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CTHULHU QUARTET: Musings on H.P. Lovecraft

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Topic: CTHULHU QUARTET: Musings on H.P. Lovecraft
Posted By: SFReader
Subject: CTHULHU QUARTET: Musings on H.P. Lovecraft
Date Posted: Mar-09-2015 at 7:02am
CTHULHU QUARTET: Musings on H.P. Lovecraft
by Dr. Robert Seufert

The Quintessence of Lovecratianism

Writing in his most famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell claimed that all mythology shares an ontological and a psychological basis. Ontology refers to the nature of reality, and psychological to the human perception of that reality. With these distinctions in mind, it's possible to examine some of the underlying assumptions of what is possibly the greatest literary mythology created in the twentieth century: the Cthulhu Mythos pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft.

Ontologically or cosmologically, the assumptions that most fully ground the greatest of the Cthulhu stories include the following:

  1. That the universe is material and physical and can best be understood by means of the scientific method.
  2. That the "eternal laws" of existence are ultimately the result of chance and are therefore subject to sudden, perhaps drastic, change should the elements or events from which they originally derived change.
  3. That there are extraterrestrial living beings, in some cases more intelligent and powerful than any of the denizens of Earth.
  4. That these beings, to a certain extent, inhabit dimensions of existence distinct from those in which terrestrial beings generally operate, and may therefore exist among Earth's inhabitants without their being aware of the existence of such beings.
  5. That these extraterrestrials are, nonetheless, capable of manifesting themselves at certain times in our normal terrestrial plane of existence in order to pursue those interests and objectives peculiar to them.
  6. That these interests and objectives are essentially unrelated to (and therefore unconcerned with) any human system of values or goals. (At times, however, these sets of interests and objectives may coincide, in which case cooperation may occur; at other times, they may be at odds, at which times conflict may result.)
  7. That, at certain times in the history of Earth, these beings have pursued their interests and objectives more fully and forcefully than others.
  8. That, to secure their aims, these beings have intervened in the course of evolution, creating for themselves races of terrestrial servants, distantly related to humans but partaking as well of the characteristics of other terrestrial (and perhaps non-terrestrial) life-forms.
  9. That man's own primitive ancestors may have served such beings, perhaps on a global scale, and that many primitive representations of gods, ceremonial structures, and religious practices preserve traces of these nearly forgotten beings, patterns, and rites.
  10. That certain places considered especially sacred or accursed by aboriginal peoples may represent sites at which commerce with these alien beings and their servants was especially intense, or points at which the other-dimensional habitats of these extraterrestrial beings may intersect with our own dimension.
  11. That we may again be entering a time-period when it may be possible (astronomically?) and desirable (from their point of view) for these beings to reestablish their dominion over Earth.
  12. That, in order to do so, these beings, or their non-human servitors, have at times sought the assistance and cooperation of human beings in achieving their purposes.
  13. That among the most effective methods of achieving the cooperation and assistance of human beings has been to mate with them, thus producing races of offspring capable of moving equally well among the human and non-human population, and passing relatively unnoticed among the humans.
Psychologically or culturally, the key assumptions are:
  1. That the civilizations of the world, and indeed the whole notion of reason and natural law on which they rest, are temporary human constructs imposed upon the surface of a universe fundamentally at odds with and indifferent to the artificial principles on which the notion of civilization, nay, of reason itself, rest.
  2. That the concept of "humanity" itself is a construct imposed upon a being (or set of beings) considerably more complex and mysterious than the idea of humanity would suggest, and governed by impulses and interests quite different from those normally associated with the human world.
  3. That, in addition to their "animalistic" tendencies, humans possess ancestral, perhaps genetic, memories (as part of their "collective unconscious") of the days when they were involved in the service of these extraterrestrial beings, and are sometimes capable, voluntarily or involuntarily, of bringing those memories to the surface, to such an extent at times as to alter their personalities and behavior patterns in the present, in ways not necessarily compatible with the norms and mores of human society.
  4. That artists and psychics being, as Ezra Pound said (at least of poets), the "antennae of the race," they are sometimes more sensitive to and easily influenced by such memories and indeed by present-day attempts by such extra-terrestrial beings, or their servitors, to communicate with and enlist the aid of humans, or even of picking up psychic disturbances caused by events associated with the activities of those beings but not necessarily intended for transmission or "broadcast" by them.
  5. That many of the supposedly imaginary productions of such people may actually represent, in a more or less veiled or imperfect way, the physical realities they have, in fact, perceived, often in a hallucinatory or semi-conscious state (dreams, reverie, etc.) since such states are closet to the "unconscious" realms through which such realities are most readily perceived.
  6. That the term "unconscious" in this case refers specifically to those pre- and extra-rational modes of awareness which most directly ally humans to the conscious life of the beings and servitors from whom such messages emit.
  7. That "unconscious" here also refers to those modes of knowing which most effectively act as keys to unlocking those dimensions beyond our regular three of four, and so act as bridges to those domains wherein extra-terrestrial beings and their servitors most fully (at least for the moment) reside.
  8. That the increase in such "seismic" activity in the contemporary world strongly suggests the possible reentry of those extra-terrestrial beings on the stage of human affairs, and their renewed and intensified efforts in this corner of the universe and on this plane of existence as a whole; to this extent, such activity may be considered "prophetic" of the shape of things to come.
  9. That the need for "wonder" and "magic" or "the spiritual" in many of the psychics, artists, and dreamers that has surfaced in the past few decades (though actually since the time of the nineteenth-century Romantics), may be traced back to those root-memories of contact with those primordial beings and the extra-terrestrial dimension of which such beings form a part, as well as with a dissatisfaction with the more restrictive world view and patterns of life that the ideals of "humanity," "civilization," and "reason" have imposed upon us.
  10. That, for such natures, the cryptic embodiments of such primordial realities in certain aspects of religion, literature, art, music, archeology, anthropology, astronomy, biology, physics, psychology, and the paranormal and occult "sciences" can trigger trains of associations and memories that can recover for them, at least in part, those primordial states of consciousness to which they aspire.
  11. That, to pursue their ends without interruption, the extra-terrestrial beings and their minions rely on the incredulity and the obliviousness of most, if not all, of the civilized world; the "imaginative productions" of the artists and dreamers act merely as coded messages (their true meaning unsuspected at times even by the artists themselves) for the initiate, and as subtle reminders and activators of those who are about to awake to the realities that they represent.
The careful reader of Lovecraft will certainly not find each of these elements in every story or poem, but enough of the elements recur in enough of the writings to constitute the philosophical center for the fuller understanding of Lovecraft's works. Many emerge in so early a short story as "Dagon," only to be developed and elaborated in such great tales as "The Rats in the Walls," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," "The Whisperer in the Darkness," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," as well as finding their way into Lovecraft's two novels The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. They form a central part of the vision for which Lovecraft is internationally celebrated today.

How does Lovecraft compare with such other great modern myth-makers as W. B. Yeats and J. R. R. Tolkien? Amazingly well.  Like these backward-looking authors, Lovecraft provides a complex and coherent mythology that puts us in touch with some of the deepest aspects of the human psyche.  Unlike these authors, however, Lovecraft makes accessible the extraterrestrial, and finally the extraterrestrial in ourselves, to consciousness and wonder, and so unleashes aspects of the unconscious mind not dealt with as successfully by any twentieth-century author with the possible exception of D. H. Lawrence. Whatever his occasional failings as a writer and an artist, Lovecraft opens up for human scrutiny regions of the psyche and the cosmos that must be explored if human consciousness can ever hope to catch up with its own intellectual progress. In some respects, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft's great predecessor, anticipated him in this journey into the great unknown, but Lovecraft extended what Poe had initiated in ways not dreamed of by Poe.  Poe most often deals with the individual and terrestrial, Lovecraft with the collective and cosmic.  If Poe was the Freud of the weird tale, then surely Lovecraft is its Jung.

Lovecraft vs. Derleth: A Personal View
In recent years, it has become fashionable to denigrate August Derleth's achievements in the field of weird fiction in favor of those of H. P. Lovecraft. While praising Derleth's efforts to keep Lovecraft's works in print and Lovecraft himself in the public eye, critics like Fritz Leiber, Richard L. Tierney, Dirk W. Mosig, and S. T. Joshi have accused Derleth of perverting both the letter and the spirit of Lovecraft's works in his own fiction and criticism.

Specifically, they accuse Derleth of creating a "Cthulhu Mythos" quite at variance with the materialistic philosophy that underlies most (if not all) of Lovecraft's mythological tales, wrong not only in detail but in basic outlook, substituting for Lovecraft's materialistic "indifferentism" a philosophical outlook much closer to the conventional morality of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and seeing in the conflict between Derleth's Elder Gods and Old Ones a warmed-over version of the struggle between good (God) and evil (the Devil), or a Manichean variant thereof, congenial to Derleth's own Catholic upbringing but at odds with the more scientific outlook Lovecraft espoused.

Undoubtedly, there is much truth to this claim, which may perhaps account for the disappointing predictability of a work like Derleth's segmented novel Trail of Cthulhu. But such criticism tends to overlook the genuine merits of Derleth's earlier foray into Lovecraft country: a collection of short stories entitled The Mask of Cthulhu. Whatever their philosophical or mythological veerings from Lovecraft, several of the stories in this work do evoke precisely that sense of "cosmic wonder and dread" which are at the heart of Lovecraft's best work, and amply justify the ascription of the adjective "Lovecraftian" to them.

Not that all of the stories succeed equally well. "The Whipoorwills in the Hills" and "The House in the Valley" are derivative of Lovecraft's "Rats in the Walls." "Something in Wood" seems lightweight and merely fanciful. "The Sandwin Compact" and especially "The Return of Hastur" (the opening section and outline of the latter having been briefly critiqued by Lovecraft not long before his death) do, however, genuinely smack of the cosmic wonder and dread to which the best Lovecraft stories aspire. And the final story, "The Seal of R'lyeh," though less cleanly and subtly written than some of the others, is not without a touch of the strange beauty of those primordial and cosmic vistas that Lovecraft's imagination loved to inhabit.

It is perhaps not insignificant that most of these stories derive their inspiration from brief accounts or dreams and jottings of story ideas that appear in Lovecraft's own "Commonplace Book." To some extent, they were written as much to honor Lovecraft's memory as to advance Derleth's fledgling career.  

Another "posthumous collaboration" is the novel entitled by Derleth The Luker at the Threshold. Researchers tell us that, for this lengthier effort, Derleth combined two separate Lovecraftian fragments, one involving a dark tower and the other a spectral window, and that about 2,000 of the 60,000 words of the final story are actually Lovecraft's. As is, this is a superb tale, as true to the spirit if not the letter of Lovecraft as anything else Derleth himself wrote, and, to my way of thinking, truer than any of the contributions of that small army of other Lovecraftian imitators with whom I'm familiar. Perhaps the end of the novel, with its encyclopedic array of 'evidence' to substantiate the credibility of the mythos and story, is a bit overdone, especially for readers already familiar with the mythos, but it effectively reproduces what Lin Carter calls the sine qua non of the Lovecraft tale: the gradual, almost imperceptible, accretion of realistic detail needed to render the impossible not only plausible but inevitable.

My own discovery of The Mask of Cthulhu at the age of 14 was one of the great imaginative experiences of my early life, an experience deepened and enhanced by my subsequent reading of Derleth and of Lovecraft himself, but in no way diminished by it. Simply put, Derleth managed to capture the poetry of Lovecraft's world almost to perfection, and since his works, like Lovecraft's, were intended to be judged primarily from a literary rather than a philosophical vantage point, these early efforts must be considered remarkable successful evocations of Lovecraft, as well as (in many cases) fine tales in their own right.

The Great Lovecraft-Derleth Debate Continued
As Lin Carter observes, the so-called Cthulhu Mythos more or less evolved as a joke shared among literary friends. Those who contend (like Dirk W. Mosig and S. T. Joshi) that August Derleth betrayed the original vision of Lovecraft's stories by imposing a cosmic struggle between good and evil upon what Lovecraft simply saw as the competing interests of two dissimilar forms of material beings in a random universe are right - up to a point.

Derleth's Catholicism probably did lead him to see the "Old Ones" or "Ancient Ones" as material variations on the fallen angels confined (for the most part) in Hell by the forces of good, which Christianity envisions as God and His angels, and which Derleth called the Elder Gods. Lovecraft, who could at times be acerbic even when writing about friends, seems to have ridiculed "little Augie Derleth" in a letter to Frank Belknap Long for his moralizing interpretation of what was for Lovecraft an amoral state of affairs. Nevertheless, Lovecraft actively encouraged his friends and fellow writers to add freely to the literary mythology he was creating and himself elaborated and developed aspects of his "system" that had only been hinted at in earlier stories when he came to write later ones.

In his defense, it's worth pointing out that in proposing a cosmic struggle between the Old Ones and the Elder Gods, Derleth solved a problem posed by the previous "Mythos" stories. If Cthulhu and similar beings were somehow "penned" in lairs scattered about the known and unknown universe, by what means were they so confined? In a poem entitled "The Messenger," Lovecraft himself mentions the "Elder Sign" and implies that it is this sign that holds at bay such beings as Cthulhu and that only with the removal of this mysterious seal could such creatures attain their freedom.

Derleth seems to have reasoned, sensibly enough, that if the Old Ones were confined by means of certain signs, someone or something must have imposed those signs. And so the notion of the Elder Gods emerges and figures in most of the early Derleth tales subsequently included in the short story collection The Mask of Cthulhu, as well as in the Mythos novels The Lurking Fear and The Trail of Cthulhu.

It's also in these stories that Derleth generally envisions these Old Ones as elementals, adapting to his purposes the ancient Greek conception of the four elements, with Cthulhu and his servitors, the Deep Ones, associated with water, Lloigor and Ithaqua with air, Tsathoggua and Sub-Niggurath with earth, and Cthugha with fire. This works well enough up to a point and sets the stage for a Derleth story like "The Return of Hastur," in which two elementals vie for the body of a single human servitor, the notion being that beings "composed" of different elements are unalterably opposed to one another.

Unfortunately for Derleth, some of the most prominent Old Ones (like Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and Yog-Sothoth) don't readily fall under the sway of a single element and, by and large, the evolving pantheon demonstrated too much vitality and complexity to adhere to Derleth's simplistic scheme. As Richard L. Tierney points out, the extraterrestrial origins of Cthulhu, the fact that he was banished to the subaqueous regions of the Earth, and the presence of wings on his rather diverse anatomy (octopoid head, manlike body, beastlike or birdlike talons, and birdlike or batlike wings) argue against the idea of even he originally having been the water elemental Derleth makes him.

But, as previously mentioned, the inclusion of the Elder Gods does furnish a plausible explanation for the ongoing confinement of the Old Ones, and, although Lovecraft never gave his imprimatur to the concept by incorporating Derleth's terminology into his own stories, the idea of a cosmic struggle does tie up one or two loose ends in the Mythos as inherited by Derleth.  To my mind, it's not so much the notion of rival Elder Gods and Old Ones that seems at variance with Lovecraft's original conception as the association of those rival beings with good and evil respectively. This is what reduces Lovecraft's revolutionary insight to a warmed-over version of Zoroastrian or Judeo-Christian theology.

What Derleth's narrators and characters may fail to grasp is that the Elder Gods are not really aligned with humans and the "angels" in keeping the Old Ones at bay, and thus absolutely good, but rather indifferent to humanity and interested only in keeping their cosmic adversaries under lock and key to serve their own interests. And so, the Elder Gods are, at best, only relatively good (because their interests happen to coincide in this case with human welfare), just as the Old Ones are not absolutely evil but mainly rivals with humans for a particular corner of the space-time continuum.

If this is granted, I think the conflict between the Lovecraft Mythos and the Derleth Mythos largely dissolves. The Elder Gods seem not so very different from the Old Ones except for the fact that their interests are opposed, with the Elder Gods currently having the upper hand - fortunately for us humans! But, if the interests of the Elder gods altered, we would undoubtedly have more to fear from them than we do from the Old Ones since, as far as we can tell, their enormous power is in no way curbed, as it is in the case of the Old Ones.

I still stand by my belief that, as Lin Carter puts it, "It is to the indefatigable efforts of August Derleth, more than any other influence in the world, that the credit for making H. P. Lovecraft an internationally known writer belongs" (158). Furthermore, despite his lapses in fathoming the full import of the philosophical underpinnings of Lovecraft's vision, Derleth remains perhaps the greatest imitator and perpetuator of the kind of story pioneered by Lovecraft. To my mind, he deserves to be known as the best of Lovecraft's disciples.

And this is not, I think, just sentimental attachment to an author who first introduced me to the "Mythos" at the tender age of 14 and whose wonderful Arkham publishing house made it possible for me to savor Lovecraft firsthand and in the tastefully bound an printed volumes that he deserved. It is a conclusion arrived after having read the twenty-two stories collected in the first Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and the 17 stories in Shadows Over Innsmouth, which collectively include such luminaries as Frank Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Stephen King, Brian Mooney, Brian Stableford, and David Langford.  Some of these are excellent tales, but even the best of them still left me hungry for the "sense of cosmic wonder and dread" that epitomizes Lovecraft at his greatest and that still radiates through the best efforts of August Detleth.

Lovecraft at the Movies
Sadly, H. P. Lovecraft has not fared well on film - far less well than Stephen King or even Poe.  The obscure New England recluse has managed to become an internationally acclaimed author to an extent that not even he could have imagined. One wonders if he will ever find the Peter Jackson to translate his mythological vision to the silver screen in such a way to draw an even larger following.

The Haunted Palace of the early '60s was a forgettable adaptation of Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, though its title and setting were meant to suggest Poe. The Dunwich Horror, which appeared in 1970, degenerates from the passable to the laughable, and the casting of Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in the principal parts doesn't help.  Near the end of the millennium appeared the execrable Necronomicon, featuring Lovecraft himself as the pivotal character (talk about turning over in one's grave!). The three "insert" episodes in the framing story, vaguely based on Lovecraft stories and loosely hinged on the fabulous Necronomicon, that incredibly rare occult book invented by Lovecraft, make TV's Tales from the Crypt look sophisticated in comparison, though, if memory serves, the adaptation of "Cool Air" works pretty well.

More recently, a movie called Dagon appeared, which transferred Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth" to a Spanish setting (obviously for financial rather than artistic reasons). There are moments of real weirdness in this production, though in the end the luridness merely suggested by Lovecraft overwhelms this suspenseful and poetic tale. One misses the garrulous old New Englander who slowly and drunkenly reveals the sinister twistings of the story that underlies the present state of Innsmouth, and the strange denizens of Innsmouth itself, whom Lovecraft handles with such surrealist wit, are pretty much turned into the usual ineffectually shambling hulks in this version of the story.    

Having survived almost six decades now, I wonder if I will live long enough to see a really first-rate movie version of a Lovecraft tale. Given today's amazing range of special effects and the appetite for adventure and horror films, it hardly seems an unreasonable expectation. Still, I'm not holding my breath.

Works Consulted:
1. Carter, Lin. Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos.  New York: Ballantine, 1972.
2. Derleth, August. The Mask of Cthulhu.  New York: Carroll and Graf, 1958.
3. Joshi, S. T., ed. H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism.  Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980.
4. Lovecraft, H. P.  "The Messenger." The Fungi from Yuggoth and Other Poems. New York Ballantine, 1963.  


Dr. Robert Seufert is the author of many essays, poems, stories, and works of criticism. He is also author and orator of The Voyage an audio-recorded epic poem. Dr. Seufert serves as an editorial advisor to Pitch-Black Books www.pitchblackbooks.com            

Copyright© 2004,  Robert Seufert




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