H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” Part 2: The Burden of the Past

In my last post on H.P. Lovecraft, I was beginning an exploration of the nature of Lovecraft’s conservatism, which seems to be based on a fundamental mistrust of the Enlightenment project, particularly its Promethean potentialities. Fear of knowledge, the failure of science, the limitations of the senses and the total inability of humans to explain, describe, or conceive of anything outside of our own local environment is the heart of Lovecraft’s xenophobia. Not only does Lovecraft seem to be wrong about this. Scientists have done a wonderful job describing reality even at the hitherto inconceivable quantum level. Anthropologists work hard understanding different cultures. Everyday historians expand our knowledge of the past. And every child or every revolutionary worth listening to has dreamed up completely different potential futures. Lovecraft’s approach is not only empirically wrong, but it is also cowardly–suggesting an approach to the world as fearful as his trapped and paralyzed characters.


For today, I read three stories (“Pickman’s Model,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror”) and the novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. We see much more of this theme of the failure of science throughout these four works.  In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the failure is in the ability of psychology to explain a mental illness.  In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteorite, which brought an alien force to a Massachusetts farm is studied by scientists in a lab.  Of course, scientific methodologies fail utterly. “It had acted quite unbelievably in that well-ordered laboratory; doing nothing at all and shewing no occuluded gases when heated on charcoal, being wholly negative in the borax bead, and soon proving itself absolutely non-volatile at any producible temperature, including that of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe.” (344) It is made of an unknown substance. Scientists think it might be a new element, but in defiance of their experiments, the meteorite dissolves into the air.  Even the colors associated with the meteorite are outside of the normal visible range. As always, it is in ancient books by mad Arabs, like the Necronomicon that have true explanatory power.


I am not suggesting that there are no legitimate critiques of technology and science–or even the Enlightenment project as a whole. On this point, I am probably closest to Murray Bookchin or Kropotkin in desired a human-scaled technology that is serving human interests and at the same time functioning at the human level (avoiding Mumford’s “The Machine”).  Lovecraft is going far from a challenge to misuses of science and technology.  He wants to say that science is incapable of even understanding the totality of the world. A comparison with Philip K. Dick may be apt. Both Lovecraft and Dick were skeptical about technology and both considered the threat of malevolent external forces. While Dick’s threats were clear and explicable (a powerful state, a technological regime, a sociopathtic android, a corporation), Lovecraft’s are unknowable. While Dick’s fears of technological systems led him to argue for human-scaled production and the dignity of work, Lovecraft rejects all knowledge, being skeptical that any craft can aid humans.  Perhaps we can see Dick as gnostic and Lovecraft as agnostic.  While Dick’s approach to the unknown seems to require us to understand and expose it, Lovecraft keeps us huddling in fear. Like the town in “The Colour Out of Space” that ignores the cursed field, we are best off not even trying to explain the horrors of our world.

Another dimension to Lovecraft’s conservatism is the heavy role of the past in shaping our lives.  The artist Pickman, in “Pickman’s Model” has no choice but to paint images of the horrors he sees in his studio. It is not clear why he could not just walk away from the madness-inducing horrors. Other, however, are burdened by family and the past.  Often families have deep connections to the cults that worship the alien gods that make up Lovecraft’s mythos.  A child born into such a family has no more chance of escaping this family history than he does his DNA. Regional and local histories play a similar role.  Now, Lovecraft must have known that this is nonsense. People leave their home towns, their family burdens, and the religion of their parents all of the time. Lovecraft even spent much of the mid-20s (the time these four stories were written) in New York City, living for the first time away from his home region.

This type of generational tyranny is one of the major themes of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror,” but it come up in Pickman’s explanation of his art. “You call the Salem witchcraft a delusion, but I’ll wage my four-times-great-grandmother could have told you things. They hanged her on Gallows Hill, with Cotton Mather looking sanctimoniously on.” (200) A page later he explains in pejorative terms how new immigrants cannot understand such things. Only those natives who have the deep roots to the past carry that burden and impotence over their future.  In “The Dunwich Horror” Wilbur Whateley is actually the son of a demon (which explained his precocious development).  Joseph Curwen, from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, traced his lineage back to the Salem of the witch trials as well, which had no small role in his sacrifices and intellectual curiosities.

As with technology, I do not want to throw history or family out entirely. Free people can certainty find happiness and meaning through participation in their family. Raising children (as Lynd Ward might have said) is a Promethean act.  However, what Lovecraft’s mythos (or the little I have read of it so far) gives us families and regional histories that exist only as inescapable chains.  If someone in the 20th century cannot escape the legacy of the Salem witch trials, it is hard to see how they can live a free life.  Of course, if we lived in a world that follows Lovecraft’s rules we would have little need for such liberty.

What does the contemporary popularity of Lovecraft’s vision tell us about the rampant fatalism of late capitalist culture? Is it working as part of “capitalist realism,” convincing us that there is no alternative to our bleak and insignificant lives?