‘The Coughing Gutturals of Ghasts…’

Mortal enemy of the Somewhat Freudian Gug ghasts haunt the subterranean caverns of Lovecraft’s Dreamworld..

‘Presently three other ghasts hopped out to join their fellow…It was very unpleasant to see those filthy and disproportioned animals which soon numbered about fifteen, grubbing about and making their kangaroo leaps in the grey twilight where titan towers and monoliths arose, but it was still more unpleasant when they spoke among themselves in the coughing gutturals of ghasts’.

‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’

‘The Somewhat Freudian Gug’

Paul Carrick's Illustration of a Gug from Lovecraft's Dreamlands

The somewhat Freudian Gug with its vertical mouth is a denizen of Lovecraft’s ‘Dreamlands.’ I find the name resonant of the biblical titans Gog and Magog- the Gug’s gigantic size heightening this association.

‘The Gugs, hairy and gigantic, once reared stone circles in that wood and made strange sacrifices to the Other Gods and the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, until one night an abomination of theirs reached the ears of earth’s gods and they were banished to caverns below. Only a great trap door of stone with an iron ring connects the abyss of the earth-ghouls with the enchanted wood, and this the Gugs are afraid to open because of a curse. That a mortal dreamer could traverse their cavern realm and leave by that door is inconceivable; for mortal dreamers were their former food, and they have legends of the toothsomeness of such dreamers even though banishment has restricted their diet to the ghasts, those repulsive beings which die in the light, and which live in the vaults of Zin and leap on long hind legs like kangaroos…

…It was a paw, fully two feet and a half across, and equipped with formidable talons. After it came another paw, and after that a great black-furred arm to which both of the paws were attached by short forearms. Then two pink eyes shone, and the head of the awakened Gug sentry, large as a barrel, wabbled into view. The eyes jutted two inches from each side, shaded by bony protuberances overgrown with coarse hairs. But the head was chiefly terrible because of the mouth. That mouth had great yellow fangs and ran from the top to the bottom of the head, opening vertically instead of horizontally’.

Lyonesse and ‘The Foundered Town’ in Romance and Fantasy of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Lyonesse--Down-A-Down-Derry---Dorothy P. Lathrop

‘In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town…’

‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922)

Arthurian legend tells of the sunken land of Lyonesse. One of the earliest literary references to Lyonesse appears in the 15th Century Arthurian tale ‘Le Morte Darthur’ by Sir Thomas Malory. In Malory’s version of the legend Lyonesse is imagined to have once formed a land bridge between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles- the birthplace of the hero Tristan. During the 19th and early 20th Century as the Arthurian legend enjoyed a revival the legend of Lyonesse was directly referenced by in a number of works by writers of romantic and fantastic fiction. These works include ‘Idylls of the King’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1856-1885), ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882) and ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922). In addition although not directly referenced the image of a Lyonesse-like ‘foundered town’ or sunken city appears in a number of other works of this period  ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’ by Lord Dunsany (1915) and also in ‘What the Moon Brings’ (1923) ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (1927)  and ‘The Call of Cthulu’  (1928) by H. P. Lovecraft.

In the ‘Idylls of the King’ (1856-1885) Alfred, Lord Tennyson re-imagines the Arthurian legend in a series of twelve narrative poems picturing Lyonesse as  a ‘land of old’ brought up from the ‘abyss’ and returning to the depths from whence it came.

‘Then rose the King and moved his host by night

And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,

Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse–

A land of old upheaven from the abyss

By fire, to sink into the abyss again;

Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,

And the long mountains ended in a coast

Of ever-shifting sand, and far away

The phantom circle of a moaning sea’.

There seems to be an air of divine judgement in Tennyson’s description of the destruction of Lyonesse with an image of the land emerging from fire and falling back into the depths of the earth. This image brings to mind the destruction by fire and brimstone of the infamous biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are also echoes of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667) in Tennyson’s description of the destruction of Lyonesse, note the corresponding imagery of abyss, mountains and sea in this section of Milton’s poem.

‘They  view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss

  Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,

  Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windes

  And surging waves, as Mountains to assault

  Heav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole’.

The poet also evokes a feeling of great antiquity with the sunken land descending ‘Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt’. Even the ‘moaning sea’ seems to lament its descent beneath the waves.

Tristram of Lyonesse by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882) is a lengthy narrative poem which ends in tragedy with the hero slain and his lover dying of a broken heart. The poem depicts Lyonesse as the watery grave of the hero Tristram and his lover Iseult.

‘For the strong sea hath swallowed wall and tower,
And where their limbs were laid in woful hour
For many a fathom gleams and moves and moans
The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones
In the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine:
Nor where they sleep shall moon or sunlight shine
Nor man look down for ever: none shall say,
Here once, or here, Tristram and Iseult lay:
But peace they have that none may gain who live.
And rest about them that no love can give,
And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea’.

The submerging of Lyonesse and the dead lover’s tomb beneath ‘The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones’ is arguably a metaphor for the eternal peace of death- the ‘peace they have that none may gain who live’. At the same time there is a sense of desecration created by the reference to ‘the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine’ suggesting a certain unhallowed quality to their burial place beneath the’ light and sound and darkness of the sea.’

Lord Dunsany in ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’ (1915) makes no direct reference to Lyonesse but uses the metaphor of drowned cities to show the futility of trying to use art to create a surrogate immortality, picturing the wreckage of Babylon floating idly, and something there that once was Nineveh’-

‘All we who write put me in mind of sailors hastily making rafts upon doomed ships.

When we break up under the heavy years and go down into eternity with all that is ours our thoughts like small lost rafts float on awhile upon Oblivion’s sea. They will not carry much over those tides, our names and a phrase or two and little else.

They that write as a trade to please the whim of the day, they are like sailors that work at the rafts only to warm their hands and to distract their thoughts from their certain doom; their rafts go all to pieces before the ship breaks up.

See now Oblivion shimmering all around us, its very tranquility deadlier than tempest. How little all our keels have troubled it. Time in its deeps swims like a monstrous whale; and, like a whale, feeds on the littlest things–small tunes and little unskilled songs of the olden, golden evenings–and anon turneth whale-like to overthrow whole ships.

See now the wreckage of Babylon floating idly, and something there that once was Nineveh; already their kings and queens are in the deeps among the weedy masses of old centuries that hide the sodden bulk of sunken Tyre and make a darkness round Persepolis.

For the rest I dimly see the forms of foundered ships on the sea-floor strewn with crowns.

Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.

There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen’.

Note how Dunsany pictures oblivion as the sea ’shimmering all around us’ and imagines that ‘Time in its deeps swims like a monstrous whale.’  The great civilisations of Tyre and Persepolis with all their glory are now submerged by time ‘ in the deeps among the weedy masses of old centuries.’

‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922) mirrors Swinburne’s vision of Lyonesse as a watery grave with its carver Caged in his stone-ribbed side.’

‘In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town,
The Nereids pluck their lyres
Where the green translucency beats,
And with motionless eyes at gaze
Make ministrely in the streets.

And the ocean water stirs
In salt-worn casement and porch.
Plies the blunt-nosed fish
With fire in his skull for torch.
And the ringing wires resound;
And the unearthly lovely weep,
In lament of the music they make
In the sullen courts of sleep:
Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And – lapped by the moon-guiled tide –
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side’.

De la Mare’s description of Lyonesse relies on the juxtaposition of opposites for its effect.  The ‘Sabbath eve’ with its silent Christian belfries contrasts with the image of the pagan Nereids or sea nymphs of classical mythology who ‘pluck their lyres.’ The rhythm of the ‘green translucency beat’ of the sea contrasts with the ‘motionless eye’ of the Nerieds. The ‘ocean water’ is an elemental contrast with ‘the blunt-nosed fish/With fire in his skull.’  The image of ‘marble flowers’ is a paradoxical juxtaposition of organic with inorganic matter. There is a wavelike rhythm in this repetitious juxtaposition which heightens the impression of submergence beneath the sea.  In ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ the ‘foundered town’ can be seen as a metaphor for time obscuring the works of the artist in similar terms to Lord Dunsany in ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’. The final lines of the poem depict the irony of human creation outliving their creator.

‘Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And – lapped by the moon-guiled tide –
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side’

In ‘What the Moon Brings’ by H. P. Lovecraft (1923) the ‘foundered town’ makes another appearance but unlike ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ where it is the eternal aspects of death which are considered Lovecraft dwells on the ephemeral aspects of decay and the drowned city pictured is a kind of shallow grave of’ all the flesh of the churchyards gathered for puffy sea-worms to gnaw and glut upon…’

‘Upon that sea the hateful moon shone, and over its unvocal waves weird perfumes breeded. And as I saw therein the lotos-faces vanish, I longed for nets that I might capture them and learn from them the secrets which the moon had brought upon the night. But when that moon went over to the west and the still tide ebbed from the sullen shore, I saw in that light old spires that the waves almost uncovered, and white columns gay with festoons of green seaweed. And knowing that to this sunken place all the dead had come, I trembled and did not wish again to speak with the lotos-faces…

…So I watched the tide go out under that sinking moon, and saw gleaming the spires, the towers, and the roofs of that dead, dripping city. And as I watched, my nostrils tried to close against the perfume-conquering stench of the world’s dead; for truly, in this unplaced and forgotten spot had all the flesh of the churchyards gathered for puffy sea-worms to gnaw and glut upon…

…Nor had my flesh trembled without cause, for when I raised my eyes I saw that the waters had ebbed very low, shewing much of the vast reef whose rim I had seen before. And when I saw that the reef was but the black basalt crown of a shocking eikon whose monstrous forehead now shown in the dim moonlight and whose vile hooves must paw the hellish ooze miles below, I shrieked and shrieked lest the hidden face rise above the waters, and lest the hidden eyes look at me after the slinking away of that leering and treacherous yellow moon.

And to escape this relentless thing I plunged gladly and unhesitantly into the stinking shallows where amidst weedy walls and sunken streets fat sea-worms feast upon the world’s dead’.

In contrast to the melancholic mood of De la Mare where ‘the unearthly lovely weep,/In lament of the music they make ‘ the mood of ‘What the Moon Brings’ is one of horror where low tide exposes  ‘dead dripping city’ on a reef which is ‘the black basalt crown of a shocking eikon’.

There are further echoes of de la Mare’s Lyonesse in Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (1927) which has references to submerged ‘ruins‘walls  ‘spires’ and ‘phosphorescent fish.’

‘On the fifth day the sailors were nervous, but the captain apologized for their fears, saying that the ship was about to pass over the weedy walls and broken columns of a sunken city too old for memory, and that when the water was clear one could see so many moving shadows in that deep place that simple folk disliked it. He admitted, moreover, that many ships had been lost in that part of the sea; having been hailed when quite close to it, but never seen again.

That night the moon was very bright, and one could see a great way down in the water. There was so little wind that the ship could not move much, and the ocean was very calm. Looking over the rail Carter saw many fathoms deep the dome of the great temple, and in front of it an avenue of unnatural sphinxes leading to what was once a public square. Dolphins sported merrily in and out of the ruins, and porpoises revelled clumsily here and there, sometimes coming to the surface and leaping clear out of the sea. As the ship drifted on a little the floor of the ocean rose in hills, and one could clearly mark the lines of ancient climbing streets and the washed-down walls of myriad little houses.

Then the suburbs appeared, and finally a great lone building on a hill, of simpler architecture than the other structures, and in much better repair. It was dark and low and covered four sides of a square, with a tower at each corner, a paved court in the centre, and small curious round windows all over it. Probably it was of basalt, though weeds draped the greater part; and such was its lonely and impressive place on that far hill that it may have been a temple or a monastery. Some phosphorescent fish inside it gave the small round windows an aspect of shining, and Carter did not blame the sailors much for their fears. Then by the watery moonlight he noticed an odd high monolith in the middle of that central court, and saw that something was tied to it. And when after getting a telescope from the captain’s cabin he saw that that bound thing was a sailor in the silk robes of Oriab, head downward and without any eyes, he was glad that a rising breeze soon took the ship ahead to more healthy parts of the sea’.

In the final work considered  ‘The Call of Cthulu’ (1928) Lovecraft describes ‘ the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters’  which unlike the drowned city in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ is not content to accept its doom (or divine judgement) but whose dread inhabitant Cthulu threatens  to ‘rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway’.

‘They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him’.

One interpretation of ‘R’lyeh under the waters’ is as a metaphor for the unconscious mind and the irrational- with the rise of Cthulu  as a kind of Freudian tsunami threatening  to submerge the dry land of the rational mind. (The image can also be understood in the context of the theme of dystheism which permeates Lovecraft’s works).

‘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 47°9′, W. Longitude l23°43′, come upon a coastline 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..’

Although R’lyeh is sunken it is not even in a clear state of being submerged. It is landscape of paradoxes   a ‘coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry’ i.e. not land not sea not organic (‘weedy’) or a construction (‘cyclopean masonry’) but a mixture of all of these elements. The inhabitants did not fly from the stars but ‘seeped down’ in manner suggestive of bodily fluids. There is a sense of the ‘foundered town’ as a psycho-geography, a mind plagued by Freudian nightmares of a phallic ‘great stone pillar sticking out of the sea’ which ‘sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive.’


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From Devil-Fish to Demi-God: the Giant Squid in Romance and Fantasy of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

Nineteenth Century Illustration for 'Toilers of the Sea' by Victor Hugo

‘If terror were the object of its creation, nothing could be imagined more perfect than the devil-fish.’

Victor Hugo ‘Toilers of the Sea’

The kraken and the devil-fish are but two archaic names for the cephalopod we now know as the giant squid. The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the giant squid emerge from the legends of the Icelandic sagas and Homer’s odyssey into the scientific journals of the day. The natural scientist Carolus Linnaeus had in fact included kraken as cephalopods in the first edition of his taxonomy of the natural world ‘Systema Naturae’ as early as 1735 but had excised the reference from the second edition. It was not until the 1850s that the giant squid re-entered the scientific lexicon when Japetus Steenstrup, Professor of Zoology at the University of Copenhagen wrote a number of papers on the subject. In 1861 the French naval vessel the ‘Alecton’ obtained part of a giant squid and from the 1870s onwards many specimens washed ashore in Canada and New Zealand.  The giant squid also undulated its way into general culture via articles of the time such as this from ‘Popular Science Monthly’

“PERHAPS no better introduction to this chapter can be given than to recall to the minds of our readers the terribly vivid description of the devil-fish by that grand master of romance, Victor Hugo; for, though incorrect in several scientific details, the general description is the best we have had, though Jules Verne’s is almost as dramatic and nearer to Nature. In “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” M. Hugo says: “To believe in the existence of the devil-fish, one must have seen it. Compared to it the ancient hydras were insignificant…” In a letter addressed to me on this subject by Prof. Spencer F. Baird, under date of April 1, 1878, this distinguished naturalist says: “The giant squid in the New York Aquarium can only be designated as an infant or dwarf in comparison with the gigantic species of the Pacific Ocean— those upon which the sperm-whale is known to feed. Chunks of squid-remains are not infrequently found in the throat or stomach of the sperm-whale, apparently indicating specimens from ten to fifty times the size of the Newfoundland variety. I was informed that a considerably larger specimen than that at New York was cast ashore at Newfoundland later in the season. The arms of the latter, if I recollect right, were some ten feet longer than those of the other”.

‘The Devil-Fish and Its Relatives’ By W. E. Damon in Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 January 1879

As is alluded to in this article the giant squid also made notable appearances in Nineteenth Century works of fiction such as ‘Toilers of the Sea’ by Victor Hugo (1866) and ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seaby Jules Verne (1870) but there were earlier appearances such as in ‘Moby-Dick;’ or, The Whale’ (1851) by Herman Melville. I would further argue that imagery of the giant squid can also be found in the scientific romance ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898), by H.G. Wells and is much in evidence in the Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft (1890 –1937).

Melville had direct experience as a mariner having served on two whaling ships including the whaler Acushnet in 1842 and may have been made aware of the existence of the giant squid on these voyages. Melville’s depiction of the creature in ‘Moby Dick’ is prosaic in the extreme – categorised as a mere snack for that mighty symbolic beast the white whale.

“What was it, Sir?” said Flask.

“The great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.”

But Ahab said nothing; turning his boat, he sailed back to the vessel; the rest as silently following.

Whatever superstitions the sperm whalemen in general have connected with the sight of this object, certain it is, that a glimpse of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to invest it with portentousness. So rarely is it beheld, that though one and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the sperm whale his only food. For though other species of whales find their food above water, and may be seen by man in the act of feeding, the spermaceti whale obtains his whole food in unknown zones below the surface; and only by inference is it that any one can tell of what, precisely, that food consists. At times, when closely pursued, he will disgorge what are supposed to be the detached arms of the squid; some of them thus exhibited exceeding twenty and thirty feet in length. They fancy that the monster to which these arms belonged ordinarily clings by them to the bed of the ocean; and that the sperm whale, unlike other species, is supplied with teeth in order to attack and tear it.

There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid. The manner in which the Bishop describes it, as alternately rising and sinking, with some other particulars he narrates, in all this the two correspond. But much abatement is necessary with respect to the incredible bulk he assigns it.

By some naturalists who have vaguely heard rumors of the mysterious creature, here spoken of, it is included among the class of cuttle-fish, to which, indeed, in certain external respects it would seem to belong, but only as the Anak of the tribe”.

The white whale is arguably a central character of Moby Dick and described by Captain Ahab as his sworn enemy or nemesis-

 “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him…”

In contrast the squid is a mere footnote, clearing up an ancient mystery related by Bishop Pontoppodan or a curiosity of the naturalists along with the cuttle-fish.

The giant squid makes a more striking appearance in ‘Toilers of the Sea’ by Victor Hugo where it is described as a ‘sea vampire’ as it was believed to suck out the vital fluids of its victims. For Hugo the ‘devil-fish is so otherworldly it is best described in negatives-

“The whale has enormous bulk, the devil-fish is comparatively small; the jararaca makes a hissing noise, the devil-fish is mute; the rhinoceros has a horn, the devil-fish has none; the scorpion has a dart, the devil-fish has no dart; the shark has sharp fins, the devil-fish has no fins; the vespertilio-bat has wings with claws, the devil-fish has no wings; the porcupine has his spines, the devil-fish has no spines; the sword-fish has his sword, the devil-fish has none; the torpedo has its electric spark, the devil-fish has none; the toad has its poison, the devil-fish has none; the viper has its venom, the devil-fish has no venom; the lion has its talons, the devil-fish has no talons; the griffon has its beak, the devil-fish has no beak; the crocodile has its jaws, the devil-fish has no teeth…

What, then, is the devil-fish? It is the sea vampire”.

Hugo describes the giant squid as a creature so hideous its existence casts doubt on the idea of a benign creator. (In this regard the description appears something of a precursor of the tentacled horrors of Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos).

“It is difficult for those who have not seen it to believe in the existence of the devil-fish.

Compared to this creature, the ancient hydras are insignificant.

At times we are tempted to imagine that the vague forms which float in our dreams may encounter in the realm of the Possible attractive forces, having power to fix their lineaments, and shape living beings, out of these creatures of our slumbers. The Unknown has power over these strange visions, and out of them composes monsters. Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod imagined only the Chimera: Providence has created this terrible creature of the sea.

Creation abounds in monstrous forms of life. The wherefore of this perplexes and affrights the religious thinker.

If terror were the object of its creation, nothing could be imagined more perfect than the devil-fish”.

According to Hugo science can classify the giant squid but cannot define its meaning- it is left to philosophy to do this. Hugo even speculates that the existence of the giant squid is an argument for Manichean-style dualism: that is the existence of opposing poles of good and evil in the Universe.

‘These strange animals, Science, in accordance with its habit of excessive caution even in the face of facts, at first rejects as fabulous; then she decides to observe them; then she dissects, classifies, catalogues, and labels; then procures specimens, and exhibits them in glass cases in museums…This done, she leaves them. Where science drops them, philosophy takes them up…

‘…Philosophy in her turn studies these creatures. She goes both less far and further. She does not dissect, but meditate. Where the scalpel has laboured, she plunges the hypothesis. She seeks the final cause. Eternal  perplexity of the thinker. These creatures disturb his ideas of the Creator. They are hideous surprises. They are the death’s-head at the feast of contemplation. The philosopher determines their characteristics in dread. They are the concrete forms of evil. What attitude can he take towards this treason of creation against herself? To whom can he look for the solution of these riddles? The Possible is a terrible matrix. Monsters are mysteries in their concrete form. Portions of shade issue from the mass, and something within detaches itself, rolls, floats, condenses, borrows elements from the ambient darkness, becomes subject to unknown polarisations, assumes a kind of life, furnishes itself with some unimagined form from the obscurity, and with some terrible spirit from the miasma, and wanders ghostlike among living things. It is as if night itself assumed the forms of animals. But for what good?  with what object? Thus we come again to the eternal questioning.

These animals are indeed phantoms as much as monsters. They are proved and yet improbable. Their fate is to exist in spite of à priori reasonings. They are the amphibia of the shore which separates life from death. Their unreality makes their existence puzzling. They touch the frontier of man’s domain and people the region of chimeras. We deny the possibility of the vampire, and the cephaloptera appears. Their swarming is a certainty which disconcerts our confidence. Optimism, which is nevertheless in the right, becomes silenced in their presence. They form the visible extremity of the dark circles. They mark the transition of our reality into another. They seem to belong to that commencement of terrible life which the dreamer sees confusedly through the loophole of the night.

That multiplication of monsters, first in the Invisible, then in the Possible, has been suspected, perhaps perceived by magi and philosophers in their austere ecstasies and profound contemplations. Hence the conjecture of a material hell. The demon is simply the invisible tiger. The wild beast which devours souls has been presented to the eyes of human beings by St. John, and by Dante in his vision of Hell.

If, in truth, the invisible circles of creation continue indefinitely, if after one there is yet another, and so forth in illimitable progression; if that chain, which for our part we are resolved to doubt, really exist, the cephaloptera at one extremity proves Satan at the other. It is certain that the wrongdoer at one end proves the existence of wrong at the other.

Every malignant creature, like every perverted intelligence, is a sphinx. A terrible sphinx propounding a terrible riddle; the riddle of the existence of Evil.

It is this perfection of evil which has sometimes sufficed to incline powerful intellects to a faith in the duality of the Deity, towards that terrible bifrons of the Manichæans”.

(Once again I am struck by the likely influence of these passages on Lovecraft’s dystheistic worldview and the centrality of squid- like horrors in his imagery- a theme I will return to later).

Illustration from first English edition of 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea published 1870

In ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seaby Jules Verne the giant squid that famously attack the ‘Nautilus’ are described in terms which evoke horror- reference is made to the ‘ horned beak’ and ‘several rows of pointed teeth’.

“Nothing, my friends; at least of that which passes the limit of truth to get to fable or legend. Nevertheless, there must be some ground for the imagination of the story-tellers. One cannot deny that poulps and cuttlefish exist of a large species, inferior, however, to the cetaceans. Aristotle has stated the dimensions of a cuttlefish as five cubits, or nine feet two inches. Our fishermen frequently see some that are more than four feet long. Some skeletons of poulps are preserved in the museums of Trieste and Montpelier, that measure two yards in length. Besides, according to the calculations of some naturalists, one of these animals only six feet long would have tentacles twenty-seven feet long. That would suffice to make a formidable monster.

I looked in my turn, and could not repress a gesture of disgust. Before my eyes was a horrible monster worthy to figure in the legends of the marvellous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes. Its eight arms, or rather feet, fixed to its head, that have given the name of cephalopod to these animals, were twice as long as its body, and were twisted like the furies’ hair. One could see the 250 air holes on the inner side of the tentacles. The monster’s mouth, a horned beak like a parrot’s, opened and shut vertically. Its tongue, a horned substance, furnished with several rows of pointed teeth, came out quivering from this veritable pair of shears. What a freak of nature, a bird’s beak on a mollusc! Its spindle-like body formed a fleshy mass that might weigh 4,000 to 5,000 lb.; the, varying colour changing with great rapidity, according to the irritation of the animal, passed successively from livid grey to reddish brown. What irritated this mollusc? No doubt the presence of the Nautilus, more formidable than itself, and on which its suckers or its jaws had no hold”.

Unlike the ‘Devil-fish’ of Victor Hugo, although terrifying these giant squid are acknowledged as creations of God admired for their natural vigour and objects of interest to the amateur naturalist.

“Yet, what monsters these poulps are! what vitality the Creator has given them! what vigour in their movements! and they possess three hearts! Chance had brought us in presence of this cuttlefish, and I did not wish to lose the opportunity of carefully studying this specimen of cephalopods. I overcame the horror that inspired me, and, taking a pencil, began to draw it”.

Martian tripod illustration from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds".

The Martian invaders and their tripods in ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells are described in very squid-like terms as ‘a sort of metallic spider’ with ‘clutching tentacles’ and having a kind of ‘fleshy beak.’

 “The mechanism it certainly was that held my attention first. It was one of those complicated fabrics that have since been called handling-machines, and the study of which has already given such an enormous impetus to terrestrial invention. As it dawned upon me first, it presented a sort of metallic spider with five jointed, agile legs, and with an extraordinary number of jointed levers, bars, and reaching and clutching tentacles about its body. Most of its arms were retracted, but with three long tentacles it was fishing out a number of rods, plates, and bars which lined the covering and apparently strengthened the walls of the cylinder. These, as it extracted them, were lifted out and deposited upon a level surface of earth behind it.

They were huge round bodies–or, rather, heads–about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils–indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body–I scarcely know how to speak of it–was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist Professor Howes, the hands”.

Perhaps the unease that H.G. Wells vision provokes is that earthly squid may be a type of ‘sea vampire’ but they are clearly some way down the food chain from human beings.  On the other hand extra-terrestrial squid have superior technology and drink human blood on an industrial scale…

“Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads–merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal. . . “.


In the works of H.P. Lovecraft the giant squid achieves its (possibly) final apotheosis into the gods and demi-gods of the Cthulu mythos. Note the squid imagery from the following passages where references are made to ‘The awful squid-head with writhing feelers’  ‘a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes’ and ‘cuttlefish head’.

“Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency. Briden looked back and went mad, laughing shrilly as he kept on laughing at intervals till death found him one night in the cabin whilst Johansen was wandering deliriously.

But Johansen had not given out yet. Knowing that the Thing could surely overtake the Alert until steam was fully up, he resolved on a desperate chance; and, setting the engine for full speed, ran lightning-like on deck and reversed the wheel. There was a mighty eddying and foaming in the noisome brine, and as the steam mounted higher and higher the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a daemon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething” astern; where–God in heaven!–the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.

“the region now entered by the police was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men. There were legends of a hidden lake unglimpsed by mortal sight, in which dwelt a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes; and squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns in inner earth to worship it at midnight”.

“The crouching image with its cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal, was preserved in the Museum at Hyde Park; and I studied it long and well, finding it a thing of balefully exquisite workmanship, and with the same utter mystery, terrible antiquity, and unearthly strangeness of material which I had noted in Legrasse’s smaller specimen”.

‘The Call Of Cthulhu’

Unlike the ‘devil-fish’ of ‘Toilers of the Sea’ or even the Martians of ‘The War of the Worlds’ whose simple aim is to digest their victims ‘great Cthulu’ has no such dietary requirements. It simply exists as a kind of metaphysical threat to the sanity of humankind, bringing to mind Victor Hugo’s description of the ‘devil-fish’

“These animals are indeed phantoms as much as monsters. They are proved and yet improbable. Their fate is to exist in spite of à priori reasonings. They are the amphibia of the shore which separates life from death. Their unreality makes their existence puzzling. They touch the frontier of man’s domain and people the region of chimeras”.

Lovecraft acknowledges his debt to Victor Hugo, writing in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’

“Victor Hugo, in such tales as Hans of Iceland, and Balzac, in The Wild Ass’s Skin, Seraphita, and Louis Lambert, both employ supernaturalism to a greater or less extent; though generally only as a means to some more human end, and without the sincere and dæmonic intensity which characterizes the born artist in shadows”.

Squid imagery is also apparent in Lovecraft’s ’Old Ones’ a race of sentient extraterrestrial demi-gods who are credited with creating the human race (by accident). Note the references to ‘five main head tentacles’ and ‘The many slender tentacles into which the crinoid arms branched’

“Of the life of the Old Ones, both under the sea and after part of them migrated to land, volumes could be written. Those in shallow water had continued the fullest use of the eyes at the ends of their five main head tentacles, and had practiced the arts of sculpture and of writing in quite the usual way–the writing accomplished with a stylus on waterproof waxen surfaces. Those lower down in the ocean depths, though they used a curious phosphorescent organism to furnish light, pieced out their vision with obscure special senses operating through the prismatic cilia on their heads–senses which rendered all the Old Ones partly independent of light in emergencies. Their forms of sculpture and writing had changed curiously during the descent, embodying certain apparently chemical coating processes–probably to secure phosphorescence–which the bas-reliefs could not make clear to us. The beings moved in the sea partly by swimming–using the lateral crinoid arms–and partly by wriggling with the lower tier of tentacles containing the pseudofeet. Occasionally they accomplished long swoops with the auxiliary use of two or more sets of their fanlike folding wings. On land they locally used the pseudofeet, but now and then flew to great heights or over long distances with their wings. The many slender tentacles into which the crinoid arms branched were infinitely delicate, flexible, strong, and accurate in muscular-nervous coordination–ensuring the utmost skill and dexterity in all artistic and other manual operations.

At the Mountains of Madness’

According to these scraps of information, the basis of the fear was a horrible elder race of half-polypous, utterly alien entities which had come through space from immeasurably distant universes and had dominated the earth and three other solar planets about 600 million years ago. They were only partly material–as we understand matter–and their type of consciousness and media of perception differed widely from those of terrestrial organisms. For example, their senses did not include that of sight; their mental world being a strange, non-visual pattern of impressions”.

‘The Shadow Out of Time’

All in all quite an evolution for a cephalopod, from whale-bait in ‘Moby Dick’ through sinister ‘Devil-Fish’ and Martian invader to star-borne demi-god in less than one-hundred years of fiction.


Anon, Collected Stories–H. P. Lovecraft. Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600031h.html [Accessed January 2, 2012a].

Anon, File:War-of-the-worlds-tripod.jpg – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:War-of-the-worlds-tripod.jpg [Accessed January 19, 2012b].

Anon, Giant squid – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_squid [Accessed January 16, 2012c].

Anon, Herman Melville – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville [Accessed January 19, 2012d].

Anon, Ink Maps, Illustration from an 1885 edition of Victor Hugo’s… Available at: http://inkmaps.tumblr.com/post/4722842680/illustration-from-an-1885-edition-of-victor-hugos [Accessed January 19, 2012e].

Anon, Jules Verne, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (The Caird Library Blog). Available at: http://www.nmm.ac.uk/library/2007/06/jules_verne_twenty_thousand_le.html [Accessed January 19, 2012f].

Anon, Kraken in popular culture – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kraken_in_popular_culture [Accessed January 16, 2012h].

Anon, Mythical Monsters: Chapter IX. The Sea-Serpent. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/earth/mm/mm12.htm [Accessed January 16, 2012i].

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Anon, Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/January 1879/The Devil-Fish and its Relatives – Wikisource. Available at: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_14/January_1879/The_Devil-Fish_and_its_Relatives [Accessed January 16, 2012k].

Anon, SCYLLA : Sea Monster | Greek mythology, Skylla, w/ pictures. Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Skylla.html [Accessed January 16, 2012l].

Anon, SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE (1927, 1933 – 1935) by H.P. Lovecraft. Available at: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/superhor.htm [Accessed January 19, 2012m].

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Anon, The Project Gutenberg E-text of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/164/164-h/164-h.htm#chap0212 [Accessed January 16, 2012q].

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Melville, Herman, Moby Dick; Or the Whale. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm [Accessed January 16, 2012].

H.P. Lovecraft: An Atheist and his Gods

H.P. Lovecraft is in my opinion one of the great mythopoeic fantasy writers of the last one hundred years. In his dark universe sanity is but a candle guttering in an encroaching gust of madness. Add to this existential horror a pantheon of dark gods so vividly pictured as to rival any fantasy mythos and it is not surprising that the writings of Lovecraft have such a devoted readership (myself included). In recent years critics such as S.T. Joshi et al have made much of the fiction of Lovecraft as a kind of scripture or mythology of atheism. Whereas the writer himself clearly professes this philosophy in his personal correspondence it is my contention that these ideas are not so apparent in the fictional works themselves and in fact on closer examination a somewhat different worldview emerges.

Lovecraft writes in a letter quoted in ‘Against religion: the atheist writings of H. P. Lovecraft’ that

“The word “Christianity” becomes noble when applied to the veneration of a wonderfully good man and moral teacher, but it grows undignified when applied to a system of white magic based on the supernatural.”

If this form of polemical engagement with Christianity was an important theme in Lovecraft’s’ fictional works one might expect to find significant direct references to God and Christianity: the supernatural genre in which he wrote would give ample opportunity to do this. In fact a textual analysis of Lovecraft’s ‘Collected Works’ shows only a handful of occurrences of the words ‘God’ and ‘Christ*- mostly incidental. On the other hand there are overwhelmingly higher significant occurrences of words such as ‘gods’ and ‘cults.’ (It could be argued there are in fact more significant references to Theosophy than Christianity a theme which I will explore later). Although the odd significant direct reference to sceptical themes can be found even these references are ambiguous. In the context of the narrative they can be just as easily read as evidence of the wickedness of the characters concerned as authorial scepticism about the existence of a Christian God. One example of this can be found in ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ which could be read as either Obed making a theological point about the non-existence of God or an example of his blasphemy in equating a race of fish people with the Deity.

“Then’s the time Obed he begun a-cursin’ at the folks fer bein’ dull sheep an’ prayin’ to a Christian heaven as didn’t help ’em none. He told ’em he’d knowed o’ folks as prayed to gods that give somethin’ ye reely need, an’ says ef a good bunch o’ men ud stand by him, he cud mebbe get a holt o’ sarten paowers as ud bring plenty o’ fish an’ quite a bit of gold”.

A concern for the well-being of orthodox religion also emerges in another passage from the same story.

“Her own attitude toward shadowed Innsmouth–which she never seen–was one of disgust at a community slipping far down the cultural scale, and she assured me that the rumours of devil-worship were partly justified by a peculiar secret cult which had gained force there and engulfed all the orthodox churches.

It was called, she said, “The Esoteric Order of Dagon,” and was undoubtedly a debased, quasi-pagan thing imported from the East a century before, at a time when the Innsmouth fisheries seemed to be going barren. Its persistence among a simple people was quite natural in view of the sudden and permanent return of abundantly fine fishing, and it soon came to be the greatest influence in the town, replacing Freemasonry altogether and taking up headquarters in the old Masonic Hall on New Church Green”.

The idea of blasphemy as a sinister activity is also near the surface of a lot of Lovecraft’s stories- a strange choice of theme if the works were polemically engaged with Christianity or even deism in general.

“Gay blasphemy poured in torrents from my lips, and in my shocking sallies I heeded no law of God, Man, or Nature. Suddenly a peal of thunder, resonant even above the din of the swinish revelry, clave the very roof and laid a hush of fear upon the boisterous company”.

‘The Tomb’

On the contrary I think what largely emerges for the casual reader of Lovecraft’s weird tales is the need to keep within conventional boundaries and the danger of entertaining occult ideas. (This might be particularly true of the original pulp readership Lovecraft wrote for).

“One case, which the note describes with emphasis, was very sad. The subject, a widely known architect with leanings toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of young Wilcox’s seizure, and expired several months later after incessant screamings to be saved from some escaped denizen of hell”.

‘The Call of Cthulu’

 “He would often regard it as merciful that most persons of high intelligence jeer at the inmost mysteries; for, he argued, if superior minds were ever placed in fullest contact with the secrets preserved by ancient and lowly cults, the resultant abnormalities would soon not only wreck the world, but threaten the very integrity of the universe..”

‘The Horror at Red Hook’

A casual reader ignorant of Lovecraft’s scepticism in his personal correspondence would more likely conclude that at least some of the stories are morality tales showing the dangers of irreligion and new-fangled philosophy rather than sceptical attacks on Christianity). A good example of this kind of story is ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ where the Promethean protagonist is punished for tampering with the natural order and bringing the dead back to life. Note in this passage West’s contemptuous references to ‘Puritanism’ (for which read ‘Christianity’) revealing an arrogance which turns out to be his later undoing.

“That the tradition-bound elders should ignore his singular results on animals, and persist in their denial of the possibility of reanimation, was inexpressibly disgusting and almost incomprehensible to a youth of West’s logical temperament. Only greater maturity could help him understand the chronic mental limitations of the “professor-doctor” type–the product of generations of pathetic Puritanism; kindly, conscientious, and sometimes gentle and amiable, yet always narrow, intolerant, custom-ridden, and lacking in perspective. Age has more charity for these incomplete yet high–souled characters, whose worst real vice is timidity, and who are ultimately punished by general ridicule for their intellectual sins–sins like Ptolemaism, Calvinism, anti-Darwinism, anti-Nietzscheism, and every sort of Sabbatarianism and sumptuary legislation….”

‘Herbert West: Reanimator’

Of course what is missing from the surface reading of the casual reader is a closer examination of Lovecraft’s fictional mythos and some of the deeper themes of his works which I would argue include polytheistic dystheism, a very singular kind of dualism and oddly a greater engagement with the ideas of Theosophy than Christianity.

(Just to clarify at this point I am not suggesting that Lovecraft necessarily believed in his mythos merely that his fictional works seem more influenced by consistency with the created mythos than the personal scepticism of the author. Having said this I personally suspect that at times Lovecraft genuinely entertained the theological position of his works given his somewhat tragic life).

Polytheistic dystheism can be defined as the theological position that god/s exist but they are either indifferent to the fate of mankind or actively malevolent. This idea seems closer to the mythos underlying Lovecraft’s tales than that of atheism which implies disbelief or scepticism about the existence of any gods at all.

“It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike. It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of earth have whispered of as YOG-SOTHOTH, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable Sign…”

‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’

“There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity–the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic Ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep”.

‘The Haunter of the Dark’

Note the references to ‘limitless being and self’ and ‘outside the ordered universe.’ The beings described are not merely demi-gods or higher beings (like Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’) but are described in terms commonly used of transcendent gods. Azahoth has prophet called Nyarlathotep but his message is ‘crawling chaos.’  Azahoth may be ‘blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless’ but via Nyarlathotep he has agency if not purpose. Interestingly Lovecraft’s transcendent gods are not creators or even destroyers but agents of disorder and chaos-

“The legend of Yig, Father of Serpents, remained figurative no longer, and I started with loathing when told of the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth…”

‘The Whisperer in Darkness’

Another significant aspect to the dystheism of Lovecraft’s tales is that although composed of seething chaos the realm of the gods is ‘reality’ and it is the mundane world which appears unreal by comparison.

“Memory and imagination shaped dim half-pictures with uncertain outlines amidst the seething chaos, but Carter knew that they were of memory and imagination only. Yet he felt that it was not chance which built these things in his consciousness, but rather some vast reality, ineffable and undimensioned, which surrounded him and strove to translate itself into the only symbols he was capable of grasping. For no mind of Earth may grasp the extensions of shape which interweave in the oblique gulfs outside time and the dimensions we know”.

‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’

The ‘Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines dualism as

“…the idea is that, for some particular domain, there are two fundamental kinds or categories of things or principles. In theology, for example a ‘dualist’ is someone who believes that Good and Evil—or God and the Devil—are independent and more or less equal forces in the world. Dualism contrasts with monism, which is the theory that there is only one fundamental kind, category of thing or principle; and, rather less commonly, with pluralism, which is the view that there are many kinds or categories”.

I would argue the dualism that emerges from the fictional work of Lovecraft is a form of matter/spirit dualism as expressed in the following passages-

“I now insisted, argued a faith in the existence of spectral substances on the earth apart from and subsequent to their material counterparts. It argued a capability of believing in phenomena beyond all normal notions; for if a dead man can transmit his visible or tangible image half across the world, or down the stretch of the centuries, how can it be absurd to suppose that deserted houses are full of queer sentient things, or that old graveyards teem with the terrible, unbodied intelligence of generations? And since spirit, in order to cause all the manifestations attributed to it, cannot be limited by any of the laws of matter, why is it extravagant to imagine psychically living dead things in shapes–or absences of shapes–which must for human spectators be utterly and appallingly “unnamable”? “Common sense” in reflecting on these subjects, I assured my friend with some warmth, is merely a stupid absence of imagination and mental flexibility”.

‘The Unamable’

“From those blurred and fragmentary memories we may infer much, yet prove little. We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon”.

‘Beyond the Wall of Sleep’

“My friend was vastly in advance as we plunged into this awesome ocean of virgin aether, and I could see the sinister exultation on his floating, luminous, too-youthful memory-face. Suddenly that face became dim and quickly disappeared, and in a brief space I found myself projected against an obstacle which I could not penetrate. It was like the others, yet incalculably denser; a sticky clammy mass, if such terms can be applied to analogous qualities in a non-material sphere”.

‘The Unnamable’

“A gate had been unlocked–not, indeed, the Ultimate Gate, but one leading from Earth and time to that extension of Earth which is outside time, and from which in turn the Ultimate Gate leads fearsomely and perilously to the last Void which is outside all earths, all universes, and all matter”.

‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’

“These Great Old Ones, Castro continued, were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape–for did not this star-fashioned image prove it?–but that shape was not made of matter”

‘The Call of Cthulu’

“The thing has gone for ever,’ Armitage said. ‘It has been split up into what it was originally made of, and can never exist again. It was an impossibility in a normal world. Only the least fraction was really matter in any sense we know. It was like its father–and most of it has gone back to him in some vague realm or dimension outside our material universe; some vague abyss out of which only the most accursed rites of human blasphemy could ever have called him for a moment on the hills”

‘The Dunwich Horror’

“These adumbrations were never specific, but seemed to revolve around some especially horrible doubt as to whether the old wizard were really dead–in a spiritual as well as corporeal sense”.

‘The Thing on the Doorstep’

In classical religious dualism ‘matter’ is generally seen as ‘evil’ and ‘spirit’ as good- as for example in the case of Catharism-

“The radical Cathars-and also the moderate Cathars-in contrast, teach a ‘vertical dualism’: what is above is good, what is below is bad. The light has fallen into the darkness (the physical world) and must be liberated from it. The creation has been made by a creatormalus. The Cathar perfecti in particular have a horror of the creation and the body (van Schaik, pp. 79-86)”.

CATHARS, ALBIGENSIANS, and BOGOMILS http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/cathars-albigensians-and-bogomils

The unique nature of the dualism that emerges from the fictional works of Lovecraft is that unlike classical religious dualism it appears to view ‘matter’ as ‘good’ and ‘spirit’ (or that which is beyond the material world) as ‘evil’ (or at least ‘not good’). It is the mundane material world which is safe and wholesome and what lies beyond is threatening and harmful-

“I walked aimlessly south past College Hill and the Athenaeum, down Hopkins Street, and over the bridge to the business section where tall buildings seemed to guard me as modern material things guard the world from ancient and unwholesome wonder”.

‘The Shunned House’

“Gorgons and Hydras, and Chimaeras–dire stories of Celaeno and the Harpies–may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition–but they were there before. They are transcripts, types–the archetypes are in us, and eternal. How else should the recital of that which we know in a waking sense to be false come to affect us all? Is it that we naturally conceive terror from such objects, considered in their capacity of being able to inflict upon us bodily injury? O, least of all! These terrors are of older standing. They date beyond body–or without the body, they would have been the same…That the kind of fear here treated is purely spiritual–that it is strong in proportion as it is objectless on earth, that it predominates in the period of our sinless infancy–are difficulties the solution of which might afford some probable insight into our ante-mundane condition, and a peep at least into the shadowland of pre-existence”.

–Charles Lamb: Witches and Other Night-Fears

‘The Dunwich Horror’

If it is agreed that Lovecraft’s fiction seems unengaged with Christianity this is not the case with Theosophy. Robert M. Price argues convincingly in his essay ‘HPL and HPB: Lovecraft’s Use of Theosophy’ that despite the writer’s limited direct knowledge of the subject his mythos was greatly influenced by Theosophical imagery.

“From the Theosophists, too, Lovecraft seems to have derived his ubiquitous references to “cyclopean” ruins, denoting the past dominance of gigantic alien races, such as those just described. In “Out of the Eons”, a “gigantic fortress of Cyclopean stone” is attributed to “the alien spawn of the dark planet Yuggoth, which had colonized the earth before the birth of terrestrial life.” In “The Call of Cthulhu”, Wilcox dreams of “the damp Cyclopean city of slimy green stone. . . . The size of the Old Ones [who built the city of R’lyeh], he curiously declined to mention.” In The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, Randolph Carter wonders at “the vast clay-brick ruins of a primal city whose name is not remembered.” He “did not like the size and shape of the ruins. . . . And what the structure and proportions of the olden worshippers could have been, Carter steadily refused to conjecture.”

Price goes on to argue that in the addition to the use of Theosophical imagery Lovecraft’s fiction shows a polemical engagement with Theosophy (or perhaps with ‘Occultist Optimism’ in general) –

“In all these instances, the implications contain a dim hint of an archaic truth terrible in its reality. It is as if to say that the Theosophists have only a small part of the truth, and that their little knowledge is an extraordinarily dangerous thing. In fact, HPL’s narrator says as much in our fourth quote (again, from “The Call of Cthulhu”): “Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.” There is, so to speak, indeed something at the end of the rainbow, only instead of a pot of gold, it is a bottomless pit. In their occultist optimism, Theosophists had postulated the ancient origin of humanity amid alien super-intelligences. So glorious an origin seemed to imply a bright destiny for the race. But Lovecraft’s “cosmic futilitarianism” led him to repaint the picture in darker, pessimistic hues. As depicted in At the Mountains of Madness, the genesis of the human race was a breeding accident in the laboratories of the star-headed Old Ones. The resultant vision is one of absurdity. Lovecraft has represented precisely what fundamentalist “creationists” see as being at stake in their quixotic crusade against Darwinism: if man’s origin was random, so is his meaning, and so will be his destiny”.

(Where I take issue with Price is the suggestion that Theosophy can be viewed as a kind of proxy for creationist Christianity in Lovecraft’s fiction- I think given it’s inferior relation as a ‘cult’ as compared to orthodox Christianity in the narrative I find this unconvincing).

Yeats famously wrote of the necessity for the reader to distinguish between the works of an author and the personal opinions of ‘the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.’ I think that the difference between the worldview of Lovecraft the creator and the mythos he created are very much a case in point.


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