I’m a latecomer to Lovecraft. I knew who the man was when I first dabbled in horror and SFF when I was a schoolboy, but for some reason passed him by, maybe labouring under the idiotic impression that he was too pulpy for my tastes. The irony was that the many things I did spend my time and money on were either directly or indirectly influenced by Lovecraft: the Alien films; John Carpenter’s The Thing; the films of Davids Carpenter and Lynch; Warhammer 40,000; Stephen King; Watchmen, and countless other things.
I’ve just finished reading At The Mountains Of Madness, a terrific novella – Lovecraft’s longest piece at around 150 pages – which articulates this quite well. It tells of explorers seeking paleontological finds in the glaciers of Antarctica, and encountering something quite different indeed. Without that book, you probably don’t have Alien, and you certainly don’t have a bewildered David Clennon murmuring, “You gotta be fuckin’ kidding,” in The Thing. It’s a terrific piece, filled with mad prognostications, vivid descriptions of bizarre ancient discoveries, a breathless and terrible climax, and fatalistic questions about the origins of mankind, and questions in turn about our own propensity to enslave, exploit, and rationalise.
Talking of enslavement and exploitation, it’s a strange phenomenon that Lovecraft of all people is enjoying a surge of interest in his work when one of the prevalent cultural menaces of our own times is cancellation, which stalks culturally important historical figures with seemingly erratic insidiousness, seeking perceived slights against present-day sensibilities. And if you’re looking for problematic cultural figures, then Lovecraft leaves almost all of them in the dust. And yet his cultural currency seems to be increasing, if anything. In a way, Lovecraft’s overt racism (which was so rank he cannot even be defended by the risible, “He was a man of his time” argument) immunises him against such charges of being historically problematic. Whereas trying to argue that most long-dead figures are guilty of such charges requires a certain amount of non-Euclidean mental gymnastics to be performed, Lovecraft surely must be a sitting duck.
Nevertheless, a man whose xenophobia and racism was worn so openly on his sleeve, whose poetry was filled with such rampant disgust and loathing that even the titles are unutterable, remains respected, influential, and even loved. Square that one, Fermat. Lovecraft’s work is still front and centre in films, shows and books coming out today. Most obvious is Lovecraft Country, but he’s also there in Cabin In The Woods, Carnival Row, His Dark Materials, It, Underwater, and these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Hell, even my own novella The Gigantomachy of Antonios Costas, which I’m serialising on the blog right now, is essentially an analog of the premise of At The Mountains Of Madness but set in steamy Athens rather than the southern ice floes, and I wrote that two years before I’d starting reading Lovecraft.
My personal take is that Lovecraft was positioned in a period where his brand of weird fiction was capturing the prevailing psychological and existential headwinds that were circling western civilisation at the time. Lovecraft was writing a generation after the coattails of Nietzsche, who had proclaimed that, “Gott ist tot” (God is Dead). The extent to which Nietzsche actually thought that was a good thing can be probably left to another article, but it was deciphered to mean that humanity had socially evolved to the point where a functioning society no longer needed to be built around a deity or, by extension, His representative on earth, in the form of either a King/Queen or a Pope or equivalent. Furthermore, the evolution of democracy enabled people to be governed through consent, not through divine authoritarianism. We had elevated ourselves to the space vacated by God, and philosophy had allowed us to construct moral and ethical schemas for living that were divorced from the archaisms of the Church.
But as I’ve said before, philosophy doesn’t necessarily clip the wings of angels, as Keats advised; it might wake them up, and we might find that they are vengeful. That’s certainly something I thought about when I wrote The Green Man. Lovecraft may not have thought about it in those distinct terms, but I do believe that he was writing in a state of fear, loathing, and disgust. The bulk of Lovecraft’s output came after the Great War, World War I, that storm of desperate, unimaginable horrors. He was not the only one: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Woolf and others wrote in the dissipating shadow of war, but where they captured empty decadence, wasted masculinity, and psychological trauma, Lovecraft cut to the quick. He was only interested in terror. Cold, stark, sanity-stripping terror that destroyed minds, and shredded histories and memories into confetti.
Without God, man suddenly had thrust himself upon the throne of the summit of all that was knowable. “If man would strike, strike through the wall!” cried Ahab in Moby Dick. Lovecraft knew what was through the wall. His stories are filled with explorers, historians, scientists, academics of various stripes; men (and they were men, 99% of the time) of inquisition, men of learning, men of exploration, who are appalled at what they find when they seek too far. Instead of scientific wonders, they find huge, sleeping deities, infinitely malleable, hideous plastic blobs, blood pollution, and constant recourses to the pathetic and utterly random origins of mankind. While these men search for meaning through their scientific endeavours – and perhaps in the same moment could be said to be Jung’s modern men in search of a soul – all they found was meaninglessness, and a further Stygian hell. Like Ahab, these protagonists are left floundering in a vortex of insanity, encircled by the wall through which they tried to strike. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, they are left staring at the abyss of creation, not of sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire, pondering their journey.
The protagonists in At The Mountains Of Madness do just this. They are not merely left dazed and partially-insane by what they uncover and encounter through their own paroxisms of rational motivation to know and to lepidopteristically pin down nature. Their entire understanding of, and relation to, the whole of the human race becomes unhinged. As humans we may well be the Promethean progeny of some loveless, ambivalent force of creation; but we also harbour the powers of creation ourselves. Just as the Elder Ones created the repugnant shoggoths, who then rose up against their creators, the explorers see themselves reflected in those ancient events. But are we the Elder Ones, or the shoggoth? Or are we fated to be both, at the same time, for ever? Without God we inherit the mantle of creators, but are we ready to wield such power? Or are we destined to misuse it? Without God we must inherit the vacant position of idealised perfection, but we must do so with all of our flaws. There is no transcendent. We must learn through our mistakes, rather than appealing to our higher sense of good through contemplation, prayer, and humility.
In the wake of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York last week, I watched a programme on ITV entitled “Life Under Attack.” It was a stupendous compilation of clips from various everyday New Yorkers who’d picked up a camera and filmed the unearthly events of that fateful morning – no talking heads, no narration, no expert analysis. The most horrifying moment was the footage showing the second aircraft flying into the second tower of the World Trade Centre; that was the moment where a city collectively understood that this wasn’t an accident; this was malevolent. And the sheer gruesome magnificence of the sight, the gigantism of its tapestry and the powerlessness of those watching was so awful that immediately I thought, “that’s Lovecraftian.” That process of witnessing something so dreadful that it’s unexplainable, so dreadful it renders everything collapsible, is what Lovecraft was aiming for and hit with his fiction. God save us that we actually have to witness and endure these things, for they are real. For 9/11 you can read untold horrors all around the world, be they murders, genocides, wars, famine, oppression… but do not think you can turn to God for solace. Gott ist tot.
When I was re-reading Stephen King’s Needful Things last year I noticed at least two direct references to Lovecraft, and both concerned the character Ace Merrill, a loser member of the criminal class with a debilitating penchant for Colombian honking powder. So it is that Devil-incarnate Leland Gaunt, the proprietor of the eponymous emporium, offers Ace “cocaine from the plateau of Leng.” Later, in Boston, Ace encounters some graffiti in a disused lock-up that states, “Yog-Sothoth lives!” Odd that both Lovecraft references are made in scenes containing Ace Merrill. True, he is a particularly godless, heathen sort of low-life, but Needful Things is filled with horrible – and arguably worse – people. So why Ace? Most likely it was just an SK joke. Maybe it’s because Ace is willing to actually get on board with the devil; he isn’t just seduced by the vacuous trinkets like most of the townfolk; he’s ready to get nasty from the off. He is already temporally, ethically, and physically unhinged, and that leaves him floating in the cosmic soup of nothingness even before he’s started, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the cosmic horrors reveal themselves to him first. Castle Rock, the setting for Needful Things, eventually – spoiler alert! – goes down in flames. The differing denominations of the church destroy themselves and each other. Gott ist tot. But Yog-Sothoth – the master of time, along with Cthulhu and Azathoth and all those other cosmic chaps – cannot be killed. Fools if we think we can fill the space left by a dying God! The spaces are already occupied!
Thus, the way I see it is Lovecraft is the counterpart to Nietzsche; while Nietzsche was somewhat ambivalent (his proclamation also came with a hefty health warning) at the death of God because human rationality could take its place as the highest beacon in the universe, Lovecraft’s rebuttal is a scream in the darkness, a waking nightmare filled with emptiness, a cry of, “No!” We are very far from being the highest beacon in the universe, and probably are even flattered by the collective title of Pale Blue Dot.
If one were to be distastefully cynical one might surmise that Lovecraft paid for his nasty outlook on the human race, and particularly his racism, via the terrible life that he led. Much has been written about his dreadful personal life, the incarceration and death of his parents in bedlam; his grinding, abject poverty; his loveless – and possibly sexless – marriage; not to mention his dwarfish reclusiveness, egregious diet and constant ill-health. Serves him right, one might be inclined to think. Perhaps the perfect storm of his hellish circumstances exacerbated his racism and his godless, existential crisis. But surely it’s more likely that his dreadful life was the progenitor of his output? That his racism was borne from a sense of worthlessness and fear, leading to his adoption of racist attitudes as a sort of desperate crutch? And also that his prodigiously original and inspired output was borne from his own sense of meaninglessness, a sense of wanting to be better and wanting to explore, but simultaneously fearing what might be out there? Lovecraft was also a hugely kind and generous man with his time – he was such a prolific epistolary correspondent that perhaps only Voltaire can stand with him, and St Paul could claim to be more (indirectly) influential. He supported the careers of many other writers through his advice, encouragement, and inspiration via letter-writing. And there is doubtless anyone alive today who does not enjoy at least something that is created in the spirit and the style of Lovecraft. Perhaps – poor devil! – we cannot have one Lovecraft without the other. Perhaps his pernicious prejudices are the price we have to pay for his enduring art and his eternal influences. Perhaps it is not possible to throw out the bathwater without the baby. There is grimness in that, but also reality. That in all of history, and in all of the future, the reprehensible chapters of human existence and experience cannot be expunged, for light and shadow come wrapped as a package deal.
That doesn’t mean that we ought to be nihilistic. If anything it tells us that to derive any sort of meaning from life, we have to appeal to the better nature within ourselves. If Lovecraft hadn’t reached out to other writers and charitably offered his help to them, we would not have his body of work today, and our culture would be undoubtedly weaker. Lovecraft died fairly young, penniless, most likely in pain, and with no degree of fame or recognition whatsoever. It is only because the people Lovecraft helped decided to preserve, repackage and perpetuate his work that we can read it and use it today. That’s truly remarkable when you think about it. That this man – a lonely, bitter, spiteful, sad, racist, poor, ill man – was capable of great leaps of kindness, and through those acts he was saved, postmortem, from obscurity. You might even wryly say that his acts of kindness saved him from cancelling himself. In presenting a body of work that is insistent in presenting the meaninglessness of existence, Lovecraft leaves a legacy that is most meaningful of all.