Updated: Apr 3, 2021
This essay was written for my undergraduate American Literature class and earned a perfect score. Though I believe my professor was only being generous with that score, I did put a great amount of effort into capturing the scholarly conversation on Lovecraft's writing. All this in mind, enjoy!
Though many scholars agree that horror writer H. P. Lovecraft demonstrates a nihilistic and dysgenic worldview, some may argue the epistemology of his concentrated writing. A few positions come from scholar, John Engle’s, observations on the practices of the Esoteric Order of Dagon (EOD) and the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). Both occults fetishize Lovecraft’s distinctive cosmic horror as a spiritual authority. Other positions upheld by scholars include Lovecraft’s sexual repression, disdain for the self-evident misconceptions of Christianity, and criticism of human civilization. While Timothy Murphy finds Lovecraft’s writing as an endorsement of “negative” eugenics in fear of racial degeneration, I contend that Lovecraft’s aim was to generate fear and spectacle of one’s personal philosophies regarding the unknown rather than scrutinize the fragility of human civilization. This is most demonstrated in “The Rats in the Walls” where Lovecraft facilitates vague language and a consistent focus on the “limitless mystery” of time and space (Lovecraft, 16.)
To begin, Lovecraft was a self-proclaimed radical materialist (Hanegraff, 6.) This view confronts the nature of his texts that allude to his grimoire, Necronomicon. Though the creation of such a historic reference tool was directly fictional, some scholars, as well as some devoted readers, interpreted Lovecraft’s mythos as an autonomous entity. Which, according to critic Carol Matthews, would cause Lovecraft to feel “disappointed in the outcome of his stories and the way people have received them” (Matthews, 3.) Currently, Lovecraftian horror inspires screenplays (The Endless, 2017 and Prometheus, 2012), tarot card games, Cthulhu merchandise, graphic novels, and spiritual practices.
Writer, Adam Kozaczka, analyzed Alan Moore’s Cthulhu-inspired graphic novel, Necronomicon. Kozaczkza’s analysis of the vivid sexual violence portrayed in Moore’s comic suggests the “stories of the Cthulhu Mythos are inherently sexual, but that this is obscured by a repressed author who instead channels his unnamable thoughts to unnamable things that populate his fictional universe” (Kozaczka, 1.) I find this to be an excuse to justify Moore’s embarrassing interpretation of Lovecraft’s work. Although there’s a broadly shared agreement on Lovecraft’s asexuality and his outward repulsion to sexuality, his stories are too far departed from the domestic comforts of sex and relationships to imply such heavy undertones. Murphy’s utopic observations of “At the Mountains of Madness” mention alien civilizations that feature “asexual reproduction and the absence of gendered family structures” (Murphy, 26.)
Scholar, Vivian Ralickas, notes similarly, “the mechanistic materialist foundation of Lovecraft's cosmic indifferentism is evident in both his rejection of teleology and the idea of a divinity it implies as well as in his pronouncements on free will as a product of our (idealist) delusions” (Ralickas, 3.) Another scholar, David McWilliam, agrees that Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and other stories focus on scientific advances which “do not offer the prospect of a progressive future but risk revealing our insignificance and powerlessness” (McWilliam, 1.)
As a result, I coincide with McWilliam and Ralickas on the subject matter of Lovecraftian horror as an appreciation of the terror of truth and loneliness which mean the same thing in some arguments. Writer, Wouter Hanegraaff, proposes the “beyond” has nothing to do with morality or a sense of right and wrong, rather it is a “material reality” where something much worse lurks (Hanegraaff, 89.) In “The Rats in the Walls”, this concept is demonstrated when Delapore cannot confront the horror of the “inky, boundless, farther distance” and is left to speculate the “greater horrors” beyond what he had ever known which leads to his insanity (Lovecraft, 19.) Mark Lowell in “Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos” surmises the truth Lovecraft cautions in his stories as synonymous to self-destruction, that “the sheer horror of realizing that one is a flea on the back of creation, wholly irrelevant, beneath the notice of the greater forces that populate the universe, is what evokes fear in the narrator and the reader” (Lowell, 49.)
John Engle made closer observations on the responses to Lovecraftian horror, specifically his extensive grimoire, Necronomicon. Engle gathers distinct reactions to what I call a “horror bible”. This fragmented reaction is due to what Engle believes was the death of Aleister Crowley, who leads his own occult known as the Ordo Templi Orientis (Engle, 5.) Lovecraftian ideas seeped from these subdivisions of occults and practices. The first group associates with belief systems that are practiced meditatively. Even though the totemic Necronomicon is fictitious, this does not impede the enthusiasm of such practices. Engle quotes from high priest of the Church of Satan, Peter Gilmore, “Satanists understand that any prop is sufficiently stimulating can be used in personal ritual” (Ibid.) The second major use of Lovecraft’s resource was the “ritual language” which was adapted into Crowley’s Book of Law. The third group is most associated with the Church of Satan “specifically the adherent of Michael Aquino” who adapted Lovecraft’s “Ceremony of the Nine Angles” (Ibid, 9.) More specifically, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, its name inspired by “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, operates their satanic rituals online where their leader, Paul Remi Provost, states Lovecraft’s stories and novels “contain hidden meanings and magical formulae unknown even to their creator” (Ibid.) The divination of Lovecraft’s texts Engle justifies by maintaining that Lovecraft’s inferiority complex withheld him from a “rational, skeptical view of the universe” which prompted his preoccupation for describing terrifying creatures rather than confronting the haunting origins of his cosmically strange dreams (Ibid, 12.)
Of course, I find this again to be a fetishizing of a writer’s intense creativity. Matthews voices this well by identifying Lovecraft’s use of geomancy, occult celebrations, the sublimity of time, and astrology to be literary devices (Matthews, 12.) This would imply Lovecraft’s inventive use of dream divination as an aesthetic rather than a spiritual meditation. In “The Rats in the Walls” Lovecraft explores architecture and its effect on the psychological state of the reader. His combinations of various cultures (Roman, Saxon, English) and his hauntingly overused word “Cyclopean” was to assign emotional isolation with detail that falls short of any relief. When the protagonist of “The Rats in the Walls”, Delapore, discovers this underworld of nebulousness and degeneration, he describes it as “a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away farther than any eye could see, a subterraneous world of limitless mystery of horrible suggestion” (Lovecraft, 16.) Matthews believes this architectural device was inspired by Lovecraft’s interests in Feng Shui and his reading of Arabian Nights (Matthews, 9.) This observation solidifies Matthews’s argument of Lovecraft’s use of literary devices.
However, Murphy and Ralickas consider Lovecraft’s use of the sublime to be more than just a method, but as a critique on human civilization and Christianity. Murphy, specifically addresses Lovecraft’s distorted ethics due to his upbringing and his belief in superior races. Inspired by critic, S. T. Joshi, Murphy also dares to suggest that Lovecraft’s dystopian themes have utopic origins and features. This argument is suggested from Murphy’s reading of “At the Mountains of Madness”. The Old Ones reflect a “eugenic origin” that nods toward utopic assertions. In the story their superiority causes them to unintentionally create something “more sophisticated than themselves” by genetically engineering a slave species, the Shoggoths, thus leading to their demise (Murphy, 22.) This ominous prophecy of the cultural threat of inferior races which spur counternarratives echoes Lovecraft’s beliefs and the vices of American eugenicist, Madison Grant, in racial superiority, specifically the “Nordics and Teutons” (Ibid, 24.)
Whereas, Ralickas also finds Lovecraft’s fiction as a revealing of the “false foundations of Christian humanism” and the “Western subject’s misplaced faith in its moral values” (Ralickas, 6.) Lovecraft’s fiction is meant to underscore the importance of our planet, revoke a human privilege, and deny self-asserted intelligence (Ibid.) Both Murphy and Ralickas acknowledge the horror of Lovecraft’s truth, although their opinions deviate from the views of civilization. I support their concept of absent morality in Lovecraftian horror and believe it’s essential to realize when reading his stories and novels.
From In Defense of Dagon, Lovecraft himself declares his writing is an aesthetic choice (Lovecraft, 14.) Again, Mathews voices my support for Lovecraft’s defense for “his work clearly displays ambivalence towards divination in general” (Matthews, 5.) Though his residence in the northern U.S. and upbringing in the early 20th century are reflected in his ethics, Lovecraft’s anxiety for racial disintegration was largely shared. His own home state-approved marriage restriction laws as an “act of indirect sterilization” (Murphy, 24.) The argument on his support for negative eugenics to be a casual dismissiveness to inferior races falls short because it was nothing radical or worthy of scrutiny at the time. Ironically, this denial of morality (good vs. evil) has been noted in history as early as the 12th-13th century. A doctrine known as Sefirot, refuted the contrast of good and evil and theorized seven contrasts in nature which served as a premise for Sefer Yezirah (Book of Creation and earliest known book of Jewish esotericism). One of these contrasts includes lordship and servitude, suggesting that humankind (how Lovecraft perceived) survived on the principle of inferiority and superiority. Writer, James Kneale, concludes that Lovecraft’s “horrific extraterrestrial entities were not evil because this implies a human morality” (Kneale, 5.)
Hanegraaff offers a simpler notion on Lovecraft’s ‘criticism’ of humanity by observing his recurring character, Randolph Carter. Hanegraaff finds Carter to be used as an extension of Lovecraft’s alter ego. Which would explain this character’s frequent encounters with the enchanting world of dream and the world of reality. This dualism experienced by this protagonist invites a version of bildungsroman. There is a process of “growing up” which is “described as a painful process of disenchantment” (Hanegraaff, 8.) Randolph Carter draws closer assumptions of Lovecraft’s worldview: that “there is no difference betwixt those born of inward dreams, and no cause to value the one above the other” (Ibid.)
Ultimately, Lovecraft’s use of fiction is only in practice and in exploration. There’s no finality in the conclusions Lovecraft draws that deserve fetishized reactions. When taken at such a serious level, Lovecraft’s stories lose purpose and underscores the craftmanship and the imaginative worlds they hold. The conversation between the previously mentioned scholars prompts some skepticism of Lovecraft’s intentions and the narrative of all of his works, given that much of his publishing occurred posthumously. Murphy appeals to Lovecraft’s ethics and his texts that highlight utopic societies that cannot exist without a superior race. While Matthews, on the other side of the conversation, states that Lovecraftian horror is meant to remain in a school of fiction rather than a societal one, concluding that the stories of Lovecraft are inspirational texts and are meant to be read for purposes of exploration.
Engle, John (2014) "Cults of Lovecraft: The Impact of H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction on Contemporary Occult Practices," Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature: Vol. 33: No. 1, Article 6. https://dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/vol33/iss1/6
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “Fiction in the Desert of the Real: Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.” Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, pp. 85–109. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2014394850&scope=site.
Kneale, James. “From Beyond: H. P. Lovecraft and the Place of Horror.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 106–126. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2014394857&scope=site.
Kozaczka, Adam. “H. P. Lovecraft, Too Much Sex, and Not Enough: Alan Moore’s Playfully Repressive Hypothesis.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 26, no. 3, 2015, pp. 489–511. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017394919&scope=site.
Lowell, Mark. “Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos.’” Explicator, vol. 63, no. 1, 2004, pp. 47–50. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2004581741&scope=site.search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2008394993&scope=site.
Lovecraft, H.P. The Defense of Dagon, 1921, http://www.hplovecraft.hu/print.php?type=etexts&id=624&lang=angol accessed 27 April, 2019.
Lovecraft, H.P. “The Rats in the Walls.” Blood Curdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, The Random House Publishing Group, 1963, Print.
Matthews, Carol S. “Letting Sleeping Abnormalities Lie: Lovecraft and the Futility of Divination.” Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature, vol. 36, no. 2 , 2018, pp. 165–184. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2018396116&scope=site.
McWilliam, David. “Beyond the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror and Posthuman Creationism in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012).” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 26, no. 3, 2015, pp. 531–545. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017394921&scope=site.
Murphy, Timothy S. “Physiology Is Destiny: The Fate of Eugenic Utopia in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon.” Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, vol. 29, no. 1, 2018, pp. 21–43. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2018302804&scope=site.
Ralickas, Vivian. “‘Cosmic Horror’ and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 18, no. 3 , 2007, pp. 364–398. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2008394993&scope=site.