Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The Lovecraft Mythos
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
What is so important about “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) is not merely its exponential leap in quality over Lovecraft’s previous work, but its clear instantiation of the core elements of his cosmic philosophy. That philosophy is most cogently articulated in a celebrated utterance made in a letter to Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales, to whom he resubmitted the story in July 1927 after it was initially rejected:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold. (Selected Letters 2.150)
On the surface, this remark deals with a relatively narrow point of fictional technique—the depiction of extraterrestrial entities—but I believe it has a much broader application. In it, Lovecraft emphatically declares moral and aesthetic independence from the “humanocentric” pose he condemned as early as 1921. “The Call of Cthulhu” itself may not exemplify this stance quite as unambiguously as one might wish, for there are times when Lovecraft cannot help declaring that the extraterrestrial entity Cthulhu—a vaguely octopoid creature who is trapped in his underwater city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific but who, by a series of accidents, momentarily emerges to the surface—is endowed with a relatively conventional lust for destruction and mayhem: “After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight” (F 377).
But “The Call of Cthulhu” contains, in all its essentials, the core features of what came to be called the Cthulhu Mythos: a band of cultists who dwell on the underside of human society and who seek to bring about the return of the “Old Ones” (the “gods” who they believe rule the universe), but who in reality have next to no power to effect such a transition; an ever-growing library of occult books (preeminent among them the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred) that purportedly contain information on these “gods”; a narrative that often begins with a meticulously realised New England topography but rapidly expands to encompass the world and the universe; and, above all, a sense of cosmic doom hanging over the earth and its inhabitants, who are nothing but the playthings of these “gods” (really extraterrestrials) who by accident intrude upon our world. Many of these elements have gained outsized importance in the hands of Lovecraft’s imitators, but they were really plot devices to foster his cosmic narratives, and they underwent frequent change in the course of his final decade of writing.
“The Colour out of Space” (1927) may be Lovecraft’s most detailed and triumphant working out of the moral declaration of independence he had made—it was written only a few months prior to that utterance. In this novelette, now regarded as a classic of science fiction, a meteorite bearing a mysterious entity (or entities) lands on the property of a Massachusetts farmer and insidiously corrupts everything with which it comes into contact; but at no point can we ascertain the motives or purposes of the strange creature(s) inhabiting the meteorite—a message articulated by the farmer, Nahum Gardner, as he lies dying:
“Nothin’ … nothin’ … the colour … it burns … cold an’ wet … but it burns … […] everything alive … suckin’ the life out of everthing … in that stone … it must a’ come in that stone … pizened the whole place … dun’t know what it wants … […] it beats down your mind an’ then gits ye … burns ye up … […] ye know summ’at’s comin’, but ’tain’t no use … jest a colour …” (F 608)
Edmund Wilson’s grudging praise of the story that it anticipates the effects of atomic radiation is of course quite irrelevant: the story in fact is the pinnacle of Lovecraft’s depiction of the “shadow-haunted Outside.”
Lovecraft’s progress from the conventionally macabre to the cosmic was not linear, and just prior to writing “The Colour out of Space” he wrote the short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), his most exhaustive treatment of old-time Gothicism. Although there are faint traces of the newer approach here (the cosmic entity Yog-Sothoth is first cited here, to little purpose), the novel is otherwise a rich tapestry of Gothic terror in its central figure, the alchemist Joseph Curwen—who, having already gained the secret of eternal life, now seeks to extract the “essential saltes” of human and other creatures in a nebulous plan that will somehow (in the words of Charles Dexter Ward, a descendant of Curwen who revivifies him) endanger “all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe” (F 551). This sounds succulently cosmic, but it is never clarified how Curwen’s resurrection of such celebrated individuals as Benjamin Franklin will have the cataclysmic effects Ward fears. In any case, the novel is not only Lovecraft’s paean to the history and topography of his native Providence, but a masterful working out of Gothic tropes—alchemy, eternal life, perhaps psychic possession—for a twentieth-century audience. It is a pity that Lovecraft never prepared the novel for publication.
The Cthulhu Mythos, although its importance as a tool for understanding Lovecraft’s work may be exaggerated, can nonetheless not be dismissed out of hand. There really is something going on in the tales of Lovecraft’s final decade of writing—a complex series of cross-references and common themes, scenes, and characters that allows them to become more than the sum of their parts. (As we shall shortly see, several of Lovecraft’s colleagues began to elaborate upon the Mythos in his own lifetime, adding to its verisimilitude as an esoteric body of occult lore.) It is, indeed, this sense of a kind of shared universe in which each tale is a component that has been the key element in the fascination with which Lovecraft’s works were received in his day down to our own: for all that the tales are self-standing, they seem to share a commonality of tone and mood that render them segments of one long novel—a novel whose purpose is, in spite (or perhaps because) of its prodigal display of “gods,” to display the brutal fact of humanity’s insignificance and transience in an indifferent cosmos. There is no way to “justify the ways of God to man”—because there is no god or gods, only extraterrestrials whose casual and accidental brushes with humanity are cataclysmic to ourselves but of vanishingly small interest to the entities who rule the universe.
This development, too, is not uniform in Lovecraft’s work, and for a variety of reasons he sometimes failed to realise his own stated goals in fiction writing. “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) is a signal failure in depicting a naive good-vs.-evil scenario in which valiant human beings (led by a bombastic librarian, Dr. Armitage) triumph over “wicked people and wicked cults” (F 667) who have sought to bring in Yog-Sothoth from another dimension. This tale, manifestly inspired by Machen’s “The Great God Pan” in its general scenario (a woman impregnated by a god), is one of the most disappointing of Lovecraft’s later tales for its conventionality. Even its haunting portrayal of backwoods Massachusetts cannot redeem it. There is some evidence that Lovecraft wrote the story deliberately to cater to the tastes of Weird Tales readers; but the end result, in spite of the tale’s continuing popularity, is an aesthetic disaster.
Substantially better, but flawed in other ways, is the rich novella “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), which unforgettably etches the rural landscape of Vermont in its tale of extraterrestrial entities (the fungi from Yuggoth, a planet identified with the newly discovered Pluto) besieging a hapless farmer. Here the several fascinating conceptions—notably, the ability of the fungi to extract a human brain and send it on cosmic voyagings throughout (and perhaps beyond) the known universe—are marred by an unwittingly comical cowboys-and-Indians scenario where the fungi battle the farmer, who resists with guns and dogs, and by the credulity shown by the protagonist, Albert N. Wilmarth, who has come into correspondence with Akeley and strives to aid him.
Little but praise can, however, be directed at At the Mountains of Madness (1931), perhaps the acme of Lovecraft’s fusion of science fiction and horror. This wondrously detailed short novel about an Antarctic expedition that uncovers the frozen bodies of barrel-shaped extraterrestrials called the “Old Ones”—who came to this planet millions of years ago and who, aside from building an immense stone city in the Antarctic, “created all earth-life as jest or mistake” (F 739)—is a masterpiece on every level. Lovecraft’s knowledge of the sciences is on impressive display in his detailed portrayal of every phase of the expedition; and the climax of the story, when the human protagonists encounter a shoggoth—a beast of burden, in the form of a shapeless mass of protoplasm, whom the Old Ones had created to build their cities, but who overthrew its masters—may be as chilling as any passage in supernatural literature:
It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. (F 802)
On a very different level in terms of plot, but no less cosmic in its implications, is “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931), which unforgettably depicts the decaying Massachusetts backwater of Innsmouth, a town that saw an influx of hybrid creatures, half-fish and half-frog, who began mating with the inhabitants to create a loathsome race of entities who collectively bear the “Innsmouth look” and who ultimately take to the sea in a kind of grotesque parody of the quest for eternal life. The unsparing realism of Lovecraft’s portrayal of the town and its inhabitants, and the insidious manner in which he reveals the appalling climax—the narrator, a young student seeking genealogical data, after valiantly struggling to flee from the horrible creatures, learns that he is related to them—cause this tale to rank very high in the Lovecraft corpus. The narrator’s final decision not to kill himself but to join his relatives in the deep, where “we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever” (F 858)—a hideous parody of the Twenty-third Psalm—is a masterstroke that only intensifies the horror of the narrative.
After two relatively mediocre tales—“The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), in which the Salem witchcraft is reinterpreted in light of advanced mathematics, and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933), a relatively conventional tale of psychic possession—Lovecraft produced another triumph with “The Shadow out of Time” (1934—35), whose cosmicism matches that of At the Mountains of Madness. A member of the Great Race—a group of minds who are capable of spanning space and time and thrusting themselves into the bodies of virtually any creatures in the universe—exchanges his mind with that of the narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, whose mind is thrust into the body of a grotesque cone-shaped entity in Australia about 150,000,000 years ago. There he writes a history of his own time while the mind in his own body seeks to learn all it can of the human civilisation of that time. After his mind is returned to his own body, Peaslee is dogged by dreams of his life in the body of the cone-shaped being—and he finally comes upon evidence that the “dreams” were in fact real, especially when, in one of the most cataclysmic moments in weird fiction, he comes upon the history he must have written millions of years ago, buried in the rubble of the Australian desert.
Lovecraft’s final original story, “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935), is a lighter specimen: it was inspired by Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales, September 1935), in which a character obviously based on Lovecraft is dispatched horribly; Lovecraft responded by having Robert Blake be the victim of the cosmic entity Nyarlathotep (or his avatar). Lovecraft wrote less and less with the passing of the years, his self-confidence shattered by rejections of his work (especially by book publishers) and, in some cases, by less than enthusiastic responses by his own friends and colleagues. Doubtless he died in 1937 believing that his work would fade away into oblivion.