Lovecraft and me, we go way back.
Both from Providence, both fantasy writers. Growing up in Rhode Island, I liked the kinship. Granted, there were differences. He was world-famous; I was a scribbling unpublished wannabe. Slight gap in age: I discovered him at twelve, by which point he was some thirty years dead.
Nonetheless a kinship: I haunted his haunts. By bike to College Hill and the Athenaeum, the Greek-columned old library where he once roamed the stacks. Over to cobblestoned Benefit Street, site of the “Shunned House” he peopled with wraiths. Then on to the campus of Brown University. There, “in a grassy court off College Street,” he situated the upper-floor apartment of one Robert Blake, a young sensitive-souled artist who probed just a bit too deep in seeking to contact the “Haunter of the Dark.” Which led to the discovery of—but why spoil the tale?
So, Lovecraft and me: pals, you could say. Which influenced my choices when I browsed for things to read in the magazine section by the soda-fountain counter at the Hoxsie Four Corners drugstore. Among the comic books, titles like Tales to Astonish. On the paperback rack, Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy epics with Frank Frazetta pulp-action covers: tiger-striped behemoth, mouthful of fangs, squares off against shapely cave-girl with knife. But amidst these temptations, a Lovecraft anthology full of stories with names like The Rats in the Walls. Which to choose? Lovecraft I knew, so I went with my pal. I went with the rats.
Yes: back then that story was one of my faves. Wealthy man buys a crumbling old English castle named Exham Priory, spends mega-bucks fixing it up. He’s warned of fearsome legends that come with the castle but pays no heed. He bricks up punched-out walls and purchases pricey furnishings and he paints and refurbishes and drapes sumptuous hangings everywhere. All that effort gives him a good feeling: legends are banished, things under control.
And they are, for all of a night or two. But then come rustlings and scurryings from behind the freshly painted and bricked-up walls. Before long, a chomp-chomp swarming of rodent teeth chews through the barriers the rich man has thrown up to fend off the shadow-side of tidy life.
Consumed by a mad hunger to know (the same hunger that kept me turning pages at twelve), he grabs an electric torch and follows the rat-swarm. It leads him down, ever down. He scrabbles through vertical tunnel-shaft pits, claws past increasingly ancient habitation-strata. He recognizes some: Gothic, Saxon, Roman, Druidic. (Another teen passion of mine—still with me today—was archaeology, so I loved touches like that.)
Finally he’s led to a cavern beneath the nethermost foundation of his castle. And what does he find? Lovecraft grants him (and us) only one glimpse: mounds of gnawed bones; a howling “faceless god” named Nyarlathotep; and crazed flute-players who pipe tunes that make the rats dance. And that’s all we get. Our hero’s flashlight gives out; his sanity explodes; and he awakens back in our daylight world, but confined to a padded asylum-cell.
To make sense of such stuff it helps to know Nyarlathotep is a deity in a cosmic schema that forms the backdrop to many Lovecraftian tales. In some stories Lovecraft barely alludes to this framework; in others it’s itemized in a blood-lurid glow. Details vary from story to story but the outline goes like this. Unknown to most of us, monstrous extraterrestrial beings (sometimes called gods, otherwise referred to as the Great Old Ones) once ruled our earth before humans arose from quasi-ape status. Banished by some cataclysm, they still lurk at the margins of today’s civilized world. Ancestral memories of all this linger dimly within the minds of us humans. These extraterrestrials (their high priest is named Cthulhu, so sometimes Lovecraft’s cosmology is labeled the Cthulhu Cult or Cthulhu Mythos) await their chance to re-enter our realm and claim global suzerainty once more.
But to break through the sealed space-time portals walling them from us, they need human quislings to open the gates. The devotees re-enact “ancient rites” to enable the breakthrough: limb-ripping bodily mutilation, cannibalism, human sacrifice, child enslavement (a feast for paranoid sensibilities worthy of QAnon).
And here’s where Lovecraft’s notorious race-hatreds leave their mark. He prided himself on being a purebred Yankee of old New England stock; and he feared “dilution” of Anglo-Saxon bloodlines by foreigners who weren’t Aryan-Nordic. In several stories he characterized the human-betraying Cthulhu collaborators as “mixed-blooded,” “foreign mongrels,” or “half-castes and pariahs.” (He had a terror of miscegenation). Blacks, dark-skinned Portuguese, Arabs, Kurds, “Asian dregs”: all these he characterized as villains in league with outer-space aliens. (The most racist of such tales is one from 1925 called The Horror at Red Hook, which—mercifully—I didn’t discover till much later in my life.)
Lovecraft’s legacy today is—to put it mildly—complex. On the one hand, since the 1920s he’s influenced generations of sci-fi/fantasy authors: Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Conan the Barbarian-creator Robert E. Howard, to name a few. For years the prestigious World Fantasy Award (awarded annually to outstanding writers in the field) featured an award statuette in the shape of a portrait bust featuring none other than Lovecraft. In July 2020 the “Retro Hugo” award—presented in memory of fantasy authors from the 1930s through the ‘60s—featured Lovecraft as an honoree.
On the other hand—unsurprisingly, in our age of cancel culture—there’s lately been a lot of anti-Lovecraft pushback. A few years ago the World Fantasy trophy was changed so winners no longer receive a bust of the Cthulhu magus. An article from August 2020 objecting to the recent Retro Hugo honoree is entitled “Stop Giving Awards to Dead Racists.” And this summer’s HBO series Lovecraft Country puts the Providence writer’s racial obsessions front and center.
It’s important that such issues be addressed. But as a lifelong Catholic I want to take the critique of Lovecraft a step further by viewing his work through the lens of theology. Defenders of the Cthulhu-master might deride such attempts by noting he was a militant atheist. That’s accurate enough, but we can offer a forceful riposte: Lovecraft’s narratives, like horror fiction in general, are motivated by the promise of revelation—an unveiling of the true nature of the world, a nature normally hidden behind appearances. Such writing is instinctively religious, in that it holds out the hope of transcendence, of transporting the reader beyond the distractions and obscurities of day-to-day existence that prevent a clear glimpse of the Reality glimmering just beyond reach. (I confess here that as a teen I liked my transcendence delivered with a pow, a big action-comic punch; so when I wasn’t immersed in Lovecraft, I’d turn to the likes of the aforementioned Tales to Astonish.)
Reading Lovecraftian horror is cathartic but ultimately unsatisfying. It’s cathartic because it offers the sensation of finally peering behind the veil to glimpse the Transcendent; but it’s unsatisfying because his Transcendent is implacably hostile and uncaring.
But if in fact his writing can meaningfully be called religious, to which denomination did he belong? What name can we give his faith? I’d say Lovecraft qualifies for the label of Gnostic.
Gnosticism refers first and foremost to an ancient heresy of the first several centuries AD that vehemently opposed Christian doctrine. The term comes from the Greek word gnosis (“knowledge”), but the knowledge in question is an esotericist illumination reserved for a select spiritual elite. Gnostic illuminati taught that our earth is radically evil and characterized by suffering because its divine overlords are deities who are brutal and bad. Gnostics laughed to scorn the idea of a loving Creator God. They made no attempt to heal life’s many ills. Instead, the illuminated elite disdained the spiritually unlearned masses and withdrew into enclaves to avoid contamination by the world.
The German philosopher Hans Jonas in his treatise The Gnostic Religion made a comment that I think we can apply to our Providence horror-man. Jonas remarked that Gnosticism isn’t simply a two-thousand-year-old historical phenomenon that vanished long ago. Instead it can be thought of as a temptation that recurs throughout history as an expression of spiritual crisis in a specific Zeitgeist.
The crisis that beset Lovecraft’s lifetime (he lived from 1890 to 1937)—as it still does ours—is modernity and its attendant phenomena: industrialization; globalization; mobility and urban anonymity; the disintegration of once-solid social structures and hierarchies. The pedigreed aesthete Lovecraft, who prided himself on his New England ancestry, saw his Rhode Island transformed. Waves of immigrants arrived to take jobs in the newly built Providence factories that fed the twentieth-century age of mass-market manufacturing. Life was no longer the same.
His response can be sensed in the stories he wrote. Here’s a typical plotline. The hero is a spiritually attuned individual, a pursuer of solitary activities, whether as a scholar or a painter or reclusive antiquarian. (In The Call of Cthulhu we’re introduced to one Henry Anthony Wilcox, a young eccentric sculptor described as “psychically hypersensitive.”) Our protagonist perceives a clue that points to a Reality utterly at odds with the placid surface of life as known by the ignorant majority. The clue may come in the form of a dream-vision, a suddenly discovered manuscript, or a glimpse of strange activities in some shuttered Catholic church. (Lovecraft showed little liking for the Catholic faith.) Pursuing the clue takes the hero to remote locales, often underground. (Lots of crypts and tunnels in these tales.) If there are guardians of such sites, they may be voodoo-priests or unsavory strangers belonging to assorted dark-complected ethnicities. The quest concludes when our investigator stumbles upon some savage ritual in which stupefied victims are fed to an open-mawed tentacled god from outer space. The quester escapes but is locked away alone with his knowledge—knowledge of the world’s true unholy order—of which the masses remain blissfully unaware.
Two types of aliens spooked Lovecraft: boatloads of foreigners washing up in Providence from overseas, and Cthulhu-grotesques emerging from far galaxies through cosmic gates. He fused the two fears in stories such as The Horror at Red Hook. He saw the universe as lacking any animating spirit of compassion. In a world as cold as this he had little regard to spare for people he deemed different from himself.
To say the Lovecraftian ethos is unchristian is—as you’ve gathered by now—an understatement. Of human companionship and fellow-feeling there’s scarcely a trace. His Gnostic heroes take their consolations from aesthetic tinctures of despair. His gods are monstrosities that casually rend human acolytes limb from limb.
How different from a God who saw the world He made as good, who loved it so much He gave it His only Son—a Son who took the form of man so as to experience life’s sufferings in loving solidarity with all created beings. Our consolation as Christians is knowing that even as we suffer—as Saint Paul so piercingly reminds us—we are crucified alongside Christ.
So if you know any twelve-year-olds with a taste for fantasy, I’d say hold off on handing them H. P. Lovecraft. Try something else. Maybe Edgar Rice Burroughs. Or even Tales to Astonish.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!