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Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) (hplovecraft.com)
69 points by networked on Dec 11, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 43 comments

He was definitely ahead of his time in some ways. He predicted and distilled the creed of reactionary fundamentalism in Call of Cthulhu.

"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." -- The Call of Cthulhu

Variants of modal realism and quantum immortality did this to me. There are some good reasons (human mind is finite, universe may be infinite or very, very, very large, finite patters recur in infinity) to expect something like modal realism, Egan's Dust Theory or Everett's many worlds to be true.

These are neat ideas but not helpful for my sanity.

I've found myself wondering at times, has there been any new development/thought put into Egan's Dust theory which you mention? As I take it a more rigorous but very close formulation is articulated in Max Tegmark's Mathematical Universe hypothesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_universe_hypothes...)

I would have loved to read Lovecraft's reaction when we did unlock knowledge capable of destroying mankind with the atom bomb...

Well, we didn't, did we? We could make an unholy mess with nuclear weapons, but hubris aside, we can't kill ourselves with them.

Lovecraft survived to the very verge of the atomic age, and it shows in his writing; one of Azathoth's epithets is "nuclear chaos". In other words, he took it about how his writings would lead you to expect.

He missed the really good stuff though (fission, etc). It's one thing to say 'the end is nigh' another to actually have it come relatively close to happening.

He knew about radioactivity; fission was theorized well before it was discovered, and his circle of sf/fantasy nerds was precisely the sort which would both know about what was then still a relatively obscure branch of physics, and contemplate at length its possible implications.

It sounds like you're fumbling toward the question of what Lovecraft would've made of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obviously there's no way to know for certain, but I think Charlie Stross has come as close as anyone could in his short "A Colder War", which is freely available online and quite engaging.

I'm not sure "engaging" is the word I'd use - finding out what Cthulhu does with the souls it eats is rather disturbing.

I said it'd keep your attention. I didn't say it was nice.

His short story The Color Out of Space has an amazingly accurate depiction of the effect of nuclear fallout on the land. People in it go crazy and shun the valley, but I think it's a good way to see what he would have thought about that development.

In a modern context, it makes me think of climate change denialism.

Great essay. I've often seen condescending patronizing critical essays trying to establish that H. P. Lovecraft was a juvenile hack at writing. This essay establishes that he is capable of sardonic evaluation, probably even self-criticism. Moreover, this essay is written in a modern language, which shows that the (to some, grating) archaic tone of his stories is a conscious choice.

It was due to this essay that I came to hear about Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood.

As for Lovecraft's fiction, it seems to me that he passed away as he was maturing as a writer.

Had he (or Edgar Allan Poe) lived longer, wonder what great works they might have been able to bring into this world!

Related, I think ...

I do not play video games at all, but somehow I was lead to the "mass effect" backstory which is fascinating.

I encourage anyone with an hour to kill to read:




It's quite detailed and entertaining. Yes, I am aware that it is based on some degree on Lovecraft.

I think that you would really enjoy reading Warhammer 40k's lore. It is very, very huge and very complete. I never played the game at all, but spent countless hours reading the lore and it's amazing and deep.


An interesting starting point would be the Horus Heresy:


Seconded. To give a sense of the awesomeness of the universe, here's a great description of warp travel in WH40k[1]:

> "Let me take you through the average Warp travel procedure.

> The Captain calls down to prep the ship for Warp expedition. At that time, 12000 slaves who have never seen the outside of the work galley begin shoveling the dead bodies of the previous workers into massive furnaces along with whatever hard fuel source they have in storage, like a brutal Mr. Fusion. A field of pure psychic FUCK YOU is generated around the ship and the blinded, mentally traumatized man inside a metal egg begins screaming unendingly as he charts a course through the Warp, which is basically a giant ocean of pure emotion in which Unnamed Ones lounge around and fuck with humanity by the luxury of simply existing. The ship then plows into the miasma of what you could call Hell if you lacked imagination. Pray to the Holy Throne the Astropath doesn't accidentally get you lost, becomes possessed by a Daemon, or just explodes like a mushy human pinata from the mental stress of being around so much pure CANNOT BE. If the void shields even flicker on the 8000 year old vessel (which no one actually understands completely how to work), Daemons made of RAPE and LEMON JUICE will crawl into our reality and do things you literally cannot imagine to every soul aboard. I mean that. The very notion of understanding the completeness of the horror the human victims will be witness to would shatter your perception of reality and cause your head to explode. Mission clock says they were only in the Warp for 5 days. It was 17 months for everyone aboard. They also missed their destination by a couple of solar systems and 80% of the crew is dead.

> The Captain turns to his bridge staff and pops the cork on a vintage stock of Jherrik Ale and salutes another successful Warp Jump.

> Welcome to 40K."

Wonderfully worded, and as a big WH40k fan/reader I have to say it is also very accurate.


About 18 years ago, I played Warhammer 40k for a while, and I thought it was the single most awesome sci-fi universe ever. The game ultimately didn't work for me, but the universe and mythology people have tought up is incredible.

Warhammer 40k lore is AMAZING. I love all of the stories I've read in it. Not only is the backstory cool science fiction, but the "current" period reads like a futuristic mixture of the pre-Enlightenment dark ages, and the Russian military in WW2 (surely not by accident).

There are many great novels, but I love the human scale and protagonist in the Ciaphas Cain novels -- he's a cowardly "commissar", and it makes great humorous reading.

Also, "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem" (gamecube) is almost explicitly Lovecraftian. It's amazing.

Thank you for the trip. Really cool insights there...

e.g. (massive Mass Effect spoilers..):

"For millions of years, the Reapers existed for the sole purpose of ensuring the ongoing existence of organic life in the galaxy, based on the assumption that all synthetic intelligences will eventually destroy their organic creators. This end result is believed by the Catalyst and the Reapers to be inevitable, a consequence of technological advancement; organics will always create synthetics to improve their own state of existence, and synthetics themselves will evolve by means of surpassing their creators. [...]

By harvesting technologically advanced species (both organic and synthetic) and storing these old species within immortal Reaper bodies, room is made for new life to flourish and grow, as was the case for primitive man. The continuity of life in the galaxy is assured through this cycle of extinction, as it ensures that organic life will never be fully exterminated before its time by synthetic life, as was demonstrated by the quarians and the geth."

On the subject of Lovecraft:

    Ghostbusters is the best comedy ever made about
    the limits of the Lovecraftian worldview.

Surprisingly enough, in most of his stories, the chaos from outside is contained. Notably in the Call of Cthlhu, The Dunwich Horror, and the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where people spring into action once the threat has emerged. The difference between Ghostbusters and Lovecraft's work (outside of being a comedy) is the reaction. In Ghostbusters, they're presented as flawed noble heroes, striving against everything to defeat an evil. In Lovecraft's work, they're presented as individuals who are doing what must be done to contain the ever-present threat. The difference between Gozer and Cthulhu is that Gozer is a one time threat, whereas Cthulhu is always there.

I will almost certainly never tire of re-reading this essay. For all his flaws as a writer and as a person, Lovecraft really knew how to manipulate fear.

Flaws? Certainly, but surely insignificant compared to the magnitude of his thought. Lovecraft was a genius at least a century ahead of his time (Nietzsche is the only other figure that springs to mind).

People still haven't come to terms or even realized what he was talking about, but if there's something we're blindly racing towards it's that "ultimate void of Chaos wherein reigns the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth".

I wouldn't say insignificant. To fully appreciate some of his works, the reader needs to understand the racist mindset he had and the larger fears he was playing off of that stemmed from racism.

Do dismiss his flaws would be a disservice for readers and his works alike.

Lovecraft's genius was in taking science at face value and stripping away the sentimentality. You want an infinite universe? Then don't be surprised when some random cosmic event wipes humanity away. You want to say humans came from the ooze? Then you can't really say we're all equal in the eyes of the Creator. In many ways his views remind me of PG's 'Taboos' essay- we can't really come to grips with the thought of a super-volcano wiping us out tomorrow so we just kind of keep going with our lives.

> You want to say humans came from the ooze? Then you can't really say we're all equal in the eyes of the Creator.

Why not?

Surely an infinite universe that contained infinite horror would also contain infinite bliss, ecstasy, and love on scales only previously imagined by the Brahmin.

And anyways, his Bible believing audience section would have believed that God created humankind from dirt, yet still loved them, equally.

> Why not?

Because "we're all equal in the eyes of the Creator" requires a Creator. Take that away and you end up with Hobbes: "nasty, brutish, and short". Anything beyond that requires a sustained miracle of human ingenuity, along with an extremely congenial environment which grows ever more obviously improbable as our knowledge of the universe advances, and which is almost as fragile and delicate as we are and could easily, by random coincidence of forces set in motion long before our first forebears came into existence, be upset entirely and spill everything we were, are, and could ever hope to be, by the wayside, without even noticing.

Mostly we choose to concentrate on the miracle, which is how it should be, not least because our believing in it is the only reason it exists. But there's value in someone seeing it clearly for what it is, if only because there's no other way for us to really understand how improbably amazing we are.

I wasn't thinking so much as the 'creator' aspect of it, thanks for pointing that out.

But as far as equality, nastiness, brutishness, shortness, and amazingness, they are value judgements that originate from human beings. Insofar as the universe being a nightmarish phantasmagoria in most places and continued human existence a 'good' thing on the order of a miracle, those are perceptions of mind, not objective realities.

That is, if the scientific revolution in the West has disabused us of fairy-tale notions of love, mercy, equality from a Creator, simply by doing away with the creator, it does not follow that that leaves only misery, horror, desolation, etc. in their absence. The Eastern philosophers remind us that such dualities of good/bad, love/hate, bliss/horror, are projections of mind onto reality, not states of the universe. If you get rid of one, you have necessarily gotten rid of the other, because they are interdependent, like two sides of a coin. The actual reality is neutral.

Well, yes, of course you're right. Reality doesn't give a damn; reality doesn't even notice, because there's nothing there to do any noticing. You don't need a lot of imagination to see the horror in that. What you need a lot of imagination for, and a particular kind of imagination besides, is not seeing it. Not everyone can do that, which is why people who could do it invented gods, for the use of those who couldn't. And now we've outgrown gods, or think we have, because we've grown up to a point where we can do things which in the past only gods would dare imagine, and where's the place for gods in that?

But it could all still go wrong for us, because reality doesn't give a damn, and if our descendants find themselves surrounded on every side by the bones of fallen dreams and a world that doesn't care, then people with the right kind of imagination will give them gods again. Because in times like those, gods are what people need, and there's no reason in the world why people shouldn't have what they need. And where's the place for Eastern philosophers in that?

There's such a thing as too much navel-gazing, and the point at which it becomes too much is the one where you fall in and stop being of any use to anyone. Of course, some of them climb back out again and set about helping other people, and those, called bodhisattva, are the only ones worth the trouble. The others there's no point to, because what good does it do to go around telling people that reality doesn't give a damn and there's no meaning to existence and everyone lives and dies in a universe that might well casually wipe out the whole lot of us without even noticing, only it hasn't happened to happen yet? Going around doing that is rather missing the point, because, like Martin Amis, you haven't thought it all the way through.

> Surely an infinite universe that contained infinite horror would also contain infinite bliss, ecstasy, and love on scales only previously imagined by the Brahmin.

I think it scales, but it's not always obvious how to deploy into production. It takes patience, practice, determination, and the willingness to read the docs. I recommend compiling from source with the Buddhist "Pali Cannon".

I think thermodynamics would state that it doesn't scale.

Surely an infinite universe that contained infinite horror would also contain infinite bliss...

There's a quote from a Martin Amis book that I'm hoping not going to butcher too badly in paraphrase: "The universe is thirty billion light years across and every inch of it would kill us if we went there. This is the position of the universe as regards human life."

If that's the full quote, then he hasn't thought it all the way through:

> The universe is thirty billion light years across and every inch of it would kill us if we went there. This is the position of the universe as regards human life. And here we are.

Everyone has flaws. Viewing the entirity of one's accomplishments constrained through the lens of one flaw is absurd and unsupported by evidence.

In other words, there is no evidential reason whatsoever to suppose that the larger fears he played off of categorically stemmed from racism. Criticism of that nature is unscientific and irrational, based on nothing more than arguments of the form, "it seems to me.."

Further, making such an argument is inherently a moral absolutist position. You are imposing the cultural mores of your own society on a very different society from another time and place -- and ironically, condemning Lovecraft for having done exactly that. It is, at the very least, hypocrisy.

Wow, so I think you must have really set up a really flammable strawman for me, really tried to read into what I said, or mistaken me for someone else.

All I was trying to say is his racism is occasionally (story-dependent) not insignificant because for a reader to fully appreciate the fears Lovecraft is invoking, the reader needs the capability to understand the fears racists had (such as voodoo).

You are trying to make me sound like I am saying Lovecraft was some sort of propaganda machine for the KKK; I am not. Lovecraft is about the slowly creeping rise of terror and horror in his stories; to miss a step along the way is to miss a subtle piece that makes his works enjoyable.

I am suggesting the very thing you are accusing me of not doing: saying readers need to put aside their own cultural mores of their own society to view a very different society from another time and place.

You are projecting here. Lovecraft's "racism" has nothing to do with silly superstitions. He was a cultured, educated man and knew better than what you're assuming. You'd know that had you read even a small percentage of his letters.

Which was also parent's point.

What does it even mean to say someone's flaws are "insignificant compared to the magnitude of his thought"? Those two things don't seem like they can be put on the same scale in order to compare them. What are you two disagreeing about?

I kind of feel like it's "he had flaws, and he thought well; I like him" versus "he had more flaws than you make it sound".

> What are you two disagreeing about?

I think we are both supporters of Lovecraft, but I just wanted to say that sometimes when his racism shows it isn't insignificant: to understand the fear he is applying the reader needs to know what racist people of that time feared (ex: voodo).

EDIT: To be clear, I am not trying to say ALL of his fear-invoking was through racism. In some stories during some of the buildup of terror, the reader might miss out if unaware.

Totally misguided assumption and also entirely wrong.

Read through his letters published by Arkham house instead of making up stories out of thin air. I suggest you start with Volume IV (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selected_Letters_of_H._P._Love...)

The common flaws listed for Lovecraft are his writing style and his racism, and it's usually the latter that people tend to bring up to discredit him. The applicability of his flaws to his ideas is usually a tar pit that unfortunately has become associated with the "feminism/SJW/gamergate" conflict within sci fi fandom, which means people often jump to bash/defend him prematurely.

Agreed, not insignificant. Some context if you haven't read the details about Lovecreft's racism: http://www.racialicious.com/2014/05/28/the-n-word-through-th...

I very much agree.

Compared to Lovecraft, most "horror authors" would have a hard time trying to scare a baby into giving up its candy.

A really good read, but this thing needs to be reformatted. Hard to parse giant paragraphs on the web.

I wonder, if based on Lovecraft's premise, one could make the argument that writing, or any work of art, rooted in fear is easier than writing from other mental states, because of its universality.

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