H.P. Lovecraft: Aesthete of Cosmic Fear

“The exemplary figure of Evil are today not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those (top managers, etc.) who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, exempt themselves from the results of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wild preserves… ”
– Slavoj Zizek, on M Night Shyamalan’s Village

“We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.”
– J. G. Ballard

H.P. Lovecraft once said that tradition was the only defense humans had against a sense of cosmic loneliness and an even deeper “devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time & space.” He was a Lover of the strange and fantastic; abstract truth and scientific logic; and, all that was ancient and permanent within human culture and tradition. He despised the Moderns and strove to create within his own life and writings an aesthetic of non-supernatural cosmic art.

It was Kant who presented us with the subjective sublime. The basic idea that experience of the sublime is a result of a subjective encounter with something which is absolutely great or absolutely menacing. He believed that the terrifying sublime is sometimes accompanied with a certain dread or melancholy; both adventurous and grotesque. For Kant the feeling of the sublime is experienced when our imagination fails to comprehend the vastness of the infinite and we become aware of the ideas of reason and their representation of the boundless totality of the universe, as well as those powers that operate in the universe which we do not grasp and are beyond our control.

H.P. Lovecraft told us that the Weird Tale “has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.” 1

This alignment of Kant’s sublime and Lovecraft’s emphasis on the weird tale devolves into what is great within the “literature of fear” as he defined it within the pages of Supernatural Horror in Literature. The experience of the sublime involves a self-forgetting wherein one’s personal fears are replaced by a sense of animal comfort and security when confronted with a great or menacing power, and is similar to the experience of the tragic. It is just here that Lovecraft went beyond Kant in his appraisal of the subjective sublime. For him the whole idea of humanist thought and its sense of the subjectivity of the self was a dead end; a terminus to be expunged. Being an anti-humanist he created in his work a counter-sublime, one that revealed the “unity of the human subject to be a fallacy.” 2

Vivian Ralickas rejects any reading of Lovecraft as promoter of the subjective sublime as erroneous and misleading. According to her, Lovecraft’s view of existence, based upon “cosmic indifferentism and mechanistic materialism, “negates any possibility of the sublime in his Mythos.”2 Lovecraft believed in a meaningless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their naturally limited faculties, could never fully understand. His viewpoint made no allowance for religious beliefs which could not be supported scientifically. The incomprehensible, cosmic forces of his tales have as little regard for humanity as humans have for insects.3

In his biography H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (Necronomicon Press), S.T. Joshi gives Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Ernst Haeckel as Lovecraft’s “chief philosophical influences.” Darwin’s theory of the natural selection of chance variations put an emphasis on the role of chance in determining the order of nature in the living world. The evidence from nature, which he accumulated over many decades, no longer supported the religious determinism that saw in the order of nature a predetermined design accounting for every detail from the apple to the man. It was this emphasis on chance that Lovecraft decried in his mechanistic materialism, with its emphasis that the universe is a “mechanism” with fixed laws governing it that all entities within it are bound by deterministic causality leaving no room for chance, since every incident is connected by countless and ancillary events stretching back to the beginning of time; and, all entity is material, there can be no non-material (i.e., “spirit”, “soul”, etc.) entity whatsoever. As Rallickas states it in Lovecraft “chance is the name those who cannot see all ends give to events that they neither predicted nor foresaw.”2

The nullity of self, the dispersion of subjectivity within the nexus of a cosmic void, the estrangement of self from itself; and, the power of vastly superior alien entities who are indifferent, and even hostile to our human fate, is central to Lovecraft’s fiction. This shock of the void at the center of our postmodernist heritage with its attendant “death of the subject” brings us to a place where Lovecraft’s articulation of the “literature of fear” and “Cosmic horror” leads us to construct a new sense of what it means to be, – if not human, then anti-human.

In The Call of Cthulhu we hear the vocalization of a Nietzschean transhuman call to arms: “The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” As Colin Wilson wrote of Lovecraft in The Order of Assassins (Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1972): “The underlying spirit of Lovecraft (is) the revolt against civilization, the feeling that the material success by which the modern world justifies itself is the shallowest of all standards; like Nietzsche, he felt that democracy is the rise of botchers and bunglers and mediocrities against the superior type of man.” That Lovecraft was both an Anti-Semite and racist is well documented and I will not defend his intellectual decrepitude in this matter. Such statements as these suffice to remind us that he was a man of his age caught up in the 1920’s era which seemed to have many intellectuals falling for this decadent mythos:

“That the maintenance of civilization today rests with that magnificent Teutonic stock which is represented alike by the two hotly contending rivals, England and Germany… is as undeniably true as it is vigorously disputed. The Teuton is the summit of evolution. That we may consider intelligently his place in history we must cast aside the popular nomenclature which would confuse the names “Teuton” and “German”, and view him not nationally but racially. Tracing the career of the Teuton through medieval and modern history, we can find no possible excuse for denying his actual biological supremacy. In widely separated localities and under widely diverse conditions, his innate racial qualities have raised him to preeminence. There is no branch of modern civilization that is not his making.” S.T. Joshi slides into a bit of sophistry when he says “ugly and unfortunate as Lovecraft’s racial views are, they do not materially affect the validity of the rest of his philosophical thought(p. 360).”4 Yet, Joshi admits that some of Lovecraft’s views spouted within his Conservative essays were acutely embarrassing – as in:

“[Hitler’s vision is of course romantic & immature, & colored with a fact-ignoring emotionalism … There surely is an actual Hitler peril – yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I repeat that there is a great & pressing need behind every one of the major planks of Hitlerism – racial-cultural continuity, conservative cultural ideals, & an escape from the absurdities of Versailles. The crazy thing is not what Adolf wants, but the way he sees it & starts out to get it. I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!”

This racial vision underlies many of Lovecraft’s tales as Joshi reminds us in his reading of “the Lurking Fear” (1922), “The Horror at Read Hook” (1925), and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931) which are “thinly veiled projections of his racialist fears of alien overthrow of Nordic culture through excessive immigration and miscegenation.” (p. 29, An Epicure in the Terrible, 1991) Lovecraft was very much an elitist in his view of humanity. In matters of religion he felt that “religion is still useful among the herd- that it helps their orderly conduct as nothing else could, and that it gives them an emotional satisfaction they could not get elsewhere.”5 As China Mieville states it at the “heart of Lovecraft’s elitism was a visceral mistrust of and antipathy for the masses.”6

Why do we read Lovecraft? If he was so misguided in his perceptions of his fellow man, felt such antipathy toward the great majority and held contempt for certain races, then why should we spend such time on reading his stories? The converse question might also be: Why have so many people loved this man’s works? Is it his language, his pulp aesthetic? As China Mieville said in an interview recently: “If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft, for example, they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s unputdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing,” but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works.” Or, as Thomas Ligotti reminds us in an interview: “Then I read Poe and Lovecraft for the first time and found what I didn’t know I was looking for: writers who put themselves on every page of their work, who wrote like personal essayists and lyric poets.”

Maybe that is just it – this compulsively readable, affecting style of writing in which the author’s personality shines through on every page and in every letter in a way that awakens in us that oldest of human emotions: friendship and comaraderie. The acknowledgment of one human to another that “I too have been down this path and know the dark contours of this unreal world of pain and suffering.” Lovecraft adopted a mechanistic system because he hoped by that means to eliminate fears and superstitions; and then introduced into that system an unmechanistic element, chance, in order to get rid of the blighting effects on the soul of philosophical determinism.

Ligotti in another interview hit the nail on the head, saying:”Poe and Lovecraft—not to mention a Bruno Schulz or a Franz Kafka—were what the world at large would consider extremely disturbed individuals. And most people who are that disturbed are not able to create works of fiction. These and other names I could mention are people who are just on the cusp of total psychological derangement. Sometimes they cross over and fall into the province of “outsider artists.” That’s where the future development of horror fiction lies—in the next person who is almost too emotionally and psychologically damaged to live in the world but not too damaged to produce fiction.”

The failure of his marriage with Sonia Greene, his inability to make ends meet in New York City, and despite his best writing efforts, he grew ever poorer. He was forced to move to smaller and meaner lodgings with his surviving aunt. He was also deeply affected by Robert E. Howard’s suicide. In 1936, Lovecraft was diagnosed with cancer of the intestine, and he also suffered from Bright’s disease and malnutrition. He lived in constant pain until his death on March 15, 1937, in Providence.

H.P. Lovecraft Archive
H.P Lovecraft – Scriptorium
H.P. Lovecraft – Historical Society

1. Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
2. “Cosmic Horror” and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft (Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vivian Ralickas)
3. Mariconda, “Lovecraft’s Concept of ‘Background'”, pp. 22–3, On the Emergence of “Cthulhu” & Other Observations.
4. A Dreamer And A Visionary (2001)
5. Dagon and other essays (1965)
6. At the Mountains of Madness (2005) Introduction by China Mieville

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