H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” (Conclusions)

I have just finished up with the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. While I have read some of his stories previously, I never read through his major stories systematically before.  Five stories wrapped up the volume. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a young student who visits the Massachusetts town of Innsmouth to discover a cult worshiping Dagon, and worse a population of half-fish people. In the end he decides to embrace his family legacy and embrace a transformation into one of those creatures. “The Dreams of the Witch House” connects the Cthulhu mythos to new developments in uncertainty in math and science at the turn of the last century. In this story, a math student investigates the Arkham “Witch House” and learns of its role as a portal. It is particularly interesting for its use of mathematics as a device of horror and the unknown. The student ends up a sacrifice victim of yet another cult to the Elder gods.  “The Thing on the Doorstep” tells the story of the killing of an aparently insane man, who was able to reside in other people’s bodies and even corpses. “The Shadow Out of Time” is about the “Great Race” of aliens who visit Earth through body possessions. Finally, “The Haunter of the Dark” is notable as the only story in the collection with Nyarlathotep as an antagonist.

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I avoided reading Lovecraft in my youth, despite an almost total mastery of his works by a fair number of my close friends. I knew the name early enough and he may even be the first American writer I knew by name (saving for children’s writers, of course). Of course, I knew of his works my osmosis and by the massive cultural influence he had. Lovecraft’s works have inspired writings that far surpass in quantity his original works. (Can anyone show me an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Herman Melville?) He has also inspired board games, role playing games, music, a “NecronomiCon,” and more B-films than most of us would want to watch. As I was considering before, there is something odd about this popularity considering the values of the American people, focusing on progress, freedom, personal autonomy, equality (and let’s not forget Christianity). If we look at some of the major components of Lovecraft’s writings we can see that they seem to run at odds with these values. In other words, Lovecraft is perhaps not what Tocqueville would have predicted to be one of the most important cultural artifacts of a democracy.

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1. Cargo Cult religions pop up all over the world based on the worship of indifferent, powerful, aliens.
2. Science fails to explain the world.
3. Fear is the primary emotion of humanity.
4. Knowledge should be feared and the curious are punished.
5. The senses are incapable of describing most of the universe.

So what can we make of this?

I am wondering now if Lovecraft’s popularity and cultural influence is akin to the rise of religious fundamentalism or new religious movements in this country. (I cannot speak to Lovecraft’s popularity outside of the English-speaking world. He is certainly mostly unknown in Taiwan.) Perhaps we can return to Lovecraft’s conservatism for an answer to this. The core of his conservatism seems to be directed at the consequences of industrialization: the city, immigration, manufacturing.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a small town is literally left behind by the rest of the world.  What was once a vibrant merchant town because a marginalized fishing town, just barely scraping by.  That trope shows up in other stories as well, showing the entire communities left behind by progress and modernity.  Innsmouth was actually once quite a cosmopolitan place, with many Pacific Islanders living there as a byproduct of New England’s place in Pacific trade. When being left behind, what did Innsmouth turn to but the “Esoteric Order o’ Dagon.” Is this not a reading of late capitalist America.  Never fully industrialized (it is far too big for that), with huge sections of the country filled with truck stop towns, old mining villages, and rust belt cities, America has been hit hard by global capitalism’s tendency to bypass the areas that are not of immediate value. Facing the uncertainty of liquid modernity, people turned to fatalism of the unknown (comforting themselves that it is unknowable), new religions or revived old faiths.  In this sense, maybe we can identify and describe the malevolent external horrors that so terrified Lovecraft and his characters.  Perhaps it is in an embrace of the religious realm that many of us were capable of understanding a world that really is indifferent to us.

I still think that unknowability is politically vapid and works to confine us and makes excuses for inaction, I do think its popularity is at least explicable.

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H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness”: The Case for Unlocking the Necronomicon

Continuing my study of the collected stories of H. P. Lovecraft, I read two long stories, both produced around 1930: “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” In that last two posts, I critiqued Lovecraft from the Promethean perspective of the Enlightenment.  It seems to me that Lovecraft’s suspicions about science, his tendency to punish people for opening forbidden books or exploring forbidden knowledge, and the often-used plot device where a character recommends that everything is done to avoid revising a strange phenomenon (rather than exploring it in more detail) all are informed by his deep political conservatism, his xenophobia, and his fear of modernity. What I have not confessed is that I very much enjoyed reading his stories, even as I find their moral or political perspective troubling.  I certainly do not think all work needs to necessarily assume a projectoral life. But at the same time, I think Lovecraft’s writings come from an all too common and very unfortunate perspective on the world, based on fear (the most primal emotion according to Lovecraft) and cowardice.  Most of his stories are based on investigation of an unknown phenomenon, but almost always end with an attempt to seal the truth because the truth simply cannot be understood by human senses or experiences (describable). Like the Necronomicon, locked behind the desk at the Miskatonic University Library, the indifferent alien forces that surround us are best unknown. In short, my perspective was that the “Unknowable Horror” is a very weak and passive position to take through life and generally not suitable to free and creative people.  However, I am not realizing that this not an entirely fair way to read Lovecraft. We should start, not from a commitment to the Enlightenment project, but instead by starting with the reality of the unknowable.

Lovecraft is embracing a not uncommon modernist critique of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, progress, and equality. Any rightwing politics he embraced derived from this, but it is not a unique perspective. This skepticism of the Enlightenment is deep in the DNA of modernist thought, science, literature, and art.  We can assume the worst and imagine that the senses fail us, that human progress is not possible or at least not very likely, that science can never explain the world enough to provide any security, and that the many enemies we face in life are ultimately unknowable. We can also just assume, with Lovecraft, that there are forces out there that look upon us with the indifference that we look at ants.  This does not actually take long to justify. A lab rat in a maze, certainly cannot conceive of the reasons he is being tormented, or even the ultimate purpose of the insane experiments we inflict on him.  And it takes a profound human arrogance to assume that we share any emotions, perspectives, or understanding with the rat.  This is not a random example because the plot of At the Mountains of Madness is based on aliens living in Antarctica, experimenting on the human explorers who discover their presence. If we can accept that the rat faced unknowable things, it is also arrogant to assume we would never face it ourselves.  So my question is: assuming that human reason has limits, what is the proper path of life?

Another way of stating this would be to ponder if the existence of the unknowable would suggest an abandonment of our inquisition of the world. Should we be like the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness and vow never to approach that unknowable again, better to lock it up with the Necronomicon?  I could point out that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories have at their center an investigator (often as narrator). In “The Whisperer in the Darkness” it is an investigator searching out the reality behind rumors of inhuman and unknown creatures in Vermont. In At the Mountains of Madness, the investigators are a team studying fossils in the Antarctic. Even if our conclusion of the tales we read is that the people would be better off not investigating the horrors, Lovecraft still cannot help but celebrate the investigator. They also always tend to move themsleves closer and closer to the horror before deciding that caution is essential.  Their curiosity about the unknown (reflected of course in Lovecraft himself in creating his myths) is quite admirable and perhaps a lesson about our proper orientation to any limitations we face as somewhat evolved apes.  Is Lovecraft telling us to push to the very limit of understanding?

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Our real danger is not our tendency to reach this limit of knowledge. Instead, we are mostly threatened by the cowardice or laziness coming in too soon.  Too often we accept the reality of unknowable or indescribable threats, evils, or dangers (think “terrorism” or “capitalism” or “the government”) and often fail to even pursue an analysis.  Like Lovecraft’s characters, perhaps we should err on the side of knowability and touch that limit even at the risk of facing the “unknowable horrors.”  And like Wilbur Whately did when he demanded that Miskatonic University allow him to read the Necronomicon, we should demand that at the very least our rulers open their books to our gaze.

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.

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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.

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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?

H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

Ambrose Bierce, “Can Such Things Be?” (1910): Ghosts, Death, and the Unfamiliar in Gilded Age America

Can Such Things Be? is a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, first collected in 1893, but not in their final form until 1910 as a volume of Bierce’s collected works.  It is divided into roughly two parts.  The first part is 24 short stories and the second part is 18 journalist vignettes (which Bierce presents as objective happenings, not as fiction).  Bierce places the uncanny and the supernatural in the conflict between reason and the unknown of the later 19th century.  On the one hand, there was a strong belief in the victory of reason and progress over the natural and the unknown.    On the other hand, as with all developing capitalist societies the solid and the known (that is those things understood by tradition and community) were torn asunder with a never ending barrage of new ideas, new commodities, and new people (via migrations).  While I suspect most communities have had their local traditions of the uncanny, the mysterious, and the supernatural (much like every town must have a haunted house), in an era of rapid change and growing liquidity those  “known unknowns” (e.g. the haunted house every knows to avoid) become “unknown unknowns,” a much more horrifying prospect.

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These stories are alive with wanderers, migrants, and immigrants.  In the opening story, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” the title character is someone who voluntarily rejected his wealth and privileges and pursued a life as a vagabond.  When confronted with a supernatural experience he learned a weakness of being a vagabond.  The locals understood exactly the meaning of the name he shouted out before encountering a ghost.  A similar, although less deadly, fate met the narrator of “The Secret of Macarger’s Glutch.”  Here again, the local folklore was unknown to him being a liquid wanderer.  In two of the stories, Chinese immigrants bring in their own supernatural traditions that merge with the American folklore.

As in In the Midst of Life, we find Bierce plagued with the failure of marriage.  Numerous ghosts in these stories emerged from fateful domestic quarrels.  We can wonder if this is another byproduct of the capitalist displacement of expected social arrangements.

Another powerful theme, and one that will be revisited by Lovecraft in great detail, is the dilemma of knowledge.  The rapid expansion of scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth century posed a challenge to religious beliefs.  However, the survival of the uncanny requires us to ponder a reasonable explanation to the unexplainable.  In “A Diagnosis of Death” a young man witnesses what he thinks is the ghost of Dr. Mannering.  As it turns out he saw him later on the street.  This story, when told, horrified his audience who know that Mannering had been dead for a few years.  In Moxom’s Master, we see an early transhumanist argument about the mechanical foundation of life.  This sets up a conflict between an artificial intelligence and its creator.  In the most bizarre example of this (“A Tough Tussle”), a Civil War officer sees a Confederate rise from the death.  Most of the story involves the officer thinking about the naturalistic and historical reasons humans fear corpses.  He is unable to believe his own eyes until it is too late and he is killed by this walking dead man.  Characters throughout the stories grasp for naturalistic and scientific explanations for what they see.  The horror comes in the failure of science to rationalize what they see.

One story pokes fun at the late 19th century American work ethic.  In “A Jug of Sirup”, Silas Deemer, a local shop owner, dies.  His ghost returns and begins selling from the same store, unable to break free from his obligations to his business, which is life he rarely left unattended.  It is not revenge that keeps him on Earth, it is the dreadful work ethic.

As a liquid world continues to melt all that is solid into air, millions turn to the comparative stability of religious superstition, New Ageism, or occult beliefs.  These are not throwbacks to ancient Earth-based traditions, they are desperate striving for stability.  I am not sure how much of this Bierce was conscious of.  He was simply telling ghost stories, set in the changing world of industrializing America.  The uncanny is able to exploit our vulnerabilities as we encounter dramatic change.  In this sense, Bierce’s day was not so dissimilar from our own.