Lovecraftian Re-visioning OF The Romantic-Era Gothicism

Philip Smith

Philip Smith

Howard Phillips Lovecraft employed the (somewhat clumsy) term “cosmic indifferentism” to describe his worldview. Humanity, in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s vision, is falsely convinced of its own importance on a universal scale. Rather than placing humanity at the center of his universe, his fiction takes what Mosig and Tierney term a “cosmo-centric” approach.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s world is populated with creatures far older than humanity which, rather than seeking to manipulate, frighten or otherwise interact with humans, are utterly indifferent to them. Much of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s horror draws upon what Burleson terms “denied primacy,” an awareness that civilisations and intelligence preceded our own, a theme which Julia Briggs traces back to the literary influence of Arthur Machen.

The fundamental horror of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s world is this sense of humanity’s utter insignificance, this realization produces a terrible enlightenment and madness in his characters, Howard Phillips Lovecraft realizes the astronomer Carl Edward Sagan’s revelatory passage ‘“[t]he universe is neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent to such puny creatures as we.” This theme in Howard Phillips Lovecraft criticism of the horror in the vastness of the universe and the relative fragility of humanity was first identified by Fritz Reuter Leiber who saw in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work a “universe consisting of light-years and light-millennia of black emptiness.”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft thus shifts the Gothic from discourse on religion (specifically anti-Catholicism) to a discourse on science, utilising the genre, as with every Gothic work, to examine the recurring social anxieties of his time. Botting contends that irrespective of era Gothic terrors activate a sense of the unknown and project an uncontrollable and overwhelming power which threatens not only the loss of sanity, honour, propriety or social standing but the very order which supports and is regulated by the coherence of those terms.

The concept of cosmic indifferentism is, at heart, a scientific one and Mosig contends that “[Howard Phillips] Lovecraft is not deploring knowledge, but rather man’s inability to cope with it.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s interest in science was certainly not tempered by the dread to which he ascribed discovery. He had a lay fascination with astronomy and chemistry and submitted work to several scientific journals.

There is a recurring “science” to the mythology he built. Whilst the creatures in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s works are clearly fictional, the age of the universe, evolutionary theory and humanity’s very recent arrival on a cosmic scale speak to the expanding awareness of humanity’s place in the cosmos in terms of time and biology in the early twentieth-century.

Writing at the same time as the Scopes Trial and the Shapely-Curtis Debate, Howard Phillips Lovecraft captured a time when science provided an increasingly cosmo-centric model of the universe, moving away from the Judeo-Christian model which privileged humanity.

This allegiance to science is reflected in factual continuations (or auto-citations) between Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s works. Mabbott notes that whilst Edgar Allan Poe, for example, was happy to endow the horrors in his fiction with powers appropriate to the specific story, Howard Phillips Lovecraft insisted on consistency throughout his fictions. Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s universe was a concrete one with established and unchanging laws.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft thus combines the gothic with science fiction or, as Fritz Reuter Leiber puts it, provides “supernatural dread […] without any medieval trappings.” Scientific discovery in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work is both fascinating and terrible and he sees in scientific progress not the potential for the enlightenment of humanity, but, as Joshi contends, humanity’s destruction.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, of course, was not the first or the only Gothic author to draw upon scientific discovery as a source of horror.

Edgar Allan Poe’s works, Fisher contends, referenced evolution in their “stories in which human-animal characteristics are delightfully ambivalent” and in both Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886) and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1823), horror springs from the laboratory. A closer literary ancestor to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Brown, too, drew upon, Punter contends, “superstition and its scientific counterparts.”

Dreams are a recurring theme in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work, particularly dream quests where the protagonist gains information from dreams. ‘In Defense of Dagon’ (1985) Howard Phillips Lovecraft mentions that many of his stories came to him in his sleep. The role of dreams intersects with Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s preoccupation with time and history. Michau contends that in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work “the past is accessed through dreams, pseudo — memories, or acts of possession revealing, in nightmarish modes, the futility of the belief in progress and linear time.”

Dreams, in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s world, are windows into forbidden knowledge and forces beyond humanity’s understanding.

Given the large role of dreams in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work, it is unsurprising that both Mosig and Burleson have employed psychoanalysis in their critical approach. Dreams are, of course, a common theme in Gothic Romance from Coleridge’s opium-induced dreams, by way of the wild dreams of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1823) to Mike Noonan’s haunting dreams in Stephen Edwin King’s ‘Bag of Bones’ (1998). In Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s pantheon of influences, the dream stories borrow most strongly from Lord Dunstany’s work.

In keeping with Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s sense of being out of time is his sense of place. Armand Joshi sees Howard Phillips Lovecraft as worthy of study by those “deeply interested in Rhode Island history, especially its traditional genealogical, political and literary dimensions.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s vision of Rhode Island history should only be understood in the context of his xenophobia and, as such should be viewed with due scepticism. Texts such as ‘The Street’ offer a version of American history which privileges white Anglo-Saxon protagonists.

Irrespective of his politics, there is a recurring theme in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work which expresses an affection for the historical geography of Providence, particularly eighteenth-century architecture, his descriptions of which Buhle Mkhize describes as “among his most carefully developed prose.”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s interest in historical geography (as well as consistency between texts) is evident in the recurring fictional place names in his prose.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s cosmocentric view of the universe also engages with time as a concept. Howard Phillips Lovecraft fans use the term “deep time” to describe Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s concept of time on a universal, rather than human, scale. Describing the Lovecraftian mythos, Leiber writes ‘“[t]he continents begin their long drifts. New lands rose from the Pacific in time to receive the Cthulhu spawn or cosmic octopi sifting down from infinity.” This is history on a scale against which the entirety of human history does not measure, history on a scale which the human mind cannot conceive.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Howard Phillips Lovecraft made to literature has been in shaping the genres of horror and science fiction (to the extent that either genre can be clearly defined). It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that all contemporary works in those genres from the mid-twentieth-century onwards can be traced through Howard Phillips Lovecraft in some way. Even a partial list of creators who have been influenced by Howard Phillips Lovecraft would require the equivalent length of this essay and would provide uninteresting reading.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft actively encouraged his contemporaries to contribute to his mythos and this tradition has continued after his death. Even subtle methodological and narrative, rather than thematic, evidence of his style can be found in various modern works. Writers such as Ramsey Campbell and, famously, Stephen Edwin King show a strong influence from Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Artists such as Hans Ruedi Giger, filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro Gómez and even song writers such as Metallica and Black Sabbath have all taken stylistic inspiration and direct quotations from Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s fiction in their creative work.

Writer Keith Gerald Holkins wrote of his horror-pastiche ‘On The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness’ “I could never decide if I wanted to be Douglas Noel Adams or Howard Phillips Lovecraft when I grew up, and now that I am grown up, I have decided that I do not have to choose.”

Keith Gerald Holkins’ prose combines Lovecraftian themes with deliberate slips in register. The text illustrates the pervasiveness of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work, whereas Gérard Genette observes, a mutual understanding of the original text between author and reader (the pastiche contract) is required for hypertextuality, and the inherent comedy therein, to function.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s work is so easily subject to imitation and transformation because of its stylistic themes, even for those who have never read Howard Phillips Lovecraft, are so pervasive as to be instantly recognisable to a modern English-speaking audience.

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