Text: S. T. Joshi, “Poe, Lovecraft, and the Revolution in Weird Fiction” (2012)


Poe, Lovecraft, and the Revolution in Weird Fiction

S. T. Joshi

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” This is the opening sentence of H. P. Lovecraft’s treatise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), and in its somewhat flamboyant fashion it enunciates a central principle governing what might be called the metaphysics of supernatural fiction — its emphasis on the unknown. The central motifs of supernatural writing — the ghost, the vampire, the witch, the werewolf, and so on — although they derive from ancient myth and folklore, have as their metaphysical foundation the notion that human beings have somehow failed to comprehend, or have cataclysmically misconstrued, the nature of the universe. It need hardly be pointed out that the majority of supernatural writers do not believe in the literal existence of ghosts, witches, and so on; rather, these motifs are employed for purposes of imaginative expansion or for a variety of symbolic functions — the vampire as social outsider, for example. If, as Lovecraft believed, the “crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen,” the “trick” effected by supernatural writing is to convince the reader that what could not possibly happen is happening — or, at least, can plausibly be conceived to have happened. This “trick” is dependent on the absence of knowledge — the absence, for example, of definitive evidence that ghosts, vampires, and such cannot exist. That window of ignorance, however, small, is sufficient for the supernatural to enter.

The history of the supernatural in literature, even if it can be conceived to have its roots in the oldest literature known to humanity — Gilgamesh, the Odyssey — really had its origin as a concrete genre in the eighteenth century, when Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) triggered the emergence of the Gothic novel as a popular literary form. For the next half-century, hundreds of Gothic novels — by Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and many others, culminating in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) — poured off the presses in England, America, and Europe. The great majority of these have been deservedly forgotten as unimaginative hackwork, but they collectively established supernatural terror as a viable literary form. But their very numbers, and their general mediocrity, led many critics to doubt whether the supernatural could be an effective element in literature that claimed aesthetic value.

The work of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) revolutionised and transformed supernatural (and psychological) horror fiction in so profound and multifaceted a way that it could plausibly be said that the genre, as a serious contribution to literature, only began with him. In this sense, the entire Gothic movement could be considered a kind of “anticipation” of the true commencement of the field. The keenness with which Poe analysed the psychology of fear; the transcendent artistry of his tales, from construction to prose rhythm to aesthetic focus; the intense emotive power of his principal narratives — these and other elements make Poe not merely the fons et origo of supernatural literature but, in many ways, a figure unsurpassed in the breadth and scope of his work.

It is essential for us to discuss some aspects of Poe’s critical theory, for in this manner we will be able to ascertain some phases of the influence of the Gothic tradition on Poe. It is well known that Poe’s theory of poetry emphasised the aesthetic impossibility of a “long” poem (one that could not be read at a single sitting) and also stressed a “unity of effect“ — the given emotional effect toward which every line, indeed every word, of a poem must contribute. The most concise expression of this latter idea occurs in the relatively late essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), his largely tendentious account of his conception and composition of “The Raven” (1845): “Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.” As for the former:

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression — for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones — that is to say, of brief practical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief.

Let us overlook the patent fallacies inherent in some aspects of this formulation — the fallacy, for example, that the “effect” of a work is “destroyed” merely because a few minutes, a few hours, or even an entire day, elapses between readings. In many ways it is a compelling and appealing manifesto, and it is worth noting that Poe here encompasses all literary works, not just poems, within its scope.

Poe’s theory of short fiction is manifestly adapted from his theory of poetry, both as regards length and as regards the “unity of effect.” It is exhaustively enunciated in his celebrated 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. After noting acidly that “the ordinary novel is objectionable” chiefly because “it cannot be read at one sitting” and therefore “deprives itself . . . of the immense force derivable from totality,” Poe contrasts the effect of the short story:

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.

There are some fallacies and anomalies here also: it turns the author into some kind of scientist carefully weighing some particular “effect” to be conveyed to the reader; and the idea that some given word might “indirectly” lead to the preconceived end seems to open the way to fairly broad interpretation as to what words, or even whole scenes or episodes, might be said to contribute to the ultimate effect. But these are small points.

It is worth noting, however, that the above theory is not specific to the tale of supernatural horror or, indeed, any other genre of tale. How, then, does Poe justify his focus on horror, terror, the supernatural, and what would (much later) be termed psychological suspense? In the first place, it cannot be said that most, or even a bare majority, of Poe’s tales are of this type; he had what to many readers and critics (myself included) a lamentable tendency to engage in what Lovecraft quite accurately labelled “his blundering ventures in stilted and laboured pseudo-humour.” In the second place, Poe on a surprisingly few occasions did defend his taste for the macabre, chiefly as a quest for imaginative expansion. In a lengthy footnote to an article on N. P. Willis that constitutes a section of his late essay “The Literati of New York” (1846), Poe first destroys Coleridge’s purported distinction between fancy and imagination (“it is a distinction without a difference — without a difference even of degree”) and goes on to argue for the aesthetic value of works produced under their aegis:

Imagination, fancy, fantasy and humour, have in common the elements combination and novelty. The imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects such only as are harmonious; the result, of course, is beauty itself — using the word in its most extended sense and as inclusive of the sublime. The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity [the emphasis is Poe’s], only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; the compound, as a general rule, partaking in character of sublimity or beauty in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined, which are themselves still to be considered as atomic — that is to say, as previous combinations. . . . The range of imagination is thus unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test.

If this somewhat laboured passage tells us anything, it is the simple fact that horror, terror, weirdness, and the like can in fact be “beautiful” in the hands of a talented artist.

But a somewhat earlier credo is much more relevant to our concerns. This is the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. This rather aggressive manifesto begins by declaring that Poe wrote the stories in the collection “with an eye to this republication in volume form, and may, therefore, have desired to preserve, as far as a certain point, a certain unity of design” (a highly implausible remark, since the tales were written over a period of nearly a decade, but one that seeks to extend Poe’s theory of the short story to an entire volume) and seeks to refute criticisms that Poe indulges too frequently in “ ‘Germanism’ and gloom”:

Let us admit, for the moment, that the ‘phantasy-pieces’ now given are Germanic, or what not. Then Germanism is ‘the vein’ for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else. . . . But the truth is that, with a single exception [“Metzengerstein”], there is no one of these stories in which the scholar should recognise the distinctive features of that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call German, for no better reason than that some of the secondary names of German literature have become identified with its folly. If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but if the soul, — that I have deduced this terror only from is legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results.

This is probably all we need to establish Poe’s theory of horror. The focus of the discussion is all too obviously E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Poe — whose temperament led him not merely to accuse others wildly of plagiarism but to be excessively sensitive to even the most remote accusations of the same sort as directed toward himself — was seeking to establish his declaration of aesthetic independence from Hoffmann and his predecessors. That pregnant line “I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul” is as precise an indication as anyone could want that Poe was seeking to explore the psychology of fear in his tales of terror, and his ability to do so with the most consummate skill and emotive power is what distinguishes his work from all that went before and a great proportion of what came after.

Up to now we have been considering Poe’s theories of poetry and short fiction somewhat abstractly. There is certainly an argument to be made that Poe was merely making virtues out of necessities in his formulations, for not only are his own “long” poems — the early ventures Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf — markedly unsuccessful, but his longer tales and especially his one “novel,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, are scarcely less so from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Poe’s initial work in the short story dates to 1831, and it came at a particularly low point in his life: he had left the University of Virginia in 1826 after attending only a semester; he had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 but was discharged two years later; with the help of his foster-parent, John Allan, he had enrolled in West Point in 1830, but when Allan remarried and, through his wife’s influence, severed ties with Poe, the latter got himself expelled from West Point in 1831 and moved to Baltimore, where he had trouble finding work and complained of his threadbare clothes. A Philadelphia newspaper, the Saturday Courier, offered a prize for “the best AMERICAN TALE,” and Poe submitted five stories, none of which won the contest but several of which impressed the judges, leading them to publish “Metzengerstein” and others in the paper.

There is, then, a very real possibility that Poe took to short story writing at least in part as a means of making money at a critical point in his life, and that his later vaunting of the merits of short fiction and short poetry was a kind of after-the-fact justification for the kind of work he hoped would bring him a steady income. (In this he proved to be in error, and the bulk of Poe’s meagre revenues came from his editorial duties for various magazines.) It should also be noted — as Michael Allen established in his important treatise Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1969) — that Poe was significantly influenced by the short fiction that had begun to appear in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a periodical that was widely read in the United States in the 1810s and 1820s. Poe himself observed, in his review of Twice-Told Tales, that the emotions of “terror, or passion, or horror” are best treated in prose rather than verse, and that “many fine examples” of such tales “were found in the earlier numbers of Blackwood.” Of course, Poe was clearly led by temperament to write the kind of supernatural and psychological horror fiction that he wrote; but to the extent that he found suitable models in the “sensational” fiction that Blackwood’s occasionally published, he radically improved upon them by emphasising the “unity of effect” and, to put it simply, by writing infinitely better — more cogently, more skilfully, and with a greater understanding of the psychological effects of the bizarre and the supernatural — than his predecessors or contemporaries.

If I have not spoken sufficiently about what may well be the most signal attribute of Poe’s work, either in supernatural or psychological horror — the meticulous, painstaking, and actually horrifying analysis of the disturbed psyches of his most noted protagonists, from Egaeus to Roderick Usher to the unnamed narrators of “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart“ — it is because this trait is singularly difficult to analyse without a line-by-line study of the given narratives. On occasion Poe’s narrators will assert an initial rationality that will be progressively undermined as the tale progresses (“MS. Found in a Bottle”: “Upon the whole, no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of the truth by the ignes fatui of superstition”); in other cases, as can be seen in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator’s grasp of sanity and reality seems at the very outset to be severely in question. Poe augments this subversion of his protagonists’ psyches by a manner of story construction whereby the climax of the tale occurs simultaneously with the protagonists’ psychological collapse, a feature that renders both his supernatural tales and his tales of psychological terror the more powerful and credible. It is facile to say that Poe drew his portraits of disturbed psyches chiefly or even largely from his own mental instability — an assumption that perhaps deliberately seeks to minimise the manifest artistry of Poe’s analysis of the conclave of eccentrics he puts on stage.

Certain fastidious critics, from Henry James to Harold Bloom, have questioned the greatness of Poe, both as a poet and as a fiction writer, chiefly because of their apparent distaste for his occasionally florid, flamboyant, and seemingly artificial prose style. On this question much may be said beyond the obvious fact that the enjoyment of or displeasure in this kind of Asianic style is largely a matter of temperament. But it is of interest to see what Poe himself said of his own prose. We find this remarkable assessment in his anonymous review of his Tales (1845):

The style of Mr. Poe is clear and forcible. There is often a minuteness of detail; but on examination it will always be found that this minuteness was necessary to the development of the plot, the effect, or the incidents. His style may be called, strictly, an earnest one. And this earnestness is one of its greatest charms. A writer must have the fullest belief in his statements, or must simulate that belief perfectly, to produce an absorbing interest in the mind of his reader. That power of simulation can only be possessed by a man of high genius. It is the result of a peculiar combination of the mental faculties. It produces earnestness, minute, not profuse detail, and fidelity of description. It is possessed by Mr. Poe, in its full perfection.

Let us overlook the no doubt tongue-in-cheek self-flattery of the passage. It is not likely that many readers (especially hostile ones) will conclude that Poe’s style is “clear and forcible,” but as a matter of fact the overall thrust of his remarks is that the style is meant to suit the subject-matter, and this it does flawlessly, even triumphantly. All Poe’s critical writing on the craft of poetry or fiction indicates that his prime goal was to create a powerful emotional impact on his readers; and his manipulation of language was his chief means of effecting that end. The gradual accretion of cumulative power is one of the hallmarks of his prose narratives; Poe early mastered the ability to modulate the emotional cadence of his prose to create an overwhelming crescendo of horror. “Ligeia” is perhaps the most notable accomplishment in this regard — consider a portion of the final paragraph, where the narrator finally comes to the realisation that the corpse of Rowena has been reanimated by the spirit of Ligeia:

Shrinking from my touch, she let fall from her head the ghastly cerements which had confined it, and there streamed forth, into the rsuhing atmosphere of the chamber, huge masses of long and dishevelled hair; it was blacker than the wings of the midnight! And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me. “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never — can I never be mistaken — these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes — of my lost love — of the lady — of the Lady Ligeia!” [Italics and small capitals in original]

Lurid and overwritten as this appears to be out of context, it is exactly suited to the cataclysmic conclusion that Poe has so artfully orchestrated. That final sentence, with its telling use of polysyndeton and anaphora, points to the careful use of prose-poetic devices to augment the emotive effect of his climaxes. The prose rhythms of such tales as “Morella,” “The Oval Portrait,” “Silence — A Fable,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are unsurpassed in their aesthetic polish. Not a word could be changed or displaced without spoiling the entire narrative.

I repeat that Poe’s work is the true beginning of weird literature. In his day most of the Gothic novels had already become hopelessly passé, and by the end of his creative life he had given them a fitting burial by showing that horror can be conveyed with infinitely greater force and impact by a careful analysis of the psychology of terror, a structure that leads inexorably from the first word to the cataclysmic conclusion, and a “novelty” of subject-matter that puts in the shade the stilted Gothic villains or chain-clanking ghosts or hackneyed devils of Gothicism. The true novelty of Poe’s work comes from the innovative supernatural elements found in his greatest tales — the animate ship of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the psychic vampire of “Ligeia,” the soul shared by house and inhabitants in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the supernatural cat in “The Black Cat,” the hideous life-in-death of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and so forth. And Poe should also be given credit for avoiding what were by then the already hackneyed ghosts, vampires, and demons of the earlier Gothic movement. The tales of psychological terror are no less original — the bizarre monomania of “Berenice” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the mental aberrations hinted at in “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “The Premature Burial,” the paradox of revenge in “The Cask of Amondillado.”

But Poe’s greatest novelty — and the one facet of his work that his would-be successors and disciples have found the greatest difficulty in duplicating — is the excellence of his output. His greatest tales are imperishable contributions to the literature of the world as they are towering landmarks in the literature of terror. The psychological acuity of his stories and their impeccable concision and unity set a model and a standard that few have equalled and none have surpassed. In their totality they constitute all that is needed to justify the tale of terror as a distinctive and viable branch of literature.

The nearly 70 years that separated the death of Poe and the earliest tales of his greatest disciple, H. P. Lovecraft (1890 — 1937), saw a revolution in human knowledge perhaps greater than in any previous age of human history. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection; Mendel’s work on genetics; and, in particular, the astrophysics of Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg transformed our conception of the universe, and of our place in it, so radically that our understanding of ourselves and of our place in the cosmos could never be the same. The significance of these and other developments to the course of supernatural fiction was evident in Lovecraft’s work, for throughout his life he wrestled with what appeared to be a radical decrease in the sense of the unknown, as science appeared to be making one epochal discovery after the other. Could the supernatural in literature even continue to exist as a viable literary form if so much of the universe was being mapped and classified?

In a literary career that spanned less than two decades and comprised no more than sixty works of fiction (all of them short stories with the exception of three short novels and several novellas), Lovecraft performed a critical function in the development of supernatural fiction; Fritz Leiber, a late colleague and perhaps his most distinguished disciple, put it best when he wrote that Lovecraft “shifted the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gufts of intergalactic space.” In effect, Leiber is maintaining that Lovecraft fashioned a unique hybrid, mingling those elements of the traditional supernatural tale that still remained scientifically and aesthetically viable with the emerging genre of science fiction, at whose birth Lovecraft could be said to have been a bemused eyewitness.

In order to effect this union, Lovecraft required not only a thorough grounding in the history of supernatural literature (a history he himself ably charted in his monograph, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) but an awareness of the many sciences — physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, geology, palentology — that could conceivably be drawn upon for the new kind of horror tale he was writing. To be sure, Lovecraft did not set out with such a goal in mind; but by around 1930 he appears to have become aware that he was fashioning something new in the realm of fantastic literature.

Lovecraft came to maturity at a time when the findings of nineteenth-century science were being synthesized by a wide range of philosophers and scientists who, following Thomas Henry Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche, were becoming increasingly bold in advancing purely secular theories both of cosmic origins and human motivations. Lovecraft came upon both Huxley and Nietzsche before 1920, and later absorbed Freud, Bertrand Russell, and many other secularists; but his chief bulwark remained astronomy, and in 1917 he made the pungent declaration:

A mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead whose whole care is expended upon puny mankind, and whose only genuine and original Messiah was dispatched to save the insignificant vermin, or men, who inhabit this one relatively microscopic globe. Not that science positively refutes religion — it merely makes religion seem monstrously improbable that a large majority of men can no longer believe in it.

It is evident that, although science peeps out here and there in many early Lovecraft tales, it is largely used as a makeshift to enhance the aesthetic plausibility of the scenarios, which remain overwhelmingly supernatural in their overall thrust. The best that can be said for these stories is that they make a gesture toward scientific plausibility, as Lovecraft is coming to recognise that the standard ghost, goblin, witch, werewolf, or vampire is no longer convincing to a sophisticated readership that has learned too much about biology, chemistry, and physics, and that has also shed the naïve religious belief that formed at least a part of the pseudo-intellectual support for these entities.

All this makes us stop short in amazement when we encounter “The Shunned House” (1924). On the surface, this appears to be nothing more than an artfully told haunted house tale set in Lovecraft’s native Providence. The narrator and his uncle strive to ascertain why so many deaths — and certain other anomalies — have occurred in a house in the oldest district of the city; a house that, as a matter of fact, “was never regarded by the solid part of the community as in any real sense ‘haunted’ ” but merely “ ‘unlucky.’ ” But as the narrator explores the history of the house and its occupants and seems forced to the conclusion that some vampiric entity is sucking the life out of anyone who lives there too long, we suddenly come upon this remarkable passage:

We were not, as I have said, in any sense childishly superstitious, but scientific study and reflection had taught us that the known universe of three dimensions embraces the merest fraction of the whole cosmos of substance and energy. In this case an overwhelming preponderance of evidence from numerous authentic sources pointed to the tenacious existence of certain forces of great power and, so far as the human point of view is concerned, exceptional malignancy. To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather must it be said that we were not prepared to deny the possibility of certain unfamiliar and unclassified modifications of vital force and attenuated matter; existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of its more intimate connexion with other spatial units, yet close enough to the boundary of our own to furnish us occasional manifestations which we, for lack of a proper vantage-point, may never hope to understand. . . .

Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer since which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action. One might easily imagine an alien nucleus of substance or energy, formless or otherwise, kept alive by imperceptible or immaterial subtractions from the life-force or bodily tissues and fluids of other and more palpably living things into which it penetrates and with whose fabric it sometimes completely merges itself.

A treatise could be written on this passage. What we have here is, for the first time in Lovecraft’s literary career, a coherently conceived scientific rationale that recasts the standard myth of the vampire into something much more complex — and, as it happens, much more mysterious and horrifying. The appeal to advanced science (specifically, relativity and quantum theory) is also an appeal to the scientific method — the method of keeping an open mind in regard to phenomena that may appear bizarre or even contrary to nature, but which may in the end be incorporated into an expanded conception of the universe that is still predominantly materialistic. And whereas the conventional vampire could be dealt with by such hackneyed means as a crucifix or exposure to the light of day, the vampiric entity in “The Shunned House” is a far more redoubtable creature; and it requires nothing less material than “six carboys of sulphuric acid” which, when poured upon the entity, elicits a “hideous roar” heard throughout the city.

The rest of Lovecraft’s fiction shows a constant if unsystematic attempt to embody scientific principles as an intellectual substratum, even if some of them radically exceed the bounds of the known laws of nature. Moreover, it is in the stories of his last decade of writing that we finally come upon an extensive use of those sciences — especially chemistry, geology, and astronomy — that Lovecraft professed to have been his first loves, and which, taken as a whole, fostered the sense of “cosmicism” that is his defining characteristic as a fiction writer. Even though cosmicism was stated as an aesthetic principle at least as early as 1921 (“Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos — to the unknown — which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination”), it is embodied in relatively few tales prior to 1926. “Dagon” (1917), “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), and “The Temple” (1920) only hint at cosmicism; perhaps Lovecraft’s most interesting treatment is found in the prose poem “Nyarlathotep” (1920), which powerfully suggests the decline of human civilisation as a corollary to the collapse of the entire fabric of the universe.

All that changes with “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926). This story is important not so much for its introduction of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos (a term never coined by Lovecraft), but rather for its coherent and plausible use of the theme that would come to dominate his subsequent tales: alien races dwelling on the underside of the known world. And because these alien races are now postulated as having emerged from the depths of space, they evade the dilemma (found in various ways in “Dagon,” “The Temple,” and “The Nameless City”) of incorporating these entities within the scope of terrestrial evolution.

The stories of this type — “The Colour out of Space” (1927), “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), At the Mountains of Madness (1931), “The Shadow out of Time” (1934-35) — are all of such length and complexity as to preclude detailed analysis; but some hints as to their distinctive features can be made here. In a sense it could be said that Lovecraft is choosing the easy way out by hypothesising an extraterrestrial origin for his various alien species, thereby obviating the need to harmonise them within the known laws of terrestrial biology and physics; but the mass of circumstantial detail Lovecraft provides shows how much thought he took in fashioning his creatures, and in rendering them simultaneously plausible and outré. He is careful not to make them too bizarre, too defiant of the known laws of nature. Accordingly, the only physical anomaly revealed by the baleful entity Cthulhu is his (its?) ability to recombine disparate parts of himself after they have been scattered. Old Castro, who “remembered bits of hideous legend” about Cthulhu and his “spawn,” states that they “were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape . . . but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die.” All this is expressed in a deliberately mystical fashion, for Castro is a naïve and ignorant worshipper of Cthulhu and his minions; but underneath this language one can see Lovecraft stretching — but not breaking — the laws of nature to accommodate the existence of an alien species just outside the bounds of the known. That Cthulhu is made up of a substance not quite material as we recognise it; that there is some obscure connexion between him and the stars of the outer cosmos; that his manner of existence is somewhere between “life” and “death” as we are accustomed to understand them — all this is hinted, and no more than hinted, in Castro’s maunderings.

“The Colour out of Space” is perhaps Lovecraft’s greatest triumph in the depiction of an extraterrestrial entity. The creature (or creatures?) that came in the meteorite that landed in a central Massachusetts farm cannot be analysed by chemical means: the substance of the meteorite itself, when collected by scientists from Miskatonic University, “had faded wholly away when they put it in a glass beaker” and, when another specimen was gathered, it failed to respond to numerous tests — water, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, carbon disulphide, and several others. Lovecraft’s chemical experiments, conducted from the age of eight onwards, certainly stood him in good stead here. But more significantly, it is the psychology of the nebulous entities that is least amenable to human analysis; whereas an obviously malevolent motive is at one point attributed to Cthulhu (“After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight”), the entities in the meteorite are utterly inscrutable as to their goals or purpose. Lovecraft effectively conveys both their physical and their moral incomprehensibility in the simple words of the dying farmer Nahum Gardner: “. . . the colour . . . cold an’ wet, but it burns . . . dun’t know what it wants . . . it beats down your mind an’ then gits ye . . . it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here . . .”

From this perspective, “The Dunwich Horror” and even “The Whisperer in Darkness“ — the latter a masterful evocation of the terror to be found in the remote backwoods of Vermont — represent a regression; for the entities in these tales are all too obviously intent on harming human beings and perhaps even in dominating them. “The Dunwich Horror,” indeed, is in many ways a reprise of the short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), which in its use of alchemy and witchcraft can be said to be the pinnacle of Lovecraft’s work in the old-time Gothic mode; it is, in effect, his House of the Seven Gables in its tracing of a curse that spans the generations. “The Dunwich Horror” is remarkably similar in many details. The cosmic entity Yog-Sothoth has mated with a backwoods farm girl, Lavinia Whateley, and spawned twin monsters — one of them, Wilbur Whateley, approximately human, and the other, his twin, quite otherwise. Although Wilbur reveals some interesting physiological traits when his dead body is analysed, the science here is merely a sop to plausibility in a tale that otherwise is entirely dependent on the supernatural and on sorcery (three professors from Miskatonic University destroy the twin by the use of incantations). More to be censured is the obvious good-vs.-evil scenario that Lovecraft sets up between the valiant Professor Armitage and the Whateley clan; at one point he speaks wildly and bombastically of a “plan for the extirpation of the entire human race and all animal and vegetable life from the earth by some terrible elder race of beings from another dimension,” and then emits a self-important lecture at the end: “We have no business calling in such things from outside, and only very wicked people and very wicked cults ever try to.”

In “The Whisperer in Darkness” Lovecraft seems to dance nervously around the issue of what the fungi from Yuggoth are actually after. Once again, a lone farmer, Henry W. Akeley, is besieged by extraterrestrials — they come from Yuggoth (Pluto), although Lovecraft is careful to specify that “Yuggoth . . . is only the stepping-stone” and that “the main body of the beings inhabits strangely organised abysses wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination.” This is no doubt why they cannot be photographed by ordinary cameras. But the critical issue of motive emerges when a correspondent of Akeley’s, Albert N. Wilmarth, comes up to Vermont for a visit at Akeley’s urging, finding that Akeley has unexpectedly taken ill and can hardly speak except in a whisper, and is otherwise wrapped from head to foot in blankets. Akeley tells him of the remarkable abilities of the aliens (“The Outer Beings are perhaps the most marvellous organic things in or beyond all space and time — members of a cosmos-wide race of which all other life-forms are mewrely degenerate variants”), and especially of their surgical skill — they can extract a human brain, encase it in a canister, and take it on cosmos-wide voyagings where it can perceive all the wonders of the universe, “with elaborate instruments capable of duplicating the three vital faculties of sight, hearing, and speech.” At one point Wilmarth finds such a prospect intoxicatingly exciting: “To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law — to be linked with the vast outside — to come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and the ultimate — surely such a thing was worth the risk of one’s life, soul, and sanity!” But in the end he draws back in fear and flees the place — perhaps because he has come to realise that the letter inviting him up to Vermont was written not by Akeley but by the aliens themselves, and that the whispering figure he saw in the dimly lit room of the farmhouse was one of the aliens in disguise. Hence, the statement in the letter — “The alien beings desire to know mankind more fully, and to have a few of mankind’s philosophic and scientific leaders know more about them. . . . The very idea of any attempt to enslave or degrade mankind is ridiculous“ — would seem to carry the very opposite connotation.

The contradictions in Lovecraft’s depiction of alien races seem to have been resolved in his two great science fiction stories, At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time.” In these tales there is not only an enormously elaborate anatomical description of the alien species, but a careful working out of their psychology, morality, and even politics. Both works were, fittingly, published in the science fiction pulp magazine Astounding Stories.

At the Mountains of Madness is significant because it appears to be the first tale written by Lovecraft after he had formulated a momentous new theory of weird fiction — one that took far more cognisance of the advance of science than any theory he had previously articulated. The canonical utterance occurs in a letter to Frank Belknap Long dating to February 27, 1931, only three days after he had begun writing his Antarctic novel:

The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality — when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt — as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity?

The context of this utterance is worth examining. Lovecraft, fresh from a reading of Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper (1929), had agreed emphatically with Krutch’s belief that (as he expressed it) “some former art attitudes — like sentimental romance, loud heroics, ethical didacticism, &c. — are so patently hollow as to be visibly asurd & non-usable from the start.” The advance of knowledge — and this includes not only our understanding of the universe but our understanding of our own psychologies — had destroyed many of the intellectual foundations that had supported previous “art attitudes,” and there was a danger that weird fiction itself — especially fiction that still relied on outdated concepts like the ghost or the vampire — would cease to be of any relevance to the knowledgeable and sophisticated reader. The only recourse, as Lovecraft saw it, was the notion of supplementing rather than defying known natural law — a principle he had perhaps unconsciously observed since “The Call of Cthulhu,” but one that now became conscious. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his most vigorous expressions of this new aesthetic: nothing in the story — even the final emergence of the loathsome shoggoth, a fifteen-foot protoplasmic entity that the Old Ones had created as a beast of burden, but which had ultimately overthrown its masters — stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point, as, say, the mating of Yog-Sothoth with a human being in “The Dunwich Horror” does. The enormous care that Lovecraft took in establishing the scientific basis for the entire scenario — employing the sciences of geology, paleontology, biology, and physics in particular — and the slow, gradual accumulation of convincing detail make this novel a triumph of scientific realism. And of course, one cannot fail to quote Lovecraft’s celebrated praise of the Old Ones, as the protagonists come to express the highest admiration for their courage and perseverence in traversing the cosmos, colonizing the earth, and establishing a rich and flourishing civilisation: “Scientists to the last — what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible . . . Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn- — hatever they had been, they were men!”

“The Shadow out of Time,” while featuring many of the same elements of scientific verisimilitude, also represents the culmination of a theme that we can detect throughout Lovecraft’s work — the theme of mind- or personality-exchange. In this novella an alien species termed the Great Race has “conquered the secret of time” by its ability to send its minds forward (and, more rarely, backward) in time, displace the mind of some member of another species, and inhabit that mind for shorter or longer periods, learning everything about that species and its historical period; in the meantime, the captive mind is thrust into the body of its captor, and writes the history of its own time for the immense archives of the Great Race. Eventually, a reversal is effected, and the two minds occupy their own bodies once again. Lovecraft, while initially portraying the idea as existentially terrifying, later suggests that the prospect is not at all to be despised:

When the captive mind’s amazement and resentment had worn off, and when (assuming that it came from a body vastly different from the Great Race’s) it had lost its horror at its unfamiliar temporary form, it was permitted to study its new environment and experience a wonder and wisdom approximating that of its displacer. With suitable precautions, and in exchange for suitable services, it was allowed to rove all over the habitable world in titan airships or on the huge boat-like atomic-engined vehicles which traversed the great roads, and to delve freely into the libraries containing the records of the planet’s past and future. This reconciled many captive minds to their lot; since none were other than keen, and to such minds the unveiling of hidden mysteries earth — closed chapters if inconceivable pasts and dizzying vortices of of future time which include the years ahead of their own natural ages — forms always, despite the abysmal horrors often unveiled, the supreme experience of life.

The scenario of this story is a vast expansion and subtilisation of the scenario found in the early tale “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” where the notion was handled in a sadly bungled manner. There, a cosmic entity had been trapped in the body of a backwoods farmer named Joe Slater, and only manages to escape its human prison upon Slater’s death. But Lovecraft has not thought through why or by what means this entity had ended up in the body of this uncouth individual, and the story collapses of its own absurdity.

What is more interesting is that Lovecraft has employed the notion of mind-exchange as a means of obviating both the scientific and the philosophical difficulties involved in the traditional idea of psychic possession, especially in the highly conventionalised form of possession by a demon or by the Devil himself. Lovecraft the atheist could of course never utilise the trope in that form, but earlier tales do make use of it in a relatively standard manner. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is frequently thought to involve psychic possession, but, if it occurs at all, it does so in a manner somewhat more covert than many commentators believe. It is not that the seventeenth-century alchemist Joseph Curwen literally possesses the soul or mind of his twentieth-century descendant, Charles Dexter Ward; rather, it is that Ward, after stumbling upon his relation to Curwen, manages to revive him bodily (by the gathering of his “essential saltes” and the use of suitable incantations), whereupon Curwen kills Ward (whose double he proves to be) and tries to pass himself off as Ward. But psychic possession from a different angle may come into play, as it is suggested that the very interest that Ward initially takes in his relation to Curwen was a result of the latter’s exercise of mental powers beyond the grave.

This scenario is roughly duplicated in the late story “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933), which is an anomaly in its reversion to a traditional Gothic mode in the midst of Lovecraft’s period of scientific realism. Here a college student named Asenath Waite seems to have an anomalous power of hypnosis: “By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality — as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.” Sure enough, she does exactly that with the man she marries, the weak-willed Edward Derby; and her power also extends beyond the grave, for she manages to switch minds with Derby even after he has killed her; in turn, Derby’s mind is flung back into her decaying corpse.

All this is delectably ghoulish, but the handling is crude and obvious, and “The Thing on the Doorstep” is one of the most disappointing of Lovecraft’s later tales. And yet, it becomes clear that he has duplicated its basic scenario in “The Shadow out of Time,” although introducing the notion of mind-exchange over time and, of course, rendering the entire conception far more plausible and compelling. There is, however, one philosophical issue that Lovecraft does no more than skirt in all these tales of mind-exchange: exactly what is being exchanged? In the early story “Herbert West — Reanimator” (1921 — 22), a flamboyant and possibly self-parodic account of a mad scientist’s repeated attempts to reanimate the dead, the narrator states that Herbert West believed “with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called ’soul’ is a myth.” The reference is to Ernst Haeckel (1834 — 1919), the German biologist and naturalist whose vigorous support of the theory of evolution is embodied in several works, notably Die Welträthsel (1899; translated into English in 1900 as The Riddle of the Universe), a book that markedly influenced Lovecraft when he read it around 1920. If, with Haeckel, Lovecraft had dispensed with the notion of an immaterial “soul,” how then could he envision a (presumably material) mind cast out of its own body and thrust into that of another? He never really addresses the issue in the tales in question, and perhaps we are to believe that he retained this conception, even in such a purely science-fictional tale as “The Shadow out of Time,” as the one supernatural “safety-valve” in a work that otherwise rigorously observes every known scientific principle.

In conclusion, one cannot avoid discussion of what seems to be a fundamental contradiction in Lovecraft’s attitude toward science. In his life and philosophy he found in science the chief arbiter of truth about the natural world, and he used it frequently as a cudgel with which to beat orthodox religion over his head. But what then do we make of that celebrated opening passage in “The Call of Cthulhu”?

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Taking into account that this is a work of fiction and not a philosophical tract, we are nevertheless faced with the query: How can Lovecraft, the supreme scientific rationalist, still find himself able to say that science “will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species,” or that its findings might initiate a “new dark age”? Does this not indicate a hostility to science starkly at odds with his general philosophy?

Lovecraft’s “attack” on science can be seen as part and parcel of his aesthetic (as opposed to his metaphysical) enterprise. In other words, Lovecraft used weird fiction to create “the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law” (“Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”); but he knew that such a gesture was not to be confused with an actual acceptance of the reality of a suspension of natural law. Convinced, to his own satisfaction (in spite of the findings of Einstein, Planck, and others), of the invariability of natural laws, Lovecraft nonetheless enjoyed giving himself the frisson of contemplating — at least for the duration of a story — the possibility that natural laws had been suspended or subverted. To suggest that science did not have all the answers to the universe was critical to his ability to preserve the sense of wonder and awe that he believed all weird writers must retain. To adapt his own terminology, the suggestion of the limitations of science was not a contradiction of his materialist philosophy, but a supplement to it. In 1930 he wrote:

I get no kick at all from postulating what isn’t so, as religionists and idealists do. That leaves me cold . . . My big kick comes from taking reality just as it is — accepting all the limitations of the most orthodox science — and then permitting my symbolising faculty to build outward from the existing facts; rearing a structure of indefinite promise and possibility whose topless towers are in no cosmos or dimension penetrable by the contradicting-power of the tyrannous and inexorable intellect. But the whole secret of the kick is that I know damn well it isn’t so.

The point about religion is of interest, for Lovecraft believed it was exactly the error of religionists to take literally what could only have a symbolic reality: “religion itself is merely a pompous formalisation of fantastic art. Its disadvantage is that it demands an intellectual belief in the impossible, whereas fantastic art does not.”

Lovecraft the scientific rationalist, then, produced a literature in which the boundaries of rationalism and science are pushed to their limits; but he could only get the “kick” he wanted by adhering to the most rigid and up-to-date findings of that science, which to him was the arbiter of all truth. And yet, science was in no way a hindrance to the functioning of the imagination; indeed, quite the reverse: “The more we learn of the cosmos, the more bewildering does it appear.”




This lecture was delivered at the Nineth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 7, 2012. The lecture was presented in the Edgar Allan Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

© 2012, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:0 - PLRWF, 2012] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe, Lovecraft, and the Revolution in Weird Fiction (S. T. Joshi, 2012)