Already in early childhood, Lovecraft suffered from violent dreams and nightmares; he called these afflictions, to which he would give minute expression in his tales, the “night-gaunts.” Many of Lovecraft’s stories read like pitilessly transcribed dreams. Of these “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is the most elaborate account of a descent into hallucinatory madness. In this nightmare fantasy, a student of mathematics and folklore rents a room once inhabited by a witch fleeing the Salem Gaol in 1692, and is subsequently destroyed by demonic forces—his heart literally eaten out by a gigantic species of rat. (Lovecraft seems to have taken for granted that Salem “witches” existed, not considering whether they were perhaps victims of others’ malevolent misuse of power.)
Like Poe, Lovecraft focuses upon interiors, the interior of the soul. His subject is the continuous assault on the person of unconscious forces of dissolution, disintegration; the collapse of sanity beneath the weight of chaos; the triumph of mindless entities like the subterranean deities Azathoth and Nyarlathotep and the “mad faceless god [who] howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players” (“The Rats in the Walls”). It was Lovecraft’s observation that the successful gothic tale replicates the paralysis and horror of a certain kind of dream:
I believe that—because of the foundation of most weird concepts in dream-phenomena—the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive, & witnesses or experiences a stream of bizarre events which…flows past him, just touches him, or engulfs him utterly.
(from a letter of 1936)
Yet this matter-of-fact statement gives no idea of the remarkable simulacra Lovecraft frequently evokes in his dreamscapes, which linger in the reader’s visual memory like those horrific yet somehow natural-seeming monsters of Hieronymus Bosch.
Bravely Lovecraft claimed that his dreams were not personal but “cosmic,” just as his tales drew upon no personal experience. Again like Poe, Lovecraft had a mind too pure to be violated by any idea of mere mundane reality.
S.T. Joshi’s meticulously researched H.P. Lovecraft: A Life suggests that Lovecraft, for all his championing of independent thinking, was much in thrall to his widowed, ailing mother Susie, who seems to have made of her son’s personal appearance (tall, gaunt, with a long, prognathous jaw and frequently blemished skin) an image of moral degeneracy. A neighbor recounts that “Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her son who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people would gaze at him,” a statement the neighbor considered “exaggerated.” (Mrs. Lovecraft was believed not to have been told the cause of her husband’s syphilitic dementia and death, and associated Lovecraft with his father. Yet it must have been she who encouraged her son to wear his deceased father’s clothes as a young man.) It would not be until Mrs. Lovecraft died while institutionalized, when Lovecraft was thirty-one years old, that he would try to free himself, at least sporadically, from his housebound, claustrophobic existence.
Yet no fathers or mothers appear in Lovecraft’s work, excepting the comically grotesque Mr. Whately of “The Dunwich Horror,” who consorts with demonic forces and arranges for his daughter to mate with a creature named Yog-Sothoth; virtually no women appear in the work, for to Lovecraft, the most asexual of men, for whom Eros manifested itself primarily in landscape and architecture, “male” and “female” have no more vital relationship with each other than atoms. In the lushly overwritten “The Thing on the Doorstep,” an unfortunate marriage between a precocious scholar-poet and a young woman with mysterious hypnotic powers is revealed to be, in fact, a marriage between the scholar-poet and the young woman’s deceased father, who had seized demonic possession of her body at the time of his death, and manages at last to seize possession of the scholar-poet’s body as well. What seems initially to be a tale of vampiristic erotic obsession turns out very differently indeed.
Is Lovecraft’s life a tragedy of a stunted, broken-off personality, severely traumatized in childhood, and never to “mature,” or is there a poignant triumph of a kind in the way in which the aggrieved, terror-ized child refashions himself, through countless nocturnal-insomniac sessions of writing, into a purely cerebral being?
I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relations to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.
(from a letter of 1921)
This is the resolute, defiant note so frequently struck in the American visionary imagination: the very voice, surely, of Edgar Allen Poe and Emerson; the voice we might well imagine of Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, even the exuberant Walt Whitman (“one of the roughs, a kosmos”). For how can the merely personal be of galvanizing interest to the imagination?
The fascination for the historical past we might interpret, in Lovecraft, as a profound wish that the present might not yet have happened, if the clock and calendar be turned back far enough. To love the past, to extol the past, to yearn in some way to inhabit the past is surely to misread the past, purposefully or otherwise; above all, it is to select from the past only those aspects that accommodate a self-protective and nourishing fantasy. What is “past” tempts us to reconstruct a world rather like a walled city, finite and contained and in the most literal sense predictable. For the writer, the (selected, edited) “past” is in itself a form of fiction, though the writer will set as his idealized task its “coming to life” and credulous readers will respond to its “authenticity.”
Already as a child of eight, by his own account, Lovecraft perceived time as “some especial enemy of mine.” Repeatedly he speaks of his art as a “defeat of time”; as an adult he was irresistibly drawn to those city- and landscapes (particularly Quebec City) in which the past seems to coexist, dreamlike, with the present. The “continuity from the past” was, for Lovecraft, the defeat of time. Yet in many Lovecraft tales the intellectual protagonist is lured to his doom or disintegration by the prospect of transcending time, by attempting a Faustian “entry to many unknown and incomprehensible realms of additional or indefinitely multiplied dimensions—be they within or outside the given space-time continuum”—as in “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” where the young protagonist meets his grisly fate. (Despite Lovecraft’s ardent proselytizing for the weird fiction of Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Ambrose Bierce, he acknowledged Proust as the greatest contemporary writer, for the subtlety and beauty of his treatment of time.)
Such extended adventures as “The Shadow Out of Time” and the novella-length “At the Mountains of Madness” collapse millennia within the cataclysmic experience of individuals whose lives intersect with those of the Great Old Ones, alien creatures of immense intelligence from a distant galaxy, until now unknown to Homo sapiens. In the former, a professor at Miskatonic University deduces that he has been kidnapped psychically by aliens for purposes of research and hurtled back into prehistory; while in the latter story the surviving members of an expedition to Antarctica, fellow faculty members of Miskatonic, discover the mummified bodies of these fantastical aliens as well as the awesome ruins of their lost civilization, which would seem to have been patterned by Lovecraft on ancient Egypt. “The Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft’s most frequently reprinted tale, ironically reverses the much-lauded progress of Homo sapiens, as the civilized American hero helplessly descends the evolutionary ladder to become, like his despised ancestors, a cannibal.
In attempting to defeat time, such protagonists are defeated by it; they may discover to their horror, or mad glee, that they are in fact related genetically (“by blood”) to monster-ancestors and that these ancestors live in them. The ponderous, meandering, yet fascinating long story “Shadow Over Innsmouth” ends with the student-hero turning by degrees into a subhuman Innsmouth being (a sort of humanoid fish, or fishy humanoid), as one might succumb to madness. Investigating the ancient seaport of Innsmouth, though physically repelled by its inhabitants, the young hero ironically turns into one of them, and comes to rejoice in his subhumanity:
I shall plan my cousin’s escape from the Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to the brooding reef in the sea and dive down through the black abysses…and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.
In such a reversal, the tension of resisting sadness is abruptly eased; the dreaded “night-gaunts” may be embraced like literal kin. To expunge the drama of having witnessed a parent’s descent into madness one may join the madness oneself. And perhaps time can only be “defeated” by madness.
Unlike Poe’s fevered tales which appear unrelated to one another, isolated in essential ways, Lovecraft’s mature work, the cycle of horror/fiction tales to which his disciples have given the title the “Cthulhu Mythos,” springs from a common source of invented legend. Lovecraft was one of those accursed, or blessed, writers who ceaselessly work and rework a small nuclei of scenarios, as if to force a mastery over the unconscious compulsions that guide them; such “mastery” for the writer may exist during the composition of the work, but fades immediately afterward, so that a new work, a new effort of organization and control, must be undertaken.
As a child, according to his own account, Lovecraft repudiated his mother’s family’s Baptist faith. For Lovecraft, who was proud of his life-long atheism, the Cthulhu Mythos was an “anti-mythology”; an ironic inversion of traditional religious faith. It constitutes an elaborate, detailed working-out of an early recurring fantasy of Lovecraft’s that an entire alien civilization lurks on the underside of the known world; as a “night-gaunt” may lurk beneath a child’s bed in the darkness, or as mankind’s tragically divided nature may lurk beneath civilization’s veneer. (Lovecraft was writing during and after World War I.) In the Cthulhu Mythos, there are no “gods” but only displaced extraterrestrial beings, the Great Old Ones, who journeyed to Earth many millions of years ago, bringing with them, disastrously, their slaves, called “shoggoths,” protoplasmic creatures that gradually overpower and defeat their masters. Deluded human beings mistake the Great Old Ones and their descendants for gods, worshiping them out of ignorance.
Among the sacred (and “forbidden”) texts that chronicle the exhaustively protracted history of the Great Old Ones is the Necronomicon of the Arab Abdul Alhazred, so frequently cited in Lovecraft that the title becomes a sort of running joke. One can see why Jorge Luis Borges was drawn to Lovecraft and inspired, in such Lovecraftian tales as “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius,” to create for his own purposes a fictitious library of mythical, cross-referenced, ancient cabbalistic texts.