Thursday, October 29, 2009

Countdown to Halloween: Lovecraft and the Parody of Religion

H.P. Lovecraft was a lifelong resident and antiquarian from Providence, Rhode Island, who supported himself by writing the most vivid star-flung nightmare fantasies of the early 20th century. His shadow over the field of horror entertainment since his death in 1937 is unparalleled and unmistakable. To say something is Lovecraftian is to intimate its awesome alien strangeness, as in, "The early scenes of Ridley Scott's Alien are truly Lovecraftian."

In Lovecraft's tales, gone were the dank castles of Count Dracula, the Gothic laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, the cross and the silver bullet to destroy the beast, the pure of heart and the Lord's Prayer. He wrote for the new scientific age of Darwin, Einstein, and Freud, when our fears were no longer blasphemous monsters of superstitious Old World folklore, but of the vastness of the universe and humanity’s lowly place within it; terrors not of the soul, but of the mind.

"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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

"The Call of Cthulhu," 1927

Lovecraft's infamous Great Old Ones are not, as some have insisted, simply evil alien creatures, as Arkham House founder August Derleth posited and promulgated in his own stories; no, they represent the inability of humans to comprehend anything outside their own earth-bound experience. From deep space and other dimensions, these beings are not the saucer-eyed, woman-hungry Martians of science fiction; these entities are vast, incorporeal, protean, inconceivable. Degenerate cults worship them as gods, and Lovecraft at once parodies and mocks notions of religion, spirituality, and transcendent knowledge.

An atheist who, as he said, "hated and despised religion," Lovecraft saw no real qualitative difference between, say, "Shub Nigurath, the Goat with a Thousand Young" or "Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth," and "Transubstantion of the Eucharist" or "There is no God but God." The dread Necronomicon is their bible; the acolyte's cry of "! !" is Cthulhu speak for "Hallelujah!"

"They worshiped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him."

"The Call of Cthulhu," 1927

The final lines of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (used so well in Stuart Gordon's film Dagon) can be seen as a nightmarish twist on the Lord's Prayer: "And in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever." Compare: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen."

"Man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing. He must, too, be placed on guard against a specific, lurking peril which, though it will never engulf the whole race, may impose monstrous and unguessable horrors upon certain venturesome members of it."

"The Shadow out of Time," 1935


Potato. said...

Excellent article. I've always thought similarly. A god who comes in the form of a cloud to the Israelites, and urges the destruction of the Midianites for no apparent reason is no different than any other "god" that Lovecraft wrote about. Anything beyond the human scope of perception is no doubt going to be considered a god by us as we are, for all our many discoveries, still very simple creatures.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for reading! The biography H.P. Lovecraft: A Life by S.T. Joshi goes even further into this interpretation of his writings. Plus any chance to talk about HPL should never be missed.

Chris Voss said...

Agree 100% - any chance to talk about HPL shouldn't be missed!

I was thinking about your example of what is "Lovecraftian" using the example of the early section of ALIEN and it got me to wondering: what other films have the same touch in them? Somewhere I smell a great photo essay or two about it...

Keith said...

Amazing post. I quite enjoyed it. I love Lovecraft. I haven't read as much as him lately as I once did. It's time to read some of his works again. Happy Halloween!

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Enjoying your Halloween countdown and this H.P. Lovecraft piece was terrific. I'm really fond of Lovecraft myself.

Anonymous said...

This may seem an odd recommendation, but if anyone has an old GameCube Nintendo system, play the game Eternal Darkness. I'm not going to lie, it's probably the closest anyone's come to "true" Lovecraftian storytelling and creatures that I've found. And it's wicked fun.
(this is "Potato" from another computer I can't log into)

Will Errickson said...

Kimberly, thank you for stopping by! I hope to always have something more to say about HPL.