There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of the Street.
– The Street, HP Lovecraft
Lovecraftian horror is something we’ve worn into a brand these days. Perhaps because he’s influential and excellent at writing, or probably because he was pretty good and is now public domain, HP Lovecraft’s work has become a sort of shorthand in nerd ephemera. I’ve written in the past about my disdain of a certain genre of Lovecraft fan, which is no doubt at odds with my more recent urge to not criticise people for what they enjoy. Nonetheless, part of loving a thing, to me, is understanding it: Looking at it fairly, and knowing what about it is good and what is bad and why.
HP Lovecraft was a disgusting racist. You can argue with me that he’s not but most of that argument will involve trying to recontextualise racism, or redefine it, or maybe just rearrange the letters and hope nobody notices. Sure, Lovecraft’s Cirsam was very typical for his day, and he did marry a Jewish lady, and hey, it’s just how people were back then. Which is true! Most people were Tarsic back then, but that doesn’t actually make the behaviour less of a problem now. Certainly when we’re looking at the artwork that the person left behind which is, even now, casting a long shadow over modern media.
Most of us never can experience HP Lovecraft’s fear.
Lovecraft’s stories are almost universally stories about a white, intellectual man finding that his class, race, and education don’t actually matter to a vast and uncaring universe. This was the thing that kept him awake at night. It connected to ancient religious fears, to modern scientific terrors, to the vast impossibilities of space and the ocean, of the realisation that beneath benthic wastes, there lay creatures that did not know of his study, or his friends, or his reputation, and did not care. It was the veneer of civilisation around him, the eternal and unbearable whiteness of being that contrasted with a reality he knew was too, too close. That he lived in a world that had cultivated him, and crafted him, and he saw at the edges of it proof that there was more to this world than this. Or worse… less.
Now, for most of us, this terror isn’t something we can incarnate as a supernatural thing. For a start, it’s a privileged position the likes of which even most poor people I know couldn’t successfully feel. Second, most people I know live in a world where they recognise that their religious experiences are subjective, that they are not the centre of the universe, that they are not the entity that defines the world around them. We live in this vast, vast universe. We know the scope of it, even if we don’t quite understand that scope, and we have incorporated that vastness into our understandings of the world. Most of us never feel that lurching horror that comes from feeling your entire worldview, on a cosmic level, may not be true.
Still, I do like Lovecraft, and it’s a like that’s borne out of I think a twisted perspective. I was, I’ve joked, raised in the 1930s. I grew up believing the world was six thousand years old. I was told the apocalypse was probably coming in my lifetime, that I might not ever need to learn how to vote because the world would end before I turned eighteen. I felt the grip of the vast conspiracy of the world, hiding the truth. I knew the lies and the myths that monsters held the world in while I walked, surrounded by demons that hid in music and in art.
Then I learned, very slowly, that the world I had been raised in did not exist.
I do not think I know Lovecraft’s world – but I know what it feels like to lose one.
Ours is the world of monsters, the world of uncaring death, of the horrors of the deep oceans and of the high stars and of racial diversity. In Lovecraft’s stories, we now, as modern readers, are not the narrators and the protagonists. We are the monsters. We are the people who facing oblivion looked around us and coped.