by Red Emma
What terminology do we use to describe the stories of strange and unfathomable beings? Lovecraft and his contemporaries in the early twentieth century called them weird tales, but for we readers of the new millenium, this term might not hold the same cachet. We could begin with genre definitions. In Lovecraft’s work, we find themes of horror – he was called the “dark, baroque prince of horror” by Stephen King, and was graduated to the “pope of horror” by China Miéville – but we also find themes in his work that are more neatly categorized as science fiction, and still others so fantastic they defy categorization.
Over the next seven weeks, I’ll delve into the fantasy world of H.P. Lovecraft and the effect it has had on popular culture; how it has shaped my worldview and that of others, and if there is any reason to believe those who enthusiastically declare the Old Ones are alive and well.
I would like to begin with an assumption that you, reader, already know something about H. P. Lovecraft, or that you are adept enough to find his biographies on your own. Innumerable accounts of his life exist in print and online. I would find it tedious to attempt my own, and I’m almost certain mine would result in a plagiaristic skimming of other more informed people’s works anyway. Instead, I’ll direct you to a list of resources following this post that will provide more insight into the strange and near-mythic life of the loner, the Anglophile, the prodigiously gifted H. P. Lovecraft.
Many of the books I will mention are available to order through wellerbookworks.com. I write as a fan of Lovecraft, but also as a bookseller, and my first duty is, unsurprisingly, to sell books. If you find your shelves lacking in Lovecraft or in his biographies by S.T. Joshi, you know where to order – or give us a call at 801-328-2586 to place an order by phone. Where you shop matters, and independent bookstores like ours depend on your patronage.
Every so often, I might reference a book that is hard to find or out of print. For these, I apologize, but I will make every effort to clearly label them over the course of my blog. At your request, I will refer you to our special searches buyers whom I believe can find you just about anything in print, including the Pnakotic Manuscripts, if you feel so inclined.
And with that out of the way.
Lovecraft had a peculiar approach to writing. I don’t believe he set out to build a world, but over the course of his work, he did, and for the most part remained consistent to it and his philosophy of cosmicism: that human beings, despite our egocentrism, are insignificant in the grand order of the Cosmos, and that because of our overriding egos, we are ignorant of the reality of space around us and incapable of dealing with it. I believe the philosophy of cosmicism is the result of his years of writing for art’s sake without remuneration, of his life of privation and genteel poverty, and its origin can betraced to his rich and desolate dreamscape with its maundering roads and long-abandoned ruins of forgotten civilizations. The message in his dream writing is clear: everyone and everything will die, and the universe we inhabit remains indifferent.
We know from his personal writing that Lovecraft dreamed in vivid detail. He kept dream journals, and often shared the details of his dreams to friends he corresponded with. Some of these became fragments published by Arkham house after his death. Over the past month, I’ve reacquainted myself with his sometimes dizzying, purplish dream prose, the heady descriptions of his ephemeral wanderings collected in The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death, a Dell compilation of Lovecraft’s dream fragments which begins with a brief sketch called "Azathoth."
Azathoth, a name vaguely Coptic, is Lovecraft’s idea of an uncaring cosmos – a blind, shapeless entity roiling forever in the void without purpose or meaning, malevolent only in its apathy. The terror of such a god isn’t lost on my tiny human spirit, longing for meaning. Vast and unknowable, Azathoth is mentioned again in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" as one “who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”
Azathoth is one of many elder gods whose births can be glimpsed in Lovecraft’s dream writings. The opening lines to "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" speak to his deeply held belief in the symbolism of dreams:
“I have often 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.”
Lovecraft knew this world intimately. He climbed its hills and plunged its valleys in search of truth, but found only the remnants of doomed societies.
We see his encounters with doom in "Polaris," a story about a midnight watchman who is lulled to sleep by a malevolent star, and the aptly named "The Doom that Came to Sarnath." Dire warnings issued to thin air, these are stories to read by dim lamplight with a silky cat on one’s lap. In my mind’s eye, I picture Lovecraft writing in this way – an avid cat lover, he must have had a bright-eyed creature within hand’s reach at all times. Perhaps his fingers were stained at times with ink because the nib got away from him, but only just. The sheets of paper on his desk, neatly kept. His three-piece suits may have been a little shoddy at the sleeves, but tidily pressed and clean. I can see him, in my mind’s eye. I grow closer to seeing him each time I delve into the writing of his dreams.
Before his mother succumbed to madness, she tortured her son by telling him he couldn’t leave the house because he was hideous. Because of this, I see him wandering his dark dreamscapes for the first time unfettered; in a world of desolation inhabited only by monsters, no one existed to spurn him for being ugly. He was free amongst the ruins.
His gift for painting a scene still haunts me. I began reading Lovecraft at the age of thirteen, which oddly seems to be a common age of discovery among fans of his work, such as his teenage protege Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, and contemporary Lovecraftians Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer of the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. My initial encounter was with "The Haunter of the Dark," a tale with a suitably pulp sounding title. I had high expectations for some kind of vampire or external nemesis, one that could be satisfyingly defeated by story’s end. Instead, I remember resting the open book beside me on my bed as I gazed outside my window into a cold, inky night. The tale is chilling, as its narrator, Robert Blake, sets up in an abandoned church and unearths more than he ever should have. Not a demon, or a fleshy thing that fears crosses and garlic, but a nameless, otherworldly stirring in the cosmos: an intelligence boiling to break free of its fetters that exerts its control on the fragile mind of Blake.
That is cosmic horror: the reality of the great unknown and how small we are in relation to it, the feeling of futility and powerlessness. We are unable to resist, overcome, or even run. The horror of the abyss is the abyss, that it exists at all, and we have no power over it.
In re-reading The Dream Cycle, I discovered the subtle beauty of a fragment from one of Lovecraft’s letters to friend and correspondent Donald Wandrei, now called "The Thing in the Moonlight." Through the scholarship of S.T. Joshi, a story originally credited to J. Chapman Miske has been proven to be Lovecraft’s own description of his nightmare. It begins, “My name is Howard Phillips. I live at 66 College Street, in Providence, Rhode Island. On November 24, 1927 – for I know not even what the year may be now –, I fell asleep and dreamed, since when I have been unable to awaken.”
He describes a reed-choked marsh under a gray sky, and then a lichen-crusted cliff. The cliff is a black edifice, and compelled as dreamers are, he begins to climb, though he fears to look into its crevices for what lurks in them, until he comes to a kind of plateau with swaying yellow grasses. Among the grasses is a railroad track. By feeling for its cable, he finds a yellow trolley car, and placidly takes a seat in it. Looking round, he sees two figures in the field. They look like ordinary rail workers in their uniforms, until one sniffs loudly in the night, and raises its head to howl. The other falls on all fours and races toward Lovecraft in the trolley car. In the moonlight, Howard Phillips can just see that one has a white cone for a head that leads to a single blood-red tentacle.
Imagine that you can never wake from this. That this is your reality now; you will always walk this world. At the end of this passage to Donald Wandrei, Lovecraft wrote as much: “It has been the same each day. Night takes me always to that place of horror. I have tried not moving, with the coming of nightfall, but I must walk in my slumber, for always I awaken with the thing of dread howling before me in the pale moonlight, and I turn and flee madly.”
Lovecraft was a dream-walker. Of that, I’m certain. I’m relieved to know I haven’t walked where he walked, or if I did, I don’t have conscious memory of it. My worst nightmares are tame in comparison. A kind of alchemy came from his careful daylight reconstruction of his dreams – from them, we have what we call the “Cthulhu Mythos," which has spawned beings such as Hermaeus Mora in The Elder Scrolls game series, an Azathoth-like god of knowledge and the unknowable. On the subject of games, I find it interesting that an Elf Mage has a curiously Lovecraftian long chin in DragonAge: Inquisition – Solas, who can visit “The Fade” at will and inhabit the realm of dreams is the only force saving the world from its destruction. Or was he the cause of it? Curiouser and curiouser.
Please join me next week as I delve more deeply into cosmicism and look at the stories in The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated by S.T. Joshi.