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 put it, obscures some of the wider richness and depth that he contributes to fantastic fiction, and to literature in general.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on November 1, 2010, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Matt, don’t know if this may be harsh, but I believe even Lovecraft proponents sometimes end up misrepresenting him.

    I read the de Camp bio earlier this year and was struck by how interesting Lovecraft was. Not just intelligent, but also funny and charismatic. Then I picked up the Rodionoff graphic novel Lovecraft. Given the whole plot centers around Lovecraft really being threatened by “powers from outside,” but the brooding, somber character of that work was so one-note compared with the real article.

    Then I read Stephen King’s “On Writing,” where King regurgitates the old story of Lovecraft as a recluse with no friends who could only relate to people through correspondence. (To be fair, I think King has always viewed Lovecraft with ambivalence.)

    • Doesn’t sound too harsh to me. I think you’re onto something. And I find it fascinating that you would mention the de Camp bio. It’s one of the books that turned me onto Lovecraft when I was in my teens. I fell in love with HPL via de Camp’s portrait of him, which is just as you describe. But at the same time it’s a book that has been severely and justly criticized because de Camp chose to inject his own rather fatuous judgments and opinions about what it means to “be a man” and “be mature” and “grow up,” which he projected onto the arc of Lovecraft’s life as a supervening interpretation. Which is all to say that if you liked the de Camp biography, and you haven’t read Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, I highly recommend the latter to you, since it accomplishes what de Camp did, but in a more objective fashion.

  2. Matt,

    I’ve been working my way through the backlog of your articles and writing (which I now realize I’ve been reading much longer than I thought, having first encountered The Children of Cthulhu in a high school library ages ago) following the chains of thought, and things like these are why I’ve been constantly forwarding my book friends to you.

    The mingling of both terror and longing/wonder in Lovecraft is what first stunned me when I read Lovecraft, and it is why I go back. Its also why, I’m sure, so much of the “Cthulhu Mythos” fiction that gets published these days falls so flat.

    Thank you for the articles, and I look forward to reading more.


    • Thanks for the good words, James. I’m glad to hear that my writing resonates with you. Very cool to hear that you respond to the same things in HPL that I focused on in this article.

  3. Tyson’s work is entertaining, but I am not sure I will buy this one. Lovecraft was a materialist/atheist type; I wouldn’t claim to know what went on in his unconscious, or anyone else’s for that matter, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who did. But I always read his stuff with wonder rather than horror, and you do well to point out the presence of the former.

    • Fair enough. I think Tyson’s book sounds interesting and imaginatively stimulating. This makes it fair game for me, according to the standards by which I plot my literary life. 🙂

  4. I agree with you Matt about the positive stance Lovecraft took up in his Dream-Quest. Having re-read it recently I was reminded of the statement from the late Henry Corbin in his studies on Shia gnosis: “Each of us carries within himself an Image of his own world, his imago mundi, and projects it into a more or less coherent universe, which becomes the stage on which his destiny is played out.”

    Lovecraft was more of an explorer, a man who wanted more than anything to stand in the midst of things without reaching after hard facts, to appraise each situation on its own merits without judging it through the hard lense of some belief system – be it scientific, philosophical, or quasi religious. What has always struck me equivocally about Lovecraft is his ability to reason without grasping: that keen ability to just see into the life of things; and if it lead to nightmares or dream cities of ultimate splendour, it was always with that typical humor that did not denegrate the ‘Other’, nor try to peg it to some frame of reference either scientific or religious. He stood in the midst of reality and let it be, neither an idealist, nor a realist, just a creature without self, conscious of the mystery that is existence.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, S.C. And how interesting that you would bring up Corbin, since it was only a month or so ago that I read his classic essay on the imaginal in its entirety, after having been aware of it, and having read snippets from it, for quite some time previously.

      I enjoy your characterization of Lovecraft’s stance toward the universe. I would only amend that in his conscious philosophical thought he did indeed collapse the cosmos and all of reality into a strict scientific materialism, from which point of view he regarded his epic craving for transcendent beauty etc. as nothing but the action of electrochemical fluctuations in his brain, as determined by psychological patterns that he had inherited from his personal and ancestral histories. The thing is — as you’ve correctly identified — his affective window on reality was so vivid and strong that in effect he really did let his imagination roam free to envision anything and everything, however far beyond the scope of what he regarded as “real” reality these fancies might take him. This is one area of analysis and speculation where I’m thinking Tyson’s book, the one that I used as the springboard for my post here, will prove to be extremely valuable and highly enjoyable.

      Speaking of enjoyable, I’ve enjoyed your recent blog posts about Ligotti’s pessimism. Nice show.

      • Thanks! Yea, been a secretive fan of Thomas Ligotti’s work for years, and been thinking of adding in some notations to my journal. You might check out a new story in the works that I just added to my journal as well… more in the Borges and Hesse fantasmic vein… but still a hint of the darker satire of certain elements within our Universities and political establishment, too…

        again, just begun reading many of your essays… enjoyed it all so far… 🙂

  5. This is one of the finest posts I’ve read on Lovecraft, and I appreciate the intelligent responses. My problem with Tyson’s view of Lovecraft is that he insists that HPL was a chaotic freak and misfit. This simply isn’t true. Lovecraft was actually very normal, a man dedicated to his work as literary artist. For a really solid and realistic investigation of Lovecraft’s life and thought, I put my money on S. T.’s I AM PROVIDNECE, the second volume of which I have just started reading. For me, this is a portrait of the REAL Lovecraft, not a Lovecraft in one’s own image.

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