Horror, meaning, and madness: Dangers of lifting the cosmic veil

(Liminalities, Cycle 1, Part 2)

In my novelette “Teeth” — first published at Thomas Ligotti Online, then in The Children of Cthulhu, and then in expanded form in my Dark Awakenings — there’s a scene where the narrator reads a notebook filled with ruminations on the convergence of philosophy and religion with cosmic horror, all interwoven with an examination of the same issues in the context of quantum physics. He’s a graduate student in philosophy, but the reading of these things initiates a transformative change in his psychic constitution and gives him a different sort of philosophical education than the one he had previously pursued.

He summarizes the notebook’s scientific content and import like this:

The mathematical work was beyond me, but from his text notes I could gather enough to grasp the bare essence of the matter, which had something to do with the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. I read that the equations used in this science are straightforward and uncontested in terms of their practical applications, as attested by everything from television to the hydrogen bomb, but that no satisfactory explanation for their meaning, their overall implications at the macroscopic level of existence, had yet been established. On the subatomic level, I read, particles flash into and out of existence for no discernible reason, and the behavior of any single particle is apparently arbitrary and usually unpredictable.  If there is a cause or “purpose” behind this behavior, then it is one that the human mind is, to all appearances, structurally prevented from comprehending.  In other words, for all we know, the fundamental ruling principles at the most basic level of physical reality may well be what our minds and languages must necessarily label “chaos” and “madness.” [1]

When I first wrote those lines in the mid-1990s, I was enwrapped in a pattern of inner and outer events and circumstances — personal, professional, psychological, spiritual — that seemed either shriekingly meaningless or evilly intended, and I was utterly unable to decide which possibility, nihilism or a malevolent cosmos, seemed more likely, and also, pointedly, which one seemed worse. And amid the indecision, regardless of the causes, I was suffering.

Lovecraft’s celebrated opening paragraph in “The Call of Cthulhu,” which I quoted in “Teeth,” wasn’t just something I found interesting for intellectual or literary reasons. It struck right to my core and articulated a fear that had flooded up from my depths to inundate me: the fear that life, the universe, everything in general, might well turn out to be invested with an overall meaning — and that this meaning might well turn out to be something unbearably awful.

Lovecraft wrote:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little. But some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu

* * *

“At times,” says the poet William Stafford, “without my insisting on it, my writings become coherent; the successive elements that occur to me are clearly related. They lead by themselves to new connections. Sometimes the language, even the syllables that happen along, may start a trend … I know that back of my activity there will be the coherence of my self, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.”

In “Waking the Dead,” a horror story in the form of a heavy metal song about inadvertently waking the dead from their grave to walk the earth, the band Suicidal Tendencies, headed by anger-fueled (and über-intelligent) front man Mike Muir, describes a transformation of language that takes over the mouth and works to summon forth an apocalypse of living corpses:

The words I say, they start to change
The syllables now rearranged
A language I can’t comprehend
I shut my mouth, it doesn’t end
The bowels of nature open wide
I cannot move, I cannot hide
I can’t believe the things I see
The dead are free, the dead are free
I close my eyes, pray it’s not real
Their presence close, coldness I feel

Or actually, this waking of the dead is not accidental. It simply gets out of hand. Early in the song/story, the narrator expresses a burning jealousy toward those who rest in peace beneath the soil:

Why should they be resting so peacefully
When we’re up above in pure misery?
I don’t care that they’ve already died
That’s not enough to make me satisfied

Dying, says Muir/the narrator, isn’t a high enough price to pay for achieving the bliss of unfeeling. Not when the rest of us remain “up above in pure misery.” The dead don’t deserve their gift of oblivion. It’s unjust. It has to be revoked. And this sentiment, involuntarily felt and vented in an effusion of pure, unreflective anger and hatred, causes unintended and unstoppable consequences that undo the natural order of things.

Is it possible that a horrific meaning inhering in the cosmos at large could also inhere in the self? If it really is possible through the practice of writing or some other art to hit upon and uncover “the coherence of my self” as seen in “recurrent patterns and meanings” that emerge from “the indulgence of my impulses,” might I perhaps find that this isn’t all I had hoped it would be? Might I find that self-actualization isn’t automatically joyful and fulfilling? Might I find that the coherence within my self — or beneath or behind my self — actually corresponds to Lovecraft’s nightmare of deadly meaning in the universe as a whole? If so, how might the accessing and actualizing of this self change the world itself in unforeseen and unnatural ways?

* * *

“As above, so below,” says the ancient Hermetic maxim. In esoteric spiritual terms, this is understood as referring to the identity between the deep reality of the individual soul and the transcendent reality of absolute deity that encompasses and lies beyond the rim of the cosmos. In the words of religion scholar and philosopher Huston Smith,

Envisioned externally, as residing outside of man and apart from him, the Good dons metaphors of height: “I shall lift up mine eyes unto the hills. . .”; “in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up.” When man reverses his gaze and looks inward, his value-imagery likewise transposes; it turns over. Within man, the best lies deepest; it is basic, fundamental, the ground of his being. All the levels of reality are within man, for microcosm mirrors macrocosm; man mirrors the Infinite. But mirrors invert; hence symbolism’s “law of inverse analogy.” That which man seeks externally in the highest heavens he seeks internally in the depths of his soul. Spiritual space, like physical, is curved. We journey far to reach our origin.” [2]

But what if the reality “above,” the one we “seek externally in the highest heavens,” were to be something like what Lovecraft described as the extra-cosmic nightmare whose evocation constitutes the essence of weird supernatural horror?

[M]en with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse …  A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present [in a true weird tale]; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space … The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.

— H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)

Yes, what then? What if those “hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life” may pulsate not only “in the gulfs beyond the stars” but in the depths of our own souls? What if those dark entities and outside shape with their claws and black wings may scratch not just on the outer rim of the known universe but upon its inner rim? Behind the brain, beneath the breath, even beneath the lowest layers of the personal unconscious with its skeleton closet of rapacious Freudian id-ness, in the place where we reach Jung’s and Hillman’s archetypes, and then beyond even that, delving into the substratum of the Self where all of the archetypes and aliens and shadow people and discarnates with their buzzing daimonic potency have their primal reality — might we find the essence of the monstrous itself, a slumbering cosmic Leviathan? Might we be confronted by the crimson glowing eyes and tentacular visage of something beyond endurance but also beyond escaping because it is in fact the Zen master’s whale upon which we stand while fishing heedlessly for minnows?

* * *

To some people, this kind of speculation sounds ridiculous and pointless, a waste of time, words, and imaginative energy. To others, especially to those who enjoy cosmic horror stories, it falls somewhere on the continuum between interesting and fascinating. Both responses miss the mark. Both miss the diseased yellow moon to which the words are but a dark Taoist gesture. When the reality in question arises to grip you from within, it’s not interesting. It’s not ridiculous. It’s awful, in the most pointed, particular, and agonizing sense of that word. And it’s undeniable.

“When the monster lies in shadows — its native domain — at least you don’t have to look at it, lock eyes with it, and recognize its gaze as the depth of your own.”

In his essay “The Consolations of Horror,” Thomas Ligotti argues that artistic horror offers only a single valid consolation: “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” [3] In achieving the unenviable status of an initiate into the “peculiar set of experiences” that will lead a person to appreciate — truly, deeply, existentially — the works of a Ligotti or a Lovecraft, or to sense in every statement of religious, mystical, and nondual truth the implied threat of some living nightmare that is poised to erupt and tear through the veneer of mundane surface realities — in achieving this particular status and state of soul, a person may find that all of the synchronicities that typically attend a real engagement with matters mythic, daimonic, and esoteric begin to appear like the workings of some vast conspiracy whose masterminds are always one step ahead, always planning two moves in advance, always hiding just around the next dark corner and beyond the next fold in the twilight landscape, always playing a game whose rules, strategies, and fundamental purpose and goal remain obscure. You never asked to play it. You don’t even know the name or nature of the game. But now you realize that you are, and have always been, a pawn in it.

Patrick Harpur observes in Daimonic Reality that the heightened sense of a network of meaningful interconnections that accompanies the onset of synchronicities with an awakening to the liminal zone of daimonic entities and realities can, for some people, become deformed into a genuine case of paranoid schizophrenia based on the sense of some grand, overarching cosmic conspiracy. In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson draws an extended comparison bewteen the psyches and writings of Lovecraft and the celebrated schizophrenic Daniel Paul Schreber, who fascinated Freud, and who believed, among many other things, that mysterious “rays” were penetrating, deforming, and controlling his mind and body, and that he was under the domination of alien intelligences. “The inner worlds of Lovecraft and Schreber,” writes Nelson, “are full of fear and suffering, painful metamorphoses, debasement: transformation minus transfiguration.” [4] She also argues from various angles and with various evocative means of support that schizophrenics are “failed mystics,” and that supernatural horror fiction serves the equivalent of a religious function.

Near the end of “Teeth,” the narrator spots a possible escape from his metaphysical-ontological trap:

Over the years I have become an assiduous student of Lovecraft, not just his stories but his essays and letters. And I have marveled at the man’s uncanny ability to see so deeply into the truth and yet remain so composed and kindhearted.  Perhaps this gentle New Englander knew something that I do not, something he tried to convey when he wrote of the “vast conceit of those who babble of the malignant Ancient Ones.”  Perhaps the horror exists only in me, not in reality itself … After all, It knows only Itself, and maybe I will not perceive It as horrific after I die. Perhaps I will be so thoroughly consumed by and identified with it that “I” will not even exist at all, and my sense of horror will prove to be as fleeting and finite as the self that sensed it. [5]

Does he actually mean what he’s saying? Does he actually understand it? For that matter, do I? For there’s the rub: here, in one of the darkest corridors of Chapel Perilous, you can never be sure. Of anything. At all.

You just know that you don’t want anybody to turn on the lights, because after a while you come to realize the darkness is as much a comfort as a threat. When the monster lies in shadows — its native domain — at least you don’t have to look at it, lock eyes with it, and recognize its gaze as the depth of your own.


[1] Matt Cardin, Dark Awakenings (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2010), 14-15.

[2] Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992; 1976), 20-21.

[3] Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996), xxi.

[4] Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 130.

[5] Cardin, Dark Awakenings, 30-31.

IMAGE: Adapted from tentacles.07 by mark knol under Creative Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on August 6, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. You have a great pair of articles here, with lots to chew on for cosmicists. I see a tension between the two articles, though. The antirealism, or perhaps Kantian realism, you take up to make sense of synchronicities, dream imagery, and the priority of what empiricists called immediate sense impressions, implies an anthropocentric projection of ourselves onto everything else. Now, that sort of animism is generally thought to be more comforting than the modern, Cartesian worldview that divides the self from the world.

    So whence the fear of the Other, given the subjectivity even of physical nature? In this second part of your article you propose an answer: we may be alien to ourselves, in which case there would be no comfort in finding projections of us in our understanding of nonhuman things, of what Kant called noumena. But which scenario would be scarier in the Lovecraftian sense, this anthropocentric one or the semi-Cartesian, reductionistic one in which an absolutely nonhuman reality has us in its grip? (Even to speak of its “grip” is to resort to a reassuring, anthropocentric metaphor.) You don’t get to Lovecraft’s mysterian warning that our values count for nothing in the grand scheme of things if we’re cosmically central in that all known nature is merely phenomenal (partly subjective).

    In my blog, Rants within the Undead God, I like to stress the link between cosmic horror and science, meaning such horror and the standard naturalistic worldview in which the nonhuman is primary. If science entails that humiliating sense of our position in nature, with all of science’s prestige and power, the need for what I call a viable postmodern religion (one based on naturalism and on a Nietzschean courage to confront harsh truths) becomes just as secure, since only such a religion can deal constructively with this dynamic between science and horror.

    Anyway, thanks for these thought-provoking articles.

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