Can We Separate the Artist from the Art

Two weeks ago I posted Part 1 of Alexander Greco’s essay, Lovecraft: The Never and Forever King Part 1.

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Yup, you guessed it! This week’s post is PART 2!

But first, a quick recap.

Alexander Greco is the founder of Fifth Wall Renaissance, an online magazine for and by creative minds and free thinkers. I was recently lucky enough to have a collection of my essays and a scholarly article, A Brief History of Fear, published by them.

I first met Xander through Instagram when he commented on one of my blog posts. This interaction quickly turned into a discussion about the creative process and before long, we decided to collaborate on a project. This post is part of that collaboration.

Time for some hand to bible honesty. Prior to reading Xander’s essay, I didn’t know all that much about Lovecraft. What I did know was that one of my writing buddies loves him and another cannot stand him.

Lovecraft was a self-professed atheist and many scholars describe his work as xenophobic and misogynist (via the exclusion of women in his fiction). And yet, concepts of Lovecraft’s work can be found everywhere from music (Metallica’s Call of Cthulhu) to games (World of Warcraft) and even religion (ironic)! Lovecraft’s ongoing influence and his questionable ethics raise the age-old question:

Can you separate the art from the artist?

I’ll let you decide.

For now, I’m handing the reins over to Xander. Here is PART TWO of The Never and Forever King, Lovecraft.

Lovecraft: The Never and Forever King Part 2

Lovecraft’s Late Writing

Throughout the rest of Lovecraft’s life, he continued writing, though saw only scraps of fame, and even less fortune.

Most notably during Lovecraft’s later life, he wrote:

  • “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1927)
  • “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927)
  • “The Colour out of Space” (1927)
  • “The Dunwich Horror” (1928/1929)
  • “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1927-1930/1931)
  • “At the Mountains of Madness” (1928-1930/1936)
  • “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931/1936)
  • “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1933/1934)

With these stories, Lovecraft continued to develop his Cthulhu Mythos and his Dream Cycle, while also introducing new elements of his own philosophy and thought.

“The Colour out of Space” is literally about a color that came from space—a color which was previously non-existent on Earth. It is a color that does not exist in the known spectrum of light, it appears as some amorphous glob of this “color”, and it appears to be sentient on some level, though its motivations, the substance it is made out of and its purpose are entirely unknown. Lovecraft never really describes what the color looks like, only that it is a color that has never been seen before. It is a story about something we cannot technically understand, or even technically describe, because there isn’t a technical framework to understand/describe this thing.

The story also details the effects that this color has on the surrounding countryside and the nearby inhabitants of that area. Namely, this “color” seems to suck the life out of everything around it, and cause organisms to mutate and deteriorate. Considering that radiation is on the same electromagnetic spectrum as the color spectrum of light, it’s possible that this “color” is actually referring to radiation that came from outer space.

“The Whisperer in Darkness” coincided with the actual discovery of Pluto, and describes alien creatures who come to Earth from planets on the edge of our solar system. The story makes allusions to Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, but also introduces a concept similar to the “brain-in-a-jar” thought experiment. In the story, the brains of various people are put into metal cannisters, which are then taken to the aliens’ home-world. The reader is left to speculate whether the aliens bring the jars to their home-world for good or bad intentions.

This story is about aliens, dubious cosmic forces, and the conflict between earth and these forces, but it is also about our perception of reality. Philosophically, the brain-in-the-jar thought experiment asks us, “If we only know what reality is because our brains tell us what reality is, then how can we be sure the reality we perceive is real?” If physical reality is nothing but chemicals and electric impulses in our brains, then what if a brain in a jar was electro-chemically stimulated to perceive a false reality? Lovecraft asks a similar question with his “brain-in-a-metal-cannister” trope.

“The Shadow over Innsmouth” is all at once a Kafka-esque work of existentialism, a social criticism of conservative New England communities, and possibly Lovecraft’s most exciting story. One of Lovecraft’s dozen or so faults (several pages could be written on these faults) is the dryness of much of his work. However, in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, Lovecraft provides a surprisingly thrilling climax, while also presenting a disturbing story about an isolated community of religious zealots.

The story is about a man investigating the town of Innsmouth—based on the actual city of Newburyport, a small coastal city in Massachusetts—and discovers that the town is filled with subtly fish-like people. Later, he discovers this town has made a pact with an underwater, reptilian civilization, and that the people of this town worship Dagon (the same Dagon from the story “Dagon”). As the protagonist explores the town of Innsmouth, he is eventually beset upon by the inhabitants of the town, because he is an outsider who will not convert to Dagon.

The Shadow over Innsmouth is about mutant fish-people hunting a man down, but it’s also about a religious witch hunt, and the witch is the well-educated protagonist. Though Lovecraft held several deeply conservative beliefs, Lovecraft, in practice, was actually quite the Cosmopolitan for his time. He was well read on texts from across the world. He travelled quite often, and quite often travelled with friends who were homosexual, were from other countries, or held friends who held remarkably Liberal beliefs. He also has written letters to hundreds of correspondents, from all walks of life, and it would be difficult to call him a close-minded person. On top of this, Lovecraft was an atheist, and likely considered himself to be a man of science, despite his wildly fictitious work.

Whether he was right or not about it, Lovecraft looked down upon individuals with strict religious beliefs, individuals who upheld what he believed to be ignorant practices, and conservative communities of cultural traditionalists. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, Lovecraft compares a community of isolated Puritan-fundamentalists to a city of deformed frog-like humanoids, who worship a reptilian god. Though elements of this story are wildly fictitious, at their core they are based on Lovecraft’s real-life experiences, and express his own beliefs of society and religion.

Lovecraft Compared to other Modern and Early Modern Writers

Many of Lovecraft’s stories, including “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, are comparable in depth and quality to the works of contemporary modern writers. Sadly, though many of Lovecraft’s works ought to be spoken of in the same breath as other great modern writers, HP Lovecraft’s books have remained primarily in the Weird Fiction section of the Library (though his Penguin Classics Collection now sits near Jack London titles).

If “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was written by Franz Kafka, we would be discussing how society contorts and morphs the individual into a grotesque abomination. We would be discussing what it even means to be an individual within a society, and where the border between “us” and “everyone else” resides.

I’ve previously made the case that “The Outsider” could be compared with Camus’ “The Stranger”. Both stories are about a man’s relationship with society—the people they interact with, the protagonist’s perception of reality vs. society’s perception of reality, and the protagonist’s perception of their self vs. society’s perception of the protagonist.

“The Outsider” is about a man emerging from the depths of a large, medieval building, and witnessing people fleeing in horror. The person tries to understand what is happening, why the people are fleeing in horror, and tries to communicate with these people. In the end, the protagonist looks at a mirror and realizes that he is the monster that all the people are fleeing in horror from. “The Stranger” is about a man going to his mother’s funeral, then returning to society and indifferently forming relationships with others. In the end of the story, the protagonist becomes the primary villain of everyone else in the story, and faces the absurdity of life with an indifferent conviction.

A similar case could be made with “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (1915). Both deal with the transformation of a human into something disgusting and monstrous, both have elements of existentialism, and both are about one’s relationship with society.

However, the key difference between the two is that “Metamorphosis” is about the transformation of the individual within society, whereas “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about the individual within a transforming society. Kafka focuses on the effects society has on an individual, and how society transforms someone into a monstrosity. It is the internalization of external forces, and the death of individuality within collectivism.

While Lovecraft’s story has many direct parallels, he focuses on society as the monstrosity, rather than the individual becoming the monstrosity. In fact, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a collective striving to become a single, homogenous individual. It is about a society that worships a singular identity/ideology/way of life (Dagon), and how that morphs them into something inhuman. It is the externalization of internal forces, such as religious belief and collective identities.

The entire society transforms itself to conform with the identity of “Dagon”. So, where “Metamorphosis” is about the identity of an individual being destroyed by the collective, “The Shadow of Innsmouth” is about the identity of a society being destroyed by an individual. This added layer of the story’s meaning compounds on Kafka’s idea, since this transformed society seeks to destroy the individuality of the protagonist in order to maintain its homogeny.

Not only does a society seek to crush and contort the individual, but, in doing so, they weaken and morph themselves. In the act of destroying individuality in order to find homogeny, the society begins destroying itself, by transforming itself into a lesser creature.

Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” could easily be compared to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865) and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816). While “Alice in Wonderland” does employ a number of inventive devices, and acts, in an odd sense, as a platform for mathematical logic, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” is an impressively unique and strange surrealist horror that dwarfs both “Kubla Khan” and “Alice in Wonderland” just in sheer scope of creativity. It could even be compared, in some ways, to the near-surreal and highly symbolic journey in Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759).

It involves a man journeying through his dreams, searching for a city he’d once dreamt of, and in the process is beset upon by dozens of surreal nightmares, many of which attempt to harm or enslave the protagonist. In the end, the protagonist realizes the city he had been looking for was his childhood home. The protagonist wakes up, and realizes he does in fact live in his childhood home once again. Psychoanalytically, one must then ask, “What were the monsters in his dream?”

More and more comparisons like these could be made. Lovecraft’s literary study of the psyche and the objective/subjective reality of a human could be compared to the works of Henry James and James Joyce. Throughout many stories, Lovecraft’s intent seems to be describing an objective reality through an entirely subjective lens. Lovecraft’s stories are scattered and schizophrenic (such as in “The Call of Cthulhu”), but they are aimed at uncovering secrets and truths about an objective reality. Similarly, James and Joyce write highly subjective and abstract stories, though their intent is to uncover truths about reality.

The fragmented yet relatively cohesive scope of the Lovecraft Mythos could easily be compared to the near-biblical mythos of Tolkien’s fantasy world. If one took the time to piece together the stories, characters, entities, settings and events of Lovecraft’s stories (which many have done), you would find an even deeper, substructure to Lovecraft’s stories. We find societies of different alien races at war with each other, or societies of extra-planar/extra-dimensional beings, and the machinations and relationships of gods and other entities.

Though I would say Tolkien’s mythos is far more developed and detailed than Lovecraft’s, Lovecraft’s mythos—in my opinion—is far more expansive in scope, and much more imaginative.

Although the content of “Colour out of Space” is quite different in subject matter than Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” (1941), they share many of the same characteristics. Both are, at their core, hypothetical stories answering hypothetical questions. Lovecraft asks, “What would a color that existed outside of the known color spectrum look like?” and then Lovecraft uses his story as a device to answer that hypothetical question. Jorge Luis Borges asks, “What would the universe be like if it were an infinite library of every possible 410-page book?” and then Borges uses his story to answer that hypothetical question.

They do this because they ask questions that are far better answered with an imaginary experience, rather than formally answer the question.

Additionally, you can find Lovecraft using Postmodern tropes long before Postmodern writers (not to dis on Burroughs, Pynchon or Danielewski). In particular, Lovecraft has used shifts in POV, fragmented story structure, non-linear story-telling, unreliable narration, subjectivism, and occasional uses of stream of consciousness writing. Though Lovecraft did not employ (at least not consciously) the philosophic notions of the Postmodernists, Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was written 4 years before Derrida was born, and around the same time Michel Foucault was born.

This is purely speculation, but it is not impossible that Lovecraft’s notions of intellectual anthropomorphizing, Cosmic Existentialism (fundamentally synonymous with Cosmic Horror), and the human inability to comprehend reality may have influenced Derrida’s ideas of Deconstruction and Phal-Logos-Centrism. It is also not impossible that Lovecraft’s use of historical and mythological allusions, along with Lovecraft’s almost-blatant satirizing of religion and society might have influenced Foucault’s concepts of historical uses of power (though I will admit these are stretches).

It is not impossible that Lovecraft’s considerations of epistemology, phenomenology and idealism—which Lovecraft, the Gothic bibliophile, likely discovered from Hegel, Heidegger, and Schopenhauer—influenced later ideas of Moral Relativity and Hyperreality. Lovecraft’s characters are

Like I said, this is all speculation, and it would be an incredibly daunting task to credibly link Lovecraft to the birth of Postmodernism. Nonetheless, Lovecraft’s influence in the literary world did eventually grow, though it was not until after Lovecraft’s death in 1937 that his works would become commercially successful. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, Lovecraft has grown a literary cult-following of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fans, and is now a major counter-cultural figure in the literary world.

Lovecraft’s Influence and Legacy

Lovecraft has been cited as an influence for Neil Gaiman (writer of the Sandman comics and the American Gods novel), Alan Moor (Watchmen and V for Vendetta), Mike Mignola (the Hellboy comics), Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water”), and Stephen King. In fact, Stephen King cites HP Lovecraft as one of his primary literary influences (“The Mist” is all but a blatant rip-off of Lovecraft (a good rip-off)).

The list goes on, even into popular media. Critically acclaimed “Rick and Morty” is essentially an absurdist take on Lovecraftian Cosmicism. Legendary Japanese comic books and anime series, “Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” are clear derivations of Lovecraftian subjects. And, I’ll say it again, Stephen King is a massive fan of HP Lovecraft, and has even said Lovecraft is “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale”

The King has spoken.

It’s a shame Lovecraft’s work has not seen the same levels of notoriety and literary appreciation as other authors. All too often, great writers like Lovecraft, Tolkien, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman get thrown into the “genre fiction” category, without much thought to their literary quality. Much like Cthulhu is not actually “Cthulhu”, Lovecraft is not “Weird Fiction”. Lovecraft’s work is a misunderstood body of science, surrealism, Gothic horror, various philosophies conjoined under Cosmic Horror, and criticisms of Modernity.

Still, Lovecraft has seen increasing levels of fame and admiration from a growing, global fanbase. Although the majority of Lovecraft fans are fixated upon Lovecraft’s eldritch gods, and his daemonic sultans of the cosmos, rather than the underlying meanings of his work, it is still good that his work has become a household name in the world of counter-cultural literature. Lovecraft was simultaneously a Baroque gentleman pulled from the past, and a thinker beyond his time, but ultimately he was an unfortunate social pariah of the early 20th century. Hopefully his work will one day be widely appreciated for its full merit.

Lovecraft: The Never and Forever King Part 1

For something different … alright … very different, this week’s blog is a guest post from the founder of Fifth Wall Renaissance, Alexander Greco. Fifth Wall Renaissance is an online magazine for and by creative minds and free thinkers, and a collection of my essays was recently published by them. Fortunate, no?

I first met Xander through Instagram when he commented on one of my blog posts. This interaction quickly turned into a discussion about the creative process and before long, we decided to collaborate on a project. This post is part of that collaboration.

Time for some hand to bible honesty. Prior to reading Xander’s essay, I didn’t know all that much about Lovecraft. What I did know was that one of my writing buddies loves him and another cannot stand him.

Lovecraft was a self-professed atheist and many scholars describe his work as xenophobic and misogynist (via the exclusion of women in his fiction). And yet, concepts of Lovecraft’s work can be found everywhere from music (Metallica’s Call of Cthulhu) to games (World of Warcraft) and even religion (ironic)! Lovecraft’s ongoing influence and his questionable ethics raise the age-old question:

Can you separate the art from the artist?

I’ll let you decide.

For now, I’m handing the reins over to Xander. Here is part one of The Never and Forever King, Lovecraft.


The Never and Forever King, Lovecraft:

Part I

Born seven years after Nietzsche’s initial publication of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and twelve years before Einstein developed his Special Theory of Relativity, Howard Phillip Lovecraft is an Existentialist polymath, who has somewhat misnomerously been labeled a legend of weird fiction, though his work far outmatched his “weird” contemporaries. HP Lovecraft died nearly penniless, but has now become one of the most influential writers in Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. However, Lovecraft’s work is still widely unappreciated when compared to his Modern counterparts. Upon deeper analysis, Lovecraft’s work is on par with contemporary writers like Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Tolkien, Samuel Coleridge, and James Joyce.

Childhood and Early Years

HP Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence Rhode Island. His parents were Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a salesman, and Sarah Susan Lovecraft, the daughter of a wealthy businessman.[i] [ii] By the age of 3, Lovecraft was proficient in reading and writing. By the age of 5, after being told Santa Claus wasn’t real, Lovecraft proclaimed himself an atheist, asking in return, “[why] God is not equally a myth.”[iii] At the age of 7, Lovecraft was rewriting the Odyssey into his own poetry, and by[iv] 8, Lovecraft was studying astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, ancient mythology, and classical literature.[v]

Throughout his life, Lovecraft was afflicted with crippling neuroticisms, which began to manifest in adolescence. In 1908, shortly before graduating high school, Lovecraft suffered what he described as a “nervous collapse”, and afterwards dropped out of high school prior to graduation. Lovecraft was supposed to go to Brown University after graduation to study astronomy, but there is speculation that Lovecraft could not attend because of his math scores, and this led to his breakdown.

In late 1918 and early 1919, Lovecraft’s mother began showing signs of her own mental breakdown. Anecdotal evidence from those who knew the Phillip-Lovecraft family at the time states that Lovecraft’s mother had been experiencing hallucinations, mood disorders, and memory loss. In March 1919, Lovecraft’s mother was committed to Butler Hospital and died in 1921.[vi] [vii] This had a significant impact on Lovecraft, who withdrew into a deep depression. However, this period of Lovecraft’s life would be one of his most prolific periods.

Early Influences and Writings

Lovecraft’s upbringing included a quite conservative Victorian sense of morality, which included Anglophilia, xenophobia, and some levels of misogyny (though typically Lovecraft erred on the gentlemanly side of Victorianism). These influences heavily swayed the content of Lovecraft’s writings, along with his complex relationship with Modernity and Cosmopolitan. He was highly critical of modern liberalism and much of modern literature (especially more commercial literature), but he also grew more liberal in his thinking as he grew older.

Lovecraft was also deeply influenced by his dreams, which can be seen in much of his work. Frequently, Lovecraft alludes to some dream of the protagonist, or the ability of an antagonist to enter one’s dreams, and so forth. In stories like “Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath”, Lovecraft’s protagonist completely enters the realm of dreams, and explores it.

Lovecraft’s primary literary and philosophic influences come from Classical, Enlightenment, and early Modern literature and philosophy. Lovecraft’s most prominent influence was Edgar Allen Poe. However, Lovecraft has also been influenced by Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and Jonathan Swift, as well as many other 17th-19th century writers and thinkers, such as Ernst Haeckel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell, and ancient thinkers like Democritus and Epicurus.

Lovecraft’s earliest original writing can be traced back to a period of Lovecraft’s youth between 1897 and 1902. During this time, he wrote “The Noble Eavesdropper”, “The Little Glass Bottle”, “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard”, “The Mysterious Ship”, and other short stories. Lovecraft’s first well known works came in 1905 with “The Beast in the Cave”, 1908 with “The Alchemist”, and 1917 with “The Tomb” and “Dagon” (a predecessor to the now-famous/infamous “The Call of Cthulhu”).

In 1919, Lovecraft wrote “The White Ship”, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. In 1920, he wrote “Celephais”, “The Cats of Ulthar”, and his poem, “Nyarlathotep”. These, followed by the short story “The Nameless City” in 1921, formed the foundation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dream Cycle. In these stories—in conjunction with 18 other known works produced between 1919 and 1921—Lovecraft began exploring the subjects and concepts that would later make Lovecraft famous(/infamous).

The beginning of Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” (written in early 1919) epitomizes the nature of his Dream Cycle works, while also reflecting the subject matter of his Cthulhu Mythos:

“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile [childish] symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere or mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassible barrier.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 37)

These two Lovecraftianly long-winded sentences, which are laden with Lovecraft’s signature purple prose and excessive yet uniquely expressive adjectification, showcase Lovecraft’s enduring obsession with exploring dreams and unknown vistas of frighteningly bizarre reality. Throughout stories such as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, and works like “The Cats of Ulthar” and “Celephais”, Lovecraft’s stories exhibit literary surrealism, elements of existential horror, and an exploration of the supernatural through a filter of Baroque intellectualism.


The story “Dagon” (1917/1923)a recounts the narrator’s brush with the inhuman, ocean-dwelling god, Dagon. The entire story is told with a mix of 1st and 2nd-person point of view, which creates the effect of the narrator directly speaking to the reader, while the narrator recounts their experience in 1st person. Lovecraft also makes use of his “incomprehensible trope” (a trope used throughout his work), in which some of the primary descriptions of a setting, subject or concept are that it cannot be described with anthropocentric means.

“The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 24)

The narrator’s encounter with the god, Dagon, is brief:

“Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 26)

However, Dagon itself is only a plot device. On the surface, this is a story about a man lost at sea, who finds a strange landmass, and eventually encounters a horrific entity, then goes insane and eventually comes to his wits in a San Francisco hospital. The story ends with the narrator obsessing over the creature he saw, and either meeting the creature again, or going insane:

“The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 27)

And this is where we find the deeper subject matter of “Dagon”. One of two things happened in this story. Either the protagonist went insane, and hallucinated his encounter with Dagon, or the protagonist actually encountered an ancient god, and this entity defied the limits of conventional science, thus sending the fragile mind of the narrator into psychosis. The beauty of Lovecraft’s writing is that we can never be sure which of the two it is.

In this story, we find the germinal seeds of Lovecraft’s later work, “Call of Cthulhu”, which truly embodies the ideas found in “Dagon”. This is a story that is told to us by the narrator, recounting the narrator’s personal experience. In this story (and many others) Lovecraft provides us with an unreliable narrator, and blurs the line between reality and insanity. For Lovecraft, the human mind was a fragile and vastly misunderstood system. The universe is a place we have little true understanding of, and what we do understand is limited by our anthropomorphic perception of reality (both physiologically/biologically, and culturally/psychologically).

This story is a reflection of the science and philosophy of the time. The classical frameworks humans used to understand our universe (religion and antiquated metaphysics) were flawed and inaccurate, and that the physical laws of our universe (namely Relativity and Quantum Physics) were far more nuanced and complex than we had previously imagined. Lovecraft’s works play on this quite often, and part of what makes Lovecraft so fun is that he often stands on the knife’s edge of reality and surreality.

Fantasy and science fiction rely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief, often to a great degree. Lovecraft’s writing relies only on the reader accepting a single concept; reality is often stranger than fiction, and there is far more that we don’t know about reality than what we do know. Lovecraft compounds this with the fragility and limited scope of the human mind. He brings us to a dark, chaotic state of being, and forces us to question our knowledge and our grasp of reality. As I said before, the god, Dagon—along with many of Lovecraft’s other creatures, entities and gods—are merely plot devices, which have often been fetishized as Lovecraft’s true creative genius. Lovecraft’s actual genius is the perceptual framework in which he presents these plot devices. What knowledge can we be sure of? What of our own psyche can we be sure of?

This Lovecraftian philosophy would later be called “Cosmic Horror”, though this name is something of a misnomer. For Lovecraft, the true horror of the Cosmos is not the terrible things that reside in it, but the shear insignificance of humankind when compared to the Cosmos. The monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos are not evil, they are indifferent. Their motivations are so alien from ours, that they simply cannot be understood by a human. The omniscience and omnipotence of cosmic forces are so vast in comparison to a human’s intelligence and power, that humans are little more than amoebic monkeys to the rest of the universe.

The genre of Cosmic Horror is not at its core about horror. Rather, it is fundamentally existential and nihilistic. It retrieves elements from Cosmology, as well as from philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Man is weak, fragile, irrational, and blind. Our perceptual frameworks of reality are ill-informed and grossly incomplete. Our place in the grand schema of reality is insignificant, almost to the point of mathematical irrelevancy. Those who peer at the truth must either accept the absurdity of their lives, or go insane as their perceptual frameworks collapse.

To quote Lovecraft’s over-quoted opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance, 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.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 355)

Lovecraft has admitted that much of his work during his early years imitated authors like Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” has clear parallels to Poe’s “Berenice” and “The Masque of the Red Death”. On “The Outsider”, Lovecraft has said, “[‘The Outsider’] represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.”[viii]  However, even in “The Outsider”, Lovecraft begins to find his own voice, and his own philosophy.

Much like Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” (1942), “The Outsider” (1921) is essentially a story about a man who feels ostracized from society. The narrator and protagonist of “The Outsider” emerges from a dark, subterranean world, and into a brighter, above-ground world where he is seen as a hideous monstrosity by other people. Though even more nihilistic than Camus’ story of the absurd hero, “The Outsider” similarly explores the relationship of the self with the society one is embedded in (self vs. super-ego), and the relationship of the self to one’s perception of the self (self vs. ego).

Middle Years

Shortly after his mother’s death in 1921, Lovecraft met Sonia Greene[ix]—a divorcee seven years older than Lovecraft. It has been speculated that Sonia was Lovecraft’s first, and likely last, romantic and sexual partner. The two married in 1924, and Sonia began to support Lovecraft financially as he tried to make a name of himself as a writer. The two moved to New York, where Lovecraft befriended several writers and intellectuals with similar tastes to his (though most of these friends had much different political and cultural views that Lovecraft).

In New York, Lovecraft began submitting his writings to a pulp magazine called Weird Tales. From here until his death, Lovecraft submitted almost exclusively to Weird Tales—whether because of his social awkwardness, his lethargic, sedentary tendencies, or because of his malice towards commercialism. Between 1922 and 1926 (at which time Lovecraft and Sonia ceased living together), Lovecraft wrote dozens of short stories, including several of his most well-known stories, and expanded upon his Dream Cycle and Cthulhu Mythos.

This period of Lovecraft’s writing begins approximately with “The Other Gods” (1921/1933), though one could argue “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922) was the first of his major works during this time. “The Other Gods” was written shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and around the time he met Sonia. It expanded upon the idea of unknowable and wholly inhuman entities, which reside in greater or more terrible realms than “human gods”. This story makes several allusions to characters and places in previous texts (such as “Polaris” and “The Cats of Ulthar”), and elaborates on his notion of Cosmic Horror.

In this time, Lovecraft also wrote stories like “Azathoth” (1922)—a three-paragraph fragment of a never-written novel—which alludes to the Azathoth of Lovecraft’s later work, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, where Azathoth is described as, “that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion where bubbles and blasphemes at infinity’s centre the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 487)

There are others like “Under the Pyramids” (1924)—which Lovecraft wrote for Harry Houdini[x]—in which the protagonist is lost beneath the pyramids of Egypt, and encounters gods and demons from the ancient world, or “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925/27) and “He” (1925/26), which are often regarded as Lovecraft’s most overtly xenophobic stories.

The Call of Cthulhu

Near the end of this period, Lovecraft started his most celebrated story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1925-1926/1928), though he didn’t finish it until after he and Sonia separated. Like many of his other stories, it uses a mix of 1st-person and 2nd-person point of view, the unreliable narrator trope, and often alludes to unnamable and indescribable horrors. Likewise, the Cthulhu creature is used only as a plot device, and Cthulhu itself may only be symbolic. The story is also highly fragmented, told in a non-linear fashion at times, and uses the story-within-a-story device. While Lovecraft continues to write in Baroque style with a heavy saturation of purple prose, the story is actually highly Modern in structure.

The story is about the narrator’s recounting of going through his grand-uncle’s belongings after his grand-uncle had died, and discovering a clay tablet depicting a monstrous creature, which is later identified as Cthulhu. The narrator then goes on to tell the story of how his grand-uncle discovered the clay tablet, tracked the artist who created the tablet, and eventually tracked down evidence of cults throughout history that have worshipped Cthulhu. Here, the story begins to fragment into his grand-uncle’s retelling of various other individuals’ experiences.

There is a retelling of the artist’s experience. There is a story about an inspector who discovers a cult in Louisiana that sacrifice humans. Then, one of the cult members recounts their own experiences, as well as their knowledge of Cthulhu and the other gods of the Cthulhu Mythos. The narrator discovers some notes left behind by his grand-uncle about a man named Johansen, who was the single survivor of some unknown tragedy at sea, and then the narrator goes onto to recount Johansen’s experience.

The climax of the story comes during Johansen’s recounting of what he saw at sea:

“Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47o 9’, W. Longitude 126o 43’ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 375)

The thing is, this is only the narrator retelling Johansen’s story, and the narrator never saw Cthulhu. In fact, it’s revealed in the next paragraph that Johansen never saw Cthulhu, and that the narrator was simply inferring Cthulhu’s existence. Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu, never actually appears in Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu”. This is because the story is not about Cthulhu—Cthulhu is only an alluded-to plot device.

The brilliance of the story is that Cthulhu might not exist. The very name “Cthulhu” isn’t even the actual name of the alluded-to entity. Cthulhu is essentially a linguistic symbol of a “name” that cannot be pronounced by man. While many pronounce Cthulhu as three syllables (kah-thoo-loo), Lovecraft actually intended it to be two syllables, and it’s supposed to be pronounced similarly to a dog barking “kloo-loo”.

Not only is Cthulhu possibly a hallucination, and “Cthulhu” isn’t actually Cthulhu’s name, Cthulhu might not be a “thing” in the traditional sense, even if Cthulhu was “real” in the story. Cthulhu is described in vague, surreal and ambiguous ways. Though Cthulhu is depicted on the clay tablet as a vaguely humanoid creature with an octopus-like head and large bat-wings, Cthulhu is also described as a chaotic being, and a priest of the elder gods—the Great Old Ones. These Great Old Ones were described as “not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape… …but that shape was not made of matter.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 367)

The Great Old Ones, including Cthulhu, are not tangible—if they can even be said to “exist” in Lovecraft’s stories. The name “Cthulhu” is only a symbolic representation of something we cannot comprehend. Cthulhu itself may only be an idea, an entity that exists in our reality only as a concept or psychological force, or Cthulhu might not exist at all.

In addition, the very subject of the story—Cthulhu—is not something we can understand. If Cthulhu can even be said to exist in this story, then Cthulhu is a cosmically ancient (“deep history” ancient), alien god, who lives only partially in the physical world. Cthulhu is not a thing that could be “understood”, as even “understanding” might be an anthropomorphic illusion. Cthulhu might not even have an actual name, and the unpronounceable symbol may only be a vague interpretation of what “Cthulhu” “is”, but whatever Cthulhu “is”, it might be so perceptually incompatible with human cognition that it would be technically impossible to speculate about Cthulhu’s existence.

In “The Call of Cthulhu” and many other stories, Lovecraft forces us to question our understanding of reality, or if the “true” reality we live in is even something that could be understood. Lovecraft challenges our core presuppositions about life, and our very perception of reality. There are forces and “things” in our reality which we haven’t even discovered yet, let alone begun to fathom. Lovecraft simply asks us to accept that we as a species don’t know everything yet, which isn’t difficult to ask in a universe comprised primarily with “dark matter” and “dark energy”.

In Part II, I’ll continue discussing Lovecraft’s ideas, and tie them in with other modern movements in literature.


a (year written / year published)

[i] Joshi, 2013, pg. 16

[ii] Joshi, 2013, pg. 8

[iii] Joshi, 2013, pg. 42

[iv] Joshi, 2013, pg. 38

[v] Joshi, 2013, pg. 60

[vi] Joshi 2013, pg. 301

[vii] Joshi 2013, pg. 390

[viii] Lovecraft 2011, pg. 164

[ix] Joshi 2013, pg. 400

[x] Lovecraft 2011, pg. 270