Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born August 20, 1890, was the great horror writer of his generation. Lovecraft created the so-called Cthulhu mythos, which is even today visited liberally by imaginative writers the world over. Even one of my favorite Babylon 5 episodes, Third Space, visited Lovecraft’s chilling universe.
Lovecraft seems to have lived a depressing and lonely life. As a young man, particularly from ages 18 to 23, he had “almost no contact with anyone but his mother.” (link) In 1924 he married, though he and his wife separated a few years afterward, never to live with each other again. The divorce was never finalized.
Lovecraft was hardly a prolific writer and never wrote even a single full lengthed novel. He would have died into obscurity had it not been for the efforts of his “pen pals,” particularly August Derleth, who managed to breath life into his stories posthumously.
Not socially adept, Lovecraft’s pen pals were his real social life. He is believed to have written “nearly 100,000 letters in his lifetime.” Of which one-fifth survive. (Link) Through his correspondences he inspired numerous famous authors, including Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard. His stories directly inspired the current generation of horror writers, such as Stephen King. King called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s great practitioner of the class horror tale.” (link)
Cosmic Horror: Fear of the Truth
Lovecraft invented a whole new genre of horror known today as Cosmic Horror, Cosmic Pessimism, or Cosmicism. In Lovecraft’s tales, typically the storyteller is explaining how they stumbled upon some bit of forbidden knowledge that proves to marginalize the importance of the existence of humankind. Unable to deal with the truth, said storyteller either goes insane and is locked into an asylum or commits suicide to escape the truth.
One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Shadow over Innsmouth. (Which, I might add, was creepily brought to life in the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.)
In this classic tale, a visitor to the sea port town of Innsmouth becomes too curious for his own good and begins to research the strange happenings in Innsmouth. He accidentally stumbles upon the horrifying tale that the residence of Innsmouth are actually a cross breed between humans and the Spawn of Cthulhu known as The Deep Ones – an ancient advanced race of sea monsters that make humans look like mere monkeys.
Forced to spend the night in their only hotel, he soon finds that the denizens do not intend to let him leave Innsmouth alive with his knowledge. Though he manages to escape with his life, he soon discovers that he was drawn to the town because he himself is a descendent of Innsmouth stalk. He soon finds his human features dissolving day by day as he is drawn to the siren call of the Deep Ones in the sea.
This story is an apt illustration of Lovecraft’s reoccurring themes, particularly “psychic disintegration in the face of cosmic horror perceived as ‘truth’” (link), discovery of advanced races or gods hostile to humanity, and horror at discovering one’s bestial (evolutionary?) heritage.
The Religion of Lovecraft
Joyce Carol Oates suggested that Lovecraft’s “gothic tale[s] would seem to form psychic autobiography” apparently inspired by his own religious views, commonly called Maltheism where one “achieve[s] the mirror-opposite of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality.” (link)
In a letter to Robert E. Howard, he affirmed his agnostic-atheist beliefs:
All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe… (link)
The Logical Conclusions of Atheism
Indeed, it is not hard to discern that Lovecraft’s horror was nothing less than an atheist worldview followed with fidelity to its logical conclusions. Lovecraft’s real gift was his ability to understand the ramifications of his own beliefs and to channel that into horror fiction.
To Lovecraft, morality was subjective and thus meaningless.
In a cosmos without absolute values we have to rely on the relative values affecting our daily sense of comfort, pleasure, & emotional satisfaction. What gives us relative painlessness & contentment we may arbitrarily call “good”, & vice versa. (link)
One person’s morality simply impacted upon another, with no hope of any sort of universal resolution, proving morality a mere illusion.
Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply on the psychological side from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore “good” is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. (link)
To Lovecraft, humanity was of no significance in the cosmic scheme of things.
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. (link)
Once properly understood, the universe was a terrifying place from which our only protection was ignorance. We were a tiny bubble of illusionary order floating in a sea of universal nothingness that can and would snuff us out when it got around to it.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. (link)
His love of science clashed with what it implied about humanity and our utter unimportance. If we really understood, madness would be the only option.
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. (link)
Escape Into the Arms of Cthulhu
His belief in a Godless world in part drove Lovecraft to write his “weird tales”, allowing him what he called “imaginative liberation” from “the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us.” (link)
So his fiction was paradoxically a simultaneous release from reality while attempting to face it head on. The horrors he wrote reflected his true horror of our place in the universe yet were somehow more satisfying in that we were not alone and were actually surrounded by the wondrous and fantastical, just out of our sight.
Even terrible gods like Cthulhu and Dagon, who cared nothing for humanity other than to breed us with their own spawn, would be a relief compared to the non-existing God that cared nothing at all.