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H.P. Lovecraft: Visionary of the Void

"The Sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our rightful position therein, that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) refracted the more bizarre events of his life through his fiction. Colin Wilson typifies him as an 'outsider', and there is much biographical information to support this view. Lovecraft certainly felt himself to be an 'outsider' in early Twentieth Century America. Having lost both his parents at an early age, he was brought up by two maiden aunts, who encouraged him not to go out by telling him that he was 'hideous'. He retreated into the world of fiction, becoming a prodigious reader of fantasies...

Lovecraft liked to see himself as an 'English gentleman' - a persona that became so fixed that it influenced much of his attitude to daily life. He felt himself to be very much out of step with the pace of modern America - which possibly explains why so many of his protagonists are antiquarian scholars or reclusives. The major underlying themes of Lovecraft's work rest not so much in the traditional claustrophobic fears of death and decay, ghostly hauntings etc.; but rather on the agoraphobic fear of immeassurable gulfs of space; the infinite abysses of the dark cosmos where the human mind, suddenly perceiving too much space, is stretched to such a limit that it snaps. The sense of being alone in a vast wilderness of cosmic dimension is encapsulated in Lovecraft's assertion that humanity is but "an island in a sea of chaos - and it was not meant that we should voyage far." Lovecraft biographer L.Sprague de Camp called Lovecraft's cosmic pessimism, 'Futilitarianism'. In Lovecraft's personal philosophy, as in his Cthulhu Mythos, humanity was utterly insignificant in the vast scheme of the cosmos.

Lovecraft's inspiration for his writings came from his dreams, and his letters (he carried on a voluminous correspondence with fellow writers) show that he had a nightmare every other night of his life. In the following letter extract, he describes a nightmare concerning Nyarlathotep, one of the Great Old Ones:

"As I was drawn into the abyss I emitted a resounding shriek, and the picture ceased. I was in great pain - forehead pounding and ears ringing - but I had only one automatic impulse - to write and preserve the atmosphere of unparalelled fright; and before I knew it, I had pulled on the light and was scribbling desperately. ...When fully awake I remembered all the incidents but had lost the exquisite thrill of fear - the actual sensation of the presence of the hideous unknown."

Lovecraft's writing regularly appeared in the pulp magazine, Weird Tales, edited by Farnsworth Wright. Weird Tales also published the work of several of Lovecraft's correspondent-friends, such as Robert E. Howard, (the creator of Conan the barbarian) Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith. These writers, and others corresponded with Lovecraft, commenting on each other's writing, and developing each others' fictional devices. Soon other beings and concepts were being added to Lovecraft's original set of Cthulhuoid beings. The Mythos library of 'forbidden books' was also expanded - Clark Ashton Smith bequeathed 'The Book of Eibon', for instance.

The Great Old Ones

Lovecraft's pantheon of Mythos Entities, The Great Old Ones, are the nightmarish pan-dimensional beings who continually threaten the Earth with destruction. They lie 'in death's dream' sealed beneath the ocean, or beyond the stars. They can be summoned 'when the stars are right', and can enter the human world through a series of gates - power spots, magical lenses, or, as in the case of 'The Dunwich Horror', through rites of sexual congress between aliens & humans.

The Great Old Ones are served by various human, and non-human cults in wild and lonely places, from 'degenerate' swamp-dwellers to the innumerable 'incestuous' Whateley's of the fictional region Dunwich. These cults are continually preparing both to bring about the return of the Old Ones, and also to silence anyone who does stumble across the awful secret of the existence of the Old Ones.

The return of the Old Ones involves, as Wilbur Whateley puts it in The Dunwich Horror, the "clearing off" of the Earth. That is, the clearing off of humanity, apart from a few worshippers and slaves. This apocalyptic reference can be asserted as metaphorical, or as referring to an actual physical catastrophe - Nuclear holocaust perhaps? Perhaps Lovecraft wished to emphasise that the Great Old Ones would give no more thought to wiping out human than we might give to wiping up water on a table. Exactly why the Old Ones wish to return to Earth is never clear, but we might assume that for them, Earth is close to the bars and convenient for bus routes!

Lovecraft is careful to point out that most of the Old Ones are, in fact, mindless, or 'idiot gods'. Only those who are already insane or degenerate could worship them sincerely. Only Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, is given a human semblance of intelligence. The Great Old Ones do not form a distinct pantheon, and in Lovecraft's original formulation, did not correspond to elemental stations or any notion of good vs evil - such modifications of the Mythos came from August Derleth. When it comes down to it, the Great Old Ones are huge, horrible, and hungry. Little is known about them since to get a good look at them is usually more than any human can stand, and most encounters with them are inevitably terminal in Lovecraft's fiction - for the protagonist and innocent bystanders (whom the creatures often consume as hors d'ouvres before making the narrator the main course).

Critics of Lovecraft's style have complained that his narrators seem to be somewhat dense when it comes to recognising what is going on around them. They read the letters of vanished relatives, or perouse the Necronomicon, whilst around them, monstrous beings are stalking the district messily eating people, and then hanging around the narrator's house causing weird effects which he usually dismisses as subsidence, or atmospheric anomalies. After reading a few tales, the reader knows what to expect, and can easily become impatient with the narrator. But this is a realistic formula of human behaviour. When confronted with the possible reality that there are monsters out there who are waiting to eat us then take over our real estate, who might not look for alternative explanations? The poor occultist who leaps up and says "its all the work of the venusian slime toads" is likely to incur ridicule, if not institutionalisation, leaving the Venusian slime toads to carry out their evil plans.

Given the above then, it is unsurprising that contemporary occultists should be interested in the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraftian rituals have been served up by writers such as Anton LaVey (The Satanic Rituals), Michael Aquino (head of The Temple of Set), and Pete Carroll (Illuminates of Thanateros). Kenneth Grant, in his progression of 'Typhonian' works has made much use of Lovecraftian imagery in his interpretations of the work of Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare. Michael Bertiaux, head of La Coulvoire Noir, the Voodoo-Gnostic order, has also incorporated elements of the Cthulhu Mythos into his work. Following August Derleth's attempt to cohere the Cthulhu Mythos into an identifiable cosmology, several occultists (notably Kenneth Grant) have attempted to work the Great Old Ones into an 'identifiable' system of one kind or another.

While such attempts display the Western occultists' penchant for building up symbolic metastructures, I feel that such systematizations of the Great Old Ones are a misappropriation of Lovecraft's original sense of them. Their very nature is that they are "primal and undimensioned" - they can barely be perceived, and forever 'lurk' at the edge of awareness. The most powerful energies are those which cannot be named - that is, they cannot be clearly apprehended or conceived of. They remain intangible and tenuous. Very like the feeling of awakening from a nightmare terrified, but unable to remember why. Lovecraft understood this very well, probably because most of his writing was evolved from his dreams. Lovecraft's denial of the objective significance of dreams, including his own, has suggested to most Lovecraft scholars that there is no foundation in the exotic claims made by the Occult interpreters of Lovecraft's work - and to be fair, Lovecraft positively denied belief in the irrationalist doctrines with which he associated occultists and mystics.

The Great Old Ones gain their power from their elusiveness and intangibility. Once they are formalised into symbol asystems and related to intellectual metasystems, some of their primal intensity is lost. William Burroughs puts it this way:

As soon as you name something you remove its power ... If you could look Death in the face he would lose his power to kill you. When you ask Death for his credentials, his passport is indefinite.

The Place of Dead Roads.

A strong undercurrent throughout Lovecraft's writing is a rejection of modernity. There is often a conflict of belief between 'civilised' city-dwellers who are dismissive of superstition and folklore, and country-folk who are steeped in the wisdom of the Great old Ones, yet somehow degenerate and decayed. Lovecraft continually alludes to the 'degenerate' nature of Cthulhu cultists, probably reflecting his attitudes to race and intellectual attainment. But there is also an awareness of the degeneration of cult practices as the influence of the Old Ones dwindles in the world, due to the spread of materialism and the decay of rural communities. Some commentators have accused Lovecraft of racist attitudes, but I feel it would be more accurate to say that in Lovecraft's fiction, no one individual or group can escape his sense of doom; scientists will at some point stumble upon the horrifying secrets of the universe, whilst country-folk, european slavonics and South-sea islanders will degenerate into non-human mutants. Sorcerors who summon the Great Old Ones will at some point pay the price of sanity or death. Everybody get it and the horrifying madness of "what is out there, waiting" is only a footstep away. Once you have passed into the realm of the Old Ones, there is no turning back.

There is no room for dualistic concepts of 'good' and 'evil' in Lovecraft's mythos. There are no 'forces of light' who might be invoked to save us from the horror of the Old Ones. They may occasionally be outwitted, but this is more a matter of blind luck than any skill or ability of the part of humans. Even if one of Lovecraft's protagonists survive an encounter with the Great Old Ones, they are burdened forever with the knowledge of what lurks "out there".

Some intellectuals, enthused by Lovecraft's visions, have attempted to place his mythos within a Nietchzian perspective - saying that the Great Old Ones represent the forces of Superman who stands beyond good and evil, aware only of primal desires and passions. Lovecraft makes it clear that the Great Old Ones are not merely a casting-off of traditional morality - that they have about as much interest in us as we do in cattle. Sooner or later, even the devout worshipper of Cthulhu will be bent under the knife.

Lovecraft's vision, his futilitarianism - is particularly appropriate to our current age, where postmodernist thinkers claim to have destroyed the future and ransacked the past in an endless search for 'kicks' of one sort or another. Increasingly, we are echoing Hassan I Sabbah's statement that "Nothing is True" - or perhaps more accurately, nothing can be trusted. Living as we do, in a society which is rapidly mutating itself by means of computers, camcorders and cable TV; in which men can walk on the Moon, whilst others sell their children to the organ dealers; where the mysteries of life are probed during DNA manipulation and the realities of other people's death served up on prime-time television, it is easy to be cynical, and difficult for any concept of truth to remain inviolate and essential.

In a culture where the edges of present time are crumbling into the future at a rate that is often difficult to comprehend, the sense of connection to historical time is vague, to say the least. The contradictions of post-Capitalism have fragmented consensus reality to a point where alienation and powerlessness are endemic in our culture. Occultism offers an alternative: a sense of connection, perhaps, to historical time when the world was less complicated, where individuals were more 'in touch' with their environment, and, had more personal control over their lives. The occult subgenres holds up a mirror to Consensual reality. Occultists readily sneer at Slave-God religions and then piss themselves in ecstasy buying a genuine set of Aleister Crowley socks. There is much talk of the magician as a dangerous rebel or anarch of the soul by people who go on to 'legitimate' their position by waving charters, certificates and copyrighted logos. I mean, who really gives a fart, other than the fools who will buy into anything which resembles even faintly 'ancient wisdom.' This is often the position taken by so-called 'magicians' who seek to elevate themselves by claiming to evoke demons, summon Satan, or command entities such as the Great Old Ones from other dimensions. These are the cries of the powerless and fatuous attempting to elevate themselves by claiming authority over 'forces' which they imagine can be controlled by such as they. There does seem to be an attraction between would-be 'superman' occultists and an exhaustive range of dark gods, dead gods, deep-fried gods. It seems to me that the would-be 'superman/satanist/mighty adept magician (delete as appropriate) is, underneath all the justifications, out for legitimisation of themselves as "outsiders" - it's easy to maintain such a view of yourself as the noble, doom-laden outsider, whilst at the same time being invisible and insignificant. Lovecraft's vision is that of the utter insignificance of humanity in the rolling darkness of the cosmos. I have usually found that those who profess to know this void, who call themselves Satanists, supermen and Outsiders, are entangled in two virulent memes - BEING RIGHT and GETTING EVEN. Alas, apart from imagining themselves as the lords of De Sade's Castle of Silling, or dreaming of power without responsibility found in some paperback tome with a latin name, these self-avowed creatures of darkness never quite seem to manage any actualisation of their 'will to power'. William S. Burroughs once commented that "anyone who can pick up a frying-pan owns death." All too often, it seems that many people are content with vicarious thrills - attempting to 'own' death by surrounding themselves with the icons of their heroes. Isn't it a shame that most of those who cry that "Might is Right" will never get the chance to stamp on the weak - unless of course they cease to be 'outsiders' and join some institution which allows them to do so with impunity and government approval.