H P Lovecraft, C S Lewis, and me.
This personal reflection mainly concerns the effect on me of deep and prolonged exposure to two influential 20th century writers, Howard Price Lovecraft and Clive Staples (Jack) Lewis. They had much in common, in that each man created a unique and compelling mythos, but their philosophies of life and therefore the moral and intellectual natures of the universes they created were diametrically opposed. I am not the best read 62-year-old in England, my choice of a medical career saw to that, (my favourite subjects at school were English and French, before the desire to become a doctor took hold) but at major turning points in my life I was heavily engaged with the visions of each of these two men. These are some personal thoughts on their very different speculative fiction outputs.
A few disclaimers. I am a reader but no literature student, I’m a GP (Primary Care Physician) turned dermatologist. With a few exceptions, I haven’t read any H P Lovecraft for about 45 years, and, for reasons which will become clear, haven’t revisited his work for this essay, apart from some on line research. By contrast, I continue to re-read Lewis, even unto the physical disintegration of books. In June 2009 I attended a colloquium in Oxford about the book Perelandra (see below) where I met the estimable Inklings scholar Sǿrina Higgins, at whose suggestion I wrote this essay after a Twitter comment on the subject of Charles Williams being a riposte to H P Lovecraft. Also, I am a convinced Christian and this inevitably colours my interpretation and the significance I assign to things. That said, I’m not writing an anti-Lovecraft polemic, or even especially in praise of Lewis, but to tell a story which reflects how potently written speculative fiction might, for good or ill, affect a vulnerable mind. Oh, and some plot spoilers. Anyway, here goes.
Who reads H P Lovecraft? Well, I did for one. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, I was a bit of a loner and a weirdo. Decades, marriage, fatherhood and a moderately successful medical career later, I still am, but back then, more so. I was a teenager who thought his parents were boring, enjoying new freedoms, desperately trying to find out who I was, and in the words of the Steppenwolf song ‘Looking for adventure, whatever comes my way.’ There was the usual incalculable interplay between genetics, environment and what some call chance and others Providence. How much of how I turned out was down to my free will, if any, I can’t say.
I had a taste for the exotic and alternative from a young age. Raised as a Roman Catholic, I was into Zen and ‘free thinking’ although never an atheist. My emotional and artistic preferences were impacted dramatically on 29th December 1966, my 11th birthday, when I saw Jimi Hendrix playing ‘Hey Joe’ on British TV programme Top of The Pops. (1) Those three minutes changed my life. If you weren’t there, you can’t appreciate how shocking Hendrix’s stage show and tortured electric guitar playing were, even polarising opinion in the playground where I received taunts and abuse from Monkees fans. But I wouldn’t back down-this was my music and I wholly identified with it. I was already being bullied for being taller and cleverer than most other kids. I used to pace the playground making up stories with 2 other brainy outcasts, excluded like me from football by our less imaginative peers. I didn’t fit in, so I read and read, living in a world of my imagination which I fed with fantasy fiction.
Advancing into my teens, still the brainy and socially awkward loner, I discovered the public library. I read every fantasy, adventure, sci-fi and horror book I could find. Henry Rider Haggard was a favourite, especially his Zululand romances with their exotic differentness and an element of the supernatural (2). ‘Nada the Lily’ remains a favourite, showcasing the Rider Haggard hero Umslopogaas who appears in several other tales. He was a misunderstood outcast with an enchanted axe-very like Jimi Hendrix. I couldn’t get enough. Then came Tolkien.
Having discovered and devoured The Hobbit, I remember the day I first found a copy of The Fellowship of The Ring in the library. I speed read it in an afternoon and literally ran a mile to get back to the Fullwell Cross library before closing time to order The Two Towers and The Return of The King. The fact that most of my friends thought LOTR ‘tedious and absurd’ to quote JRRT’s foreword, just encouraged me about how cool I was, being into stuff that most folks weren’t into.
By now I was 16 and content to be an outsider, especially as I now had a few friends who were also bored by football and mainstream pop music. Exotic, avant-garde, rebellious, even morbid and dangerous tastes were something to seek out and celebrate. And then one day a friend, let’s call him Roy, introduced me to H P Lovecraft. Roy was a long-haired outsider and close friend who was into eastern religions and later came out as homosexual. I hadn’t known that when we shared a tent while walking Hadrian’s Wall. One of my memories of Roy was when I was in hospital after a fencing accident (I was stabbed in the throat) and he fainted at the sight of me, keeled over and banged his head. They put him in the bed next to me. Another friend was also heavily into Lovecraft. He was an outspoken atheist and communist.
I instantly became addicted to Lovecraft. Like my beloved Tolkien, and to a lesser extent Mervyn Peake (The Gormenghast Trilogy) he had created an imaginary world which was strange and different, peopled with fascinating characters, which challenged the conventional and opened up hitherto unimagined possibilities. Unlike Tolkien, whose ‘sword and sorcerer’ adventures were in far off Osgiliath, Lothlorien, Fangorn Forest, The Misty Mountains, Rohan and Mordor, Lovecraft’s world was rooted in our own time and space. His tales were set in the Antarctic, the seas off New Zealand, the fictional New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, the swamps of Louisiana, and other present-day locations. But just around the corner from those sleepy towns and ordinary offices and universities, lay dark secrets in hidden manuscripts and unspeakable horrors. Furthermore, these were horrors against which there was no defence, no conquering hero, no righteous Aragorn, Treebeard or Gandalf to put things right. Above all, no wise and good Deity could deliver you from the malign or indifferent attentions of the mad gods of space, Nyarlathotep the crawling chaos, the evil rat Brown Jenkin, the noxious Yog-Sothoth who froths in primal slime, or countless other malign entities. A pitiless universe indeed, of which I will offer a handful of examples.
In ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (3), a man with a boring daytime job and longings for something more wonderful, went looking for a beautiful city through unknown and exotic realms, travelling through enchanted dreams rather as the Pevensie children went through a wardrobe to Narnia. Yes, there was an evil witch in Narnia, but the place was inherently good, and if there was a witch there was also Aslan. On the bizarre journey to Kadath, there were ogres whose mouths opened sideways, various nameless shadows, Gugs and Ghasts, insanity, deceit and illusion, hoary Nodens bellowing from the deep, the indifferent, ineffectual ‘old gods’ of earth, and the cruel, potent gods of space, but no comfort, meaning, security or hope.
Lovecraft’s universe had always been fallen, or rather had never risen much above primal chaos, but with no perfection to hope for or redemption promised. The meaning of this became clearer to me much later, but as a teenager who had been schooled neither in sound Christian theology nor good critical thinking skills (beyond the materialistic scientific method) this darkness was delicious. It seeped into the hidden reservoirs of my subconscious and took up residence inside me. However many differing views might exist on how our personalities form, form they do, and stuff we imbibe evidently must have a role in such formation. It might have been better for me if my IQ had been twenty points lower and I had been obsessed with football and Tamla Motown dance music like so many of my peers.
A key story in the HPL mythos is ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. Cthulhu is not a supernatural demon, but a physical entity of great power and malice who evolved in far-off regions of unknown space, travelled to Earth, and with his terrible minions is in a suspended state under the sea waiting for his time to arise and destroy or enslave humanity. We read of some kind of signal (Cthulhu’s call) that is perceived by some. Men are driven mad, some create models or drawings of a being which is a cross between a man, a squid and a dragon. Members of the Cthulhu cult sacrifice human victims whose bodies are described as being ‘curiously subtracted from’. The story reveals that only a few of the cultists were ‘sane enough to hang.’ Eventually, volcanic activity and underwater earthquake off the coast of New Zealand reveals the monstrous, ‘Dead Cthulhu who lies dreaming in his house at R’lyeh’.
The Wikipedia entry tells us about ‘The nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh…built in measureless eons 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. ‘
As with many of Lovecraft’s horrific visions, such as ‘The Shadow out of Time’ there is nothing that humans can do but await their fate at the hands (claws, tentacles…) of various extra-terrestrial horrors, and it may be better to do so in blissful ignorance since there is nothing they can do to save themselves anyway.
I remember seeing a poster at Leytonstone underground station advertising the film of Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror’. The blurb read ‘A few years ago in Dunwich, a half-witted girl gave birth to illegitimate twins. One of them was almost human.’ I never had the chance to see the film, but read the book when I could. There was talk of ‘that upstairs’ and ‘clearing off the Earth’, oh and tentacles.
The mention of tentacles reminds me of the musical parody (?!?) of Lovecraft’s work ‘A Shoggoth on the Roof’ but shoggoths are shape-shifting monsters who will melt your head as soon as look at you and are far from amusing. These extra-terrestrial entities appear in one of Lovecraft’s most powerful works, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ a horror story set on the fictional Plateau of Leng in Antarctica. An expedition wakes up things they shouldn’t have woken up and an ‘Alien’ like scenario ensues. (As an aside, I once saw an episode of ‘The X Files’ which borrowed hugely from this plot. Lovecraft remains very influential even where not credited). Only 2 survivors escape, one of whom goes mad after (like Lot’s wife) looking behind and seeing something that ‘ought not to be’. A brief quote from the story reads
‘Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.’ (my emphasis-SH)
The arcane book The Necronomicon is an overarching ‘Elder Scrolls’ style background document referenced in many Lovecraft stories, to some extent analogous to back-stories such as The Lay of Leithian alluded to in Tolkien. I was wryly amused to rediscover the above underlined quote in which Lovecraft’s narrator expresses regret that he had ever looked into ‘that monstrous book’. As a reader of this essay will appreciate before its conclusion, I can identify with that thought. I don’t want to come over all preachy and tell people what not to read, but I agree that some material is best avoided, as once seen it cannot be unseen.
The overall context of HPL’s imagined universe is that there is no god, demon, angel or spirit-but everything is evolved in a meaningless universe. But some beings that evolved over ‘strange aeons’ in the far reaches of deep space, where perhaps the laws of physics are different to those we know, have evolved to such a degree that their properties appear supernatural to us. This is a common theme in science fiction from The War of the Worlds to Babylon 5, but Lovecraft put a particular spin on it and took it further than most. Read this quote from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ which illustrates the bleak despair of Lovecraft’s imagination.
‘The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.’
I only ‘got’ this scientistic, godless horror about Lovecraft’s vision when watching the BBC TV ‘Mastermind’ quiz show a few years back, when a contestant chose H P Lovecraft as her special subject. Asked by presenter John Humphrys what she found fascinating about his work, she replied that his writing was influenced by his strong atheistic convictions. His monsters might seem supernatural, but weren’t. They were evolutionarily derived material beings who happened to have developed immortality and super human powers, including the ability to change shape and possess human minds. This is really awful when you let it sink in. If there is a ‘traditional’ devil, well that’s bad, but then by the same token there is a God who can save you from him. But what if beings that acted like devils and could drag you down to some kind of hell, whether you deserved it or not, existed in a materialistic an amoral universe, and had no benevolent and righteous divine counterpart?
In Lovecraft’s cosmic vision, there might be a naturalistic hell or devils that neither science nor God could save you from. Think of ‘Dead Cthulhu’ lying for aeons confined in a submarine hall of foul slime, perhaps partly conscious and in misery. Care to join him? You might have no say in the matter. Something like this is suggested in CSL’s ‘That Hideous Strength’, where the hubristic biologist Filostrato boasts of his power to prolong human lives indefinitely, in a happy or otherwise condition …‘They cannot refuse the little gift’. I realised that Lovecraft’s achievement had been to create a compelling, but horrible, universe in which the atheist’s hope (I use the word thoughtfully) of dreamless sleep after death might be overthrown. There might be an endless torment you could fall or be dragged into, regardless of justice, and nobody to save you. A pitiless universe with a hell but no heaven, devils but no God.
I went to some trouble to obtain as full a collection of Lovecraft as possible, and read and re-read them. I welcomed the Gugs and Ghasts, Nyarlathotep, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, the ghouls that haunted the Pyramids, the Colours out of Space, Mad Abdul Alhazred and all the rest into my eager imagination, where they took up residence and did their thing.
One night, walking home around 2 am from my girlfriend’s house (Julia and I have now been married 42 years) I experienced a sensation that I have never had before or since. I felt that some malevolent entity was looking down on me from behind. I hadn’t taken drugs, maybe some wine hours earlier but not much, and I felt terrified. Although I was walking down a long suburban street, I felt as though I was completely alone in the world, it was as if the houses were all empty. It makes my flesh creep now to remember it. The feeling didn’t go away. I started to run.
When I got home, 3 anxious miles away, the house was empty, the rest of my family had gone on a trip I hadn’t wanted to join them on (I told you I was a loner), and I did something I had almost never done before. I knelt by the side of my bed and prayed fervently to God asking for deliverance and safety. I have a clear memory of two things happening next. First, I felt there were several bat-like things flying around my head, and next I felt a voice saying ‘Go downstairs and into the garden and burn those books, and do it now.’ I really didn’t want to do that. Not only had I spent what to me was a lot of money on them, but I had persuaded another friend to read them and promised to loan them. I remember telling him with bravado the effect of the books was like taking LSD. (I never took LSD but had helped a friend through an acid-induced psychotic episode one night, which I won’t forget). If I burned the books, I would look very silly in my friend’s eyes. It is an indication of how disturbed I felt that 10 minutes later there was a fire going on an upturned dustbin lid, which I fed until the last page was consumed. I felt somewhat better, prayed some more, and was able to sleep.
PS I am not saying that I was being stalked by an evil entity of any kind, or even asking readers to believe that I had an answer to prayer, just that it felt like that. By all means put the whole thing down to a fevered and immature imagination. But I am truthfully recounting my feelings. What I insist on is that I was absolutely terrified, it was because of what I had been reading for the last several months, and that this was not like me.
A couple of days later at school (I was studying science A levels than for medical school) I sheepishly told Roy what had happened, or at least an edited version of it. He laughed, and said Nyarlathotep was a great idea but I shouldn’t take him so seriously. But soon after he lent me a copy of ‘Perelandra-A Voyage to Venus’ by C S Lewis which he said he thought might help. He was right, it did.
I had a smattering of Lewis, like many others having read and enjoyed the Narnia books and studied Out of The Silent Planet for English Literature, without seeing the Christian nature of the books. I was raised as a Catholic who respected Jesus but was no committed believer, I essentially thought and lived as I pleased. Reading Perelandra didn’t change that immediately, but restored an equilibrium in the world of my imagination, rather like a detox or hangover cure. A cleansing of the Augean stables. Lewis’s universe, like Lovecraft’s, contained terrible dangers and cruel monsters who meant me harm, but there was a Remedy available on application, however wretched and weak you were. As Lewis put it, there was such a thing as the Normal or Straight, a Power that cared about me, a Goodness that would have the last word. Evil was real, but it would be defeated. Beauty and ugliness, good and evil, truth and lies, sanity and madness were not equally matched ‘yin and yang’ complementary opposites, but goodness, truth, beauty and sanity were RIGHT and they would triumph over the WRONG of ugliness, lies, evil and madness in the end. The universe was not meaningless. Life was not a sick joke. We might be victims, but not helpless as we had a Helper.
I could expand on the last paragraph in more words and with abundant examples from Lewis’s rich world of wisdom, but as a 17-year-old the above is what I understood and felt at the time, although 17 year old me wouldn’t have put it quite like that. In simple terms, H P Lovecraft messed my head up, C S Lewis put it right again. The memory of that is very clear despite the intervening years.
I have occasionally re-read or watched a YouTube narration of a Lovecraft story, almost like a man revisiting the scene of a serious accident to see if he can deal with his emotions. I recently re-read At The Mountains of Madness, which can be taken as a quality sci-fi chiller, rather like the ‘Alien’ or more recent ‘Life’ films. Lovecraft has inspired and been plagiarised by many writers. But I want no more brain input about alien mind possession, demonic man-eating rats or squid-like demigods that suffocate into your mind. I’m like Puddleglum in ‘The Silver Chair’, resisting the intoxicating spell being cast on him in Underland. I prefer the sun, and Aslan-even if they aren’t true, they are better than what the foul demon disguised as a kindly queen is offering us. But the sun, and Aslan, are true. It was healing to my wounded 17-year-old mind to receive this Lewisian riposte to Lovecraft’s miserific vision. The imagination, like the intellect and our basic desires, can be a battlefield where good needs to triumph over evil.
I have re-read the Cosmic Trilogy maybe 15 times since then and got more out of it with each reading, but never did it do me as much good as on the first reading. Please do read the whole Ransom Trilogy in order, but here is a quote from the first chapter of ‘Voyage to Venus’ which may amplify some of the thoughts I expressed above. Elwin Ransom’s associate reflects on the eldils, who as cosmic travellers visiting Earth have things in common with some of Lovecraft’s creations.
‘We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories which we label ‘normal’ and ‘supernatural’ respectively. We think, in one mood, of Mr. Wells’ Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by ‘ the bye), or his Selenites. In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like. But the very moment we are compelled to recognise a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred: and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether. These things were not animals-to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified. To that extent they belonged to the first group. The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realised how great a comfort it had been-how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. What price we may have paid for this comfort in the way of false security and accepted confusion of thought is another matter.’ (my emphasis-SH).
One can almost see Lewis as a literal (and literary) antidote to Lovecraft’s poisoned cosmos.
The wider effect of C S Lewis’ writings on my life would take a much longer essay than this. Briefly, as well as Perelandra rescuing my polluted imagination from H P Lovecraft’s dismal thought-bombs, The Screwtape Letters were instrumental in my Christian conversion at age 19, and Mere Christianity then provided me with a very necessary intellectual underpinning for my new faith, which quickly came under assault. I have loved the Narnia stories and Ransom trilogy especially, but there is hardly anything he wrote that hasn’t given me pleasure, wisdom, joy or all three. And he has shown me time and time again how vain atheism and various other ‘cheats’ (4) are.
On the last point, just one quote, from ‘The Great Divorce’. A damned (literally) heretic bishop is saying to a penitent former heretic, on matters where he prefers endless speculation to simple faith (e.g. The Resurrection) says ‘Surely, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive?’ The response comes, ‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully?’ Absolutely cracking stuff-and there’s tons of it! I am so looking forward, if allowed, to the day when I will pour Jack a pint of cider in my heavenly orchard. Thanks mate, you made a difference.
Am I saying Lovecraft’s books are evil, even demonic? Am I saying people, especially Christians, shouldn’t read them? No. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 10:23, ‘All things are lawful but not all things are edifying/helpful.’ I heard a preacher at the University Christian Union respond to the question ‘Should Christians read or watch unedifying material (e.g. pornography, violence, horror etc) in order to better relate to the culture we live in?’ with the advice that if we in clear conscience feel moved to do so, go ahead, but tell a friend we are doing it, and spend three times as long with The Bible or other edifying material. Because our minds are corruptible and we are what we eat. Why eat poison?
A final point. I am a creationist. I’m not going to expand on that here, beyond saying that all Creedal Christians must by definition be creationists even if they (unnecessarily to my mind) concede that ‘God created through evolution over millions of years.’ Lewis was also a creationist (5) if not a six day young-Earther. Perelandra and The Magician’s Nephew are both written from a creationist perspective, and he wrote an essay ‘Funeral of a Great Myth’, the myth in question being evolution. H P Lovecraft on the other hand was emphatically a materialistic evolutionist, who believed that all living entities, known and unknown, emerged ultimately from dirty water, gas and sparks by mindless, blind chance. This conviction fully informed his vision of horrors from deep space and time that were more evolved than humans and saw us as prey. Materialistic evolutionism is consistent with his vision of a chaotic, pointless and pitiless universe-something which honest atheists will sometimes admit to. Lewis saw a fallen world, yes, but one which had fallen from beauty and would be restored by her Maker. These alternative visions, informed by opposing world views, seem to me to be a true dichotomy. It is one or the other, Nyarlathotep or Maleldil, the crawling chaos or the loving Father. The fact that we do, in the end, have to choose between mutually exclusive opposites is a major theme in Lewis, e.g. ‘The Great Divorce.’
I can respect Lovecraft’s stark, nihilistic atheism in the same way as I respect the brutal honesty of the English poet and Latin scholar A E Housman, who wrote several poems commending suicide as a sensible way out of a chronically unsatisfactory existence into oblivion. C S Lewis wrote in ‘Surprised by Joy’ that in his atheist days this thought had occurred to him and been a comfort. And, indeed, suicide is rational for the chronically unhappy if materialism is true and if dreamless sleep is better than constant pain, physical or mental. Again, few atheists will be as honest as A E Housman and openly state this, but the bleak logic is inescapable. Lovecraft with his cold and creepy mythos faced the real implications of materialism-a meaningless, godless, pitiless universe that had come from nothing by chaotic, undesigned processes and was meandering and juddering its way back to nothing. And so what?
Thank God there is a better vision available.
Kind regards to all readers and writers of speculative fantasy fiction. Stay safe out there, take no hurt and give no hurt.
- Incidentally, Hendrix was heavily into sci-fi. 2 of his best loved works, ‘Third Stone From the Sun’ and ‘1983, a Merman I Should Turn to be’ concern the destruction of earth by hostile aliens!
- I discovered much later that C S Lewis appreciated Henry Rider Haggard as a creator of myth, even though he wasn’t impressed by his writing skills. See his essay ‘The mythopoeic gift of Henry Rider Haggard’
- The plot of ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’ is similar to that of ‘A Voyage to Arcturus’ which influenced Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. Lewis thought (and I agree) that the latter book was clever and full of invention but rather nasty, which sums up my view of Lovecraft’s work. Everything is indeed connected!
- The term ‘Cheats’ is used by Lewis in a foreword to his first spiritual autobiography ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’. He meant by this term the various intellectual and philosophical arguments that had distracted and obstructed him on his journey to Christ. He wrote the book as a counterblast against these cheats. It is an angry and difficult book and although rewarding to any Lewis lover, should not be attempted before reading ‘Surprised by Joy’, his second and far more readable spiritual autobiography written years later when his thoughts had matured and his writing skills been refined.
- I have written a 30,000-word treatise on creation and evolution in all of Lewis’ writings. I may tidy it up and publish to Kindle (or even this blog) later this year.
Dr Stephen Hayes
Botley, Hampshire, England
Easter Sunday, 1st April 2018