The Necronomicon Omnibus
Sometimes, when I sit down to write about something I wonder what I can possibly say that is new or different. This is especially the case when it comes to the next golden age author I would like to examine: H. P. Lovecraft. Ok so he was a little bit before the golden age but there’s some overlap there. Not only was he an unrecognized genius of his day, but also a tortured man who wrote about what he feared, fictionalizing it probably to cope with it. There are legions of fans who have analyzed and written about his life and works far more thoroughly than I will in my little corner of the internet. So what can I offer? What can I add? Only what I have not seen before.
H. P. Lovecraft captured not just the horror of an intelligent being losing his sanity but he also expertly guides and leads the reader through constructs of reason that are exquisitely rational. He had a talent, a gift for engaging the emotions of the reader, for getting the reader to follow him down dark pathways into a primitive part of our collective psyches where nameless horrors live, the part of our being that wonders what that unexplained bump in the night was and imagines something terrible, even when we know it has a rational explanation. Once he’s led the reader there, to that place where a creaking floor board or expanding joist is somehow more sinister than temperature differentials would account for he pulled things from those depths and committed them to paper so that we all can make that journey from the illusional safety of our favorite reading chair.
These things we know about the works of H. P. Lovecraft. We also know that he created his own mythos. He imagined elder gods and lesser gods, ancient and terrible beings with names too terrible to repeat. What he also did, as easily as he drew breath, was captured the culture of his time. If you look at the givens, the basis for where he launched his wonderful and terrible stories (not terrible as in bad but terrible as in terrifying) you will see the popularity of eugenics that took the public by storm in the early 1900’s.
Charles Darwin had made his now famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands and published his Origin of the Species in 1859. From there it was only a few short decades before people began to popularize the idea that humans evolved and that some humans were of a superior evolutionary line. We all know how badly this ended as a popular idea. It sadly still endures today in pockets around the globe.
One thing to understand is that the scientists who first theorized and promoted the idea of eugenics believed that the pinnacle of evolution was the white male; specifically the white, Anglo Saxon protestant male. Now the main reason for this is that most scientists of the day were WASP’s. It never occurred to them that the reason for this was because the only people who could afford the education and leisure to be scientists were the wealthy and the wealthy were almost uniformly white males.
H. P. Lovecraft wrote when the idea of eugenics was growing towards its peak and the way he writes makes that such a given that it is almost unnoticeable. He uses language adroitly to mix old with new, not unlike the way steampunk mixes high tech with Victorian stylization today. He liked to use an antiquated British English in his writings. He was never hateful, mind you. He didn’t go out of his way to put anyone “in their place.” But you see it in the way his investigators talk about degenerate evolution and how a particular family line has devolved into something less than human. It is a part of the horror he writes about.
We know now that eugenics is an ugly, hateful thing but we, as a culture and as people had to learn that. Especially with some scientists telling people it was natural. Over the course of his life Lovecraft learned that as well and that is another thing we can see in his writing; that growth, the education that conquered ignorance.
Some of my favorite Lovecraft stories are The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innmouth and my very most favorite At The Mountains of Madness. While he is perhaps billed as a writer of non-supernatural horror, what I find is that he was a superlative science fiction writer who explored the dark side of what it meant to be human and how we could push ourselves beyond what we were mentally ready for. Today we live in an age where our technology is fast outstripping our ability to assimilate what it can do much less adapt to it. I can only imagine how Lovecraft would handle technology like ours in his works if he’d somehow been granted a glimpse into the future.
What Lovecraft excelled at, for those who can truly follow what he’s getting at, is taking the reader to the brink of what they can wrap their minds around. And when he gets there he jumps off into elder gods and amazing, horrifying things. When he gets to the point that our minds can no longer follow the very measured and rational path he’s laid down, he shows us madness.
Lovecraft played with the idea of what the limits were to the human mind and imagination. These were ideas that haunted him and affected him deeply in his life. They are also imminently human topics. To examine what our limits are and what might happen to us should we exceed them is a very powerful kind of writing. I tend to like science fiction that explores topics like that.
Also if you take the time to read his works in chronological order you can see a growth pattern where he becomes less racist and sexist, where his innate genius and gentleness lead him away from the ugly institutional racism of his time. If you doubt, read At The Mountains of Madness and you can watch a remarkable mind come to the realization that being human is more than our physical bodies.
I count H. P. Lovecraft among my favorite authors and find his stories thought provoking on many levels. It is a mistake to try to whitewash history or demonize someone for the culture they come from, especially if you see the effort to overcome. It is far better to look at history and learn from it and reading fiction, the stories of the time, is an entertaining way to get a feel for a culture. K.