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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