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.