Lovecraft peopled his mythical realms with slippery, palpitating cretaures to escape a worse prospect – a human world. Illustration by Sean Phillips
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Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of H P Lovecraft

The weird realism that runs through Lovecraft’s writings undermines any belief system – religious or humanist – in which the human mind is the centre of the universe.

The New Annotated H P Lovecraft
Edited by Leslie S Klinger
Liveright/W W Norton, 867pp, £25

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.

In this opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”, first published in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales in 1928, H P Lovecraft set out a view of things that animates pretty well everything he wrote thereafter: the human mind is an accident in the universe, which is indifferent to the welfare of the species. We can have no view of the scheme of things or our place in it, because there may be no such scheme. The final result of scientific inquiry could well be that the universe is a lawless chaos. Sometimes called “weird realism”, it is a disturbing vision with which Lovecraft would struggle throughout his life.

Born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was well acquainted with the fragility of the human mind. When Howard was three years old his father was confined in a psychiatric institution after a breakdown, probably linked to advancing syphilis, and died there five years later. Lovecraft’s early life was shaped by his grandfather, two maiden aunts and his mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, with whom he formed what may have been his most enduring relationship. A precocious, high-strung child, he was often unwell and suffered from attacks of nervous anxiety. After years of mental illness, Sarah spent time in the same hospital, where in May 1921 she also died.

At a meeting of would-be journalists in Boston that same year, Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian-Jewish woman some years older than himself, whom he married in 1924. They seem not to have been unhappy but it was not long before they drifted apart. Financial insecurities must have had a part in the break-up, along with opposition to the marriage from Lovecraft’s aunts and his own intense dislike of New York. The two went on to separate lives, Sonia moving to California, remarrying and dying there in 1972. Lovecraft returned to Providence, where he lived with his aged aunts, in straitened circumstances and increasingly ill. He died from cancer in 1937 convinced that his work – which had received only slight recognition in his lifetime – would soon be forgotten entirely.

Lovecraft’s life was spent on the margins of society, eking out a small inheritance and scraping an uncertain living from journalism and amateur publishing. Some of his attitudes may have come from his experience of downward social mobility. His wealthy grandfather lost most of the family fortune in a business failure in 1900. For Lovecraft, his mother and his aunts, the years that followed were a long decline from what they liked to think had been an aristocratic lifestyle. The aunts’ opposition to his marriage to Sonia – at the time a successful milliner – may have been rooted as much in the family’s social snobbery as in the anti-Semitism that was rife in the US in the early decades of the 20th century. Despite his marriage, Lovecraft’s own animus ran more deeply. There can be no doubt of his racism, which underpinned his detestation of what the narrator in one of his stories described as “the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld”. Some of his letters invoke explicitly racialist theories of cultural degeneration.

It has been suggested in Lovecraft’s defence that in later years his attitudes mellowed. It is true that, under the impact of his experience of the Great Depression, he expressed some sympathy with Roosevelt’s New Deal, mocking the right-wing American obsession with free markets and arguing that a measure of economic planning was needed in order to combat mass unemployment. That, however, does not make him any kind of liberal. Arguments of this kind were widely current, and not only in circles that would now be regarded as progressive.
Nazism and fascism were hostile to capitalism, at least in their rhetoric, precisely because many of their supporters believed that capitalism promoted liberal values. In the 1930s, racism and anti-capitalism often went together. For all his scorn for the age in which he lived, Lovecraft embodied some of its ugliest (and most commonplace) beliefs and attitudes.

Fortunately, the core of his work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments. His real subject is the inhumanity of the cosmos. As he wrote:

. . . all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large . . . To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside – we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

The American writer August Derleth, a friend and correspondent who played a pivotal role in collecting Lovecraft’s fiction and bringing his work to a larger public, suggested that Lovecraft viewed his stories as vehicles for a newly invented mythology. It is an astute observation. Throughout his adult life Lovecraft was an unwavering atheist and materialist. In a letter of 1918, he declared: “. . . the Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE.” At the same time he had nothing but scorn for the rival mythology of his day, the belief that humankind – “the miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe”, as he described the species in the same letter – was at the forefront of cosmic evolution. For him the cosmos was a trap, and human beings the prey of blindly mechanical forces. His “Cthulhu Mythos” – a fictional alternate reality containing godlike minds far more powerful than those of human beings, and also utterly different from theirs – was a response to this vision.

Part mountain, part octopus or dragon, Cthulhu is portrayed as being beyond the reach of words: “The Thing cannot be des­cribed – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.” In “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, published in 1936, he depicts more fully the creatures of his “shadow-haunted Outside”: 

I think their predominant colour was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the side of their necks were palpitating gills . . .

 

Whether they resemble worms, amoebae or bubbling slime, the creatures have one thing in common. None of them is remotely human. It’s as if Lovecraft invented these horrible phantoms in order to escape a worse horror – the human world itself.

The precise role of Lovecraft’s mythology is a continuing subject of controversy. In his erudite and witty foreword to The New Annotated H P Lovecraft, Leslie Klinger notes that Derleth saw the new myth as having at its centre a conflict between good and evil, while “Lovecraft did not see life as a struggle between good and evil or light and dark forces” – which is surely correct. Klinger goes too far, though, when he goes on to suggest that the “Cthulhu Mythos” exists only as Derleth’s invention. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that Lovecraft aimed to establish a fixed pantheon of imaginary deities. But the Lovecraft scholars S T Joshi and David E Schultz seem to me to get closer to the writer’s motivations when they describe the Cthulhu stories as forming a type of “anti-mythology”.

The paradox of Lovecraft’s writing is that although he believed myth existed in order to shield the human mind from reality, his own mythos seems to do the opposite: the “Outside” is more frightening than the world in which human beings live. The paradox is unlocked when we realise that this reality is what Lovecraft was trying to escape. In an essay on his own work, “Some Notes on a Nonentity” (1933), he wrote: 

The “punch” of a truly weird tale is simply some violation or transcending of fixed cosmic law – an imaginative escape from palling reality – hence phenomena rather than persons are the logical “heroes”. Horrors, I believe, should be original – the use of common myths and legends being a weakening influence.

 

Since Derleth collected Lovecraft’s writings there have been many anthologies. Norton’s new volume must surely be the definitive collection. It is meticulously and imaginatively edited, beautifully illustrated and immaculately produced, with a thought-stirring introduction by the graphic novel writer Alan Moore. Along with all the canonical tales, there is copious additional material, including lists of the complete works and revisions by other writers and descriptions of his influence on popular culture. Coming not long before the 125th anniversary of his birth, this magnificent volume is a testimony to Lovecraft’s staying power, which would have surprised him as much as it would his many detractors.

Far from disappearing from view as he expected, Lovecraft has been repeatedly resurrected by successive generations. No one would now write of him as the critic Edmund Wilson did, in the New Yorker in 1945: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” The true horror was in fact that of judging Lovecraft by the standards of a defunct literary culture. In H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991) Michel Houllebecq, who has championed Lovecraft much as Baudelaire did Edgar
Allan Poe, noted that: “There is something not really literary about Lovecraft’s work.” Lovecraft’s distance from “literature” is one of the sources of his power as a writer.

That’s not to say he had no literary influences. At the Mountains of Madness, a novella describing an expedition to the Antarctic and the ancient species found there, shows affinities with Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while “The Dunwich Horror”, a seminal tale of the “Cthulhu Mythos”, is heavily influenced by Arthur Machen, the Welsh writer of unsettling tales. Lovecraft acknowledged these debts, as well as his admiration for the work of Lord Dunsany, M R James and Walter de la Mare, among others.

Yet these influences only accentuate the singularity of Lovecraft’s vision. He discovered Poe when he read him as a young boy, and admired him ever after; but (despite superficial resemblances in subject matter) Poe exalted the human imagination over the natural world with a Romantic passion of which there is little trace in Lovecraft. In terms of philosophy, Machen and Lovecraft had little in common. De la Mare’s suspension of disbelief in everyday reality is far removed from Lovecraft’s unyielding materialism, while Dunsany’s wistful fairy tales lack his uncanniness. There may be a greater affinity with M R James, but there is nothing in Lovecraft of James’s nostalgia for the late-Victorian world.

Lovecraft was too much of an outsider to have any firm mentors. The world-view from which he fashioned his stories was distinctively his own. His atheism and materialism weren’t unusual in America at the time; H L Mencken, for one, held similar views. What is striking is what he made from this familiar philosophy.

The weird realism that runs through his writings undermines any belief system – religious or humanist – in which the human mind is the centre of the universe. There is a tendency nowadays to think of the world in which we live as an artefact of mind or language: a human construction. For Lovecraft, human beings are too feeble to shape a coherent view of the universe. Our minds are specks tossed about in the cosmic melee; though we look for secure foundations, we live in perpetual free fall. With its emphasis on the radical contingency of the human world, this is a refreshing alternative to the anthropocentric philosophies in which so many find intellectual reassurance. It may seem an unsettling view of things; but an inhuman cosmos need not be as horrific as Lovecraft seems to have found it.

He is often described as misanthropic, but this isn’t quite right – a true misanthrope would find the inhumanity of the universe liberating. There is no intrinsic reason why a universe in which people are marginal should be a horror-inducing place. A world vastly larger and stranger than any the human mind can contain could just as well evoke a sense of excitement or an acceptance of mystery.

Lovecraft’s anti-mythology of slimy, inhuman creatures reflected an unresolved struggle within himself. He firmly rejected religious mythologies that accorded humankind a special place in the scheme of things, but he could not accept the implication of his materialism, which is that human life has no cosmic value or meaning. Rejecting any belief in meaning beyond the human world, he also rejected the meanings human beings make for themselves. He had no interest in the lives of most people, and from his early years seems to have believed his own would count for very little. He was left without any sense of significance. So, obeying an all-too-human impulse, he fashioned a make-believe realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference. 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His next book, “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom”, will be published in spring 2015

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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