Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent

As you’ve no doubt been informed by the rest of the internet, August 20th is the birthday — the 125th — of none other than H. P. Lovecraft, creator of the “Cthulhu Mythos” (not a term he used) and pioneer of modern horror. I have spoken about Lovecraft’s use of history and archaeology in the past, but I thought I’d give a bullet-point version of the story today.


I think that Lovecraft’s view of the past ties in to some of the issues I’ve discussed with my students, too, so let’s outline it here. Lovecraft was a keen student of history, especially architectural history and especially the history of the 18th century. Among the longest things he ever wrote were travelogues focused on colonial architecture. And he made no bones about why: in 1925 he wrote in order to avoid the madness which leads to violence & suicide I must cling to the few shreds of old days & old ways which are left to me. That may be a reference to preserving his personal history and keeping bits of his grandfather’s estate about him, but he would raise the theme again.

I preach and practice an extreme conservatism in art forms, society, & politics, as the only means of averting the ennui, despair, & confusion of a guideless & standardless struggle with unveiled chaos, he wrote to Donald Wandrei in 1927; to Bernard Dwyer (also in ’27), he said: Take a man from the fields and groves which bred him—or which moulded the lives of his forefathers—and you cut off his sources of power altogether. I think the best summary is this line from a letter to Helen Sully in 1934: We must save all that we can, lest we find ourselves adrift in an alien world with no memories or guideposts or points of reference to give us the priceless illusions of direction, interest, & significance amidst the cosmic chaos. Hence the natural function & social value of the antiquarian & cherisher of elder things.

I chose those excerpts because they span the period of the core “Cthulhu Mythos” stories, from the mid-20s to the mid-30s, but you could choose many others from the Selected Letters; those are only a few. But it’s the last one that I think is particularly telling: the priceless illusions.

See, this. It's this kind of thing I'm talking about.
See, this. It’s this kind of thing I’m talking about.

Here’s a few more:

Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply … from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore “good” is a relative & variable quality … . Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of “values” which we need in order to feel settled & contented — & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experiences of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time & space. (SL 2. 356)

Art, to be real, must express all the overtones of our feelings—and among these the passionate quest for pattern-placement and continuity with known things is of course an overwhelming force. Our longing for familiar symbols—our homesickness, as it were, for the things we have known—is in reality the most authentic possible expression of the race’s persistent life-force. (A Living Heritage: Roman Architecture in Today’s America)

For Lovecraft, your history is everything; it’s your source of strength, it’s your heritage, it’s who you are. “I am Providence.” “I never can be tied to raw new things / for I first saw the light in an old town.” This is absolutely tied in to his racism, by the way: all this stuff about heritage. But HPL is a smart guy, too smart not to see the many problems with this argument. He knows it’s all a con; we don’t really have anything to do with our ancestors. We prefer one pattern of symbols to another, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. We just have to pretend that it does. Because if we knew the truth, well …

… how many of HPL’s stories are about finding out that you are not who you thought you were? People like to talk about the key theme of Lovecraft’s horror being cosmicism, but the cosmic revelation wouldn’t have any punch if it weren’t personal. What makes it personal is the destruction of identity, like the protagonist of “The Outsider” touching the mirror and realising that everything he’s assumed about himself is untrue. In many cases it’s explicitly about the past turning out not to be what you thought it was — “Arthur Jermyn,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “The Rats in the Walls.”

And Lovecraft being Lovecraft, sometimes he goes big. “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time” both deal with the idea that it isn’t just one individual who isn’t who he thought he was — it’s all of humanity. Our history isn’t what we thought it was, and that means we aren’t who we thought we were. You might have escaped the monster, but what have you escaped to?

And lest we think that this is just some personal fear of HPL’s, I invite you to look at, well, pretty much any discussion of public heritage anywhere in the world. I can still remember how shocked I was to see perfectly reasonable people getting capslock angry about interpretations of Viking settlement in Britain — not early medieval historians, you understand, just interested laypeople. But they were not at all pleased that what the target of their ire was saying conflicted with their notions of what the Viking age was like. I didn’t understand it then, but maybe that’s what it was. If my history isn’t what I thought it was, I’m not who I thought I was. (And further: who the hell are you to tell me who I am?!)

And that was in Britain! There are parts of the world where this debate is shoot-you-in-the-face important, not shout-on-the-internet important. No matter what story you tell about British history, they’re not giving Exeter back to the Welsh or burying all the -sons in Yorkshire in a mass grave and whistling innocently when people ask who used to live in this village. Not in this day and age, anyway.

But yeah — for Lovecraft, history was both vital and scary. Vital because it kept you tied to the things that gave you the priceless illusion of meaning, scary because it also had the potential to destroy those illusions, to lift you up from the ground you came from and leave you kicking helplessly like some weedy, racist Antaeus. He felt that to an extreme, perhaps, not feeling like he had any of the other sources of strength that the rest of us use to get by, but I think many if not most of us feel it as well.

You’ll be seeing a lot of Clark Ashton Smith’s “To Howard Phillips Lovecraft” today, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m not the world’s biggest Smith fan, but it’s a nice thought. Lives on through his influence, some ongoing spiritual presence, all that kind of thing. We all have our illusions.

Speaking of being a struggling writer who’s so bad at self-promotion and business that he’d rather hide from the world than make a sale, allow me to bring some worthwhile reading to your attention. For the next few days, a whole slew of Lovecraft- and Mythos-related books, both fiction and non-, are on sale at DriveThru Fiction. If you want to learn more about Lovecraft, his heirs or his contemporaries, that’d be a good place to start. I should add that my own little tribute to Lovecraft, Viking horror novella The Barest Branch, is among the books on sale, so you can get that if you’d like.

If some lighter-hearted Lovecraftian fare is what you’re after, blogging buddy Happyfett and I have been looking at the many film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work in a project we call Summer of Lovecraft. Some of the movies are good! Others … well.

Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent

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