Was Religion His Cthulhu?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

I don't read much horror, but when I do, it is usually something by H.P. Lovecraft. Accordingly, I was interested in a recent New Republic piece entitled, "H.P. Lovecraft's Philosophy of Horror." What I found fascinating was the quite plausible idea that, perhaps, Lovecraft was reacting to the mistaken idea that rejection of religion implies that the universe is malevolent:

Lovecraft's anti-mythology of slimy, inhuman creatures reflected an unresolved struggle within himself. He firmly rejected religious mythologies that accorded humankind a special place in the scheme of things, but he could not accept the implication of his materialism, which is that human life has no cosmic value or meaning. Rejecting any belief in meaning beyond the human world, he also rejected the meanings human beings make for themselves. He had no interest in the lives of most people, and from his early years seems to have believed his own would count for very little. He was left without any sense of significance. So, obeying an all-too-human impulse, he fashioned a make-believe realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference.
This is unsurprising, given the philosophical wasteland of his times. But it also suggests to me another unfortunate legacy of religion. Just as many people wrongly believe that there is no reason within reason to be good, many also err in the opinion that only religion can allow for such high emotions as inspiration or reverence. Given the centuries-long stranglehold of this common substitute for philosophy on our civilization, it is hardly surprising that Lovecraft was unable to see a way to the idea of his own life being an end in itself. Religion -- rather than his own life -- had, perhaps, seemed to him the only way to justify or conceptualize the idea of "significance." Not to denigrate his work, but I cannot help but wonder what Lovecraft might have accomplished with all that creativity had he not suffered from such a philosophically (and psychologically) debilitating error.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, thanks for the link. That is without a doubt the best popular article on Lovecraft I've read: Intelligent, informed, fair, and well-written. For one thing, it handles Lovecraft's social, political, and racial views very well:

It has been suggested in Lovecraft’s defence that in later years his attitudes mellowed. It is true that, under the impact of his experience of the Great Depression, he expressed some sympathy with Roosevelt’s New Deal, mocking the right-wing American obsession with free markets and arguing that a measure of economic planning was needed in order to combat mass unemployment. That, however, does not make him any kind of liberal...In the 1930s, racism and anti-capitalism often went together.

Exactly. Exactly. This is one point where I find Joshi exasperates me. In general he's the best critic analyzing Lovecraft, but because of his admiration for Lovecraft and his own leftist commitments, he is either unable to follow through or else extremely cagey about identifying the important features of Lovecraft's views in comparison with other current ideas and movements. Lovecraft had an aristocratic, elitist (in the strict sense), culturally conservative view of culture and politics; any political system that kept the commoners well-enough fed and in check while supporting a cultural elite was acceptable to him; while he never softened in his visceral dislike for blacks, he did soften somewhat towards other groups--to the extent they preserved the highest elements of their culture and didn't infringe on or dilute his own Anglo-Saxon culture; and while Hitler might have gone too far, he was still in some ways an admirable chap. (Joshi points out that as Lovecraft died in 1937, we can't say what he would have thought had he reflected on Hitler in 1945.) In short, if you want to place Lovecraft usefully, it's by a close comparison with the European right from the French Revolution to the rise of Fascism.

Materialism and atheism combined with rabid anti-democratic, anti-capitalist fervor? A comparison with Joseph de Maistre strikes me as very useful, never mind ever so many later European conservatives. The value of many of the world's cultures is an echo of Herder; the importance of keeping each culture pure is the call of every conservative epigone of Herder in France and Germany both. Lovecraft's political views? To the extent he cared about politics, he sounds like the people who founded and supported the Vichy Regime, at least until 1942 or so, when the Nazis purged the less malleable, less sympathetic officials of that state.

(No, this is not a low blow. There was a fairly strong intellectual movement in France after the Revolution, and especially after the Bourbon Restoration, opposed to republicanism, secularism, what they saw as French capitalism, industrialism, and above all the ever-pressing state--French republicans insisted on removing all social institutions between the state and the individual, while the French conservatives of this stripe insisted on the importance of "intermediate bodies" structuring an "organic" state. They filled the void when the Third Republic tottered after the German invasion and were willing to act as a client state of Nazi Germany in return for the chance to reform French society.)

So yes, I can see Joshi not being interested enough in such figures to be in a position to notice the similarities--the similarities are there but call for pretty close reading to do useful intellectual history, especially since I doubt Lovecraft himself was familiar with them. On the other hand, I can also see Joshi deciding not to go into such touchy territory in his efforts to make Lovecraft as palatable as possible to the left-leaning academic world.

Snedcat said...

Continuing on from the preceding, my strong impression from reading Lovecraft's stories and a good deal of his letters, as well as the better sort of Lovecraft criticism, is that if you really want to dig into his world view, you have to start with the fact that he was in many ways a child of the 1890s culturally and intellectually as well as chronologically. If I were to suggest five stories to give someone a real feel for Lovecraft either at his best or at his most significant, it would be "The Colour out of Space," "The Shadow out of Time," and At the Mountains of Madness for his greatest artistic achievements, "The Call of Cthulhu" for his most important artistic work, and "The Silver Key" for what made him tick esthetically. As a story it's a weird near-nullity: A world-sick bildungsnovelette followed by a certain type of episode of The Twilight Zone when Rod Serling was feeling especially nostalgic for the days of his childhood. But that first part, where Lovecraft describes the ideas Randolph Carter picked up, played with, and left behind, is very revealing for his own developing views of art--Randolph Carter simply tried out different strains of 1890s esthetics, then disgustedly abandoned each. (And to the idea that Lovecraft had some sort of consistent mythos, heck, he couldn't even portray Randolph Carter as a unified character: He appears in five stories and is I think an incommensurably different character in each. Any attempt to build a coherent mythos out of his stories is equally futile--and Lovecaft himself poo-poohed such an idea in his letters.)

For his own view of the world, the combination of cosmic indifference and cosmic horror, note that on the one hand (cosmic indifference) Lovecraft insisted that there are no absolute values transcending humanity--no essentially divine set of universal values and no special destiny for humanity. As Gray says, this is the bracing, gritty-minded view of things that is most distinctive in Lovecraft. On the other hand, Gray is perfectly correct in adding, "There is no intrinsic reason why a universe in which people are marginal should be a horror-inducing place." Yes, the sense of cosmic horror doesn't cohere well with the sense of cosmic indifference, though they're not exactly contradictory. The constant harping on cosmic horror is what is significant, as is Lovecraft's conclusion that an absence of absolute values is equivalent to the non-existence of values at all (cheek by jowl with his frequent insistence that values are restricted to the human sphere; it would be interesting to analyze Lovecraft dancing between the two). So on the one hand, Lovecraft could be usefully analyzed in terms of Objectivist views of value--he wouldn't have shared such views, of course.

(And I should add not all of his stories show overwhelming cosmic horror; this is, alas, not positive artistically. "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath," for example, is only partly touched with horror; it's also the major story of his I consider by far the weakest. I just can't stand that story: What passes as lightness in his universe is overdone whimsy that fails artistically for me. That's another place where I think Joshi overreaches in his praise of Lovecraft, for he loves the story for reasons I found unconvincing.)

Snedcat said...

And a bit more: Joshi also laughably overstates Lovecraft's scientific knowledge. He was self-taught (as Joshi points out) and never mastered above, if memory serves from Joshi's biography, basic high school algebra. He was a talented amateur with wide-ranging interests, but I am not flattering myself or bragging about my achievements when I say I knew more astronomy, physics, and chemistry at age 12, before I started learning the mathematics necessary to understand rather than appreciate the physical sciences, than Lovecraft did at 18. That's not a knock against him; it's simple truth. It's not that Lovecraft's view of the world was based on a full understanding of modern science; rather, Lovecraft assimilated a great deal of knowledge from popularizing texts and thought through on his own and reacted against the views of the world expressed in his reading. That's one of the side issues that makes Lovecraft interesting for me in science fiction and speculative fiction--precisely because he was saturated with the ideas of his time and reacted to them intelligently but not from a position of full intellectual independence, he's very significant as a barometer in intellectual history...and in the penetration of those ideas into certain genres of literature.

And as a person Lovecraft was quite an odd duck: His racism is harped on a bit too much by some of his critics, but it's there in is stories to some extent. (It's much more obtrusive in his letters.) Here I agree with Joshi thoroughly: Yes, he was racist, his views of blacks in particular being very distasteful throughout his life, and to some extent his stories draw from his responses to groups he didn't like, but he has a number of virtues as a writer that deserve critical attention--and those virtues are what keeps his name alive and growing. Besides that, he was arguably asexual and certainly rather squeamish about and disinterested in sex; he was also a teetotaler (he was a strong proponent of Prohibition at least at one period in his life; I don't remember the details); he was introverted and had idiosyncratic ideas in art and life; his view of fear as the fundamental human emotion I find fun to read him arguing for, but I don't agree with it. On the other hand, he was a gracious, charming man and in style and brio a delightful letter writer, even when what he wrote sets my mental teeth on edge (full agreement with a correspondent is not an overriding value in my book); he had a proper appreciation of the virtues of cats; and he helped many fledgling writers when they needed it, including luminaries like Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch. And I always smile when thinking about his fondness for ice cream competitions with friends--he usually won, managing something like four to six pints in one sitting.

Snedcat said...

Finally, as a writer, I don't agree with the people who lambaste him as unreadably purple. I also don't agree with Joshi that he was a master of English prose who will be remembered when most of the rest of the 20th century crop of writers will be forgotten. First, his earliest stories savor too much of Poe and Dunsany. The Poe's no foul; he's a good influence to work through, but work through him you must. Dunsany on the other palls quickly for me. When I first read Dunsany's early stories, Time and the Gods and the like, I thought, "Man, this would be so fun to satirize, but so hard to satirize well." I later realized Lovecraft's Dunsanian stories are precisely those satires, he just didn't realize it. (Meow!)

His middle stories, from around "Call of Cthulhu" on, have their virtues, but the pulp stylizations do bastardize the style. Lovecraft himself thought so and expressed regret to some of his correspondents for allowing that to happen under the press of monetary necessity. But at his best (and the three stories I mentioned are good examples, from later in his life after he had striven to escape the confines of pulp style) his style is usually clear and effective for the task he sets it, and usually his purple prose is at climactic parts of the stories after he had built up to it. Part of the condemnation of Lovecraft's style is due to peculiarly mid-20th century American literary concerns: Stylistically, Lovecraft's style was the opposite of Hemingway's, so his art must therefore be thoroughly inferior. If one has read widely enough to appreciate the virtues of the styles of other periods, Lovecraft's quite okay, sometimes very good in fact, and yes, sometimes overdone to a fare-thee-well. And besides, there's more to literary art than style--and the tendency among Lovecraft-bashers to make only two charges against Lovecraft, his racism and his stylistic failings, is revealing of modern ideas: Style is all and racism trumps all.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the further commentary. In particular, I agree with the following:

"[Lovecraft] was saturated with the ideas of his time and reacted to them intelligently but not from a position of full intellectual independence, he's very significant as a barometer in intellectual history...and in the penetration of those ideas into certain genres of literature.

Also, I found your comments on Dunsany amusing.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I don't know if you or Snedcat have seen these but I found them amusing. But I'm not a Lovecraft aficionado.




c. andrew

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, it was late in the night in my neck of the woods when I stopped writing last time; I knew I could write quite a bit about Lovecraft but decided to hold off for a day or two to see if I actually wanted to say anything else; I've found this wise...

I also liked Gray's discussion of other horror and weird fiction authors that influenced Lovecraft--besides Poe and Dunsany, he had great admiration especially for Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R. James. (Lovecraft gave Dunsany, Machen, Blackwood, and James as the finest recent practitioners of his own type of weird fiction.) However, there's a bit of a gap in Gray's comparison that's worth pointing out: He doesn't mention Blackwood, but in his views of horror and wonder, in some ways Blackwood's the closest to Lovecraft. Thus: There may be a greater affinity with M.R. James, but there is nothing in Lovecraft of James’s nostalgia for the late-Victorian world.

James did classical ghost stories, including some of the best, and his scholarly diction (which came naturally to him, being an Oxbridgian scholar) is reminiscent of Lovecraft's prose, but besides his Victorian nostalgia, James's stories are traditional in their Christianized horrors. Not so much Blackwood, who had a much more cosmic view of things; his story "The Willows," Lovecraft's favorite weird tale overall, I think, shows the horrific side of his view of the cosmos, with alien powers consuming mere persons with nary a shrug--your only hope is to hunker down and not make a peep. (Actually, thinking back on his various pronouncements, I have to say that for his favorite he might have wavered between "The Willows" and "The Great God Pan," which is one of Machen's more readable stories.) However, Blackwood wasn't as relentingly on the "cosmic horror" side of the scale as Lovecraft and had a good deal of cosmic wonder in the mix. I should add that of the four, I consider Blackwood the finest writer as writer. Dunsany cloys, Machen palls, and James is eminently readable.

And this ties in interestingly with Lovecraft's style and themes. Lovecraft's narrator is always some sort of scholarly gent (there is possibly a higher rate of women per story in Lovecraft than in James, but I'm not sure they acquit themselves more admirably), and in stories like "Call of Cthulhu" he discovers the malign secrets lurking behind ancient myths, newspaper accounts, eyewitness accounts, celebrated natural disasters, and what-not, all quoted in extenso--but handled so deftly that you don't see how intricately the shifting of viewpoints and development of knowledge of the narrator is handled unless you look at it. (This is one example of what I'm thinking of when I say that stylistic considerations aside, Lovecraft was a solid author at the aspects of fiction he preferred to work with--on the other hand, his characterization is virtually nil, of course, and given the unimportance of mere humans in his stories' world view that's to be expected.)

Snedcat said...


But matters of craft aside, the layering of detail upon detail in text after text savors especially of the writings on comparative religion of the late Victorian anthropologists, like E.B. Tylor's Primitive Religion and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, massive tomes collecting mythology from around the world to infer the development of the civilized mind from the primitive mind. It would be interesting to look at the portrayal of that sort of humanities scholar in the literature of Lovecraft's age to see the influence of Tylor, Frazer, and company in that time's popular culture and on Lovecraft's stories. (Stylistically, too, comparison there with Lovecraft might be interesting.) One is tempted to say "dust-dry philologist as hero" is a trope of Lovecraft's--it's certainly one element of my Lovecraftian satire, where I dialed the trope up past 11 all the way to absurd.

I'll finish this post with some amusing and interesting links. First, here's "The Call of Cthulhu" as if done by Dr. Seuss. The verse needs a through overhaul, but the illustrations are top notch.

Second, you can download a free book in several formats of all his stories (sole authorship, not collaborations; he made money by editing, and he edited a few stories that were really collaborations that he refused credit for) compiled by CthulhuChick here.

Gus Van Horn said...


Pure gold. The video was very well-done and by the time the subtitle, "Miskatonic Paleontologists Hit Jackpot," rolled around, I just started laughing.


Agreed on the children's version, which C. also links first above. Do watch the 10-minute "news reel," if you haven't seen it already.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

Yes, I thought that the 'newsreel' was particularly well done. And more Lovecraftian references, when Niagara Falls froze during one of the polar vortices, the resulting ice contours looked like a wall of frozen 'old ones'.

I remembered running into this website courtesy of a bumper sticker I saw in traffic in 2008:

Why vote for a LESSER Evil?



c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Hah! Perhaps that campaign needs to be ... resurrected ... this time.