Greater Minds: HP Lovecraft on Weird Fiction

  • Lovecraft wrote his history of supernatural horror at the same time as he was writing The Call of Cthulhu.
  • He revealed his thinking at the time he was writing the seminal work of science fiction horror.
  • Lovecraft acknowledged Poe as the inventor of modern horror.
  • The Cthulhu Mythos resonates nine decades later.

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HP Lovecraft in 1922 (Donovan K. Loucks [Wikimedia Commons])

We have a glorious problem with Pluto and its moons. Since we received detailed pictures of their mountains, plains and canyons in July, we have to find names for all of them. When New Horizons was approaching Pluto to take those images, NASA requested names from the public. In second place, beaten only by JRR Tolkein, is HP Lovecraft’s monster Cthulhu.

Lovecraft’s literary legacy

We first met Cthulhu in HP Lovecraft’s novelette, The Call of Cthulhu, which he wrote in the summer of 1926 and was published by Weird Tales in 1928. It was that story more than any other that introduced Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos to the world, although some of his earlier works introduced elements of the mythos. He laid out the full mythos in At the Mountains of Madness some years later, but the ‘gelatinous green immensity’ of Cthulhu remains its most recognisable denizen. Lovecraft received little popular recognition in his lifetime and only lived to 46, but the popularity of Cthulhu in the Pluto ballot is testament to the enduring power of his fiction.

The mythos blended the gothic tradition of horror with the emerging genre of science fiction, inventing the sub-genre of science fiction horror. Magazines and anthologies devoted to the Cthulhu Mythos are published every year and it is referenced, often obscurely, in places as diverse as Ken McLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep and the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. Science fiction horror is a sub-genre that has gone beyond the Mythos itself, so that Dean Koontz’s nastier aliens and the xenomorph of the Alien film franchise can all trace their cultural ancestry back to Cthulhu.

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(Ben Templesmith [CC / Flickr])

At the time he was writing The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft was also working on an essay titled Supernatural Horror in Literature, written between 1925 and 1927 and revised in 1934. Lovecraft didn’t know that by describing and discussing the works and authors that he regarded as important, he was documenting the literary antecedents of one of the most influential works of supernatural horror ever written.

The Lovecraft problem

Lovecraft’s writing comes with a health warning. He was what would today be called a white supremacist, which comes across in many of his stories. Whites are immune to the ‘loathsome faith’ engendered by the psychic pull of Cthulhu, and some of his descriptions are uncomfortable to read: ‘He fell on a narrow hill street leading up from an ancient waterfront swarming with foreign mongrels, after a careless push from a negro sailor’.

Lovecraft’s modern apologists have, usually with the best of intentions, excused his views as typical of a man of his time. However, American racism had its challengers in the 1930s, many of them in Lovecraft’s home city of New York. He didn’t absorb the prevailing view so much as he picked a side.

Lovecraft graded his characters’ intellect and rationality by race, following the eugenic principal of ‘ensuring humanity shall be represented by the fittest races’. In that sense, Lovecraft was not a man who had passively absorbed the racism of his society but a propagandist for the leading movement espousing it.

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(Tigana [CC / Flickr])

Lovecraft was simultaneously one of the most influential authors of supernatural fiction and a racist. To consider the man and his legacy, we cannot consider one without the other.

Lovecraft’s theory of horror

From a writer’s perspective, the most interesting chapter is the introduction, as it describes Lovecraft’s view of what frightens us. He attributes our heritage of fear to our ancestry:

The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons.

In that sentence, he tells us the theory behind the fear he injected into the Cthulhu Mythos, in which eldritch creatures spare us no more attention than we spare an ant unfortunate enough to stand in our oncoming footsteps. Faced with such cosmic indifference, many of Lovecraft’s characters react in the same way that his ‘primitive forefathers’ might react to an unexpected drought or flood: they invent a supernatural explanation for it. Whether the supernatural explanation is factually correct or not doesn’t matter. An understanding of meteorology does nothing to prevent a drought or deter the monster whom we have inadvertently woken.

Lovecraft added an extra twist: the truth behind the gods and monsters that shape the mythos is more than the human mind can encompass. Learning too much about them drives us mad. In the Cthulhu Mythos, believing in the supernatural is a delusion necessary to preserve sanity.

Lovecraft and Poe

Much of the essay is devoted to listing the development of supernatural literature from Mediaeval times through the tradition of the 18th and 19th century Gothic romance with its ‘tyrannical and malevolent nobleman’ and ‘saintly, longpersecuted, and generally insipid heroine’, to ‘modern masters’ like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany. None of the authors Lovecraft acknowledges as masters are anywhere near as well-known as Lovecraft himself is today.

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(Juan Ramón Martos [CC / Flickr])

While much of the essay is interesting primarily as a reading list for anyone interested in pre-20th century supernatural literature, Lovecraft acknowledges a particular debt to Edgar Allan Poe by devoting a whole chapter to him. He credits Poe as the first ‘weird writer’ to base his approach on human psychology rather than literary tradition.

Poe studied the human mind rather than the usages of Gothic fiction, and worked with an analytical knowledge of terror’s true sources which doubled the force of his narratives and emancipated him from all the absurdities inherent in merely conventional shudder-coining.’

Lovecraft’s estimation of what made Poe remarkable offers us an insight into the evolution of his own writing, and the development of stories that have kept generations of grown men and women awake in the small hours of the morning. Inspired by Poe, Lovecraft replaced the dark castles of Gothic tradition with libraries of dangerous knowledge. He replaced insipid heroines with hardy adventurers who knew exactly what they faced but were no more able to challenge it than a corseted damsel chained to a railway line. ‘To him’, says Lovecraft of Poe, ‘we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state’.

Rappings from outside

The appeal of horror fiction was no more universal in Lovecraft’s time than it is now. As he puts it, ‘relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside’. Lovecraft’s stories succeed not because he aimed to amplify those rappings so that more people would hear them, but because he rapped with a rhythm that was deliciously disturbing for those of us who are attuned to them.

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New Horizons mission briefing 17Jul15 (NASA HQ PHOTO [CC / Flickr])

His rappings have echoed through nine decades and, if the International Astronomical Union heeds popular request, will soon reach out to Pluto. The edge of the solar system is a good place for them because if, ‘in his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming’, it would be best for all of us if he does it at a safe distance.

Naming a feature of Pluto for Cthulhu raises another problem. The name is not a word as we understand it but ‘a chaotic sensation which only fancy could transmute into sound’. The man who heard it ‘attempted to render [it] by the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters’. If ‘Cthulhu’ is not a sound produced by a human voicebox, or even a sound at all, how should we pronounce it?

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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