What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him? Humanity and the Cosmos in Lovecraftian Fiction

NB:  There are spoilers galore in the below post.

I often admonish writers to avoid the temptation of responding to negative reviews.  Nothing good can come of it.  People like what they like, and reviewing is perhaps the most subjective business of all time.  But I’ve noticed an interesting trend in reviews of That Which Should Not Be (both positive and negative), and I wanted to address it.  This is the first in a series of posts I plan to make on the issue.

There’s been a diverse reaction to the presence and role of religion in TWSNB.  In Lovecraft’s writing, the Cthulhu mythos is a sort of forbidden knowledge, studied by certain scholars but largely unknown.  And while Lovecraft often discusses the ancient gods in relation to the mythos, he rarely discusses the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Probably a good idea, given the times he lived in.  The people of the 20s and 30s might not have taken too kindly to any implications that could be drawn from it.

It’s also important to remember that Lovecraft didn’t think of what we now call the Cthulhu Mythos as a religious tradition unto itself.  The pantheon of the Old Ones, as we now consider it, was never so well ordered by Lovecraft.  Much of what people now defend as Lovecraftian is, in reality, a creation of those who followed him.  The major contribution of Lovecraft is not the notion of a hitherto undiscovered or unknown set of gods seeking to wreak havoc on humanity.  Rather, it is the notion of cosmic indifference.  The universe is vast, in many ways unknowable, prone to chaos, and completely uncaring about the fate of mankind.  That great beings exist is simple fact.

Many Lovecraft scholars argue that this goes one step further.  They argue that the Great Old Ones are as concerned about humanity as we might be an ant hill.  Much of the horror Lovecraft created came from his protagonists’ realization of this fact, and the insanity and hopelessness that followed from that.  Once the truth was revealed to them, there was no purpose to continuing to live and suicide often followed.

I don’t deny that one can draw this conclusion, but I reject any notion that Lovecraft did not recognize the age old struggle between good and evil in his writing, or the role that humanity might play in that struggle.  It seems to me that Lovecraft was never entirely consistent in his view of the relation between cosmic entities and humanity.  I think a lot of Lovecraftians want to believe certain things about the mythos and are willing to ignore contradictory evidence.  (In my view, S.T. Joshi, the greatest living Lovecraftian scholar, falls into this trap with The Dunwich Horror.  I’ll discuss it in more detail below.  Widely cited as one of Lovecraft’s greatest and most important stories, Joshi considers Dunwhich “an aesthetic mistake on Lovecraft’s part.”).  In reality, Lovecraft was far less concerned with continuity across stories as he was in simply spinning a great yarn.

Frankly, story after story of hopeless humanity would probably get boring at some point.  In Lovecraft’s greatest stories, humanity is not only noticed by the Old Ones, but they do a pretty good job of keeping them at bay.  The fact that the Cthulhu cult exists and seeks to wake the Great Old One speaks to their need for human action, as do the consequences of Captain Johansen’s decision to ram the eponymous creature with his ship.

But The Dunwich Horror puts the lie to any notion that humanity has no role in Lovecraft’s cosmic play.  In many ways, The Dunwich Horror is the centerpiece of the Cthulhu Mythos, even more so than the short story that bears his name.  In Dunwich, we are treated to extensive quotations from the Necronomicon as well as an Old One conspiracy that comes nigh on close to succeeding.  And how, pray tell, is it stopped?  By the efforts of Henry Armitage and his compatriots who, by using the ancient knowledge contained in arcane texts, defeat the son of Yog-Sothoth and prevent the return of the Old Ones.  (It almost sounds like The Omen).

I don’t see how we can ignore the implications of The Dunwich HorrorDunwich clearly refers to a “strange evil so vaguely threatening this planet” and sets up a dynamic where good people can and do oppose the rise of the Old Ones.  S.T. Joshi may disapprove of Dunwich because it is a “stock good-versus-evil scenario,” but that does nothing to diminish the importance of The Dunwich Horror to Lovecraft and the mythos.  I take no issue with writers who have constructed stories based on Lovecraft’s view of cosmic indifference, but I also believe that the notion that you cannot have good and evil vying against each other in a Lovecraftian story is a product more of what the readers wish Lovecraft had done rather than what he actually did.

To be continued in a future post…

1 Comment

Filed under Literary Musings

One response to “What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him? Humanity and the Cosmos in Lovecraftian Fiction

  1. Pingback: For God, For Cthulhu, & For Miskatonic | The Site That Should Not Be

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