H.P. Lovecraft And The Human Animal

From Myth to Mythos: What the Horror of H.P. Lovecraft Tells us About the Human Animal

    Referred to as “the man who can scare Steven King,”(Wohleber, 82), H.P. Lovecraft is a writer whose handful of under-recognized stories stand as a foundational pillar of both horror and science fiction, slipstreaming between the two to create a hybrid older than either genre as they stand today. Dwarfed by the adaptations or “Mythos” of his much larger cult following, the stories of H.P. Lovecraft remain as concentrated nuggets of darkness that draw their terror from the cosmic and the supernatural, playing off of the natural penchant that the human mind has for terror, specifically terror of the unknown. But Lovecraft’s own core stories nesting at the center of what many refer to loosely as the “Cthulhu Mythos” are adaptive as well. Working with the foggy, 19th century New England setting of his time, rich with the rotting relics of a pre-colonial period, the folktales which he heard and read in the lands around him, the works and accounts of dead civilizations he was exposed to through dusty books in forgotten corners of the libraries he visited, and a dissector-like knowledge of the workings of terror within the human mind, Lovecraft imbued his work with a richness that flowed freely from the world around him. His works feed upon existing mythos and folklore to create a mythos of their own that are then incorporated into the “canon” of a greater mythos used and recognized by others, especially other writers, who not only “extend” his material (as Harris puts it in Rewriting,) but also add to the slow-growing genres of horror and weird fiction of which H.P. Lovecraft has become both a pillar and a staple. Lovecraft’s adaptations of the world around him and the way that those adaptations have grown beyond their simple component stories into a grander mythos insinuated into the framework of our culture tells us something very profound about who we are and sheds a pale light on some of the innermost workings of the human mind. They tell us that not only is fear of the unknown an incredibly powerful emotion, but also that it is addictive and pervasive, a part of our psychology that has persisted since ancient times and will continue to persist on into the foreseeable future.

    “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”(Lovecraft, 1) is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most profound and widely recognized quotes primarily because it defines a core element of human personality that is both primal and pervasive. Lovecraft, within his works, is master of the unknown, the hand behind the curtain which we never see, and the persistence and constant revivification of his mythos by others tells us that not only is fear of the unknown a powerful emotion, but also a strangely attractive one. “Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races” (Lovecraft, 3) states Lovecraft in his own defense of supernatural horror as literature, citing such arcane examples of terror and awe as those found in fragments of the Book of Enoch and the Claviculae of Solomon, texts which have in turn been used as foundational materials for New Age and more post-modern faith revitalizations which seek to bring some of the awe, the wonder, mystery and thrill back into the ways in which we interact with spirit (like the pagan reinvisioning of pre-Christian Gnosticism, in the case of the latter text.) The unknown quantities of those aspects of religion and human experience which transcend science carry both a sense of fear of unspoken evils and unfathomable wonder for us as human beings that only the imagination can usher forth, and it is here that we glimpse the allure of tales like those crafted by Lovecraft and those that have been drawn into his mythos to adapt and imitate his work and make it their own. The use of mystery, key phrases which take the place of description by hinting that something was too horrible to describe, or a lack of description altogether, forces the mind to fill in the gaps when it comes to the most terrifying moments and is the key to the thrill-terror response that so defines Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction– it is by making the reader create his or her own most horrific images that Lovecraft creates both mystery and terror, playing off the fact that there is nothing more terrifying than what the reader him or herself can imagine. "If anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon,”(Price, 84) Lovecraft himself is quoted as having said, bringing us back to the idea that the unknown and the unseen are far more terrifying than even the most grotesque known, described or seen horrors. “It would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it”(Price, 84). Once light is shined upon a subject and its features, however grotesque and horrible, are exposed for all to see, it loses the sense of palpable terror that only the imagination can supply to unknown qualities, and though a certain lingering fear may remain, it is only within the depths of the unknown that we find the strongest terrors and the most stirring wonders. Why? Because of the simple fact that not everyone is terrified by the same things, and that there are some things within each of us which only we find truly terrifying. Consider what pops into the mind if one were to describe a wolf in a way that they thought was terrifying– say, with long, gnashing teeth and cruel yellow eyes, but is that more or less terrifying than what comes into the mind at vaguer language like: the horrid creature snarled, teeth exposed, eyes pulsing, hungry as it watched me from the darkness? In the end, it is the same wolf, but by being given the impetus to craft an image of the creature in our minds, we unwittingly make it even more terrifying than the author ever could have.

    When we look at what is referred to as the “greater canon” of Lovecraft’s Mythos, we can see that the most visible imitations and adaptations of his work ignore or pay little more than passing attention to the majority of his literary contributions, focusing much more fully on his most famous story The Call of Cthulhu. Even Arkham Horror, arguably one of the most all-encompassing adaptations of the greater Lovecraftian Mythos, spreads itself under the banner of the catch-all branding “Call of Cthulhu”, linking it with other Lovecraftian products in a loose alliance that takes on the appearance of being a separate genre the way other slipstream forms carry labels like “Cyberpunk” and “Steampunk” that those familiar with the terms will recognize and often seek out when looking for more material in the same vein. We see comedic adaptations like Hello Cthulhu (Lovecraft meets Hello Kitty) and Calls for Cthulhu (A mock talk show) which focus almost exclusively on this singular aspect of Lovecraft’s Mythos, and even some adaptations which feature none of the material from the story The Call of Cthulhu but still bear part of its legacy within their name, as we can see in titles like Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, (which is almost a direct retelling of The Shadow Over Innsmouth – a tale which does not feature Cthulhu) and even the 2008 film Cthulhu, which, instead of focusing on the story from which it has taken its namesake, is rather a modern-day retelling of Lovecraft’s tale Dagon. This happens, I believe, because Lovecraft’s own constructed mythological entity “Cthulhu” has become iconic within the body of his work and stands as both a monument and a signpost to all things Lovecraftian. It is a recognizable facet of the greater mythos created by his stories and it is this greater mythos, this creation of whole, quasi-fictional and impossibly ancient systems of belief that remain almost wholly unexplained and undetailed which stand as important structures within the framework of his stories because it is through these undescribed, fictional systems of belief that some of the most pervasive and detailed adaptations of Lovecraft’s work outside the normal canon have come to life. Consider the fact that, before Lovecraft wrote about it, there was no text known as the “Necronomicon”, despite the fact that there is now a plethora of texts bearing that name widely available– most of which claim to have been written (or be related to) the mad arab Alhazred (which Lovecraft describes in his fiction) and his “original” text written in the seventh century. This “imitation”, as Theodor Adorno puts it in On Popular Music, which labels all art as adaptation of “what works consistently,” finds strong evidence in the way that the works of Lovecraft have been adapted in the last century, and especially in regard to those works which don’t bear any of the blatant brand stamping we’ve come to associate with “Cthulhu” products.

    If we look at all fiction with varying degrees of generalization when we ask ourselves what has grown out of Lovecraft’s mire of supernatural horror, a man whose work is often seen as an early cross-genre form of both Science Fiction and Horror, we begin to see varying levels of bleedover into everything from movies, books, films and stories. Even ABC’s V, which aired Friday, November 6th, 2009 while I was writing this paper could be seen as an offshoot of a very Lovecraftian look at both fiction and the world itself– even if you ignore the obvious similarities between Lovecraftian entities like the space-born Migou who surgically modify themselves to pass as human and the “Visitors” from V who create their own human disguise from cloned human flesh. The entire idea of the series, that alien lifeforms have come from another planet and disguised their horrible true nature with human flesh so that they may blend in while secretly harvesting some resource practically right under our noses, parallels exactly that put forth in Lovecraft’s tale “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Steven King refers to Lovecraft as "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale"(Wohleber, 82) and a profound influence not only on his many own works, but on the works of a number of other writers as well. We see it in the way even one of Lovecraft’s lesser known stories like From Beyond has been adapted both in the form of a film of the same name (1986) and also more subtly through homage in many other mediums, including as a quest in the massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon makes its appearance in the Evil Dead series of movies, the asylum of his fictional town Arkham figures heavily into Batman, Borges dedicated his story There Are More Things to him, and even writers and artists behind both the Alien franchise and Dungeons and Dragons, two heavily imitated and adapted sources in and of themselves, have admitted a heavy influence coming from Lovecraft. H.R. Giger himself, the man responsible for the design of the iconic Alien of the science fiction / horror franchise of the same name, as well as many other pieces of art which terrify and excite the mind, is quoted as having said “I very much admire Lovecraft’s work”(Paul, 2) and that by literally covering his walls with the paintings he says come directly from some of his most horrifying nightmares, he has turned his home into “a sort of Lovecraftian temple.”(Paul, 2) Through Giger’s work, the mythos and dark biomechanical creepiness of H.P. Lovecraft has leaked heavily into Hollywood, inspiring widely-recognized creations of cinematic mastery such as the sentinels and machinery of The Matrix and the design of Star Trek’s Borg. Universally, aspects and key elements of his mythos have been used to set a certain tone for works that have come afterwards, effectively borrowing a sense of the fantastic and the terrifying even where the original source of those images has gone uncited or unnoticed by the consumer. The idea of a depthless unknown which presses in upon us from the cosmic distances and bleeds into our world, an unknown full of wonders and terrors alike that only the imagination can truly give life to, is a pervasive element of our entertainment, our culture and our psyche which continues to build upon itself, flourishing in the niches of the mind and insidiously coloring everything we see, do and hear in ways we often are completely ignorant of.

    But if work like Lovecraft’s is so pervasive, if the simultaneous attraction to and terror of the undefinable wonders of the unknown is a force firmly rooted in both our biology and our psychology, what does this mean for humanity? What is it about the weird and the horrible, the terrifying unknown that draws us in and holds us so pervasively? What drives us to seek it out, to adapt it and recreate it? What impulse “drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it”(Lovecraft, 3) time and time again? Are we really so attracted to fear, to the notion of the dangerous bizarre that lurks in the depthless gulfs of the unknown that we must continually revitalize and refresh it? “Fear thoughts cannot be successfully driven out of the mind”(Sadler, 374) say psychologists. They are part of us– terror of the unknown is an unalienable aspect of the human psyche, and it is an aspect that meshes with wonder and an attraction which borders on addiction. Why else would we ride rollercoasters, take risks, make humorous parodies of the things that we fear or end up with thick and varied cult followings which dwarf their source material as incredibly as those that surround H.P. Lovecraft’s lonely handful of stories do, and what does the fact that we do these things really and truly say about the human animal? The simple fact is that no matter how far we go as a species, no matter how much of our mysterious universe our scientific prying may expose and reveal for what it truly is, there will always be “an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue”(Lovecraft, 2). Our reactions to the unknown are part of who we are, they are a “mechanism” that “causes us to play down the risks of familiar things and play up the novel and unknown”(Gardner, 242-243) making the senses of fear and wonder we experience when we peer into the unknown so pervasive that they would remain “obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder” (Lovecraft, 2). There will always be a part of the human mind which hesitates at the edge of the unknown and yet yearns to know its secrets, and both the work of H.P. Lovecraft and those who have adapted him stand as proof of this. Fear of the unknown is an integral part of the operation and equation, the machine that is the human animal, and even if we come to know every speck of dust and wonder in the greater cosmos, even if we shine light into every crack and dark corner in the universe, there will still be lingerings of the fear of the unknown, the thrill of terror that authors like Lovecraft infuse into their texts.

    When we look at the tales of supernatural horror woven so carefully and so skillfully by a writer like H.P. Lovecraft, there is a part of the mind that still echoes with the haunting vibrations of ancestral fears of an unknown world that stretched out vast and unplumbed beyond the light of campfires and doorway thresholds. There is a sense of wonder and a sense of terror that rises up when we stare into the unknown, hesitant and yet eager for answers, and it is that commingled sense which entrances us and makes the unknown so attractive, the idea of pioneering and discovery so satisfying. We yearn to uncover that last, untouched and undiscovered frontier, to reach out and learn all its secrets, both terrifying and wonderful, and it is that undiscovered frontier, that forgotten and lost past and the depths of a cosmos totally devoid of humanity that give the works of H.P. Lovecraft as well as the adaptations and imitations of those works, exactly the flavor they need to tingle the forgotten senses of the mind and fire the imagination in ways that are so primal, so deep running that they border on something almost spiritual.

WORKS CITED

    Adorno, Theodor W. “On Popular Music” Libcom.org 2008. http://libcom.org/library/on-pop-music-theodor-adorno-george-simpson Web. October 19th, 2009.
    Gardner, Daniel. The Science of Fear: Why We Fear The Things We Shouldn’t- - And Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
    Lovecraft, Howard P., and E.F. Bleiler Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover, 1973. Print.
    Paul, R.F. An Interview with H.R. Giger. Littlegiger.com http://www.littlegiger.com/articles/files/Esoterra_9.pdf Web. December 12th, 2009.
Price, R.M. The Hastur Cycle. California: Chaosium Publications, 1997. Print
    Sadler, William S. M.D. The Physiology of Faith and Fear or The Mind in Health and Disease. Illinois: A.C. McClurg & Co. 1912. Print
Wohleber, Curt. “The Man Who Can Scare Steven King.” American Heritage. Dec.1995 Print.

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garynew 5 years ago from Dallas, TX and Sampran, Thailand

As brilliant as he was, he could be hard to read/understand. Inspired a lot of good (and dreadful) horror movies.

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