are sought, just as in Lovecraft's time.
Contemporary parallels with the spiritualism and interest in magical phenomena of the '30s are obvious, and Joyce Carol Oates surmises as much in Tales of H.P. Lovecraft:
'Weird fiction' can only be a product, Lovecraft saw, of an age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways. Lovecraft would hardly have been surprised, but rather confirmed in his cynicism regarding human intelligence, could he have foreseen how, from the 1950s onward, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of purportedly sane Americans would come to believe in UFOs and extraterrestrial beings with particular, often erotic designs upon them. 1
We are also now capable of destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons, a destruction as total, cosmic, and horrifying as anything Lovecraft ever envisioned. And the danger is ever-present, and lurking right below the surface of what we think of as our day-to-day world. Knowledge can be dangerous -- just as Lovecraft said. Relativity brought us new insights on the nature of the universe. It also brought us the nuclear bomb.
The more we know about theories such as quantum physics, the more disturbing they seem. The implications of the new discoveries of Lovecraft's time have become clearer in the last decades, and we've found that there seem to be absolute limits to what we can know. Max Planck found the numbers that define the limits of what we can measure in time and space, for example. Simply put, beyond a certain resolution, nothing can be measured, no matter what microscope or sensing device we might use, and no numerical answer that we can obtain is entirely accurate. Quantum physics, meanwhile, is a theory so complicated and counterintuitive that it stretches our ability to comprehend it, and its implications are disturbing in and of themselves. Something can be both a particle and a wave at the same time, and as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle says, we cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron at the same time.
Tales of cosmic horror fit very well into such a cultural setting, although such tales are not new, of course. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with its creation of new life from death, heralded nineteenth-century fears that there were some things we were just not meant to know, some mysteries that should not be probed. Ancient tales and mythologies are full of similar warnings that we can't really get what we want, or what we want isn't good for us, and if we can get it, it will cost us. In Norse mythology, we have Odin, chief of the gods, trading his eye for knowledge -- the point being there is always a high price. Gilgamesh's final discovery was that he could not cheat death -- immortality eluded him. Prometheus stole fire from the Greek gods, true, but was punished for his crime, and fire can burn as easily as it can warm.
Lovecraft's stories devoted themselves to tales of people whose curiosity led them to secrets no one was meant to know, of horrible hideous things beyond human ken. Ghouls lurk in underground tunnels, stealing the bodies of our beloved ancestors and getting fresh meat from the unlucky ("Pickman's Model"). Communities of sea creatures lurk in the ocean depths, just waiting for their time to come again, when they will inherit the earth ("Dagon"). On the earth's surface, small towns hide cults that worship alien monstrosities and seek to join them in their blasphemous rites ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth"), while individual humans prolong their lives from beyond the grave by taking over the bodies of others ("The Thing on the Doorstep").
All this would be terrifying enough, but underlying it all is a theme that Lovecraft would develop more and more as time went on. The "gods" in his stories are not gods as we usually think of them, but rather aliens, and primal forces. These entities existed for countless ages before man, and will exist long after he is gone. Their very existence is destructive to our sanity, and they care nothing for humanity. This can be exemplified by a quote from one of his most famous pieces, "The Call of Cthulhu," first published in 1928: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." The narrator of the piece goes on to say that if we knew what really went on in the universe, even in part, we'd either go mad as a society, or break down into a new dark age, eschewing the revelations of science altogether.
Lovecraft's pantheon is quite well-developed, and many writers at the time and since have gone on to use it. Lovecraft was an inveterate letter writer (he would love the Internet if he were alive today), habitually writing five to fifteen letters a day, some as long as thirty, forty, or fifty pages. And he did this for the duration of his adult life, creating an estimated 75,000 letters, of which about 10,000 survive today. Amateur writers were by far his most frequent correspondents; a number of them went on to become major writers, spreading his ideas later in life, but Lovecraft was as happy to correspond with a fan as with a fellow author, and was involved with a number of amateur press publications in the field.
He corresponded with such writers as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and James Blish. Because of the constant exchange, many of these authors would use concepts and names from each other's works, a development that Lovecraft was happy to encourage. The more a general background of weird fantasy was spread, he thought, the better, which is why you'll see Lovecraftian references in such things as Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, Howard being a close friend of Lovecraft. He was always glad to mentor someone starting in the field, for that matter, if they captured what he felt to be the spark of wonder and fantasy that he felt was essential.
There are things that are not only beyond our ability to comprehend, but should also be beyond our desire, given their terrible nature. But the irony is that the terrible is also fascinating -- to some, at least. His essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," first printed in 1925 and subsequently updated, is a benchmark of cosmic horror. Just as Poe once defined the most tragic event to be the death of a beautiful woman, Lovecraft defined the most horrible sort of fear as "cosmic fear." He basically brought the genre of cosmic horror to the modern age, defining it then as not the same as mere bodily fear:
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.2
Drowning is scary, murderers are scary, and dead bodies are scary, but these are all perfectly natural occurrences. No, horror for Lovecraft involved the breaking, or disturbance, of cosmic law -- in short, things that are against nature, or at least nature as humans conceive it. He was aware, of course, that most people would not be aware of this horror, since only the most sensitive were susceptible to his tales. However, in his opinion this fear lay underpinning all of society, in his opinion: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." There will always be those who think about what lies beyond our earth, or wonder at the nature of the ancestral muck from which we came, and there will always be children afraid of the dark. We are genetically programmed to fear the dark, he said, since for our most primitive ancestors it was the greatest source of the unknown, and thus the greatest source of dangers.
Lovecraft was a confirmed atheist, and it is important to understand his position on superstition and religion, as far as his writing goes: "I am, indeed, an absolute materialist as far as actual belief goes; with not a shred of credence in any form of supernaturalism -- religion, spiritualism, transcendentalism, metempsychosis, or immortality." He wrote a regular newspaper astronomy column while a teenager, and originally wanted to become an astronomer before being foiled by his difficulties with the necessary math. His fascination with the stars and cosmology can be seen in the constant talk in his stories about menaces from beyond the stars, and beings that will awake after countless millennia when "the stars are right."
He keenly followed the science news of his day, participated in amateur science and astronomy groups, and was well-versed in current philosophies. The implications of science, in his opinion, are addressed in his fiction by its reflection of determinism and the dangers of knowledge. Mechanist determinism, the base of Lovecraft's "cosmic indifference," is essentially the view that there is, first, is no such thing as free will, since everything was determined from the first event when the universe was created, and second, that there is no such thing as spirit, only matter. Determinism also refuted the idea that the universe was heading in any grand direction under a governing deity; if the earth itself was heading anywhere, it was to eventual destruction when the sun died. A much discussed idea in the era he was writing, this can be seen in such works as "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath," where the narrator discovers the ultimate nihilism that lies at the heart of the universe. There is no true freedom in his stories, only an awful inevitable chain of destiny, and our doom is preordained, if only we knew the full extent.
Anything that originally seems to be spirit in Lovecraft's works is ultimately revealed to be the work of aliens from far distant reaches of space and time, while magic is revealed to be higher science and previously unexplained workings of nature. The workings of the universe may appear to the human mind as a violation of natural law, but this is explained by Lovecraft to be in reality the revelation of a higher law. In short, Lovecraft is writing science fiction, not fantasy. If we were to know the higher truths of the universe, we would go mad, so it is better for us not to delve too deeply into the realm of science. The scale of the universe is so epic that humanity should content itself with its home, and not seek to go further.
Science continues to reveal the universe to us as even larger and more awe-inspiring as the years go by and we come closer and closer to knowing its true age and proportions. For many, though, this is not a reassuring revelation any more than in Lovecraft's day. Lovecraft, for his part, took the issue of determinism in stride, finding assurance in what he saw as the revelations in science, even as he charted its course in his works. Order was the crucial thing in his life, and the philosophy provided him order, with the idea that everything happened for a reason. Free will was not truly free, of course, but could be lived as if it was, since it ultimately didn't matter.
He rejected religion at an early age, making a study of what he felt were the follies of faith and how it served humanity. Religion, for him placated the masses, and so he created in his works what David Schultz called an "anti-mythology." Mythology's usual function is to show how humanity connects to deity, how deity functions in society, and to explain how the world works. In Lovecraft's stories, however, there can be no connection to god because there is no God, and the beings that are worshipped in God's place (Nyarlathotep, Hastur, Cthulhu, etc.) have no true concern for humanity at all, and will only bring about humanity's destruction if summoned. A close parallel can be drawn between them and modern nuclear weaponry -- they may rule our world, but they care nothing for us. According to S.T. Joshi in H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, "The 'gods' in his tales are symbols of all that lies unknown in the boundless cosmos, and the randomness with which they can intrude violently into our own realm is a poignant reflexion of the tenuousness of our fleeting and inconsequential existence."
This leads us to another crucial cultural development of the modern era: the Nietzchean notion that God is dead, or never existed. When Einstein's theory of relativity was confirmed in 1923 by empirical observations, Lovecraft was first shaken in his determinism, then confirmed in his beliefs by the realization that E=mc2 gave further proof that there was no spirit or soul, only matter or energy. In his logic, if something could not be detected (spirit), it did not exist, since all things were either matter or energy, which were really the same thing. He similarly tried to incorporate Max Planck's quantum theory to support determinism, but did not really understand its full implications, except to absorb the notion of probability to say that though it cannot be proved God cannot exist, he most likely does not. The argument has been made since by people that quantum physics negates determinism, allowing God (or whatever) to "play dice with the universe."
Lovecraft's complexity comes through surprisingly well today, despite some attempts to simplify it. August Derleth, the man who founded Arkham House and first published Lovecraft's works after his death, was also the man who did the most to distort Lovecraft's ideas. Derleth wrote a great deal in what he now called "the Cthulhu Mythos" (a term never used while Lovecraft was alive, as he used the words "Arkham cycle" instead), but unfortunately, Derleth's take on the ideas was grossly simplistic. The Elder Gods and whatnot were not alien beings who had no concern for humanity, with a vast backdrop of conflict among themselves where humans were destroyed as a byproduct; instead, they became typecast as "bad guys" and "good guys," elemental forces fighting over the ranch -- i.e., Earth. The Cthulhu Mythos, or Arkham cycle, was never the main thrust of Lovecraft's ideas, in any case. Lovecraft was searching for cosmic horror, and the pantheon of creatures was just one of the ways he did so -- it is not the entirety of his works, and to focus on the Mythos exclusively is to miss the point.
Fortunately, others took up Lovecraft's ideas, and the genre of cosmic horror has only grown, as the evidence suggests. The trope of "man summons demon, demon eats man" is very obvious, but it is not H. P. Lovecraft, and for that we should be thankful. The fact that the majority of works inspired by him nowadays deal with the idea of "things man was not meant to know" is a sign that his legacy has been carried on, and cosmic horror continues to scare new readers.
Mack Knopf is an Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.
The H.P. Lovecraft Library contains online texts, reviews, and photographs, and generously provided the opening picture.
The Mythos Web provides an online guide to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos fiction.
The H.P. Lovecraft Archive includes a very good all-around introduction to his life, works, and works about him.
Joshi, S.T. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life.
Lovecraft, H.P. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. Selected by August Derleth, eds. T.E. Klein and S.T. Joshi.
Lovecraft, H.P. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Eds. S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz.
Lovecraft, H.P. Tales of H.P. Lovecraft: Major Works Selected. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates.