March 15, 2005

That Hideous Strength

JOHN MILLER has a nice article in The Wall Street Journal today about horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. As it turns out, today is the 68th anniversary of Lovecraft's death.

We do think Mr Miller hits on just what it is that makes Lovecraft's work so particularly chilling. He writes:

Central to Lovecraft's effectiveness was his personal philosophy, and this is what separated him from Poe and the others who came before him. He was a thoroughgoing materialist--a socialist in his politics and an atheist in his beliefs. "Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large," he wrote upon successfully resubmitting the original Cthulhu story. "One must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all."

That's nihilism, of course, and we're free to reject it. But there's nothing creepier or more terrifying than the possibility that our lives are exercises in meaninglessness. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," says Gloucester in King Lear. "They kill us for their sport." From Lovecraft's perspective, this gives us far too much credit. In his grim milieu, we don't even rate as insect pests, but we still manage to get ourselves squished.

Squished, or buried, or attacked by zombies, or destroyed by horrible beings which crawl up from the depths or arrive from out of space or which lurk unseen as we go about our everyday lives. The characters in Lovecraft's works, save one (Randolph Carter), may as well simply choose their poison and resign themselves to insanity at best and a truly horrible death at worst. There's no hope in any of his work, and that's where the terror lies.

After all -- as we said, Mr Miller has his finger on this -- we as people would generally like to think two things about our existence. First, that our short time on Earth matters, that we'll be not only be productive and loved and happy, but that we'll have an impact on our society and world as a whole -- even if that comes in ways we might not recognize now. And second, that even if we fail on Earth -- with dreams unrealized or love that fell apart or happiness that just never seemed to arrive -- there is that Redemption of knowing we will move on to what comes after, with its promise of Paradise.

Unless, of course, there is no Paradise, and our works will be forgotten. That's where Lovecraft works his magic. His universe, with complete and hideous chaos at its center, is so cold and so unforgiving and so cruel that only the feverish workings of a few scholars keep mankind safe from the hidden knowledge that would destroy us. That's where the terror comes in, as otherwise normal people go where they ought not tread and learn what they ought not discover.

Yet amidst even that terror there is beauty, as evidenced in Lovecraft's dream worlds, where those who have braved the universe's horrors can find a measure of contentment out of time and space. It is with these that we think Lovecraft made his mark as a writer -- for the imagination which he showed in creating them was so downright impressive that only a few others in the genre have since matched it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 15, 2005 05:32 PM | TrackBack