August 20, 1890: Birthday of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, creator of unmentionable ancient horror gods who haunt small New England towns.
H.P. Lovecraft was not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination – or was he?
Lovecraft invented such colourful figures as the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, the author of the magic textbook ‘Necronomicon.’ He created a whole universe of gods, the “Old Ones,” who live in the mythical city of R’lyeh:
They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. (The Call of Cthulhu, 1926).
Lovecraft’s fiction is sometimes delightful, sometimes a bit simplistic in its technique of creating most of its effect through adjectives. This works surprisingly well for short stretches, but soon becomes tedious, since there is often little description beyond the adjectives themselves to give weight to the feelings of horror that the adjectives are supposed to evoke. Here’s a typical passage. Just look at the adjectives and how much of the emotion they have to carry:
In the lone silence of that hoary and deserted city of the dead, my mind conceived the most ghastly phantasies and illusions; and the grotesque shrines and monoliths seemed to assume a hideous personality—a half-sentience. Amorphous shadows seemed to lurk in the darker recesses of the weed-choked hollow and to flit as in some blasphemous ceremonial procession past the portals of the mouldering tombs in the hillside; shadows which could not have been cast by that pallid, peering crescent moon. I constantly consulted my watch by the light of my electric lantern, and listened with feverish anxiety at the receiver of the telephone; but for more than a quarter of an hour heard nothing. Then a faint clicking came from the instrument, and I called down to my friend in a tense voice. (The Statement of Randolph Carter).
Lovecraft invented such colourful figures as the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, the author of the magic textbook Necronomicon.
So, is Lovecraft a philosopher? If so, what could be called his philosophy?
For one, Lovecraft reminds us (and in this he is not so far removed from Tillich!) that the alien, when we finally meet it, will be truly alien to us. Unlike most of the aliens in Star Trek, who are different from humans mainly in fashion and hairdo, Lovecraft’s aliens are incomprehensible, wild, uncaring gods, as close and fatherly to us as we must appear to an ant or a spider. This alienation continues into the world of the human protagonists, who are confronted with it in the most mundane of everyday contexts: behind every cupboard door could be a gateway to an alien galaxy, or to the lair of a god. In this sense, Lovecraft’s characters experience the world in a constant sense of alienation and dread. They are confronted at every turn by an uncaring, cruel, meaningless universe, not much unlike the universe in some of the works of existentialist philosophy and literature. Whatever meaning humans can create in the universe, Lovecraft seems to say, they have to put there themselves, though their emotions, their passions, their actions. Because the universe, at its core, is a foreign, dark place, filled with forces that we cannot ever comprehend.
Like chocolate bunnies, Lovecraft is a pleasure most people won’t admit to. But in the secret world of one’s bedside reading, by the faint light of the mobile’s screen, there’s nothing to keep the ancient gods at bay: Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, and the non-Euclidian angles of those menacing bedroom walls. If you’d like to give Lovecraft a try, all his stories are online here:
Here is one of many collections of Lovecraft’s stories, in case you’d like to read them more comfortably than on your phone. Please note that this is an affiliate link. If you buy through it, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!