Cosmic Horror and Cosmic Wonder: Revisioning Our Vision of H.P. Lovecraft
Next week will see the publication of The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe, described by the publisher as a book in which long-time occultist and Lovecraft scholar Donald Tyson “plumbs the depths of H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic visions and horrific dream world to examine, warts and all, the strange life of the man who created the Necronomicon and the Cthulhu mythos. . . . Tyson reveals Lovecraft for what he truly was — a dreamer, an astral traveler, and the prophet of a New Age.” The central thesis is that Lovecraft’s vibrant fictional visions stemmed from a luridly vibrant inner life that actually touched on occult and metaphysical realities — from which Lovecraft distanced himself by holding firmly to a conscious attitude of skepticism, atheism, and materialism. The whole thing sounds absolutely fascinating, and has been made even more so by Tyson’s recent article “H.P. Lovecraft: Flight from Madness,” which appears to have been excerpted from the book.
But I must say that I continue to be mildly dismayed at the way Lovecraft is commonly portrayed — apparently even here, in a book devoted to exploring the significance of his dream life to an overall understanding of his work and person — as being primarily obsessed with and possessed by visions and notions of cosmic nightmarishness. I know this is the standard view that has clung to him during his decades-long ascent to a position of pervasive cultural awareness, but just because it’s widely held doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, it’s plainly wrong.
In “Flight from Madness” Tyson delves into Lovecraft’s personal psychology and characterizes him as a man whose psyche was home to a chaotic churning of dark elements that gave rise to a preternaturally vivid dream life and a voracious hunger for horror stories. He describes Lovecraft’s unconscious mind as “a chaos of fantastic daydreams, horrifying nightmares, strange impulses, irrational fears, and uncanny intuitions” that “intruded themselves on his waking life in the form of obsessions that are too numerous to list,” and that generated a “deep but unacknowledged need to revel in bizarre and morbid fantasies” like those in the horror and fantasy pulps he devoured as a young man.
Tyson also says Lovecraft’s idiosyncratic psychological bent gave rise to his need to create fiction, since “Writing stories about his nightmares, and about the things that both obsessed and terrified him, was Lovecraft’s way to gain conscious control over their contents, and in this way purge them from his psyche — or at least, to castrate them and deprive them of their power over him.”
Significantly, in illustrating his point Tyson calls out not just the familiar stories in the “Lovecraft Mythos” about Cthulhu and the Old Ones, but also Lovecraft’s dreamland cycle of stories, including his unpolished but still astounding fantasy-horror novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. In talking about this one, Tyson describes it as if it’s solely, or primarily, about the author’s struggle with the dark daemonic forces in his psyche, and he channels this into the conclusion he offers a few paragraphs later about the overall thrust of Lovecraft’s work:
This is the message of Lovecraft’s grim stories. Humanity balances on the very brink of oblivion, protected only by our ignorance. The dread power of such books as the Necronomicon, which Lovecraft originated for his stories, is that they lift the veil of unknowing from the minds of those who read them, driving them mad or causing them to kill themselves in order to escape the unbearable horror of the human condition. In Lovecraft’s tales, the naked truth about existence is toxic.
Now, I certainly can’t disagree with this in its details, especially since I myself included Lovecraft and his ideas as a central motif in my novelette “Teeth,” first published in the Del Rey anthology The Children of Cthulhu and now appearing in drastically revised and expanded form in my new book Dark Awakenings. The story advances/illustrates Tyson’s nicely stated idea that “the naked truth about existence is toxic,” and underscores the fact that this was definitely a major, even a defining, trope in Lovecraft’s work.
But the thing is, for Lovecraft, cosmic-existential horror wasn’t the whole story. Not by a cyclopean margin. In fact, a look at his overall body of fiction, and also his personal development as an author, and his various essays about life and writing, and the teeming ocean of thousands of letters that he wrote to a vast network of correspondents, shows that his focus on the cosmic horrific theme of existence-as-nightmare was balanced and complemented by a deep craving for liberation into transcendent realms of beauty and bliss. As I observed just a few days ago in my latest column for SF Signal, “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing,” this pairing of horror or terror with sehnsucht, the emotion C.S. Lewis identified as the “inconsolable longing” for “that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves,” is quite common among authors and artists, especially those working in the field of the fantastic. Its pairing specifically in the inner life of Lovecraft is something I’ve written about at length in my two-part article “Lovecraft’s Longing” (see Part One and Part Two), and in my essay for Lovecraft Annual, “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,”
Lovecraft experienced sehnsucht in spades. And ironically, in light of Tyson’s invocation of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, this aspect of his psyche and personality comes out perhaps more clearly in that novel’s opening paragraphs than anyplace else. The novel opens to show Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s oft-deployed fictional alter ego, standing on a balustraded parapet above a mythic golden dream-city “with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble,” and feeling positively drunk with longing at “the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what once had an awesome and momentous place.” This city of dreams becomes the object of Carter/Lovecraft’s quest, and the forces that ultimately oppose him are concentrated in the figure of the monster god Nyarlathotep, one of the chief symbols Lovecraft employed in a number of stories to express the cosmic-horrific side of his emotions and imaginings.
So Dream-Quest is fully as much about an exquisite experience of cosmic longing as it is about a wrenching experience of cosmic horror. The novel shows Carter yearning for an escape into a dreamworld and to a dream city of eternal solace and beauty, and being opposed by all of those nightmarish figures Tyson mentions. And it’s the recognition of this fact, not just in this particular novel but as it’s threaded throughout the rest of Lovecraft’s life and work, that’s missing from so much contemporary scholarship. It’s not that Lovecraft wasn’t about cosmic horror, but that he wasn’t all about it. Cosmic horror was wedded to cosmic wonder in his psyche. The one bled into the other. They were inextricably united as flipsides or complements in his affective makeup. Their paradoxical pairing was in fact the engine that drove him, since he was perpetually poised on the razor’s edge between perceiving the cosmic perspective as nightmarish and perceiving it as beautiful and liberating. This tension channeled itself into a burning desire to capture and convey both intimations in imaginative form, and the fact that the darker aspect has gotten more press than the lighter one in the popular and even the critical imagination, and has in fact become rote, is vaguely reminiscent of the smear-job perpetrated by Rufus Griswold on the memory of Edgar Allan Poe. But in Lovecraft’s case it appears to have happened by accident, with, perhaps, some help from unsympathetic critics such as Edmund Wilson.
I expect Tyson’s new book to prove a fascinating and edifying read. Maybe he’ll even touch on some of these matters. Or maybe not, since the excerpted article doesn’t mention them. In any event, with Lovecraft’s ascent to an official position in the American literary canon now firmly established, it’s high time for the long-running imbalance in his public perception to be redressed, since the reigning view of him as a gothic-bizarre personality and a one-note “master of disgust,” as a prominent 2005 essay at Salon.com put it, obscures some of the wider richness and depth that he contributes to fantastic fiction, and to literature in general.