Sandro D. Fossemò Cosmic terror from Poe to Lovecraft The fear of unknown from the abyss of the soul to cosmic chaos
Translation by Rossella Cirigliano
“Life and dreams are leaves of the same book: reading them in order is living, skimming through them is dreaming”. Arthur Schopenhauer
When the master of the ghost story M.R. James reads Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, he does not make out the deep meaning of the term “cosmic” and naively ends up by ridiculing it to a friend of his1. James makes a sensational mistake, for he does not realize that adjective is the access key to the core of the fantastic literature where man is often to face, with his own might only, an awfully chaotic world and, for this, unlikely to be understood by human rationality. As Roger Caillois justly writes in his essay “De la féerie à la sciencefiction”, the fantastic «reveals a scandal, a laceration, an unusual, almost unbearable, invasion in the real world. […] With the fantastic a new bewilderment, an unknown panic appears.» 2 In such a dramatic and psychologically decentralized condition, reality is unknown and untamable, for supernatural forces rule it to the prejudice of the cosmic or earthly system we believe structured and rational. Therefore, because of a foreign and adverse environment, a psychic “laceration” arises which, according to Edgar Allan Poe, comes out of an ill soul and, according to Lovecraft, of a crazy universe but, for both, such an inner gash is a passage to the horror, bound to come to death or psychological delirium3. In such a context, it is easy to guess the deep nature of terror within the fantastic as a direct manifestation of a blind and cruel Nature that is called “cosmic terror”. It describes the terrible fear the unknown causes, where human condition is literally subject to indecipherable events. The link between fear and incomprehensible occurs when the characters are not the human beings but those supernatural events which devour the anthropocentric element in favor of colossal and anonymous occult agitations, coming from 1
See L’enciclopedia della paura. La letteratura horror dalla A alla Z, Mauro Boselli ed., Sergio Bonelli publ., 1991, Milano, p.40. Pamphlet enclosed to Dylan Dog. 2 see Roger Caillois, De la féerie à la science-fiction, Paris, Gallimard, 1966. 3 Unlike Poe, Lovecraft tends to end his stories mainly with the protagonist’s mental destabilization.
beyond. Lovecraft himself thinks it is important to give room to what we have left behind, if we want to express the nature of the fantastic. «The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background. Pleasure to me is wonder – the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability.»4 Thus it is a question of freeing and interpreting an inner and fantastic-inherent expression, which is firstly amplified to the detriment of the anthropocentric element and then changed into a horror sense under the influence of the unknown, which may have a metaphysical or materialistic direction, depending on the author’s cosmic philosophy. Poe and Lovecraft, in their common passion for the noble science of astronomy, have both developed a cosmogony influenced by opposed philosophical currents: in fact Poe’s cosmic terror is metaphysical, while Lovecraft’s is merely materialistic. Yet, it is necessary to consider that Lovecraft’s scientific materialism recalls the figure of a “horror poet”, as it is so secret and impenetrable in its unreal dimension that barely touches and goes beyond metaphysics in an almost mimetic and assimilated way, through a mechanistic analysis. Before shortly analyzing the differences, we must make the point that great writers such as Poe and Lovecraft never show, in their fiction, a well defined and easily identifiable trend within a given “philosophical system”, just because no reductive schematism falls within the natural and variegated existential expression of literature.
Idealism The two well-known American writers are great masters of “nightmare” with completely different, if not even opposed, cultural backgrounds; but sometimes, in spite of their obvious differences, they both have in common the same horror expression. They both share the idea of “life as a dream”, but they do not provide the same oneiric interpretation of the world, since Poe’s thought, unlike Lovecraft’s, partly inherits the philosophical development of the German romantic idealism, dating back to early 19th century, which tends to believe in the existence of a harmonious relationship between finite and infinite, that is an indissoluble link between Man and God. The idealist Schleiermacher (1768-1822)’s statement the world is not without God, God is not without the world is totally in tune with the theocentric cosmogony in “Eureka”, where Poe asserts that everything has been created by “God’s Will”5. Obviously, asserting that everything is created by God does not absolutely mean that “everything is God”, but on the contrary it might mean that “everything is controlled by God”. Short stories such as “The colloquium of Monos and Una” and “Mesmeric Revelation” clearly show Poe’s spiritual aspect. 4 5
p. 53, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. See E.A.Poe, Eureka, Bompiani, 2001.
In romantic idealism the concept of the universe is totally transcendent, as nothing escapes God’s omniscience and nothing goes beyond God’s almightiness. In the world the most microscopic organism is structurally chained to the macroscopic material dimensions, with an infinite net of links which do not escape, even in the least part, God’s Will. The new metaphysical myth of German romantic aesthetics is a unitary art that overtakes the dualism between finite and infinite. Poe’s fantastic assumes a basic metaphysical structure, as it is also connected to such principles. Metaphysics is that unknown sphere where horror often spreads out. Fear gains ground in a hallucinative dimension, in which the material and physic universe magically melts into the immaterial and metaphysical universe of the dream. «If matter is the last step of a spirit descending from high above in order to ascend again to its original place, then in a perspective like ours we can certainly talk about “metaphysical horror”, due to the exact influence of the spiritual world into matter, a sort of transfiguration of reality, that is the indissoluble pivot of any metaphysical concept.»6 Thanks to the concept of spiritual metaphysics as all the same with natural physics, the writer is able to create a harmony of fantastic effects, deeply connected to metaphysical horror. To better understand the mystery relating Poe’s art to horror, in my opinion it is necessary to take partly into consideration Schelling7 (1775-1854), who considers God as an “irrational will” dictated by a negative, blind and obscure principle, in everlasting contrast with a positive and rational one8.
Materialism Lovecraft’s cosmogony is a completely different thing: drawing inspiration partly from Schopenhauer9 (1788-1860), he considers the world as a dream devoid of a divine guidance, but rather at the mercy of blind and irrational forces, ready to unchain a crazy and imperturbable universe, which is not by nature against, but unaware, of man. Lovecraft goes deeper into cosmic philosophy, starting from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (1844-1900) and then outstripping them because of a concrete scientific materialism, 10 concerning an inscrutable cosmos that appears mysterious, inflexible, oneiric, multiform, multicolored and, at the same time, indifferent and chaotic. This recalls, more or less, the Epicurean mechanistic materialism, 6
Transl. by Rossella Cirigliano from Giorgio Ghidetti, Poe: l’eresia di un americano maledetto, Arnaud editore, Firenze, 1989, p. 104. 7 God is not only Spirit, but it also penetrates Nature. 8 The victory of positive over negative is the evidence of God existence. 9 Yet it is necessary to consider that Schopenhauer is, in turn, influenced by Schelling about that “irrational will” inside Poe’s art. As a consequence, we can say that Schelling’s thought is at the basis of that cosmic fear that in Poe and Lovecraft will find a common ground with radically different developments. It is also to be cleared that even though Poe sometimes planned a cosmic terror in a metaphysical sense, he influenced Lovecraft’s imagination only marginally. 10 Orig. title: H.P. Lovecraft: the Mythos of Scientific Materialism, Copyright©1993 by Strange Magazine, transl. by Pietro Guarriello in H.P. Lovecraft sculptus in tenebris, edited by Michele Tetro, Nuova Metropolis Publ., Novara, 2001, pages 25-30. See the important article on scientific materialism.
where the universe is interpreted on the basis of an automatic and mixed combination of atoms according to a mechanistic system, which is not fortuitous11 but deterministic and causal and totally excludes any divine interference. «There is nothing to take real exception to in the statement that a given group of human tendencies springs from the natural collocation of material particles operating automatically without the intervention of an external consciousness. Such a statement does not imply in any way the action of chance (for a cosmos of mutually interacting parts is all law & no chance...) […] The whole cosmos is, always has been, and always will be a limitless field of force composed of alternately combining and dispersing electrons. They work in fixed ways, none of which need explanation by any hypothetical “spiritual” world apart from that whose laws they obey. […] Everything that exists or happens, exists or happens because the balance of forces in the cosmic pattern makes it inevitable.»12 Although Lovecraft believes in materialism, his idea about the universe is not only limited to the ephemeral material contact of human senses with external objects, but in the cosmos is something much deeper and more obscure that common human knowledge cannot make out. For example, in the short story “The Silver Key” the possibility is described of the predisposed scatter-brained dreamer, Randolph Carter, to enter, in a less limited way, the sphere of dreams, thanks to a particular key; here it is possible to overpass “Maya’s veil” 13 and access, without any metaphysical abstractions, physically to the true reality of a blind and unknown universe made up of huge space-time labyrinths, immersed in an infinitely repeatable interlacement. It is important to consider that Carter’s is not a personal supernatural experience but, on the contrary, the space-time world is depicted as a scientific fact of the universe: it is a materialist-mechanistic answer to the metaphysics of chaos. For Lovecraft the world of dreams is not the “magical” or “mystic” universe of some romantic fanatic, but it is exactly a possible cosmos’ revelation that allows man to live ultra mundane experiences. «From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and incorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know, and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking.»14 Based on the dream revelation of a peculiarly unusual universe, these examples show that man is subject to an imperceptible dimension, able to overwhelm him whenever it wants to.
For Epicurus, on the contrary, the combination of atoms is fortuitous. Lovecraft’s letter to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, p. 355-56 in H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, Harkham House, 1968. 13 According to Schopenhauer, human condition cannot observe the world in its real complexity, because the organs of human perception are blurred and deceived by Maya’s veil. Man can only interpret reality through a purely human representation. Only beyond Maya’s veil it is possible to enter a reality that is no more a play, yet truth. 14 H.P. Lovecraft, Beyond the wall of sleep, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/bws.asp 12
Fantastic realism In the difficult exegesis of Lovecraft’s imagination there is no need to scientifically explain all that happens, because it would undermine the natural imaginative inclination of fantastic literature. Yet, we can try to play on human impossibility, although scientific knowledge and means are available, to dominate such a mechanistic and chaotic Nature, which becomes so dangerously unforeseeable to produce cosmic horror. «In reply, I would suggest that none of my narratives aims at scientific accuracy and inclusiveness, each being rather a mere transcript of an isolated mood or idea with its imaginative ramifications.»15 Lovecraft always tries to make fantastic credible; that is to pervade the scientific aspect with the ultra mundane one in order to make the narration more involving and impressive. In fact, human fear is fuelled by the fact that the monstrous event might happen if certain scientifically possible combinations are satisfied, whose results are unknown to us. If for Schopenhauer man is at least a “metaphysical animal” continuously wondering about the meaning of existence, for Lovecraft instead man is a poor “entrapped animal”, lonely in the lost jungle of the universe, with no Providence to help him, since life is inexorably attacked by unknown cosmic overwhelming events, haunted by horrible dark creatures, without the victim hoping to be saved in an ultra mundane life. The only chance to be saved depends on the ability and resources of the victim.
Eternal return In such a blind and chaotic universe where existence is engulfed in a cruelly uncontrolled and repetitive game, which does not distinguish life from death or justice from injustice, Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return” slightly complies with Lovecraft’s indifferentism. «Nothing but a cycle is in any case conceivable—a cycle or an infinite rearrangement, if that be a tenable thought. Nietzsche saw this when he spoke of the ewigen wiederkunft16. In absolute eternity there is neither starting-point nor destination.»17 When the German philosopher writes in the Gay Science: «what if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: "This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass 15
p. 54, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. “Eternal return” in German. 17 p. 51, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. 16
of existence will ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!"»18 he seems to clearly recall a paragraph of a short story of Lovecraft’s about the existential tragedy of man, overwhelmed by the infinite coil of chaotic and repetitive cosmic terror, prey in the eternal return of horrible and devilish19 beasts totally far from the least concept of mercy and repentance. Like the grotesque “The Rats in the Wall”, where the character is constantly and psychologically tortured by the eternal recurrence of an obsessive and «insidious scurrying»20 of rats hiding in the walls and scampering along black pits full «of sawed, picked bones and opened skulls!»21 An obvious example of eternal return is told in the horrifying short story “The Winged Death”, where the horrible blue-winged fly returns continuously to the doctor’s room to take revenge for a diabolic murder. Mankind is exclusively a blind coil where ancient and new civilizations continuously sink and rise, without any possible external power being able to perpetually rule with its systems and values. In his famous story “The Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft gives an example and writes: «What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.»22 Nothing can escape the disgraceful and unexpected evolution of cosmic matter, where the only ruler is chaos eternal return, fully master of the abysses with neither beginning nor end. In order to understand Lovecraft’s abyssal nightmare, we have to imagine a crazy world, which wanders aimlessly from nothingness to existence and from existence to nothingness, totally far and unaware of our desires and needs. Chaos eternal return imposes a cosmic horror hegemony on the planetary life, causing its consequent nihilism. The eternal return is a universal and natural manifestation of “Nothing”. For Nietzsche man can get over such nihilistic condition if he actively accepts the eternal return 23 as the consequent liberation of power will, immersed in the creative energy and in the joy of a Dionysian spirit. Lovecraft, on the contrary, considers the eternal return with horror, ending up with evolving human condition into an unplanned oneiric materialistic dimension; in the refuge of dreams and visions he can see human possibility to give birth to the «greatest creations of man»24 and to attain «something of the glory and contentment for which we yearn»25, without getting to “useless puppets”26 overwhelmed and destroyed by the furious waves of cosmic 18
F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, af. 341. The Heaviest Burden. http://www.archive.org/details/completenietasch10nietuoft, Transl. from German by Oscar Levy (Translator’s note). 19 Lovecraft’s creatures look vaguely like hell devils, yet Lovecraft refers only to pagan myths, even if Christian mythology has inherited an influence from pagan mythology. For example, we may consider the goat-like appearance of god Pan, destined to physically look like the devil. 20 H.P. Lovecraft, The Rats in the Wall, http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/theratsinthewalls.htm 21 Ibidem. 22 H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecallofcthulhu.htm 23 See Karl Lowith, Nietzsche e l’eterno ritorno, Laterza, 2003, Bari, p. 57-60. 24 H.P. Lovecraft, The night ocean, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/no.asp, written with the collaboration of Robert H. Barlow. 25 Ibidem. 26 See Gianfranco de Turris & Sebastiano Fusco, L’ultimo demiurgo e altri saggi lovecraftiani, Solfanelli, Chieti, 1989, p. 153.
ocean. We can say that Nietzsche and Lovecraft are radically opposed, as far as the psychological relationship between man and eternal return is concerned: for the philosopher it is vital enjoyment, for the writer it is excruciating torment. Nietzsche’s typical concepts, such as “Amor fati”27 or “Superman”,28 are considered “useless effort” by the materialistic-cosmocentric writer, according to whom such myths are totally far from the tragic actions of Lovecraft’s dreamer and lonely hero, who is busy not to be driven crazy and to understand the true nature of reality, trying to defend his own existence against those awful human creatures that sometimes belong to the same genetic legacy as the heroic main character’s. For example, I can mention the character in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” who finds out, to his surprise, he is not a different creature from those horrible monsters that have besieged him, almost to prove that there is no difference between men and beasts.
Beyond good and evil With the German philosopher Lovecraft shares not only a pagan Anti-Christianity, but also the pointless inclination man has towards human existence, devoid of any “truth”, since it is forced to ceaselessly and inevitably fight for surviving beyond any moral limits of good and evil, as we cannot «sink or rise to any other “reality”, but just that of our own impulses»29. Christianity dogma is reduced to a naïve point of view due to the unawareness of men or to a religious imposture. «It is a general objection to Christianity that it stifled artistic freedom, trampled on healthy instincts, and set up false and unjust standards. On this assumption a friend of mine, Samuel Loveman, Esq., has written a magnificent ode “To Satan” 30. […] The idea of deity is a logical and inevitable result of ignorance, since the savage can conceive of no action save by a volition and personality like his own.»31 Shortly, for the writer no “Right Road” exists and has ever existed, but we are and we shall always be victims of a deep and intangible cosmic conflict, universally fair for everyone. «We can neither predict nor determine, for we are but the creatures of blind destiny.»32 Therefore it is obvious that such a system cannot absolutely exist among “human beings” but more naturally among “beasts”, whose wild and foolish nature is in perfect harmony and symbiosis. But is Lovecraft maybe talking of men? Does his gruesome art hide a dramatic report of the infernal human condition that is made harder by the harsh and tough fight for surviving against its own kind? 27
“Love of fate” in Latin (Translator’s note). It is above all in the concept of “Superman” that the radical difference between Lovecraft and Nietzsche is more obvious. 29 F. Nietzsche, Beyond good or evil, af.36, transl. by Helen Zimmern, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4363/4363-h/4363-h.htm. 30 p. 58, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. 31 p. 60, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. 32 p. 61, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. 28
Like Nietzsche, in his fiction Lovecraft does not make the “metaphysical mistake” of showing the absence or presence of God in the world: God simply does not exist and there is no need to meet him or to avoid him. Lovecraft’s universe is only an eternal cosmic fury, where an emotionless theater of awful creatures rages. «All life is struggle and combat—itself a disproof of divinity—and in this fray an organism fights both its fellows and its surroundings.»33 For such beasts neither divine plan nor ontological void exists, but only an instinctive activity and necessary will that becomes a violent war far from the least moral concept of good or evil 34, since it occurs for the preservation and victory of the stronger species on the weaker one. In the short novel “At the Mountains of Madness” the “Old Ones” are defeated by the ruthless “Shoggoths”. In the world it is not important whether an action is “good” or “evil”, but it is important to protect the existence and the sovereignty of the winning species. Fight and death are, for Lovecraft, completely obvious and natural conditions. All the earthly and cosmic elements, such as things, plants, men or awful beasts are only objects, even if the world is inexplicably a terrible oneiric illusion.35 That is why Lovecraft does not always analyze the psychology of his characters; he would contradict and distort his cosmos-centric vision where men do not matter more than ants.36 The writer is not much interested in human psychological investigations, for cosmic terror is not human but supernatural.
Poe and Lovecraft Even though Poe’s terror comes from the soul whereas Lovecraft’s terror originates within the cosmos, for both fear is caused by the same elements originating cosmic horror: chaos and abyss. Yet, Poe sinks in the soul to knock down external reality, Lovecraft on the contrary sinks in the cosmos to demolish inner reality. Another great difference is that Poe’s mythology is both Christian and pagan, Lovecraft’s is entirely pagan. In “The Tell-tale Heart” we can find a dark atmosphere, like Lovecraft’s mad universe, in an abyssal and dizzy room described, by the tormentor, which is the main character, as so hidden and dark to almost seem the gloomy hidden-place of a devilish-eyed “monstrous creature”. Besides, in “The man of the Crowd” the same disturbing and omnipresent atmosphere is evoked as in Lovecraft’s delirious cosmos: the chaotic movement of an unknown and lost crowd, where Poe manages brilliantly to predict incommunicability, almost depicts the fuzzy 33
p. 57, in H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. If man is prey of the violent manifestations of a maddened universe, Lovecraft could not certainly limit human life within the moral concepts such as “good” and “evil”! 35 Lovecraft cannot be considered as a totally cold and arid materialist, because he considers life as a dream. As a consequence and paradoxically, in Lovecraft’s materialism a “reflexive poetic mood” can be seen, which makes him ambiguous and hardly understandable in his being materialist and mechanist at the same time. 36 Yet, superficial criticism has considered this aspect as a deficiency by the writer. 34
wandering of the horrible Lovecraft’s beasts. In the story is also a strategic fusion of cosmic horror and incommunicability. A sublime moment of cosmic terror, at such a limit between real and supernatural to almost express a degenerative hallucination of human mind, is described at the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher” with the chromatic energy of such an impulsive and impetuous universe to recall Lovecraft’s impressive style. «The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barelydiscernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened - there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind - the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight - my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder - there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters - and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.»37 The same can be said for the final part of “Metzengerstein”. «The fury of the tempest immediately died away, and a dead calm sullenly succeeded. A white flame still enveloped the building like a shroud and, streaming far away into the quiet atmosphere, shot forth a glare of preternatural light; while a cloud of smoke settled heavily over the battlements in the distinct colossal figure of a horse.»38 Taking inspiration and broadening the concept of Poe’s soul terror, Lovecraft becomes “the cosmic Poe”, as Jacques Bergier states. Following this point of view Lovecraft’s cosmic terror can be partly39 considered as a materialistic and mythological evolution of Poe’s terror to the creation of a fascinating and potential horror science fiction. In spite of their radically different cultural background, a short story where Poe’s cosmic terror is incredibly similar as Lovecraft’s is “A Descent into Maelstrom”: here metaphysics of events is chaotically linked to the fear of sudden and unknown events, for a ship is suspended in a terrible jam after being overwhelmed by supernatural events nobody knows the causes of. The ship sinking represents universe instability and its wrecks show the abyss chaos has left behind. 37
E.A. Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher, in http://www.enotes.com/fall-house-usher-text/the-fall-house-usher E.A. Poe, Metzengerstein, in http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a0069.pdf 39 I wrote “partly” because Lovecraft takes most inspiration from Machen and Lord Dunsany. 38
In this short story, Poe’s cosmic terror is close to Lovecraft’s because it is related to that sphere of unknown and unpredictable that does not cross the border of supernatural universe, but stays within the “cosmos” and its inexplicable mysteries. How cannot this work contradict Poe’s idealism? The answer is provided by the author himself, who reports a sentence written by Joseph Glanvill in the epigraph of the story: «The ways of God in Nature (as in Providence) are not as ours are: nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness and profundity of his works; which have a depth in them greater than the Well of Democritus.» Therefore, in my opinion, on the basis of the theocentric cosmogony in “Eureka” we can consider that, in spite of the frequent references to psychological abyss without a clear opening to the ultra mundane, Poe’s metaphoric world sometimes tends to the theological field. You only need think of the sudden appearance of a “wild light” in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or of the “preternatural light” in “Metzengerstein” to presume it is about a symbolic revelation of God’s interference in human events. In the Christianity God is the “eternal light”, which enlightens man’s way to salvation from a world dominated by the darkness of chaos. Romantic Poe’s very harmonious and sad expressive sentimentalism, which sometimes seems to demand Providence interference on man’s wickedness40 is literally abandoned by Lovecraft to make room for eternal darkness in a cold universe, impulsive and without a soul, where is no theological comfort for a withering rose, for a dying animal, for a man lying dead on the ground in the shade of a black-winged monstrous creature, suddenly appeared from the unknown.41
The unknown «The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.»42 With this short and popular quotation Lovecraft suggests the deep link between the unintelligible abysses of reality and fear arising from the inability to react directly and dominate such distorted situations. The consequent terror causes a psychological fear connected to earthly or metaphysical elements mankind cannot control. In this “menacing chaos” man is like a child lost in the wood, whose survival is constantly threatened by an unknown and adverse Nature. In this frightful situation the sudden howl of a wild wind causes, in the child’s mind, the fear to be attacked by ghosts, if he does not find a shelter soon. As a consequence, in the child’s imagination those “mythical creatures” rise as an instinctive reaction to fear, which substitute the real causes. Lovecraft, in his essay, gives an enlightening example of the real nature of cosmic fear and writes: «Children will always be afraid of the dark, and In other stories Poe provides a rational and psychological, rather than divine, solution. Lovecraft goes beyond the classical limits of terror and gets to the “dreadful”. That cosmic dreadfulness will make him a real master of horror. 42 H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural horror in literature, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.asp 40
men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse. With this foundation, no one needs wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear.»43 But terror takes the upper hand in the victim’s mind when he cannot understand anymore the phenomena he sees and hears, coming from an external origin he cannot get to. This vision is obviously supported by the fact that the uncertain and the dangerous are always arm-in-arm; as a consequence an unknown universe easily becomes a world full of dangers and evil events.44 A very good example of psychological disorientation is in “The Crawling Chaos”45, where fear becomes absolute, since the main character cannot identify anymore the natural or ultra mundane cause coming from an unrecognizable adverse environment. His mind, engulfed in a condition of confusion and upset due to the use of drugs, is prey of brutal and fearful fantasies that identify the hidden being or thing as a ghastly monster inclined to act in an unreal and uncontrollable way. «Slowly but inexorably crawling upon my consciousness and rising above every other impression came a dizzying fear of the unknown: a fear all the greater because I could not analyze it, and seeming to concern a stealthily approaching menace; not death, but some nameless, unheard-of thing inexpressibly more ghastly and abhorrent. […] The waves were dark and purplish, almost black and clutched at the yielding red mud of the bank as if with uncouth, greedy hands. I could not but feel that some noxious marine mind had declared a war of extermination upon all the solid ground, perhaps abetted by the angry sky.»46
The Cthulhu myths It is exactly that perverse psychological link, made up of narrative delirium and association of the myth with a naïve theophany, to lead Lovecraft to the brilliant and original creation of “The Cthulhu Myths”, which are like the lord of chaos, Seth, in Egyptian mythology. Pagan mythology predisposition to comply with cosmological theories leads Lovecraft to the creation of a pantheon inspired by his cosmogony. In fact, such divinities symbolize the chaotic structure of world reality.
ibidem See Ernst H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: an intellectual biography, London, 1970. It analyzes the interpretative resemblance both Warburg and Lovecraft have towards “cosmic fear”. 45 I would like to make it clear that this story was written by Lovecraft with Winifred V. Jackson’s collaboration. 46 H. P. Lovecraft, The Crawling Chaos, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/crc.asp 43
In the horrible dimension of chaos, with great imagination the writer pictorially describes the nightmare coming from unknown realities, where the “light” deceives our world perception, because it is in the “darkness” of the unknown that the true aspect of mankind lies. In this context Lovecraft becomes a sort of “black priest”47 of an immanent cosmic pantheon, where an unmasked vision of reality causes a dreadful psychological delirium. In the well-known story “Dagon” such a mythological and dark show is analyzed in memorable lines. «[…] I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night […] gazing into the Stygian deeps where no light had yet penetrated. […] the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.»48 When we experience such feelings of panic we unwarily create some mythologies, which represent human events. So, taking psychoanalysis into consideration, through these myths we put on ourselves the “mask” of the myth, which subconsciously express our real way of being. The unbearable feeling of weakness and bewilderment towards the unknown and the unrecognizable, becoming terribly uncatchable to cause a terrible psychic delirium, calls to mind “The Haunter of the Dark” in which the idiot and blind god Azathoth, who lives in the centre of the universe in a mindless and sluggish way, appears before Robert Blake. «Before his eyes a kaleidoscopic range of phantasmal images played, all of them dissolving at intervals into the picture of a vast, unplumbed abyss of night wherein whirled suns and worlds of an even profounder blackness. He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demoniac flute held in nameless paws.»49 Before Robert Blake’s involvement by Azathoth, it is important to remember that a sort of assimilation occurs: the delirious aspect of the idiot god quickly penetrates the protagonist’s 47
By priest I obviously mean a mediator of universe darkness, without any metaphysical or mystic reference. H.P. Lovecraft, Dagon, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/d.asp 49 ibidem 48
feelings to show how it is easy for the frail human condition to be psychologically absorbed by the unknown. The myths of Cthulhu hurl us before the nameless, make us sink in the dark abyss, pervade us of an ancestral fear leading to cosmic terror through an eternal and unsolvable recurrence of the dreadful event. They put us before the impenetrability of unknown with no easily identifiable semantic contents, in order to disclose us that chaos is the only ruling power nobody can make out. In this diabolic system the myths show us the true aspect of cosmic reality at the cost of an agonizing psychological state close to madness.
Prometheus’ nightmare Fear also arises from the existential uselessness of man who, even though he is endowed with reason and noteworthy techno-scientific resources, is often alone before the immensity of an unknown and adverse chaotic universe, enraged by a blind and irreparable force, where flocks of “night-gaunts” linger. They are wicked and unknown creatures without a face, black, quiet, bat-like winged and provided with pointed tails. Unlike what many people think, the progress of scientific knowledge has not eliminated the fear of unknown; yet it has caused new fears, due to the discovery of recent cosmic riddles with a possible and technical reaction against mankind where chaos, no more technologically controlled, ends up with merging with that same technological weapon created by man to defend himself. About this, the fascinating story “From Beyond” is to be considered. Here an elated scientist through an electronic device manages, at his own expense, to force his way to another space-time dimension infested by appalling and aggressive alien beings. As well as his horror Lovecraft describes the psychological trouble caused by contemporary man’s belief in a rational and comfortable world gained thanks to the rule of scientific progress over Nature, which unfortunately is not able to avoid the bewilderment of man towards adverse and unknown natural events, which become unforeseeably violent. We have a clear example of this in “Cool Air” with the horrible failure of a doctor, who has vainly tried to achieve immortality by means of an inadequate freezing device that eventually breaks down. Another terrifying example is given by “Herbert West, reanimator” where is described doctor West’s perverse ambition since he was at university to make dead live again. Thanks to the discovery of a particular serum, West manages to reactivate, after various and failed attempts, life from dead bodies, but with the tragic consequence that these creatures revolt and kill him. The horror caused by madly wandering zombies recalls impressive atmospheres of cosmic terror.
«[…] lumps of graveyard clay had been galvanized into morbid, unnatural, and brainless motion by various modifications of the vital solution. One thing had uttered a nerve-shattering scream; another had risen violently, beaten us both to unconsciousness, and run amuck in a shocking way before it could be placed behind asylum bars; still another, a loathsome African monstrosity, had clawed out of its shallow grave and done a deed -- West had had to shoot that object. […]It was disturbing to think that one, perhaps two, of our monsters still lived -- that thought haunted us shadowingly, till finally West disappeared under frightful circumstances.»50 What’s more astonishing in this story is the fact that, although the doctor repeatedly fails, he is not going to stop his experiments nor to think about what he is doing, for what is really important to him is to achieve his goal, with no merciful mediation. 51 Doctor West even kills in cold blood to obtain suitable human guinea-pigs for his ferocious objectives. With his clear declaration against the blind and fallible techno-scientific determinism we can undoubtedly reckon that the writer can be considered a scientific rationalist, who refuses positivistic scientism52. The horrible corpses that deliriously revive can be seen as a metaphor representing the dreadful consequence of a science that is not humanistic but merely functional.
The colour out of space In the science fiction story “The Color out of Space” chaos suddenly occurs due to the unexpected fall of a meteorite on a peaceful farm in Arkham and the consequent pollution, which entirely destroys environment balance and stability. It is just that chaotic and devastating nature, caused by the meteorite radiations, to crumble the power of human rationality before the inconsistency of an obscene reality, which is not peaceful and arranged anymore. Chemical contaminations of animals and plants and inexplicable events unexpectedly occur out of thin air with incredible and gruesome massacres, which sadistically look like a perverse ritual caused by a mad Nature, possessed by an iridescent alien force. «So the men paused indecisively as the light from the well grew stronger and the hitched horses pawed and whinnied in increasing frenzy. It was truly an awful moment; with terror in that ancient and accursed house itself, four monstrous sets of fragments-two from the house and
H.P. Lovecraft, Herbert West-Reanimator, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hwr.asp Let us consider adverse criticism on “practical reason”, justly accused by the Frankfurt School of thinking about “the objective” without taking social consequences into account. 52 As a convinced scientific materialist, Lovecraft does not appear to completely adverse positivism but he criticizes its degeneration into scientism. 51
two from the well-in the woodshed behind, and that shaft of unknown and unholy iridescence from the slimy depths in front.»53 The story symbolically describes several analyzed aspects complying with cosmic terror. The meteorite represents cosmic vitality falling heavily upon us from an oceanic and inexplicable universe. The peaceful farm that is suddenly upset represents chaos unpredictable interference. The physical annihilation of the farm owner, Nahum Gardner, reduced to a pile of putrescent shapeless flesh, symbolizes the total impassiveness of cosmic agents. The well exemplifies the unknown and the inexplicable and unnatural colorful glow, emerging from there, seems to be endowed with a “conscience and will” of its own, so that to the blasphemous theophany of the farmers it appears as a “mysterious creature”. «No doubt it is still down the well - I know there was something wrong with the sunlight I saw above the miasmal brink. The rustics say the blight creeps an inch a year, so perhaps there is a kind of growth or nourishment even now. But whatever demon hatchling is there, it must be tethered to something or else it would quickly spread. Is it fastened to the roots of those trees that claw the air? One of the current Arkham tales is about fat oaks that shine and move as they ought not to do at night.»54 The colorful light that at the end of the story goes back to the unlimited darkness of the universe, from where it has come, reminds us of eternal return. Lovecraft’s work generally shows an alien and labyrinth-like situation within a cosmic and immanent chessboard fated, by a blind universal game, to sow dead people and repeated devastations sporadically, yet to cause mentally disturbed conditions continuously, making man sink into an inner chasm like an abyssal hole, which is due to an environment that is not peaceful anymore, but extremely unknown to us and eternally adverse rightly because of our limited comprehension.
Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth The delirious animal spirit ferociously revolting against the Apollonian and Promethean spirit of the rational world recalls the awakening of instinctive and powerful Cthulhu, terrible messenger of a cruel law dominated by chaos and violence, which generates a mad and perverted world stricken with pleasant orgiastic rites and sacrificial crimes.
H.P. Lovecraft, The color out of Space, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/cs.asp ibidem
«That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.»55 In a certain sense it is as if Lovecraft wanted us to be totally undeceived by the pretention to live in a benevolent cosmos, only apparently healthy and rational, by using the “unknown” as a door towards the real world where «everything a-rottin' an' dyin', an' boarded-up monsters crawlin' an' bleatin' an' barkin' an' hoppin' araoun' black cellars an' attics every way ye turn.» 56 Yet the door is kept by Yog-Sothoth, the terrible guardian of the intelligible, representing the psychological impossibility to contemplate reality without running the risk to die or be driven mad. We can eventually end our analysis by considering that cosmic terror arises from the ability to express a certain atmosphere of arcane and inexplicable destructive flog in particular environments dominated by the eternally repetitive existence of anonymous and intangible diabolic ultra mundane or strange forces or presences. They surprise and deceive our natural defenses or scientific knowledge quickly or skillfully so as to drive our mind into the abyss of a chaos without a way out57. As those last words of dying Nahum's clearly recall: «Can't git away - draws ye - ye know summ'at's comin' but tain't no use…»58
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/thecallofcthulhu.htm H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/theshadowoverinnsmouth.htm 57 See H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. 58 H.P. Lovecraft, The colour out of Space, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/cs.asp 56
Carlo Pagetti, Cittadini di un assurdo universo, editrice Nord, 1989, Milano. Gianfranco de Turris & Sebastiano Fusco, L’ultimo demiurgo e altri saggi lovecraftiani, Solfanelli, Chieti, 1989, p. 153. H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006. H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural horror in literature, in H.P. Lovecraft’s book of horror, edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, 1994. Leo Marchetti, Apocalissi, Métis editrice, Chieti, 1995. Pietro Trevisan, Il paganesimo di H.P. Lovecraft, in the website: http://utenti.lycos.it/politeismo/lovecra.htm [Or. Title: Sources for The color Out of Space, in Crypt of Cthulhu, n. 28, 1984, Copyright © Robert M. Price] Massimo Berruti’s graduation thesis, H.P. Lovecraft e l’Anatomia del Nulla – Il Mito di Cthulhu.
Il Terrore Cosmico da Poe a Lovecraft – by Sandro D. Fossemò – Special thanks to Mr. Walter D’Ilario, manager of Roseto degli Abruzzi public library, for providing me with the books I needed for this short essay.