Tag Archives: Lovecraft

Cthulhu and Cosmic Terror

For many years now, I’ve been aware of the Cthulhu Mythos, since it infuses lots of popular culture. Indeed, Dread Cthulhu was recently blamed for the horizon oil spill, a theory that I rather enjoyed.

Despite this, I hadn’t actually read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s books directly. Last week and this, I decided to try out an ebook reader on my phone, specifically the rather excellent Aldiko for android. It’s a nice application. I downloaded two of Lovecraft’s books; “The Call of Cthulhu” and the “At the Mountains of Madness”.

Lovecraft has been, mostly after his death, immensely influential, with references to his work appearing in many modern authors’ work (e.g. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman). He is famous for the idea of “Cosmic Horror”. The idea that the world is not truly rational, and understandable, but nightmarish, chaotic and hostile or at best indifferent to human nature.

I found “The Call of Cthulhu” rather unpleasant to read in parts, not because of the supposed horror, but because of the unpleasant racism implicit and explicit within the book. It does need to be remembered that everyone is a product of their times however, and I find the implicit racism difficult to accept in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien too. But the book was interesting.

The second book, “At the Mountains of Madness” was more mature and less objectionable.

But I couldn’t entirely share the horror of the protagonists. Some of their discoveries were genuinely horrifying (usually acts committed by human beings) but much of the rest would be wondrous. They are horrified by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. Non Euclidean geometry does not frighten me, and indeed Lovecraft understood it wasn’t the true nature of the universe. But seeing clearly non Euclidean architecture in a “normal” setting is wondrous, terrifying perhaps briefly, but not horrific. Much of the horror just comes from the primitive frame of reference, either scientific, or religious or both, of the protagonists.

And this is the bit I really can’t understand, since Lovecraft was a failed astronomer, so he would have known that the universe is, to the best of our knowledge, indifferent to our existence, and that the laws of physics themselves could see our annihilation in so many ways. Indeed, apart from a (probably literal) Deus Ex Machina solution, every scientist knows that the ultimate future of humanity is doomed… Is that “Cosmic Horror”?

By the way, since the world is Sherlock Holmes mad at the moment, I recommend A Study In Emerald (PDF), a Hugo Award winning short story that is an interesting cross over of the Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu mythos written by Neil Gaiman.