Reflections on HP Lovecraft

Do you read any HP Lovecraft?

My step-brother Judd was wearing a Miskatonic T-shirt at Christmas. He said HP Lovecraft was his favorite author, so I renewed a decade old resolution to check out some Lovecraft. (I read “Memory”, a short story reproduced below in its entirety, about a decade ago and loved it.)

In the last month, I’ve read:

  • Dagon
  • Colour out of Space
  • White Ape
  • The Outsider
  • Nyarlathotep
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • The Alchemist
  • White Ship
  • Shunned House
  • The Tomb

Right now, I’m working on: Dunwich Horror. Then eventually, Shadow over Innsmouth. (Open to recommendations.)

Lovecraft is deliciously written. Every line is poetry. He uses words with perfect skill. He’s a better prose writer than Poe, in his way – and in ways that (for me, subjectively), count more. I can’t quite come up with a name to compare him too. He’s a dreadfully competent story teller and writer, but I wouldn’t compare him to Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Stephen King. He’s in a class of his own, perhaps. Superior to Poe, I would say, as a storyteller and world builder and philosophical thinker. Inferior to few English writers as a poet and wordsmith. I don’t want to compare him to Keats, or Eliot, so I’ll just say that he’s in a class of his own. What he aims to achieve he achieves with shocking precision and expertise that I wouldn’t have thought possible if you described it.

So much for style. The stories, how good are they? In a word, very good. Original themes, chilling, and all too believable. Each one has satisfying characters, plots, settings, and conceits.

My favorite so far overall is the Shunned House, for pure thrill, horror, terror, and deliciousness of the historical conceit.

My favorite so far for its beauty of imagery and language is The White Ship.

Scariest overall so far is The Colour out of Space. Completely bone chilling for the entire story, from the first lines, but it gets steadily worse and worse until the ending which I had to finish in the day time.

Scariest climax was The Shunned House.

Didn’t like Nyarlathotep, the Outsider, the Alchemist, or the Tomb as much, though they are still excellent.

Lovecraft is so good that, like Cervantes, Plato, Augustine, Mallick, and others his art didn’t just create imitators but created a genre. His is “cosmic horror.” If he were playing Poe at poker, Poe would say, “I see gothic writing, and I’ll raise you terrifying story about madness, death, decay, and regret.” Lovecraft would reply, “I’ll see your stories, Poe, and I’ll raise you true horror.”

I also read a bit about his life. Lovecraft was an amateur – in the best sense of the word. He was a lover. He was self-taught, never graduated from a fancy college nor even from high school. But he taught himself well. He taught himself through beautiful poetry, science, astronomy, and (unfortunately) through secularism. Although he missed the interpretive key that unlocks all cosmology, psychology, history, and metaphysics (which is the incarnation of the logos), his philosophical mind penetrated deeper into the full implications of modernity than his peers. Though darkened by atheism, or perhaps because darkened, he appreciated the horrifying situation of human life better than most modern writers, for whom atheism is an excuse for debonaire skepticism or (worse) a cognitively dissonant cheerfulness. Nothing is more disgustingly dishonest, I think, than an optimistic atheist. Even Sartre’s dread is bourgeois whining which assumes that things should be better than they are. Even Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair” futilely imitates the nobility of Stoicism, the knight of infinite resignation who has not yet admitted to himself how lost is the cause. Only the madness of Nietzsche, or the horror of Lovecraft cuts through all that and communicates, in beautiful and sublime prose, how things actually stand if there is no good God.

Lovecraft’s fears are not that a monster or disease or serial killer might come to kill us. His fear, his dread, is that we might have to live with the knowledge that the whole universe is a darker, more unnamable, inexplicable cauldron of terror than we could ever imagine.

Lovecraft asks us to consider what it would be like if everything we knew or thought we knew was only the smallest sliver of reality. All our science, technology, religion, and culture is a small island of light in an ocean of darkness. In his vision, we are like drunks, sitting on the curb under a fading streetlight, thinking the circle of light around us is the whole world, when in reality every direction leads to limitless realms of chaos, inexplicability, and indifference.

His heroes don’t die at the end of the story – the Dagon narrator concludes by resolving to commit suicide, but that’s an exception. Death would be a blessed relief from the crushing knowledge of the truth. His heroes conclude the story with unbearable insight. They are horrified, shocked, stunned, paralyzed, or dazed by coming face to face with everything that has transpired in the story. They, like the reader, must live with it – which is far worse than death.

Lovecraft’s heroes are mere scribes, historians, scientists, data-collectors. They are explorers who come back from their expedition white, shaking, sweating, and almost speechless. They are astronauts or scuba divers who cry out to the fools on earth to never again attempt to plumb the heights and the depths.

I’ve learned that Lovecraft’s horror is called “Cosmic Horror”. The horror, again, is not a disease or a vampire or getting trapped in the dark, not per se; the horror is the human situation, our limitations in light of the “Old Ones”, beings of malevolence or indifference to humanity so great and dreadful that all our worst nightmares look like good dreams in comparison.

I think his fundamental premise is just plain wrong, but it’s interestingly wrong. The universe is “pure light, intellectual light, suffused with love” as Dante says, not darkness. We are on an island of chaos in a sea of order. We are ringed round with the one blotch of darkness in the cosmos, and that blotch is suspended in a whole ocean of light we call “deep space” but which is more truly called “deep heaven.” The one thing we know fills every square inch between the stars is light. Truth is light, and truth is with God in the beginning and truth is God; by truth all things came into being and nothing that was made was made a part from truth. The only darkness is in the will of the fallen angels and in fallen man. But we aberrations will be cleaned up in no time.

Nevertheless, Lovecraft’s vision is (a) aesthetically interesting for its own sake and (b) a helpful corrective to cheerful atheism, which pretends to care about science and progress while admitting, in its more sober hours, that all progress will be erased and all our science represents a flicker of candlelight within an infinite expanse of the unknown.

For that reason, I recommend reading a bit of Lovecraft. Start with this story, reproduced in full, about the fleetingness of man’s life, and even the fleetingness of our race.

“Memory,” by HP Lovecraft.

In the valley of Nis the accursed waning moon shines thinly, tearing a path for its light with feeble horns through the lethal foliage of a great upas-tree. And within the depths of the valley, where the light reaches not, move forms not meet to be beheld. Rank is the herbage on each slope, where evil vines and creeping plants crawl amidst the stones of ruined palaces, twining tightly about broken columns and strange monoliths, and heaving up marble pavements laid by forgotten hands. And in trees that grow gigantic in crumbling courtyards leap little apes, while in and out of deep treasure-vaults writhe poison serpents and scaly things without a name.

Vast are the stones which sleep beneath coverlets of dank moss, and mighty were the walls from which they fell. For all time did their builders erect them, and in sooth they yet serve nobly, for beneath them the grey toad makes his habitation.

At the very bottom of the valley lies the river Than, whose waters are slimy and filled with weeds. From hidden springs it rises, and to subterranean grottoes it flows, so that the Daemon of the Valley knows not why its waters are red, nor whither they are bound.

The Genie that haunts the moonbeams spake to the Daemon of the Valley, saying, “I am old, and forget much. Tell me the deeds and aspect and name of them who built these things of stone.” And the Daemon replied, “I am Memory, and am wise in lore of the past, but I too am old. These beings were like the waters of the river Than, not to be understood. Their deeds I recall not, for they were but of the moment. Their aspect I recall dimly, for it was like to that of the little apes in the trees. Their name I recall clearly, for it rhymed with that of the river. These beings of yesterday were called Man.”

So the Genie flew back to the thin horned moon, and the Daemon looked intently at a little ape in a tree that grew in a crumbling courtyard.