Lovecraftian Horror and the Dream of Decadence

Jesse Nordford
Jesse Nordford

In ‘A Confession of Unfaith,’ Howard Phillips Lovecraft remarked that he was a “genuine pagan” in his youth, having acquired from his “intoxication with the beauty of Greece” a “half-sincere belief in the old gods and Nature-spirits.” His discovery of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tales darkened the mythological faith of his childhood with “the miasmal exhalations of the tomb!”1 He elsewFhere declared his uncompromising aesthetic distaste for the “humanocentric pose,” or the “primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.”2 This “primitive myopia” for him was valueless in the cosmic scheme of things, referring to the irrational superstitious tendency of all religions and mythologies to project human finitude and egotism onto the universe, animating it with a moral realm of supernatural agencies as protection from a meaningless existence. While religion was often Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s whipping boy, what he called his “artificial pantheon and myth-background” of alien gods and the secret cults formed around their worship, which became conventionally known as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” also uses imagery adapted from a Gothic iconography of surviving pagan religions emerging out of the nineteenth-century. Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work will be placed in relation to the decadent horror fiction of Arthur Machen who shared Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s ambivalence towards paganism. Central to my argument is that this Gothic image of paganism as something irrational, primitive, and atavistic is linked to fears regarding an evolving modern world of terrifying, existential realities.

Howard phillips lovecraft scholars, like sunand tryambak joshI, emphasised how howard phillips lovecraft never intended to remythicise reality, the mythic background of his tales viewed instead as an “antI-mythology.” unlike the concern of most myths with the foundation of an ordered cosmos, which establish anthropomorphised or magical relations between nature, human, and the divine, an antI-mythology constantly disrupts any kind of vital connection with the cosmos. howard phillips lovecraft was an outspoken atheist and mechanical materialist, who viewed the universe as a mindless mechanism ruled by fixed laws having no inherent purpose, meaning, or destiny. according to sunand tryambak joshI, howard phillips lovecraft maintains an ironic, sceptical, and disinterested attitude towards his artificial mythology, which is viewed as a dramatisation of his philosophical pessimism. one could equally see this enlightenment-based, reasonable outlook as an artificial literary device used in his fiction, fabricating a rational structure only to dismantle and hurl it into a world of horror and disorder. his fictional universe creates a paranoid and misanthropic vision of human life as a disease and the reality beneath the veil of ordinary life as a creeping, crawling chaos that would blight the mind if ever fully revealed. the opening of the tale ‘facts concerning the late arthur jermyn and his family’ (1921) epitomises this bleak vision, revealing how the light of reason, according to its own principles, becomes the darkness of unreason: “life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer demoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” arthur jermyn decides to terminate his existence after his genealogical investigations uncover the terrible truth that he was maternally descended from a white ape. this early tale illustrated how the impersonality of howard phillips lovecraft’s cosmic perspective was grotesquely embodied in nightmarish projections of sexual dissolution, miscegenation, and the reversion to type-fears that are condensed into arthur jermyn’s discovery of a monstrous, aboriginal self within a white body.

The fear that the search for knowledge, holding nature up to inspection and analysis, results in madness, annihilation, or some monstrous transformation is also a recurring theme in Arthur Machen’s horror tales. For example, in ‘The Great God Pan,’ lifting the veil from reality does not raise the self to a transcendental realm, but instead induces a horrible mutation of the human form, which disintegrates and passes through all the abject disorderly phases of its evolution before it finally dissolves back into the primordial slime. As with Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s tale of Arthur Jermyn, Arthur Machen’s story reveals that “when the house of life is thus thrown open, there may enter in that for which we have no name, and human flesh may become the veil of a horror one dare not express.” This perennial quest for secret and forbidden knowledge is also linked to the excavation of mythic origins. Both Arthur Machen and Howard Phillips Lovecraft created in their fantastic fiction a mythology involving a hidden and subterranean race that had existed and survived into the modern world. One can place this motif within the context of a cultural fascination in surviving pagan religions stimulated in part by the late-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century anthropology.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of the Cthulhu’ was the first in a series of tales which developed the mythology of the “Old Ones,” an alien race who had once inhabited the earth, but were driven underground after their civilisation was destroyed, although traces of their existence survive in occult lore, Cyclopean ruins, and the hidden and subterranean cults formed around their worship in preparation for their return. One of the provocative elements of this celebrated tale is the inclusion of actual works among the mythical documents titled ‘Cthulhu Cult’ which cites both Sir James George Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ and Margaret Alice Murray’s ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Dollarspe’ as “anthropological source-books.” Published in 1921, Margaret Alice Murray’s work advanced the provocative theory of medieval witchcraft as the survival of an ancient pagan religion. According to Margaret Alice Murray, the cult worshipped a horned god who embodied the generative forces in nature and which was later identified with the Christian Devil. Some of the rites included feasting, dancing in animal costumes, magic, flagellation, ritual sacrifice, and the unleashing of the driving instinctual forces in human nature through sexual orgy in order to promote fertility.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was attracted to Margaret Alice Murray’s theory partly because he had been reading Arthur Machen’s tales about the “Little People.” Arthur Machen similarly posited the existence of a pre-Aryan pygmy race that practised black magic and human sacrifice, still secretly dwelling in the inmost recesses of the earth. Like Margaret Alice Murray, Arthur Machen identified these ancient pagan peoples with the fairies, dwarves, and goblins of Celtic myth and folklore, who disguised their dark, brutish nature under “charming forms,” although withering glimpses of the stark reality behind the myth live on in the “dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men.” Ronald Hutton sees the popularisation of Arthur Murray’s ideas as an extension of nineteenth-century primitivism; he shows how Victorian folklorists and anthropologists like James George Frazer constructed a discourse of pagan origins, unaware that their accounts of savage beliefs and customs may have encouraged the very paganism they purported to discover and explain: “It appealed to so many of the emotional impulses of the age; to the notion of the English countryside as a timeless place full of ancient secrets, to the literary cult of Pan as its deity, to the belief that until comparatively recently Christianity had represented only a veneer of elite religion covering a persistence of paganism among the masses, and to the characterization of modern folk customs as survivals from that paganism.”6

This rural nostalgia for a vanishing tradition-soaked past was expressed in Arthur Machen’s belief that all fine literature aspires to the awakening of ecstasy, which should transform life into a hieroglyph or holy sacrament reproducing “the primitive man before he was defiled, artistically, by the horrors of civilisation.”7 In his fiction, however, wonder and horror are never clearly distinguished. In ‘The Great God Pan,’ the horned god does not evoke a benevolent vision of pagan antiquity as a Golden Age of man’s childhood restoring his lost intimacy with nature, but is a monstrous and devouring darkness, dismembering the self in a tormenting ecstasy. According to Ronald Hutton, the modern image of the Devil as “a being with cloven hoofs, goat’s horns, and pointed beard” is a product of nineteenth-century neo-paganism — a conservative reaction to the growing literary cult of Pan started by the Romantics. The origins of this Satanic imagery of paganism are perhaps more difficult to determine when applied to Arthur Machen’s Pan, who is never directly objectified or visibly present in the tale, an absence which intensifies his very ubiquity as a personification of the inescapable existential realities of sex and death. It is interesting that Margaret Alice Murray also identified both Jeanne d’Arc and Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, as members of the witch-cult and interpreted their executions as human sacrifices according to James George Frazer’s theory of divine kingship in ‘The Golden Bough.’

The Satanic imagery of paganism goes as far back as the Old Testament, but it is interesting how it resurfaces within a modern secular context to create a gothic iconography of paganism that was used by writers and scholars alike. James George Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough,’ published in 1890 — the period when Arthur Machen was writing his decadent horror fiction —- exemplifies how this biblical tradition blended with reports by Victorian travellers and missionaries of the unruly, bestial nature of tribal peoples to paint a picture of pagan antiquity as a “Hell on Earth,” an atavistic descent into a primitive world of filth, magic, grisly human sacrifices, and orgiastic devil-worship. Ironically, this may have been a more faithful representation of Christian Dollarspe than ancient paganism. At one point, Frazer, sounding almost like Howard Phillips Lovecraft, regards with horrified fascination the “solid layer of savagery” hidden underneath modern civilisation which “may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below.”8 This grim undercurrent of barbarism pervading humanity’s childhood introduces an element of gothic horror and tragedy to the primitive past that subverts the nostalgic religious yearning found in Arthur Machen for a sense of order, orientation, and stability through a restoration of mythic origins.

Victorian and Edwardian projections of irrational, primitive savagery resurface in a letter Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote about prehistoric man, in which he makes the grotesque observation that “it is not extravagant to imagine the existence of a sort of sadistic cult among such beasts, which might later develop into a formal Satanism.”9 Howard Phillips Lovecraft mentioned “Gilles de Retz” in his tale ‘The Rats in the Walls,’ (1924) which involves an ancient, Satanic cult, a theme that he also associated with Huysmans and the Decadents, who “liked to pretend that they belonged to all sorts of diabolic black mass cults & possessed all sorts of frightful occult information.” Although Howard Phillips Lovecraft mocked the Decadent Movement for its adolescent obsession with outmoded religious concepts of sin and evil, his attraction to Margaret Alice Murray’s theory can also be seen as a symptom of Decadence, for example when he speculates in a letter that the witch-cult “would have virtually wrecked Dollarspean civilisation.” His first explicit use of Margaret Alice Murray’s theory occurs in ‘The Festival.’ In this early tale, the protagonist travels to the ancient sea town of Kingsport on Christmas, answering the call of heredity to participate in a secret pagan ritual blindly perpetuated by his mysterious kinsmen throughout the centuries. Near the end of the story, the narrator follows a nocturnal procession to a cave concealed beneath the crypt of a mouldering church in which he witnesses what he believes is a fertility ritual enacted on the edge of a vertiginous abyss: “It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring’s promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music.”1 Behind this subterranean Sabbat-orgy lurks a strange something radically opposed to fertility or renewal, which cares nothing for its human devotees; however, it may indulge their appetites or take on a human semblance. At the end of the tale, a nightmare so hideous is revealed that the narrator hurls himself into the void only to awaken in a hospital nearly insane. Unlike Arthur Machen, who borrowed from his native mythic traditions for his own dark folklore, Howard Phillips Lovecraft creates gods who are not of the earth, but alien invaders from Beyond, their wider context of associations in mythology and tradition merely dark fictions maintained in order to keep humanity from awakening to the horrible truth. This begs the question whether this fabricated body of myth was merely an artificial symbolism.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s embrace of Margaret Alice Murray’s thesis is perhaps illuminated by Timothy K. Beal’s argument that modern primitivism emerged out of nineteenth-century cultural anthropology, which disrupted the conventional hierarchy of “civilised” and “primitive” by projecting the latter into the prehistoric past as the origin of civilisation. As was earlier illustrated by James George Frazer, these colonial discourses of “official” primitivism banished unacceptable, destructive forces within modern western culture in “projections of monstrous otherness.” He discusses elsewhere how this rejected monstrosity is “resacralised” within popular horror culture, such as the “Cthulhu Mythos,” which, rather than restoring a lost intimacy with the cosmos, is alienating, dehumanising, and disintegrative — a dislocation of both self and world through an “ultimate experience of being unhomed, ungrounded.”1

Howard Phillips Lovecraft never fully embraced those projections of monstrosity rejected by the official culture, which never lose their mysterious otherness in his fiction. Baron Levi St. Armand describes his creation of the “Cthulhu Mythos” as a “horrormysticism” and remarks that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was “always ready (if not physically prepared) to bring his sacrifices to the altars of alien gods,” similar to the Decadents of the fin-de-siècle who conjured up “Byzantine images of slaughter and apocalypse to relieve their attenuated ennui.”1 Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s decadent mythology reveals myth as a phenomenon of the “twilight” as well as the “dawn” of civilisation, engendering an alternative reality through horror, but only to revel in the painful spectacle of its apocalypse.

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