The Lonely World of H.P. Lovecraft
by Sten Johnson
The most merciful thing in the world...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.
My first encounter with H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was not as a reader, but as a listener. In October of 1981, National Public Radio’s news program All Things Considered presented a dramatization of his 1921 short story "The Outsider,” narrated by Bob Balaban. This exercise in audio theater was so startling in its sensory effect that I was later surprised to learn that the tale had been intended for the printed page. The story begins in subdued, atmospheric gothic fashion as an unnamed narrator describes a solitary life in an abandoned castle. A dense series of expressive passages burst with images of aristocratic elegance and gothic degeneration: towering ceilings, candles, bones, and a vast catalog of illustrated books. The narrator only knows humanity through his reading and decides to seek companionship. Abandoning the ruin, he enters the world.
As I listened to Lovecraft’s prose, the laws of literary discipline strained in a disquieting way; this appeared to be an authentic, tortured cri de coeur rather than a work of the imagination. Detail and specificity are the soul of literary realism, but Lovecraft’s descriptions were so precise, expansive and redolent that they seemed to have been lifted unedited from a nocturnal memoir. If this had been a musical performance, it could have been described as “overblown”; strategic over-expression evoked a bracing, alien discord.
Lovecraft’s narrator wanders through a desolate countryside and finally encounters a group of partygoers, a point at which I anticipated a reversal or a surprise ending. I was obliquely rewarded: Lovecraft ends with a painful scene of existential disappointment as the narrator’s poetic, insubstantial reality collides with crueler truths. The party sees him and recoils at his sight, and the reason for their reaction is apparent as he approaches a mirror:
I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft is one the 20th century’s most unlikely literary success stories and one of the most unconventional writers to achieve the status of a cultural icon. Virtually unknown when he died, impoverished, of cancer at age 46 in 1937, Lovecraft had worked steadily as a writer but been unable to make a sustainable living; the small rates offered by magazines such as Weird Tales could not supplement a declining inheritance, and a fatal combination of thrift and isolation likely prevented his illness from being addressed while it was treatable. Although his published bibliography is relatively small, its size becomes prodigious when expanded to include amateur publications and letters. The vastness of his correspondence, with over 100,000 letters as long as 40 handwritten pages, confirms a lingering sense of the driven, quixotic outsider.
Lovecraft shared an end similar to his idol Edgar Allan Poe: physically diminished, degraded by hard and unprofitable work, and convinced that he had failed in life and art. That image of mythic, picturesque decay is redeemed by an unlikely resurrection in print: within a decade, Best Supernatural Stories of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by August Derleth, would sell more than 67,000 copies annually. A collection of fourteen stories originally published between 1922 and 1937, the anthology mostly features shorter tales such as “Cool Air,” “Pickman’s Model,” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” modeled on the stories of Poe and Ambrose Bier ce, where a surprise or paradoxical ending unveils cruel or ironic truths. But Derleth also includes a selection of Lovecraft’s exceptional novella-length later works that remain 20th century landmarks: “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), and “ The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930). Those works form the substructure of the enduring Cthulhu Mythos, a series of new stories on Lovecraftian themes by writers such as Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, Lin Carter, Fred Chappell, August Derleth, and Donald Wandrei, adding new vitality to a nascent mythology.
Beyond the world of literature, Lovecraft casts an unlikely shadow across popular culture. Barnes and Noble offers a stuffed toy of Cthulhu, his tentacled, otherworldly yet materially present deity, while millions have unknowingly digested his work through songs such as Metallica’s “Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be,” an homage to Lovecraft’s great 1936 novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Numerous films have adopted Lovecraft’s stories as they enter the public domain, but few are true to their dense, uncinematic sources. Notable exceptions are Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” (1985) and “Dagon” (2001), Andrew Leman’s silent production of “Call of Cthulhu” (2005), and Roger Corman’s “Dunwich Horror” (1970), featuring Dean Stockwell as an unlikely beatnik version of the monstrous Walter Whateley.
That sense of ethereal omnipresence makes Lovecraft one of the few writers, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who actually inspire cultural frisson. He is like one of his own inventions, a creature that’s broken its restraints and wanders unwelcome through the academy: neither pulp, nor a part of the high-literary canon, his prodigious if wildly unconventional talent remains unusually provocative. For his detractors, who object to his bleak themes and intensely rhetorical style, he is an unusually difficult antagonist, both a cultured intellectual and an affront to conventional writing. To Lovecraft’s admirers, his body of work offers a nearly inexhaustible mythic density. In the words of French novelist Michel Houllebecq, it “stands before us, an imposing baroque structure, its towering strata rising in so many layered concentric circles, a wide and sumptuous landing around each--the whole surrounding a vortex of pure horror and absolute marvel.”
Horror is a countercultural genre; it willfully disrupts or contradicts social norms. But Lovecraft was not a provocateur in his private life and views, which were resolutely conservative in ways that would have been alien to his contemporaries. Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890, he famously declared, “I am Providence” in a 1926 letter, a statement of loyalty to a physical and imaginative locale:
To all intents and purposes I am more naturally isolated from mankind than Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, who dwelt alone in the midst of crowds... My life lies not in among people but among scenes--my local affections are not personal, but topographical and architectural.... It is New England I must have.
That intense, anachronistic sense of the local makes Providence, often extended to include the fictional Massachusetts town of Arkham, as critical to Lovecraft as Yoknapatawpha County to William Faulkner, Middle Earth to J.R.R. Tolkien, or the historical France of La Comédie Humaine to Balzac. Like those fictional milieux, Lovecraft’s world has its own circumscribed eccentricities: he frequently evokes an inborn puritan sensibility where fears of damnation fill daily experience with a sense of contingency and horror, and encrustations of dark experience radiate from old buildings and streets. But Lovecraft’s sense of historical inheritance is also broad and fancifully bookish. He once remarked, “If I could create an ideal world, it would be an England with the fire of the Elizabethans, the correct taste of the Georgians, and the refinement and pure ideals of the Victorians.”
His early life would appear to be a convergence of all three cultural strains, emphasizing the Victorian gothic, with its gloomy tales of family degeneration. In 1893, his father Winfield Scott Lovecraft experienced a mental breakdown, likely related to syphilis, and was confined to Butler Hospital in Providence. Raised by his mother, the precocious Lovecraft developed an early interest in the esoteric and macabre. He recalled, “Space, strange cities, weird landscapes, unknown monsters, hideous ceremonies, Oriental and Egyptian gorgeousness and indefinable mysteries of life, death and torment were daily--or rather nightly commonplaces to me before I was six years old.” A year later, Lovecraft had written short verse versions of The Odyssey and The Iliad as well an incomplete story about “subterranean beings in a cave.” A sense of fantastic introspection, combined with the fervor of the autodidact, would fuel his entire career.
Lovecraft’s father died in 1898, triggering what he enigmatically described as a “near-breakdown,” followed by another in 1900. Around the same time, he enthusiastically embraced the world of amateur journalism, releasing a handwritten periodical, The Scientific Gazette, devoted to chemistry. This productive phase was interrupted in 1908 by a catastrophic “nervous breakdown” that led to a nearly ten-year period of inactivity. There’s little evidence to suggest the true nature of Lovecraft’s condition, but his voluminous correspondence provides, in colorful fashion, a window into his general mental state and sense of the world. In a 1920 letter, he darkly reflects on his recovery and the end of his childhood:
I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless Time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was 17. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured.
That letter makes a compelling appearance in Michel Houllebecq’s study H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991), a fusion of oracular French-academic musings and personal reflection. Houllebecq argues that Lovecraft was a self-identified outsider who rejected fictional realism as a response to the disappointments of adulthood and modern existence, a straightforward thesis that quickly travels more radical byways. It’s easy to argue that fantasy is the therapeutic inverse of adult responsibility, but Houllebecq also imagines that realistic literature itself is an irrelevant dead horse in a fallen world:
Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new, realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All those prodigiously refined notations, situations, anecdotes ... All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our "real life" days.
Of course, works of art attempting realistic effects are not materially “real” or precise reflections of reality. They cannot be discarded with the kind of certainty or aggression that Houllebecq proposes in his otherwise provocative manifesto. It’s true that Lovecraft rejected many conventions of naturalistic fiction, but his relationship to literary realism is more nuanced than Houllebecq suggests. The stories that Lovecraft wrote between 1917 and his death in 1937 obliquely borrow the conventions of realistic fiction while defiantly expanding their formulae: His tales are nearly always contemporaneous and rarely strictly supernatural, often relying on relatable elements of daily life. They are materially grounded, even to the point of scientific rigor. But the distance between identifiable realities and the forces with which they collide is cosmically vast, achieving a compelling triangulation between the material and infinite.
In 1931, Lovecraft wrote to the writer Clark Ashton Smith, “My ideal... author would be a kind of synthesis of the atmospheric intensity of Poe, the cosmic range and luxuriant invention of [Lord] Dunsany, the bottom-touching implications [i.e. exploratory depth] of [Arthur] Machen, and the breathlessly convincing unrealism of Algernon Blackwood.” That portrait most accurately describes his stories written between 1917 and 1926, a period which marked a return to productive, if not fully conventional life. Lovecraft’s work during that era combines an intense, vivid subjectivity with an occasionally ambiguous fusion of the real and the inexpressible.
“The Tomb,” written in 1917, recalls confessional Poe tales such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat.” Like most Lovecraft stories to follow, it features one central character, in this case the introverted narrator Jervas Dudley, who informs the reader that he is confined in an insane asylum. He not only proceeds to explain the reasons for his imprisonment, but is lucid enough to qualify the tale: “It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited by its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt by the psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience.” The “phenomena” in question are related to Dudley’s obsession with an old tomb discovered near a ruined manor. Determined to enter the crypt, he sleeps beside its locked entrance until discovering a key in his own home, allowing him to enter and discover an empty coffin with the name “Jervas.”
In a vision, Dudley’s sees the mansion restored to its former glories during a Georgian-era bacchanal, complete with a pastiche of 18th century drinking songs, before his father interrupts the hallucination. Dudley learns that he has never entered the tomb, and his father presents the evidence of an undisturbed lock. Dudley is then confined to the asylum, but the vivid power of his hallucinations inspires a servant to open the tomb, where he discovers the coffin as described, complete with inscribed nameplate. He is promised the eventual burial he seeks, but not his freedom.
“The Tomb” ends on a tenuously literal note. Visions and material reality co-exist in an irresolute balance until physical evidence provides Dudley with a victory that will be rewarded only in death. The tale is often a catalog of precise observational detail that grounds it in a material world: As Dudley first approaches the tomb, he offers a lengthy and precise catalog of descriptive detail that suggests a firm, if mysterious, link to hard realities in the midst of reverie. But there is nothing metaphysical in the cruelest certainty of the story, Dudley’s profound isolation, expressed as unaffected, tragic fact: “I dwelt alone. This no human creature may do; for lacking the fellowship of the living, he inevitably draws upon the companionship of things that are not, or are no longer, living.”
“The Music of Erich Zann” (1921) marks a shift to more abstract effects. The story appears to be set in Paris, where a poor student takes lodging on the Rue d'Auseil, a name that only simulates French (its closest equivalent,au seuil, means “at the threshold”), in a half-fanciful milieu similar to that of The King in Yellow, Robert Chamber’s 1895 fusion of continental haut monde, art studio life and supernatural horror. The student meets a fellow resident, Erich Zann, a mute viol-player specializing in a dissonant music that he finds evocatively “indescribable.” Eventually, the student learns that the music is a ritual defense against creatures from another dimension, accessible from Zann’s window. The alien threat increases, as does the intensity of Zann’s playing:
[W]hen I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of the night-viol behind me.
That passage bears Lovecraft’s distinct stamp, a verbal whirlwind of sensory dislocation. A crescendo of language heralds the arrival of forbidden revelations, their expressive details muted by the narrator’s overwhelmed aphasia. A sense of mounting negation (“illimitable; unimagined space”) signals that the tale will end as an enigmatic tabula rasa: Erich Zann disappears into the vortex along with the street and the narrator is later unable to find it. A typhoon of language has obliterated the world.
A similar unholy epiphany takes place in “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), a tale that combines gothic influences with the idea of a mythic collective unconsciousness. As in “The Tomb,” the narrator has an aristocratic mien and heritage; as the scion of the de la Poer family, he has restored Exham Priory, an ancestral estate in England. He takes residence of the manor, only to hear rats moving behind the walls, also experience them in dreams, an amplified sensory distraction similar to those of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As the narrator traces the sounds to their source, he learns that his family maintained a subterranean complex beneath the manor where they raised degenerate humans for food. The narrator enters the caverns and succumbs to what appears to be latent madness and an inherited, incipient brutality, killing a friend as he experiences a hallucinatory torrent of historical memories, expressed in arcane language:
Why shouldn't rats eat a de la Poer as a de la Poer eats forbidden things? . . . The war ate my boy, damn them all . . . and the Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt Grandsire Delapore and the secret. . . It's voodoo, I tell you . . . that spotted snake . . . Curse you, Thornton, I'll teach you to faint at what my family do! . . . 'Sblood, thou stinkard, I'll learn ye how to gust . . . wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? . . . Magna Mater! Magna Mater! . . . Atys . . . Dia ad aghaidh's ad aodaun . . . agus bas dunarch ort! Dhonas 's dholas ort, agus leat-sa! . . . Ungl unl . . . rrlh . . . chchch . . .
Exham priory is finally demolished and the narrator confined to a mental institution, but a sense of inexorable moral corruption and shared culpability remains. Individual agency, the “I,” remains subservient to generations of “daemon rats.”
They accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep; the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known.
In addition to Poe, “Rats in the Walls” borrows imagery and technique from William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) a poet, short-story writer, essayist and novelist whose best-known work, The House on the Borderland (1908), is an early model for the unremitting effects that Lovecraft increasingly favored. Like “Rats in the Walls,” the narrator of Hodgson’s novel explores a mysterious house, discovering a strikingly similar sub-basement where he encounters a race of sub-human, porcine creatures. Unlike Lovecraft’s more evenly modulated performance, The House on the Borderland’s narrative fuse burns too brightly to generate anything remotely approaching narrative tension as it careens from ecstatic peak to peak, unleashing a parade of surreal cosmic revelations: Eons rush by, suns appear and die, ancient gods emerge, and supernatural creatures invade. An undeniable curio, The House on the Borderland’s brutish, surreal narrative remains a fascinating counterpoint to Lovecraft, who harnessed its tortured, encyclopedic sensationalism to more disciplined ends.
There is also an unmistakably Jungian bent to Lovecraft’s narrator’s internal and physical journey from surface certainties into hallucinatory depths. Beyond the suggestion of a dark familial spiritus mundi and shared psychic bonds in “The Rats in the Walls,” the story is similar to Jung’s “house” dream revealed to Sigmund Freud in 1909 and published in 1925: Jung descends through a stratified house, ending in a Roman cellar similar to that of Exham Priory, where he discovers the remains of what appears to be a civilization, littered with bones and broken pottery, a more innocent but nearly duplicative image of Lovecraft’s tale. The dream’s precise symbolism is uncomplicated: In Jung’s own terms, the house is the psyche, the lower level the personal unconscious the sub-basement the collective unconscious.
In Jungian fashion, “The Rats in the Walls’” sense of tragic inheritance includes a collective, subliminal demonology. In the throes of madness, the narrator unconsciously invokes Nyarlathotep, a malign deity first mentioned in Lovecraft’s 1920 prose poem of the same name, a “mad faceless god [who] howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players.” Nyarlathotep is an early member of an emerging mythos that would be fully developed after 1926, appearing in "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" (1926/27), the poem-cycle "Fungi from Yuggoth" (1929/30), “The Dreams in the Witch House" (1933), and "The Haunter of the Dark" (1936).
Nyarlathotep also makes notable appearances in a series of ethereal fantasy tales that Lovecraft referred to as the “Dream Cycle” (1918-32), strongly influenced by the fantasy writings of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), best known as Lord Dunsany. Dunsany’s works such a s The Gods of Pegāna (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), A Dreamer's Tales (1910), and The Book of Wonde r (1912), inspired Lovecraft to remark that “Dunsany has influenced me more than anyone except Poe--his rich language, his cosmic point of view, his remote dream world, and his exquisite sense of the fantastic.”
Lovecraft’s Dunsany tales borrow a penchant for exotic place names, wistful dream-states, and dense, personal mythologies. They are “fantasy” in the purest and most subjective sense, reveries that achieve the untethered sense of dreams, unlike the pioneering medieval fantasies of William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien. “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” (1926/27), “The Quest of Iranon” (1921), “The Other Gods (1921),” and “White Ship” (1919), are often arduous in their illusory density and irresolution, but their interest lies in what Lovecraft called “cosmic liberation” or an intoxicating flight into near-complete abstraction. Ultimately, this eccentric region of Lovecraft’s oeuvre offers a foretaste of his works of 1926-37, which display a mature fusion of myth, dreams, and ineffable horrors.
In 1924, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, the (1883-1972) a Ukrainian-born milliner and amateur publisher who shared his interest in horror writing. The couple settled in Brooklyn, against the wishes of Lovecraft’s family, where Lovecraft socialized with a range of literati, including lawyer and anarchist writer James Ferdinand Morton, Jr, the poet Reinhardt Kleiner, boy’s novelist Henry Everett McNeil, horror writer Frank Belknap Long, bookseller George Willard Kirk, and the poet, critic and dramatist Samuel Loveman, a member of poet Hart Crane’s circle.
My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten... I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.
That sense of existential futility permeates one of Lovecraft’s most ambitious stories, completed in the summer of 1926, a novella-length account of a occult events that suggest the presence of an alien being or deity. Like the enigmatic, related signs of extraterrestrial life in Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a new collective consciousness appears to have emerged. But where Spielberg offers positive enlightenment, Lovecraft’s novella explores a crack in perceived reality that unleashes dormant, lethal truths. He did not consider the story a success, writing that it was “rather middling--not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches.” The editors of Weird Tales magazine agreed with his assessment, planning to reject it until another writer mistakenly informed them that it had been accepted elsewhere. The story, one of Lovecraft’s masterpieces, was published in 1928 as “The Call of Cthulhu.”
“The Call of Cthulhu” is a work of fictionalized scholarship, consisting largely of erudite fragments. Narrator Francis Wayland Thurston assembles the posthumous notes of his granduncle, George Gammell Angell, a Professor of Languages at Brown University, quickly informing the reader that Angell’s work contains forbidden knowledge and was likely intended to be destroyed. The only proper response to its revelations is willful ignorance:
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.
Thurston proceeds to assemble a scholarly argument from Angell’s research: precise detail accumulates in a disciplined sequence as he parses data, makes observations and draws conclusions. But academic rigor ultimately collides against an improbable conclusion.
In the first chapter, “The Horror in Clay,” Thurston describes a miniature bas-relief statue found in Angell’s papers, a “ sort of monster...yield[ing] simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature... A pulpy, tentacled head surmount[s] a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings...” seated atop “a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.” A group of papers enigmatically labeled “Cthulhu Cult” accompany the statue.
Thurston studies Angell’s notes, which attribute the statue to Henry Anthony Wilcox, a “psychically hypersensitive” student at the Rhode Island School of Design. In Symbolist fashion, Wilcox is more an artistic intermediary or vessel of otherworldly inspiration than an artist; his speech is “dreamlike and stilted,” and he describes intense visions of "great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” Tales of sphinxes, Babylon and Tyre degenerate into more malign and inscrutable concepts as Wilcox expresses the unfamiliar terms “R'lyeh” and the incantation “Cthulhu fhtagn,” which profoundly interests Angell.
Those invocations inspire Angell to explore what appears to be a collective awakening. His papers mysteriously observe that “Scientific men [are] little more affected, though four cases of vague description suggest fugitive glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case there is mentioned a dread of something abnormal.” In addition, he learns of the discovery of an idol during a police raid on a voodoo ceremony in New Orleans that shares the appearance of Wilcox’s terra cotta statue: “a fearsome and unnatural malignancy...” seated “evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.”
The papers also contain the testimony of a police officer of involved the raid, who describes a ritual with the familiar chant “ Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.” On interrogating the participants, he learns that they worship “the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men...and...formed a cult which had never died...hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.”
The third chapter, “The Madness from the Sea,” reveals that the occult strands of the earlier chapters are grounded in an unlikely reality. Thurston discovers a recent article from the Sydney Bulletin that reports the discovery of a ship adrift in the Pacific, accompanied by an image of another statue similar to Wilcox’s. The story of the ship is teasingly enigmatic: after an unprovoked attack by another boat, the crew discovered a remote island where the remaining crew died, with the exception of Norwegian sailor Gustaf Johansen.
After traveling to New Zealand and Australia to view the statue, Thurston journeys to Oslo in attempt to interview Johansen about the mysterious island. When he arrives, he learns that Johansen has been murdered, but his widow provides him with a manuscript that reveals the fate of the crew. Gustafsen describes the mysterious island in now-familiar terms, "a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry ... nothing less than the tangible substance of earth's supreme terror--the nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh.” The crew open a "monstrously carven portal" and release Cthulhu, the mountainous living image of the recurring statue:
[Cthulhu] lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway.... The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident....great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so I shall go. I know too much, and the cult still lives. Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young... Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.
The events of “The Call of Cthulhu” lie astride a deadly fissure between dreams and material reality; shared visions initiate a Platonic journey from the world of ideas to the dark realm of the physical. Cthulhu, a living deity, occupies an alien but unmistakably material milieu of “non-Euclidean geometry” and “Cyclopean” stone, an unrelentingly pessimistic vision where bodily existence is inseparable from inherited evil. As Michel Houllebecq writes, Lovecraft offers “a conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos.”
Sleep and physical dormancy only defer inescapable menace, an idea paralleled in the story’s enigmatic epigraph from Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur (1911). In that novel, a traveler views a group of the title creatures, living relics predating humanity: “Of such great powers or beings there may be conceivably a survival...a survival of a hugely remote period when...consciousness was manifested, perhaps, 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...” Time may render “monsters” unfamiliar, but their deadly physicality remains undiminished.
The global cult of “The Call of Cthulhu” suggests a range of historical religions from Vodun to any number of animistic faiths. But its mythic roots are likely shallower, best resembling Lord Dunsany’s deity Mana-Yood-Sushai in The Gods of Pegana (1905), held in a state of dormancy to avoid a lethal reawakening. Like Dunsany’s abstract personal mythology and Lovecraft’s own Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu belongs to an expanding cosmogony that appears with increasing frequency in his later work, but never as a fixed system. Mythical images appear with the abstract insistence of musical leitmotifs, recurrent but unremittingly ethereal. As Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, writes, “[T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities ... but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”
Lovecraft separated from Sonia Greene in 1926 and returned to Providence, where his writing intensified its sense of the local, invoking a darkly pastoral New England where the rural “other” masks arcane truths and dark forces collude with unsophisticated humanity. “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930) form a rustic triptych that introduces more explicit science fiction elements than in Lovecraft’s earlier tales. But his bleak, unremitting themes remain unmistakably aligned with the aesthetics of horror.
“The Colour out of Space” is narrated by an unnamed surveyor working in the countryside outside Arkham, Massachusetts. Preparing to flood the landscape to build a new dam, he discovers a barren area known as the “blasted heath,” covered in mysterious gray ash. He attempts to learn about its origins, but locals refuse him information until he encounters an elderly man named Ammi Pierce who knew the farmer Nahum Gardner, a former occupant of the land. Pierce proceeds to recount the story of the heath, whose unusual condition began with a meteor’s arrival in 1882.
The title “colour” is more of an abstract force than an object of perception; it emerges from the meteorite as it cools and contracts, revealing an imbedded globule with a tint that’s “almost impossible to describe... only by analogy [is it] called it colour at all.” A sense of invisible agency saturates Pierce’s narrative: crops grow to unusual size and prove inedible, Gardner’s wife goes mad and is eventually killed, plants become luminous, and the entire region is subject to a mysterious degeneration as livestock turn into gray power and disintegrate. The mysterious “colour” remains the perceived source of the entropy, which is followed by even more dramatic events. Having initially avoided Gardner’s farm, Pierce returns to a vivid scene:
All the farm was shining with the hideous unknown blend of colour; trees, buildings, and even such grass and herbage as had not been wholly changed to lethal grey brittleness... It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well--seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognisable chromaticism.
Immaterially “luminous,” “unrecognizable,” and “unknown,” the “colour” consumes the surrounding land and erupts into the sky, leaving Pierce with the certainty that the force remains on earth, confirmed only by a frisson as inexpressible as the “colour” itself. Also convinced of ongoing danger, the surveyor welcomes the oblivion of the land by flooding, knowing that the dam might not contain the force from “realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.” Like Cthulhu, it awaits.
“The Dunwich Horror” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” offer a new variety of menace as humans become complicit in cosmic events. “The Dunwich Horror” opens with an epigram from Charles Lambs’ Witches and Other Night-Fears (1823), sustaining “The Call of Cthulu’s” sensation of dormant, mythological dread: “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras...may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition--but they were there before...the archetypes are in us, and eternal.” In reality, Lamb’s original essay studies the relationship between creativity and dreams, particularly those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but Lovecraft’s pulp conception of “night fears” better suits the outrageous, inspired tale that follows.
The child Wilbur Whately is an ominous rural degenerate who could only be imagined by an urbane city-dweller. The son of an eccentric mother and unknown father, he matures at an unnatural rate and eventually enters civilization, searching for a Latin version of the Necronomicon, a book of magic, at the Arkham public library. In particular, he seeks an incantation to summon the "Old Ones" and Yog-Sothoth, a figure enigmatically identified as his father. A climactic series of events follows, a narrative crescendo that inspired Kingsley Amis to praise the story as “achiev[ing] a memorable nastiness”: A mysterious being grows within the Whatley Household, apparently consuming the family’s livestock; Whatley finally steals the Necronomicon but is killed by a guard dog in the attempt, his body vanishing; an invisible being erupts from the Whatley farmhouse and terrorizes Arkham. Dr. Henry Armitage, the head librarian, finally develops a powder to render the creature visible in order to destroy it with an invocation. Revealed as a monster radiating a mass of tentacles, the being invokes the mysterious “Yog Sothoth” before dying. Existential threat vanishes in a rare victory. As the mayhem passes, Armitage explains the creature’s origins:
“It was...a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws than those of our sort of Nature...It grew fast and big from the same reason that Wilbur grew fast and big--but it beat him because it had a greater share of the outsideness in it...It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did.”
As in “The Colour out of Space,” a skeptic narrates “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Professor Albert Wilmarth of Miskatonic University becomes fascinated by local stories of crustacean-like creatures appearing after a Vermont flood, as well as unusual footprints and stone circles suggesting ancient rituals. His literary mind initially rejects the tales as the product of "romanticists...trying to transfer to real life the fantastic lore of lurking 'little people' made popular by the magnificent horror-fiction of Arthur Machen.” Involved in a spirited debate in a local newspaper, he receives a letter from Henry Akeley, a resident of rural Vermont who suggests that he has proof of the creatures’ existence.
The two begin to correspond regularly, with Akeley offering lengthy accounts of creatures menacing his house and engaging in ceremonies nearby. But Wilmarth soon notices that Akeley’s tone has changed, and he unexpectedly claims a new alliance with the creatures. Inspired to meet him in person, Wilmarth finds Akeley in poor health but fiercely determined to travel to Yuggoth, their planet of origin. He rhapsodizes about the distant world:
There are mighty cities on Yuggoth--great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone...The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other, subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples. Light even hurts and hampers and confuses them, for it does not exist at all in the black cosmos outside time and space where they came from originally. To visit Yuggoth would drive any weak man mad--yet I am going there. The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious Cyclopean bridges--things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the things came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids.
Wilmarth soon learns the cause of Akeley’s insights, discovering waxen facsimiles of his correspondent’s face and hands as he realizes that he has been listening to an imposter. The epistemological journey is recognizable: The narrator begins in a state of rational skepticism, then experiences a material collision with the esoteric, and finally bears witness to revelations that have the numinous force of myth: pitch dark rivers, cyclopean bridges, and infernal darkness. Wilmarth flees, only to find tenuous relief. Science and reason uncomfortably intrude as he finally imagines that a new planetary finding is the mysterious “Yuggoth” of Akeley’s tale:
The ride that followed was a piece of delirium out of Poe or Rimbaud or the drawings of Doré, but finally I reached Townshend. That is all. If my sanity is still unshaken, I am lucky. Sometimes I fear what the years will bring, especially since that new planet Pluto has been so curiously discovered.
In “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931), one of Lovecraft’s finest later novellas, scientific language becomes a tool of literary realism and a mark of hubris. Narrated by Dr. William Dyer of Miskatonic University, it tells the story of a failed 1930 Antarctic expedition. As in “The Call of Cthulhu,” the account follows the conventions of scholarship, depending on intense, rhetorical description and an accretion of data. There is similar urgency in Dyer’s tale, revealed as a jeremiad as well as a systematic account; he is “forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow [his] advice without knowing why.” The story reads as an appeal to a methodical reader, relying on a technical idiom that captures even the most fantastic details with a sense of documentary objectivity. Only through precise evidence can the story present its ultimate revelations, where horrors are unleashed by insolent scrutiny.
The events of the story quickly degenerate from scientific calm and certainty into mystery and chaos. One group separates from the larger expedition, discovering a series of alien specimens of undetermined age, with ridged, barrel-like torsos and membranous wings. After the discovery, the advance team loses contact with the other explorers, who find the group murdered. The specimens have vanished, leaving one scientist and one dog mysteriously dissected. In search of answers, Dyer and the graduate student Danforth fly an airplane further inland over a vast mountain range, discovering a vast city below, “an incredible, unhuman massiveness of...vast stone towers and ramparts...hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of years [old].” Dyer and Danforth land the craft and explore the metropolis:
[The city had] no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath.
Dyer and Danforth discover hieroglyphic murals that tell the story of alien “Elder Things,” the earlier specimens, who built the city with help of Shoggoths, massive amorphous slave-creatures who eventually become malign and unmanageable. The civilization’s entropy and downfall are reflected in evocatively degraded images. Relying upon the murals’ guidance, the explorers finally reach a gateway where they discover a group of newly-dead Elder Things scattered across a darkly poetic tableau: Blind giant penguins, presumed to be Antarctic cattle for residents of the doomed city, waddle obliviously across the scene before a “nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence,” presumed to be a Shoggoth, appears.
Dyer and Danforth narrowly escape from the city in their airplane. As the craft achieves a high altitude, Danforth looks back at the alien metropolis like Lot’s wife gazing at Sodom, experiencing an unidentified vision. Presumed to be an incalculable terror that exceeds the horror of the Shoggoth, the revelation drives Dyer insane. Returning to civilization, his recollections appear as an inscrutable glossary of mythic Lovecraftian phrases:
[Danforth] has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about “the black pit”, “the carven rim”, “the proto-shoggoths”, “the windowless solids with five dimensions”, “the nameless cylinder”, “the elder pharos”, “Yog-Sothoth”, “the primal white jelly”, “the colour out of space”, “the wings”, “the eyes in darkness”, “the moon-ladder”, “the original, the eternal, the undying”, and other bizarre conceptions...
An advocate of reason to the end, Dyer remains skeptical about Danforth’s vision and suggests, perhaps facetiously, that stark Antarctic vistas influenced his imagination. He recalls the evocative landscape of their final flight as the story ends in poetic irresolution, the impertinence of human inquiry swallowed by cloud and ice:
The higher sky, as we crossed the range, was surely vaporous and disturbed enough; and although I did not see the zenith I can well imagine that its swirls of ice-dust may have taken strange forms. Imagination, knowing how vividly distant scenes can sometimes be reflected, refracted, and magnified by such layers of restless cloud, might easily have supplied the rest...
What should a reader finally make of Lovecraft’s intense work, which demands both the aesthetic good will required of literary fantasy and a tolerance for relentless effects? Some clues lie in the response to Lovecraft in France, where he enjoys academic respect and his admirers embrace his techniques in all their apocalyptic urgency. Michel Houllebecq argues (as a compliment) that Lovecraft is essentially unliterary: his work is more incantatory and expressive than refined literary manners will allow, summoning ideas and sensations that cannot, by nature, be expressed articulately. His stories offer an expansive, revelatory dream language that comfortably aligns with the visions and Dandyish introspection of French Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine.
That movement valued sensory disorientation and the representation of ideas through indirect expression. Lovecraft’s indescribable, ethereal yet horrifically present “colour out space” would likely have found favor with the hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel Against Nature (À rebours), a veritable field guide to Symbolist tastes that enthusiastically celebrates Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, with their gruesome imagery and hallucinatory coloration. Jean Moréas’ 1886 Symbolist Manifesto (Le Symbolisme) with its antagonism to "plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description” and desire to “express the Ideal” shares a delight in outrageous expression that exposes occult realities, however disquieting. Lovecraft’s vision has proven to be a durable cultural outlook: In 1980, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari declared his story “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” an unusually abstract homage to Lord Dunsany, a “masterpiece” of visionary intensity in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Mille plateaux).
Jacques Bergier (1912-1978), the eccentric Russo-French chemical engineer, spy and occult author, embraced Lovecraft as a visionary opposed to rational, hidebound thought. On Lovecraft’s death, he wrote, "[He] has been so well received in France, because he was crying out against the absurdity of a scientific civilization encroaching upon man... The passing of Lovecraft seems to me to mark an end of an epoch in the history of American imaginative fiction." In 1955, Bergier published a volume of Lovecraft stories in French, translated by Bernard Noël, with the provocative name "Lovecraft: The Great Genius from Elsewhere."
As that hagiographic title suggests, Bergier’s embrace of Lovecraft exceeded literary appreciation. In his collaboration with Louis Pauwels, The Morning of the Magicians (Le Matin des Magiciens) (1960), Bergier offers a densely Lovecraftian vision of inferior rationalism colliding with the superior Infinite. That book is one of many popular studies of occult, paranormal and parapsychological topics in an overpopulated era that also produced Erich Von Däniken’s UFO study Chariots of the Gods (1968). Even by the standards of the genre, Bergier’s and Pauwels’ goals are quixotically improbable, attempting to reconcile fantasy and spirituality to the hard sciences, which the authors consider moribund and fatally objective. In their vigorous polemic, Pauwels and Bergier ask such questions as, “If magnetic waves can traverse the earth, why should thought transmission not be possible?” and “If known bodies emit invisible forces [e.g. radiation], why should there not be astral bodies?” This new frontier of knowledge seems to have been plucked straight from the existing tropes of science fiction, rather than open inquiry, as Pauwels and Bergier energetically argue the validity of a host of boyish visions.
Lovecraft would resist the idea that his art could reshape the sciences. But for all its eccentricities, The Morning of the Magicians strikes a chord that both Lovecraft and the Symbolists would embrace: the fantasias of childhood remain potent gateways to ineffable truths. Lovecraft’s melancholy letter of 1920, with its account of discarding childhood toys, surrenders without irony to a moment when dreams and material realities interweave, a state of illumination also brilliantly captured by his contemporary G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in his 1936 autobiography. In a chapter titled “The Man with the Golden Key,” Chesterton describes the quasi-magical effect of watching puppet shows in a toy theatre as a child:
The whole point is that I did like the toy theatre even when I knew it was a toy theatre. I did like the cardboard figures, even when I found they were of cardboard. The white light of wonder that shone on the whole business was not any sort of trick...
If this were a ruthless realistic modern story, I should of course give a most heart-rending account of how my spirit was broken with disappointment, on discovering that the prince was only a painted figure. But this is not a ruthless realistic modern story. On the contrary, it is a true story.
Lovecraft’s fiction was his own puppet show, an inexhaustible artificial world that accommodated both the spiritual and material, supercharged with the undying spirit of youth. Where his detractors see bleak nightmares, his admirers find oblique truths that, explored through the lens of fantasy, often exceed the gravity of so-called “serious” art. Lovecraft may have seen adulthood as hell, but he conquered it by grasping at infinity.