Written by Alexander Greco
May 23, 2019
Born seven years after Nietzsche’s initial publication of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and twelve years before Einstein developed his Special Theory of Relativity, Howard Phillip Lovecraft is an Existentialist polymath, who has somewhat misnomerously been labeled a legend of weird fiction, though his work far outmatched his “weird” contemporaries. HP Lovecraft died nearly penniless, but has now become one of the most influential writers in Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. However, Lovecraft’s work is still widely unappreciated when compared to his Modern counterparts. In this article, I want to discuss the life that Lovecraft—largely unknown to most of his fans—and show how Lovecraft’s work is on par with his contemporaries, such as Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Tolkien, and James Joyce.
Childhood and Early Years
HP Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence Rhode Island. His parents were Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a salesman, and Sarah Susan Lovecraft, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. By the age of 3, Lovecraft was proficient in reading and writing. By the age of 5, after being told Santa Claus wasn’t real, Lovecraft proclaimed himself an atheist, asking in return, “[why] God is not equally a myth.” At the age of 7, Lovecraft was rewriting the Odyssey into his own poetry, and by 8, Lovecraft was studying astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, ancient mythology, and classical literature.
Throughout his life, Lovecraft was afflicted with crippling neuroticisms, which began to manifest in adolescence. In 1908, shortly before graduating high school, Lovecraft suffered what he described as a “nervous collapse”, and afterwards dropped out of high school prior to graduation. Lovecraft was supposed to go to Brown University after graduation to study astronomy, but there is speculation that Lovecraft could not attend because of his math scores, and this led to his breakdown.
In late 1918 and early 1919, Lovecraft’s mother began showing signs of her own mental breakdown. Anecdotal evidence from those who knew the Phillip-Lovecraft family at the time states that Lovecraft’s mother had been experiencing hallucinations, mood disorders, and memory loss. In March 1919, Lovecraft’s mother was committed to Butler Hospital and died in 1921.This had a significant impact on Lovecraft, who withdrew into a deep depression. However, this period of Lovecraft’s life would be one of his most prolific periods.
Early Influences and Writings
Lovecraft’s primary literary and philosophic influences come from Classical, Enlightenment, and early Modern literature and philosophy. Lovecraft’s most prominent influence was Edgar Allen Poe. However, Lovecraft has also been influenced by Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and Jonathan Swift, as well as many other 17th-19th century writers and thinkers, such as Ernst Haeckel, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, and ancient thinkers like Democritus and Epicurus.
Lovecraft was also deeply influenced by his dreams, which can be seen in much of his work. Frequently, Lovecraft alludes to some dream of the protagonist, or the ability of an antagonist to enter one’s dreams, and so forth. In stories like “Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath”, Lovecraft’s protagonist completely enters the realm of dreams, and explores it.
Lovecraft’s upbringing included a quite conservative Victorian sense of morality, which included Anglophilia, xenophobia and some levels of misogyny (though typically Lovecraft erred on the gentlemanly side of Victorianism). These influences heavily swayed the content of Lovecraft’s writings, along with his complex relationship with Modernity and Cosmopolitanism. He was highly critical of modern liberalism and much of modern literature (especially more commercial literature), but he also grew more liberal in his thinking as he grew older.
Lovecraft’s earliest original writing can be traced back to a period of Lovecraft’s youth between 1897 and 1902. During this time, he wrote “The Noble Eavesdropper”, “The Little Glass Bottle”, “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard”, “The Mysterious Ship”, and other short stories. Lovecraft’s first well known works came in 1905 with “The Beast in the Cave”, 1908 with “The Alchemist”, and 1917 with “The Tomb” and “Dagon” (a predecessor to the now-famous/infamous “The Call of Cthulhu”).
In 1919, Lovecraft wrote “The White Ship”, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. In 1920, he wrote “Celephais”, “The Cats of Ulthar”, and his poem, “Nyarlathotep”. These, followed by the short story “The Nameless City” in 1921, formed the foundation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dream Cycle. In these stories—in conjunction with 18 other known works produced between 1919 and 1921—Lovecraft began exploring the subjects and concepts that would later make Lovecraft famous(/infamous).
The beginning of Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” (written in early 1919) epitomizes the nature of his Dream Cycle works, while also reflecting the subject matter of his Cthulhu Mythos:
“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile [childish] symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere or mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassible barrier.”
These two Lovecraftianly long-winded sentences, which are laden with Lovecraft’s signature purple prose and excessive yet uniquely expressive adjectification, showcase Lovecraft’s enduring obsession with exploring dreams and unknown vistas of frighteningly bizarre reality. Throughout stories such as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, and works like “The Cats of Ulthar” and “Celephais”, Lovecraft’s stories exhibit literary surrealism, elements of existential horror, and an exploration of the supernatural through a filter of Baroque intellectualism.
The story “Dagon” (1917/1923) recounts the narrator’s brush with the inhuman, ocean-dwelling god, Dagon. The entire story is told with a mix of 1st and 2nd-person point of view, which creates the effect of the narrator directly speaking to the reader, while the narrator recounts their experience in 1st person. Lovecraft also makes use of his “incomprehensible trope” (a trope used throughout his work), in which some of the primary descriptions of a setting, subject or concept are that it cannot be described with anthropocentric means.
“The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.”
The narrator’s encounter with the god, Dagon, is brief:
“Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.”
However, Dagon itself is only a plot device. On the surface, this is a story about a man lost at sea, who finds a strange landmass, and eventually encounters a horrific entity, then goes insane and eventually comes to his wits in a San Francisco hospital. The story ends with the narrator obsessing over the creature he saw, and either meeting the creature again, or going insane:
“The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!”
And this is where we find the deeper subject matter of “Dagon”. One of two things happened in this story. Either the protagonist went insane, and hallucinated his encounter with Dagon, or the protagonist actually encountered an ancient god, and this entity defied the limits of conventional science, thus sending the fragile mind of the narrator into psychosis. The beauty of Lovecraft’s writing is that we can never be sure which of the two it is.
In this story, we find the germinal seeds of Lovecraft’s later work, “Call of Cthulhu”, which truly embodies the ideas found in “Dagon”. This is a story that is told to us by the narrator, recounting the narrator’s personal experience. In this story (and many others) Lovecraft provides us with an unreliable narrator, and blurs the line between reality and insanity. For Lovecraft, the human mind was a fragile and vastly misunderstood system. The universe is a place we have little true understanding of, and what we do understand is limited by our anthropomorphic perception of reality (both physiologically/biologically, and culturally/psychologically).
This story is a reflection of the science and philosophy of the time. The classical frameworks humans used to understand our universe (religion and antiquated metaphysics) were flawed and inaccurate, and that the physical laws of our universe (namely Relativity and Quantum Physics) were far more nuanced and complex than we had previously imagined. Lovecraft’s works play on this quite often, and part of what makes Lovecraft’s writing so brilliant is that he often stands on the knife’s edge of reality and surreality.
Fantasy and science fiction rely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief, often to a great degree. Lovecraft’s writing relies only on the reader accepting a single concept; reality is often stranger than fiction, and there is far more that we don’t know about reality than what we do know. Lovecraft compounds this with the fragility and limited scope of the human mind. He brings us to a dark, chaotic state of being, and forces us to question our knowledge and our grasp of reality. As I said before, the god, Dagon—along with many of Lovecraft’s other creatures, entities and gods—are merely plot devices, which have often been fetishized as Lovecraft’s true creative genius. Lovecraft’s actual genius is the perceptual framework in which he presents these plot devices. What knowledge can we be sure of? What of our own psyche can we be sure of?
This Lovecraftian philosophy would later be called “Cosmic Horror”, though this name is something of a misnomer. For Lovecraft, the true horror of the Cosmos is not the terrible things that reside in it, but the shear insignificance of humankind when compared to the Cosmos. The monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos are not evil, they are indifferent. Their motivations are so alien from ours, that they simply cannot be understood by a human. The omniscience and omnipotence of cosmic forces are so vast in comparison to a human’s intelligence and power, that humans are little more than amoebic monkeys to the rest of the universe.
The genre of Cosmic Horror is not at its core about horror. Rather, it is fundamentally existential and nihilistic. It retrieves elements from Cosmology, as well as from philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Man is weak, fragile, irrational, and blind. Our perceptual frameworks of reality are ill-informed and grossly incomplete. Our place in the grand schema of reality is insignificant, almost to the point of mathematical irrelevancy. Those who peer at the truth must either accept the absurdity of their lives, or go insane as their perceptual frameworks collapse.
To quote Lovecraft’s over-quoted opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Lovecraft has admitted that much of his work during his early years imitated authors like Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” has clear parallels to Poe’s “Berenice” and “The Masque of the Red Death”. On “The Outsider”, Lovecraft has said, “[‘The Outsider’] represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.” However, even in “The Outsider”, Lovecraft begins to find his own voice, and his own philosophy.
Much like Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” (1942), “The Outsider” (1921) is essentially a story about a man who feels ostracized from society. The narrator and protagonist of “The Outsider” emerges from a dark, subterranean world, and into a brighter, above-ground world where he is seen as a hideous monstrosity by other people. Though even more nihilistic than Camus’ story of the absurd hero, “The Outsider” similarly explores the relationship of the self with the society one is embedded in (self vs. super-ego), and the relationship of the self to one’s perception of the self (self vs. ego).
Shortly after his mother’s death in 1921, Lovecraft met Sonia Greene—a divorcee seven years older than Lovecraft. It has been speculated that Sonia was Lovecraft’s first, and likely last, romantic and sexual partner. The two married in 1924, and Sonia began to support Lovecraft financially as he tried to make a name of himself as a writer. The two moved to New York, where Lovecraft befriended several writers and intellectuals with similar tastes to his (though most of these friends had much different political and cultural views that Lovecraft).
In New York, Lovecraft began submitting his writings to a pulp magazine called Weird Tales. From here until his death, Lovecraft submitted almost exclusively to Weird Tales—whether because of his social awkwardness, his lethargic, sedentary tendencies, or because of his malice towards commercialism. Between 1922 and 1926 (at which time Lovecraft and Sonia ceased living together), Lovecraft wrote dozens of short stories, including several of his most well-known stories, and expanded upon his Dream Cycle and Cthulhu Mythos.
This period of Lovecraft’s writing begins approximately with “The Other Gods” (1921/1933), though one could argue “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922) was the first of his major works during this time. “The Other Gods” was written shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and around the time he met Sonia. It expanded upon the idea of unknowable and wholly inhuman entities, which reside in greater or more terrible realms than “human gods”. This story makes several allusions to characters and places in previous texts (such as “Polaris” and “The Cats of Ulthar”), and elaborates on his notion of Cosmic Horror.
In this time, Lovecraft also wrote stories like “Azathoth” (1922)—a three-paragraph fragment of a never-written novel—which alludes to the Azathoth of Lovecraft’s later work, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, where Azathoth is described as, “that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion where bubbles and blasphemes at infinity’s centre the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud.”
There are others like “Under the Pyramids” (1924)—which Lovecraft wrote for Harry Houdini—in which the protagonist is lost beneath the pyramids of Egypt, and encounters gods and demons from the ancient world, or “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925/27) and “He” (1925/26), which are often regarded as Lovecraft’s most overtly xenophobic stories.
The Call of Cthulhu
Near the end of this period, Lovecraft started his most celebrated story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1925-1926/1928), though he didn’t finish it until after he and Sonia separated. Like many of his other stories, it uses a mix of 1st-person and 2nd-person point of view, the unreliable narrator trope, and often alludes to unnamable and indescribable horrors. Likewise, the Cthulhu creature is used only as a plot device, and Cthulhu itself may only be symbolic. The story is highly fragmented, told in a non-linear fashion at times, and uses the story-within-a-story device. While Lovecraft continues to write in Baroque style with a heavy saturation of purple prose, the story is actually highly Modern, and possibly Postmodern, in narrative structure.
The story is about the narrator’s recounting of going through his grand-uncle’s belongings after his grand-uncle had died, and discovering a clay tablet depicting a monstrous creature, which is later identified as Cthulhu. The narrator then goes on to tell the story of how his grand-uncle discovered the clay tablet, tracked the artist who created the tablet, and eventually tracked down evidence of cults throughout history that have worshipped Cthulhu. Here, the story begins to fragment into his grand-uncle’s retelling of various other individuals’ experiences.
There is a retelling of the artist’s experience. There is a story about an inspector who discovers a cult in Louisiana that sacrifice humans. Then, one of the cult members recounts their own experiences, as well as their knowledge of Cthulhu and the other gods of the Cthulhu Mythos. The narrator discovers some notes left behind by his grand-uncle about a man named Johansen, who was the single survivor of some unknown tragedy at sea, then goes onto to recount Johansen’s experience.
The climax of the story comes during Johansen’s recounting of what he saw at sea:
“Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47o 9’, W. Longitude 126o 43’ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.”
The thing is, this is only the narrator retelling Johansen’s story, and the narrator never saw Cthulhu. In fact, it’s revealed in the next paragraph that Johansen never saw Cthulhu, and that the narrator was simply inferring Cthulhu’s existence. Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu, never actually appears in Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu”. This is because the story is not about Cthulhu—Cthulhu is only an alluded-to plot device.
The brilliance of the story is that Cthulhu might not exist. The very name “Cthulhu” isn’t even the actual name of the alluded-to entity. Cthulhu is essentially a linguistic symbol of a “name” that cannot be pronounced by man. While many pronounce Cthulhu as three syllables (kah-thoo-loo), Lovecraft actually intended it to be two syllables, “kloo-loo”, and it’s supposed to be pronounced in an almost coughing or barking manner. However, Lovecraft also intended for the word to be unpronounceable, so any sort of explanation of the name “Cthulhu” is essentially a moot point.
Not only is Cthulhu possibly a hallucination, and “Cthulhu” isn’t actually Cthulhu’s name, Cthulhu might not be a “thing” in the traditional sense, even if Cthulhu was “real” in the story. Cthulhu is described in vague, surreal and ambiguous ways. Though Cthulhu is depicted on the clay tablet as a vaguely humanoid creature with an octopus-like head and large bat-wings, Cthulhu is also described as a chaotic being, and a priest of the elder gods—the Great Old Ones. These Great Old Ones were described as “not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape… …but that shape was not made of matter.”
The Great Old Ones, including Cthulhu, are not tangible—if they can even be said to “exist” in Lovecraft’s stories. The name “Cthulhu” is only a symbolic representation of something we cannot comprehend. Cthulhu itself may only be an idea, an entity that exists in our reality only as a concept or psychological force, or Cthulhu might not exist at all.
In addition, the very subject of the story—Cthulhu—is not something we can understand. If Cthulhu can even be said to exist in this story, then Cthulhu is a cosmically ancient (“deep history” ancient), alien god, who lives only partially in the physical world. Cthulhu is not a thing that could be “understood”, as even “understanding” might be an anthropomorphic illusion. Cthulhu might not even have an actual name, and the unpronounceable symbol may only be a vague interpretation of what “Cthulhu” “is”, but whatever Cthulhu “is”, it might be so perceptually incompatible with human cognition that it would be technically impossible to speculate about Cthulhu’s existence.
In a way, Cthulhu might be the ultimate symbol of Lovecraft’s philosophy of Cosmic Horror. The universe is an infinite place, and the contents of the universe cannot be fully known to humanity. Not only can the contents of the universe not be fully known, the contents of the universe likely cannot be fully understood by humanity, even if we could discover all of these contents. Not only can we not fully understand the contents of the universe, but we are grossly insignificant in comparison to the rest of the universe.
Cthulhu is the priest of these unknowable forces. Cthulhu is the messenger of unknowable, incomprehensible entities that control our reality. Cthulhu is a name that we only barely can articulate, and it is a name that only barely articulates what Cthulhu is—if Cthulhu can even be said to “be”, or to be a “thing”.
In this way, Cthulhu is a symbol of mathematics, physics and psychology. Cthulhu represents the infinitely complex and largely unfinished projects of the sciences—the projects of understanding what reality is and how it functions. The more we learn about the nature of reality , the stranger it seems to become. We are at a point now in physics where we can’t even agree on what the true nature of reality is. Newtonian physics is overruled by Relativity, Relativity is in conflict with Quantum Physics, Quantum physics is barely understood by any scientists, which most physicists will admit, and most other theories, such as String Theory, are currently impossible to prove.
Cthulhu is the thing we cannot fully understand. Cthulhu is paradoxes compounding upon paradoxes, made infinitely more difficult to untangle because of our faulty, animal-brains, our vastly limited senses, and our crippling ignorance. Cthulhu is that vision of madness, when you look out your window at a reality that made perfect sense yesterday, but today it has all lost control before your eyes. Nothing is as it seems, and nothing ever will be what it once seemed.
In “The Call of Cthulhu” and many other stories, Lovecraft forces us to question our understanding of reality, or if the “true” reality we live in is even something that could be understood. Lovecraft challenges our core presuppositions about life, and our very perception of reality. There are forces and “things” in our reality which we haven’t even discovered yet, let alone begun to fathom. Lovecraft simply asks us to accept that we as a species don’t know everything yet, which isn’t difficult to ask in a universe comprised primarily with “dark matter” and “dark energy”.
In Part II, I’ll continue discussing Lovecraft’s ideas, and tie them in with other modern movements in literature.