The Nature of Victory and Defeat in H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction
The Cthulhu Tragedy
One of the most terrifying and powerful elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror is the toll taken on characters, even those who emerge as successful.
As with much horror writing Lovecraft’s protagonists are pitted against stronger forces. Though they are frequently educated, economically secure men, they do not stand a chance as Van Helsing does against Dracula, for the cosmic monstrosities of the Cthulhu mythos are nearly invulnerable.
Even those who have physical form are enormous, destructive, and so alien in appearance that no weakness to exploit can readily be found. These massive immortal foes have more in common with H. G. Well’s Martians in War of the Worlds than with the conventional antagonists of horror stories such as vampire, werewolves, and ghosts. As such, Lovecraft's fiction is often called cosmic horror. The antagonists are not only extraterrestrial in nature, but they also represent the enormous and often impersonally destructive nature of the cosmos, wherein human being are not powerful or special in any way.
Beyond their terrifying physical presence Lovecraftian monsters are notorious for destabilizing the sanity of even the sturdiest protagonist. Where conventional horror stories induce fear, creatures such as Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth all drive people to insanity, too. The madness not only affects fanatic devotees—like those seen in “The Call of Cthulhu”—but also affects the protagonists. These individuals of sound reasoning are reduced to raving madmen by their confrontations with these inhuman forces.
These breakdowns, such as those capping off gruesome tales such as “Dagon,” "Shadow of Innsmouth," or “The Rats in the Walls,” leave the protagonists appearing crazed or criminal, but even worse fates are possible such as macabre finale of “The Dreams in the Witch House.” No one escapes unscathed, and even the passive narrators in stories such as “The Colour Out of Space” are disturbed by simply hearing about the catastrophic events that befell others caught in conflict with Lovecraftian monsters.
Even when protagonists manage to triumph, as in “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” the physical and mental costs make success seem paltry. At best the agents of evil are halted for a time, but no lasting defeat is ever dealt to these creatures making them seem nearly omnipotent especially compared to the frail individuals trying to stop them. These circumstances further depress the protagonists and the reader who, seeing that these monsters will surely attempt their evil another day, doubts the effectiveness of making these costly stands time and time again.
Success by Accident
In a few instances a serious blow is dealt to Lovecraftian villains not by the intelligent, well-meaning protagonists but by groups that stumble into the unfolding narrative. In “The Call of Cthulhu” the cultists in Louisiana are routed almost unintentionally by Inspector Legrasse and the New Orleans police, and the mighty Cthulhu is wounded by the stalwart crew of the Alert who find the fiend’s nightmare city by accident. Of course even those who survive these encounters are haunted and psychologically marred by the experience. Also, as with other stories, there is no suggestion that these victories represent a triumph of good over evil for all time. At best, destructive entities are staved off and the fullness of their alien power is not made manifest.
Similarly in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” the inhabitants of that town are detained and their frightening homes—including Devil Reef—demolished by Federal agents. While this seems to be a serious act against the mutant people of the town, the reader learns that the monstrous progenitors the people of Innsmouth worship cannot ever die but only be held in check, and even those measures cannot work indefinitely. The discoveries made by the narrator about his own parentage and the desires in his blood make this seem certain.
The real horrors of Lovecraft’s short stories are two-fold. First there is the standard horror convention of relatively helpless protagonists struggling against terrifying creatures. In these instances the monsters outclass their competition so completely it often drives the heroes into extreme depression or insanity. Secondly, the unfathomable and seemingly unstoppable nature of these monsters leads to a sense of despair or defeatism since the protagonists--and by proxy the readers who identify with them--appear outclassed and outmatched by the cosmic horrors they face.
© 2009 Seth Tomko