Here is a guest post by Stephen Hayes, a regular reader of this blog. It is a highly personal, spiritually-autobiographical story about his individual experience. If any of you readers would like to offer a post on Lovecraft and Williams, I’d be interested to hear a pitch.
CONTRIBUTOR BIO: Stephen Hayes was born in London’s East End in 1955 and studied medicine at Southampton 1974-1979. He worked for some 20 years as a Primary Care Physician and is now an Associate Dermatologist and skin cancer diagnostics educator. He blogs about skin cancer and less often about C S Lewis. He is a long-term fan of C S Lewis, and his first (Amazon kindle) novel Darwin’s Adders: A Chronicle of Pagan England 2089‘ was written after the thought came to him one July 2009 morning: ‘What if, in That Hideous Strength, the bad guys had won, and 150 years later, an angel came to the mentally handicapped great, great, great grandson of Mark and Jane Studdock and pronounced him The Pendragon?’ He is intermittently working on 3 other novels: Hecate’s Daughters (a sequel to Darwin’s Adders), Fire on the Dordogne a romance set in the French wars of religion, and another novel about an old man telling fishing stories to his grandson as he is dying from melanoma. Stephen and his wife Julia live in Botley and have 2 adult daughters: Emily is a food scientist with a love for travel, Sarah is autistic and epileptic and deeply loves Jesus. They manage a heritage apple orchard in Old Hampshire, Old England. Stephen’s kindle e-book Tales From an English Orchard tells that orchard’s story. Amongst his many ambitions, the greatest is to hear the words, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’ spoken to him by The Friend of Sinners.
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: 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. NB: I tend to bundle Lewis and Tolkien together to some extent, I hope that will be excused.
Who reads H P Lovecraft? Well, I did for one. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, I liked anything weird. I thought my parents were boring and I was 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.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, I was into Zen and ‘free thinking’ although never an atheist. I got into Jimi Hendrix from the age of 11, receiving taunts from Monkees fans in the school playground. I didn’t fit in, but was brainy, so I read and read, living in a world of my imagination which I fed with 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. 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 my other hero Jimi. 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 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 16 I was 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 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. Another friend was also heavily into Lovecraft. He was an outspoken atheist and communist.
I became addicted instantly. Like my beloved Tolkien, and to a lesser extent Mervyn Peake (The Gormenghast Trilogy) Lovecraft had created an imaginary world which was strange and different. Unlike Tolkien, whose ‘sword and sorcerer’ adventures were in far off Lothlorien, The Misty Mountains, Rohan and Atlantis, Lovecraft’s world was rooted in our own time and space–Antarctica, New Zealand, the fictional New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, the swamps of Louisiana. But just round the corner from those sleepy towns and ordinary offices and universities, lay dark, hidden manuscripts and nameless horrors. Furthermore, these were horrors against which there was no defence, no God or hero to deliver you from the 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 grim universe indeed, of which I will offer a handful of examples.
In ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (3), a man with a dull job and longings for something more wonderful, went on a quest for a beautiful city, travelling through enchanted dreams rather as the Pevensie children went through a wardrobe to Narnia and John sought ‘The Island’ in The Pilgrim’s Regress. Yes, there was an evil witch in Narnia, but the place was inherently good, and if there was a witch there was also Aslan. The bizarre journey to Kadath was haunted by ogres, nameless shadows, insanity, illusion, the indifferent ‘old gods’ of earth, and the cruel, potent gods of space, but no comfort, meaning, security or hope.
‘The Call of Cthulhu’ concerns a giant entity of great power and malice who evolved in far-off regions of unknown space, travelled to Earth, and with his terrible minions waits in a suspended state under the sea until it is time to arise and destroy or enslave humanity. Cthulhu’s call is perceived by some, men go mad, creating models of a being which is a cross between a man, a squid and a dragon. Cthulhu cultists sacrifice human victims, whose bodies are described as being ‘curiously subtracted from’. 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 details ‘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. ‘
In 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.
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 got 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.
One of Lovecraft’s most powerful works, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is 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. 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)
The arcane book The Necronomicon is an overarching ‘Elder Scrolls’ style background document referenced in many Lovecraft stories. I was wryly amused by this quote in which Lovecraft’s narrator expresses regret that he had ever looked into ‘that monstrous book’. I can identify with that.
The overall context of HPL’s imagined universe is that there is no god, demon, angel or spirit-but some beings have evolved over ‘strange aeons’ in the far reaches of deep space, where perhaps the laws of physics are different to those we know, to such a degree that their properties appear supernatural. This is a common theme in science fiction from The War of the Worlds to Star Wars, but Lovecraft took it further than most. Read this from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ which illustrates the bleak despair of his godless 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.
Lovecraft’s stark materialism is significant. His monsters might seem supernatural, but aren’t. They were ‘natural’ beings who happened to have evolved immortality and powers such as 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?
I obtained as full a collection of Lovecraft books as possible, and read and re-read them. I welcomed the Gugs and Ghasts, Nyarlathotep, 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, I experienced a sensation that I have never had before or since, that some malevolent entity was looking down on me from behind. I felt terrified and started running.
When I got home, 3 anxious miles away, the house was empty, as 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, now.’ I really didn’t want to do that. Not only had I spent much money on them, but promised to loan them to a friend. If I burned the books, I would look very silly. It is an indication of how disturbed I felt that 10 minutes later there was a fire 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.
A couple of days later at school I sheepishly told Roy an edited version of what had happened. 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.
Reading Perelandra restored an equilibrium in the world of my imagination, rather like a detox or hangover cure. Lewis’s universe, like Lovecraft’s, contained terrible dangers and monsters, 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.
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. One can almost see Lewis as a literal (and literary) antidote to Lovecraft’s poisoned cosmos.
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 helpful.’ Our minds are corruptible and we should choose our mental and spiritual diets carefully. These men’s alternative visions, informed by opposing world views, seem to me to express a true dichotomy. Is the universe in fact run by Nyarlathotep the crawling chaos or Maleldil 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.’
Lovecraft’s cold and creepy mythos, like fellow atheist A E Housman’s suicide poems, deserves some respect for facing the real implications of materialism-a godless, pitiless universe that came from nothing via chaos minus purpose, and will end in nothing. And, therefore, so what?
Thank God there is a better vision available, and thank Jack for articulating it so well.
Botley, Hampshire, England
An extended version of this essay appears on SH’s blog narniaonsea.wordpress.com