Eldritch Optimism: A Kinder, Gentler Rereading of H. P. Lovecraft

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part One

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Novelist Jonathan Ryan recently wrote an essay,  “Meaning to the Madness,” that was largely devoted to exploring the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Teeming Brain head honcho Matt Cardin wrote a response. There was then a Teeming Brain podcast (the first ever) about the whole thing. And now I’m writing this column inspired by all of them. Hopefully someone will then write a piece inspired by my column, and so on, until we take over the entire Internet.

Now, while Jonathan and Matt* centered their discussion around the nature of Lovecraft’s philosophy, I’m personally fascinated by this particular comment from Jonathan’s original essay:

[T]here is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules.

(* I’m going for the informal approach here and fully expect any references to my own good self in any future pieces on this subject to be in the form of “Stuey baby.”)

It’s easy to see what he means. The protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories always wind up going mad. Or dying. Or going mad and then dying. But, being a contrary fellow, I’ve decided to try and prove that it is possible to write uplifting stories while still playing by Lovecraft’s rules. Not only that, but I’m going to prove that Howard Phillips Lovecraft — or Howie-poos, as I like to call him — did himself, on occasion, write stories full of sunny optimism. Yes, that’s the same H.P. Lovecraft who suffered night terrors as a child and witnessed the mental health problems of both his parents, whose father died of tertiary syphilis and who himself suffered a nervous breakdown and died of intestinal cancer.

I do like a challenge.

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Incidentally, I’m not even close to being an expert on Lovecraft, so this is largely me just thinking aloud as I work through some ideas about Lovecraft’s fiction. Thus, this particular column will be even more full of factual errors and ill-informed opinion than usual. I know you all thought this wasn’t possible, but hey, that’s me, always raising the bar.

Fair warning: this column will be filled with SPOILERS, so as soon as you spot the title of a film, book, TV program, or short story that you were planning to peruse in the future, I suggest gouging your eyes out with the nearest sharp object in order to avoid ruining the surprise. Alternatively, you could just skip those parts of the column.

First up, a discussion of some of Lovecraft’s most widely known stories.

Seven tales of eldritch optimism

In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” the protagonist, Walter Gilman, finds himself involved in a metaphysical dreamland where he becomes an unwilling accomplice in the kidnapping of a baby, which will then be sacrificed. Fortunately, Gilman manages to wrest the sacrificial dagger from the hand of the witch and save the baby at the last minute. Hurrah for heroism and optimism. But then the baby is killed by the witch’s familiar, and back in the waking world Gilman’s corpse is found with its heart ripped out.

Um, okay, so maybe this was a bad example to start with. Moving on to the next one…

In “The Call of Cthulhu” an ancient god is about to be unleashed and wreak havoc upon all humanity. But as Cthulhu rises from the ocean to enslave the world, he is rammed by a ship and slinks off back to his lair, crying his eyes out like a big baby. And although, yes, the captain of the ship then goes mad and dies, and there’s still the threat of Cthulhu raising his ugly head the next time the stars are in alignment, at least it’s a happier ending than “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

“Pickman’s Model” looks like it might be a contender for a happy ending. The narrator, Thurber, seems made of sterner stuff than the typical Lovecraft protagonist, even referring to himself as “fairly ‘hardboiled.’” But he ends up screaming like a girl at the sight of some paintings, and that’s even before he discovers the terrible secret behind them. This leads me to suspect that he doesn’t quite grasp the concept of being hardboiled.

Turning to another of Lovecraft’s most well-known tales, “The Outsider,” Patrick Hudson, in reviewing Alan Moore’s Lovecraft-themed Neonomicon, observes that

This story’s not a tragedy; it doesn’t end in death or despair. Instead the narrator of “The Outsider” finally finds company among others of his kind, “the mocking and friendly ghouls” … [W]e get a celebration of difference and the suggestion of an alternative social order — one of “wildness and freedom” — in the shadows of the mainstream world.”

At first glance this argument appears rather persuasive. Mind you, the fact that the ghouls are “mocking and friendly” suggests that they only tolerate the title character/narrator’s presence instead of actually liking him; in the manner of cruel children, they keep him around so they can have someone to taunt when they get bored. Or perhaps they need him to buy booze and cigarettes for them when they’ve forgotten their fake IDs. Anyway, the story’s conclusion is not a matter of pure, nihilistic despair.

Elsewhere in Lovecraft’s fictional universe, the hero of “The Shunned House” fails to save his uncle from a monster when his chosen weapon, a Crookes tube, fails to be effective. Maybe he should have used a boob tube; the monster might have been distracted by early attempts to screen music and dance. Especially if there was a 1930s version of American Idol, the monster would probably have wanted to kill itself.  Be that as it may, later on the hero redeems himself for missing this opportunity by killing the monster with barrels of acid. Destroying the monster in a horror story, by the way, amounts to a happy ending.

But there’ no need for acids in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which the hero, Marinus Willett, simply calls out a magic spell, and this puts the evil necromancer in his place and ends his schemes to enslave humanity. Joy all ’round!

In “The Dunwich Horror” a woman has sex with Yog-Sothoth and gives birth to his twin sons, one of whom is a freakish fellow: eight feet tall, covered with fur, and with tentacles dangling round his nether regions. And he’s the pretty one! His brother is a malignant creature that is sometimes invisible and sometimes revealed as a giant “octopus, centipede, spider kind o’ thing” bent on the destruction of the Earth and all who dwell upon it. It all sounds like the worst reality TV show ever: At Home with the Yog-Sothians. If only the woman had engaged in safe sex. You know, the kind that doesn’t involve evil gods. Anyway, the prettier of the twins is ripped to pieces by dogs and the other one goes on a killing rampage before being banished by a bunch of academics armed with a spellbook. Evil is averted, good triumphs. Okay, so one of the heroes does say the evil monster could come back if someone performs the correct black magic rituals and if someone else gets impregnated by Yog-Sothoth, but you’ve got to figure that the chances of this happening are pretty low. I mean, how drunk do you have to get a woman before she’ll sleep with a hideous cosmic monster? According to Robert M. Price, the story only has a happy ending because Lovecraft wimped out of showing the consequences if the monster emerged victorious and destroyed the world, as it would be too difficult to portray effectively. Regardless, it still counts as a happy ending.

Randolph Carter to the rescue

Randolph Carter is often cited as the closest thing Lovecraft ever got to writing a traditional hero. In his introduction to the Creation Oneiros edition of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, D.M. Mitchell suggests that Carter is the man Lovecraft would like to have been. Robert Bloch, in his autobiography Once Around the Bloch, similarly suggests that Carter was a stand-in for Lovecraft. A psychological dissection of Lovecraft falls outside the remit of this column, but it’s fun to imagine that in between penning his tales of cosmic horror Lovecraft entertained heroic dreams of himself as a Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckler:  “Aha! Azathoth, your tentacles are no match for my flashing blade!”

Carter appears in a string of Lovecraft’s tales, and the earliest is “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” where he’s forced to listen over a portable telephone wire as his friend, Harley Warren, dies a horrible death. If only there had been some clue, some warning, that this late-night visit to a hideous swamp to locate a tomb mentioned by forbidden texts and then descend a hidden stairway into the depths of the earth might not end well! Actually, the scariest thing about the story is the way it presages the invention of the mobile phone. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other drafts of the story where Warren fits various prototype apps to the spool of telephone wire he carries: a camera, an encyclopedia, a magic lantern, a gramophone with a selection of records. I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumour that the working title for this tale was “Ringtone of the Abyss,” but regardless, in terms of heroics, Warren displays a sense of noble self-sacrifice, ordering Carter to get to safety rather than undertake a doomed rescue attempt. Carter, for his part, although terrified, is a bit peeved that his friend thinks he would abandon him, and he struggles against paralysing fear in an attempt to go rescue Warren. Unfortunately, he’s too slow off the mark, and Warren dies while Carter is still getting his nerve up.

Carter is understandably a bit upset by the events in this story, but he has recovered by the time of his next adventure. In “The Unnamable” he’s presented as a writer of supernatural tales who is taken to task by his friend Joel Manton for failing to fully describe the horrors in his stories. In an effort to get Manton to admit that some things are unnameable, Carter tells him that one of the tales Manton has been mocking was actually based on true events that just happened to take place in a house right next to where they are sitting. Where they’re sitting, by the way, is on top of a tomb in a cemetery. Carter narrates the supposedly true story, and immediately afterward he and Manton are both attacked by a supernatural force. They end up in the hospital but without any lasting injuries, and Manton admits to Carter that what he saw during the attack was indeed unnamable. Throw in a laugh track and a wager between the two characters, and this could be a supernatural version of Hancock’s Half Hour. In fact, Anthony Aloysius Hancock could probably out-misery the typical Lovecraftian protagonist and send Cthulhuvian horrors fleeing and screaming in an attempt to get away from his pessimistic pontificating.

“The protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories always wind up going mad. Or dying. Or going mad and then dying. But, being a contrary fellow, I’ve decided to try and prove that it is possible to write uplifting stories while still playing by Lovecraft’s rules.”

In “The Silver Key,” Carter, who has always enjoyed extensive visionary travels in a mystical Dreamland, loses the ability to dream. His reaction to this loss casts him as something of a death-defying thrill-seeker as he attempts to replace his dreams with various adventures, including the exploits from the previously mentioned stories as well as a spell in the Foreign Legion during World War I, although even this “stirred him but little.” Fortunately, after a bit of moping around he discovers the key to the gate of dreams and so not only regains his ability to dream but also ends up becoming the king of the dream realm.

Carter’s longest adventure is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.During the course of this short novel, he aids the cats of Ulthar in their war against the zoogs. (These cats first appeared in the story “The Cats of Ulthar,” which ends with the horrible deaths of two people, but since the victims were cat murderers, all cat lovers around the world would no doubt argue that this actually constitutes a happy ending. Dog lovers — not to mention dogs themselves — may of course disagree.) While journeying through the dream realm, Carter also runs into Richard Pickman, the protagonist of “Pickman’s Model,” who has now transformed into a night ghoul and appears not to find the experience all that disturbing. He’s good friends with all of the other night ghouls, and who knows, maybe he hangs out with the narrator of “The Outsider.”

In any event, Carter teams up with him and takes part in a huge battle against rival night ghouls and moonbeasts. At one point he even takes command of a galley that fends off the enemy’s naval attacks. He also leads an army of ghoulish troops into battle, although I’m a little unclear on whether he leads from the front or hides behind a rock shouting orders. Later, at the climax of the story, he outwits the dread dark god Nyarlathotep by realising that, as the whole adventure is taking place in the dream realm, all he has to do in order to escape is wake up. (Yes, I know that’s a cop-out ending. Don’t blame me, blame Lovecraft.) Nyarlathotep, despite being an almighty cosmic god who is portrayed in other stories as perfectly capable of manifesting on the waking/material plane, responds to this ploy not, as we might have expected, by unleashing all of the eldritch forces at his command, but by sulking.

And they all lived happily ever after.

All’s hell that ends well

I think this quick perusal of some of Lovecraft’s stories demonstrates that heroism and happy endings — of a sort — do exist in his work, even if they’re often buried beneath his dense prose style and all of those slimy tentacles. It may even be that Lovecraft didn’t always believe in the heroics of his characters, as has been argued in the case of The Dunwich Horror. But it is nevertheless still present in his stories, with our recognition of it muted, perhaps, by the author’s own discounting of it.

And yet this isn’t the end of our journey into the world of Lovecraftian fiction in search of heroes and happiness. There are more wonders to come in future columns. Oh, stop complaining. You never know, you may actually end up enjoying the next one.

About Stuart Young

Stuart Young is the British Fantasy Award-winning author of SPARE PARTS, SHARDS OF DREAMS, and THE MASK BEHIND THE FACE. In addition to writing Sparking Neurones for The Teeming Brain, he blogs at stuyoung.blogspot.co.uk.

Posted on January 7, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Sparking Neurones and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think there is a very compelling brand of heroism in Lovecraft’s stories. It is the tragic heroism of the positivist age. I see Lovecraft stories as a dark reflection of the Victorian detective genre, exemplified by the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I think much can be learned from a comparison. The dogged pursuit of truth exhibited by Lovecraft heroes is arguably more heroic than that of Sherlock Holmes, because they live in a world that does not reward their devotion to knowledge. It is all well and good for Holmes to pursue truth at any cost when investigation inevitably reveals that virtue always triumphs, that the only forces that can ever upset the Victorian social order are love, greed, and vengeance, and that the authorities ultimately have everyone’s best interests in mind. By contrast, “The Call of Cthulhu” begins with the famous and ominous declaration that “the most merciful thing in the world . . . is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Then, the character who writes these words, like all of Lovecraft’s protagonists, proceeds to go ahead and correlate them anyway, and promptly go insane. The heroism of Lovecraft’s investigators is more admirable because in Lovecraft’s universe, knowledge has a cost, and a terrible one.

  2. Whoa, hold on there. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule about comments not being allowed to be more intelligent than the column they’re discussing. Dumb it down a little before you make me feel inadequate.

    Anyway, nice comparison between Lovecraft and Holmes. Holmes is probably the opposite of a Lovecraftian protagonist because where the pursuit of truth and knowledge drives the Lovecraftian protagonist insane with Holmes it would be the lack of having a pursuit of truth and knowledge that would drive him insane. Or at least send him into a morphine-induced stupor.

    Thinking about it, I’m not quite sure that the Holmes stories show “the authorities ultimately have everyone’s best interests in mind.” I’m fairly certain there are one or two stories where Holmes took it upon himself to allow the criminals to escape as they had only committed their crimes to avenge the victims of far greater crimes, but the law would still have seen them imprisoned or even executed. And there’s at least one story where the law worked against Holmes because he and Watson were viewed as burglars despite the fact that the house that they were burgling belonged to a nasty piece of work.

    Holmes does actually appear in the next instalment of Sparking Neurones but it’s only a passing mention. I don’t delve into the Holmes/Lovecraft comparison as deeply as you have done so eloquently in your comment.

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