H. P. LOVECRAFT: Prophet of Humanism

Article excerpt

When one encounters the name Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the first thing--if anything--that comes to mind is liable to be the word horror. And that is as it should be, since H. P. Lovecraft (or HPL, as he was and remains known) was first and foremost a writer of what he called weird fiction, most of it published in pulp magazines like Weird Tales during his lifetime (1890-1937). He is universally recognized as Edgar Allan Poe's greatest successor, and many consider him Poe's superior. As fellow fantasist Fritz Leiber pointed out, Lovecraft effected a Copernican revolution in the writing of horror fiction, combining the classic Gothic style and diction of Poe with the new terrors unleashed by modern science. Indeed, it is difficult to categorize HPL's work as either horror or science fiction, since it somehow seems to make each integral to the other.

One of Lovecraft's greatest creations was a vast system of artificial mythology, modeled variously on ancient Greek myth, modern Theosophical lore, and the Pegana tales of Lord Dunsany. According to this mythos, human beings are late arrivals in the cosmos and on planet Earth, both of which were ruled for aeons by massive superhuman, utterly unhuman beings collectively known as the Great Old Ones. Most are described as vaguely octopoid in design. With the passing of ages, these entities retired to hibernation or exile, but the time nears when they will return and take what is theirs once more. These revelations are usually uncovered by a scholarly protagonist who realizes, to his peril, that the claims of ancient scriptures and grimoires have a terrible basis in hitherto-unguessed scientific and historical fact.

Lovecraft's myth cycle, and especially the tales in which he set it forth, are powerfully effective for many readers, usually adolescent males who carry the interest in Lovecraft into adulthood and often into scholarly study (myself among them). So effective are these fictions that even in HPL's lifetime many readers felt sure he was the unwitting mouthpiece for actual occult entities, that his Cthulhu Mythos (as his disciple August Derleth dubbed it) was fact. And indeed one might be forgiven for inferring that Lovecraft was some kind of occultist. Some researchers even today try to document their assertion (totally groundless) that Lovecraft was connected--like Arthur Machen, whose work he admired--to the Order of the Golden Dawn. But Lovecraft disdained any and all credence in the supernatural.

Even as a boy HPL had thrown over the Baptist beliefs of his parents and stopped attending his Providence, Rhode Island, Sunday School. He playfully embraced classical paganism for a time as an extension of his precocious interest in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aneid. After that, under the spell of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, young Howard declared himself a devout Muslim, again a youthful pose, and took the name Abdul Alhazred, a name he would later use for the mad author of his fictitious Necronomicon, a potent book of magic and forbidden knowledge which many readers still insist existed outside of HPL's imagination.

What an irony that some of his most ardent fans insist on seeing Lovecraft as an occultist when he in fact advocated naturalism, being a mechanistic materialist, rationalist, and atheist! He crossed swords in his letters with religious friends and colleagues, albeit in a cordial manner. He had early on been a fiend for science, producing his own amateur chemistry and astronomy magazines at the tender age of nine. He read ancient and modern philosophy, biology, and psychology and was remarkably erudite despite his never having finished high school. And he dismissed Jehovah as having the same degree of reality as his own fictitious god Yog-Sothoth.

So how did Lovecraft reconcile his interest in supernatural horror fiction with his strictly scientific view of the world? Actually, there was no gap to bridge. …