(1) In the popular mind, Lovecraft is associated specifically with the practice of black magic, as opposed to white magic. The term “black magic” has unpleasant connotations in the minds of some readers, who perceive this type of magic as being evil, or at least, morally reprehensible. Could Lovecraft or his works be considered as evil?
Answer: The dichotomy between light and darkness, or white and black, has nothing to do with good or evil. Determining whether or not a person or an action is “evil” depends solely on the person or the action itself when judged in terms of behavior or effects. Certainly, a black magician can be described as good if he or she acts ethically, while a white magician can be considered evil if his or hers actions are harmful to others. Black magic is defined simply as magic performed for the purposes of gaining knowledge and/ or power, as opposed to white magic, which is centered on the goal of spiritual attainment. In Lovecraft’s works, his view of the magician is definitely black, but not necessarily evil. Lovecraft’s magical practitioners perform their craft either to gain knowledge or power; the fact that some of these practitioners end up becoming evil is largely beside the point. For example, Joseph Curwen, in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), performs necromancy to raise the spirits of dead persons; this activity is not inherently evil. However, Curwen also commits wholesale murder; this, of course, classifies him as an evil man.
(2) Lovecraft was a materialist and an atheist. Why then did he create a pantheon of gods and goddesses; real atheists don’t commonly devote much time to creating things that they don’t believe in, do they?
Answer: Lovecraft identified himself as a “mechanistic materialist”, by which he meant that he was a believer in the doctrine that nothing exists apart from matter and that all the facts of existence and experience can be explained in reference to the laws of material substances. Since spiritual beings such as gods or goddesses are immaterial, Lovecraft denied their existence. In this sense, he was, at least philosophically, an atheist. But Lovecraft also acknowledged that humans have an incomplete and limited knowledge of reality and thus, he tended to keep an open mind on the issue of spirituality, accepting the premise that there might be alternate levels of being that “supplement” rather than contradict the laws of material substances. Consequently, Lovecraft was closer in his thinking to agnosticism rather than to pure atheism.
Lovecraft’s mechanistic, materialist side, however, was only one aspect of his complex psyche. Lovecraft was an avid dreamer all of this life and he was both fascinated and frightened by what he encountered in his dreams. He was drawn also to weird themes and weird literature and his fascination with the weird ultimately led him to creative composition. Lovecraft didn’t deliberately go about constructing gods and goddesses; his pantheon of entities naturally arose as his writing and dream life intensified. And, interestingly enough, his extra-terrestrial entities reflect his scientific approach to the cosmos. In many of the stories and poems, the Great Old Ones are depicted as actual extra-terrestrial entities and not really gods or goddesses at all; they are demythologized, as S. T. Joshi refers to it. In other stories and poems, when the Great Old Ones are presented as Gods and Goddesses, Lovecraft gives us very sophisticated entities, entities that conform, as much as possible, to descriptions of the Quantum Universe.
(3) Some occult writers hold the view that Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones are actual gods and goddesses that were originally worshiped in ancient Sumeria and the Middle East. Other occultists argue that the Great Old Ones are only fictional. Which view is true?
Answer: The mysterious occultist known only as “Simon” is arguably the first well-known magical practitioner who has made the claim that Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones are, in fact, Sumerian gods and goddesses. Simon published his version of the Necronomicon in the seventies and this Sumerian/Babylonian manuscript does contain God- names which are reminiscent of some of the names of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. For instance, the names KUTULU, CUTHALU, AZAG-THOTH, and ISHNIGGARAB (i.e. for Shub-Niggurath) appear in this manuscript. Many critics have argued that Simon’s Necronomicon is merely a fabrication and that its material has been “bastardized” from various Babylonian, Assyrian and Canaanite sources. The arguments for and against the legitimacy of Simon’s manuscript are various and to date, it is not possible to make any firm conclusions about this issue. From my own standpoint, however, I tend to believe that the Great Old Ones are, indeed, the product of Lovecraft’s own imagination and therefore, they are fictional entities.
(4) As a corollary to the previous question, if the Great Old Ones are, in fact, fictional, then how can they be used in magical rituals? Many occult practitioners attest that magic based on the Great Old Ones actually does work. But how is this possible if there are no real gods or goddesses to “fuel” it?
Answer: Such concepts as “fictional” or “real” are often difficult to define. In the last volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), Harry Potter is struck down by Lord Voldemort just before the climax and finds himself in an alternate dimension, where he encounters his former mentor and friend, Albus Dumbledore, who was killed by one of Voldemort’s followers in the previous volume. After some conversation, Harry Potter asks Dumbledore if this experience is real, or is it just happening in his head. Dumbledore replies: “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” This statement certainly is applicable to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. The Lovecraftian entities are, in fact, fictional at least in terms of the names, appearance and history given to them by Lovecraft. But the Great Old Ones have been “created” and as such, they have reality as well, and they gain power, substance and influence as archetypes, or perhaps more accurately, egregores, when they are accessed and interacted with by magical practitioners, and also, by the countless fans, readers and students of Lovecraft’s work. Consequently, magical rituals based on the Great Old Ones do yield viable results, a fact which is supported by the magical experiments of many occultists.
(5) Why do critics and readers refer to Lovecraft’s stories as the Cthulhu Mythos? Most of these stories don’t have anything to do with the Great Old One known as Cthulhu, who only really appears in one story, The Call of Cthulhu?
Answer: The term “Cthulhu Mythos” was coined by August Derleth, a friend and colleague of Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself referred to his Mythos stories jocularly as “Yog-Sothothery” and he didn’t formally categorize his stories or divide them up into specific, disparate groups. It is correct that Cthulhu isn’t a major player in the Mythos stories; this Great Old One does only appear in The Call of Cthulhu (1926). But Derleth’s designation seems to have “stuck” in spite of this fact and is generally accepted by readers and critics.
(6) I’ve heard that Lovecraft was a racist; he hated most ethnic groups, particularly Jews, Italians, Poles, Asians and definitely African-Americans, which he freely referred to as n*****s. In fact, I’ve been told that one of his goddesses, a Great Old One named Shub-Niggurath, was a product of Lovecraft’s racism. Is this true?
Answer: Lovecraft’s racism was a very thorny issue among his friends during his lifetime and has remained so for his fans and admirers right up to the present day. During Lovecraft’s lifetime, his friends tried to downplay this issue, making the argument that Lovecraft only hated ethnic groups in the abstract, but actually not when he encountered them on a personal level. As justification for this view, these individuals cite the fact that Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, a Jewish woman whom he admired and fell in love with, despite of the fact that Lovecraft, in his writings and conversation, expressed an intense dislike for the Jewish people. However, this type of reasoning is clearly specious. It is true that Lovecraft did love and admire Ms. Greene, but this didn’t mitigate his racist opinions towards Jews; Lovecraft was able to tolerate his wife because she wasn’t “in-your-face” ethnic in terms of looks or behavior; Sonia was white like him; she sounded like him and acted like him, and thus, he was able to overlook her ethnic background. If Sonia had been an African American woman, then Lovecraft would not have been capable of marrying her and wouldn’t have done so. Quite frankly, there isn’t any way of getting around the fact of Lovecraft’s racism.
As for Shub-Niggurath, she is a blatantly racist image. "Shub” implies sub-human; “Niggurath” implies n*****. Similarly, she is hairy & ugly, much like Lovecraft viewed African Americans, and promiscuous, giving her “favors” to anyone (or anything) who wants them. And the fact that Shub-Niggurath is excessively fertile, birthing constantly & indiscriminately, is a sly dig against the fertility of African American women & people of color.
(7) Occult writers often link Lovecraft with Aleister Crowley. In fact, one of these occultists, Peter Levenda, argues that Lovecraft had managed to establish a link between himself and Crowley’s Holy Guardian Angel, Aiwass. Is this true?
Answer: In a letter written to Emil Petaja, dated March 6, 1935, Lovecraft associates Aleister Crowley with the English decadents of the 1890’s: “In the 1890’s the fashionable decadents liked to pretend that they belonged to all sorts of diabolic Black Mass cults & possessed all sorts of frightful occult information. The only specimen of this group still active is the rather over-advertised Aleister Crowley…” Lovecraft’s view of Crowley here is not surprising; in the mid-1920’s, Crowley and his disciples at the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu were expelled from Italy by Mussolini and the newspapers in Europe and the US were full of accounts of the lurid rituals and practices that took place at the Abbey. Crowley was universally headlined as the Wickedest Man in the World, and labeled a Satanist; thus, Lovecraft’s view of Crowley necessarily reflected the negative press coverage. Other than this, however, there is no evidence that Lovecraft knew anything else about Crowley. Certainly, Lovecraft didn’t forge any link with Aiwass, or indeed, with any extra-terrestrial entity; he didn’t even know who or what Aiwass was, and Lovecraft had no knowledge of Crowley’s experiences on April 8, 9 and 10 in 1904 when Liber AL vel Legis was dictated to Crowley via Aiwass.
(8) Lovecraft is often mentioned in connection with quantum physics. Lovecraft appears to have accepted the findings of the early quantum physicists. But Lovecraft was a materialist, and it seems obvious that materialism contradicts the findings of the quantum physicists. Thus, how can Lovecraft acknowledge the reality of the quantum multiverse and yet still profess to be a materialist?
Answer: Lovecraft did accept the premises of the early quantum physicists, such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, including the view that reality is multi-dimensional, since quanta, or particles, exhibit both wave functions and mass. And, at first glance, this does seem to contradict the classical, Newtonian view that particles are thoroughly material, possessing no wave function and remaining discretely in single positions in time and space. Thus, one might think that Lovecraft would feel compelled to reject either Newtonian physics, which supports his materialistic view of the cosmos, or quantum physics. But it is important to remember that quantum mechanics first came about because scientists were having problems explaining observations made at the atomic and sub-atomic level, observations which could not be explained in terms of Newtonian Physics. Most quantum physicists, therefore, would acknowledge that on the larger scale, which includes the so-called “real” empirical world and the universe, classical mechanics and materialism work just fine for the making of empirical observations and measurements, while on the smaller, atomic scale, quantum mechanics is necessary to make correct observations and measurements. As a result, Lovecraft is justified in maintaining a materialistic point of view, since it is, after all, supported by Newtonian physics, and yet, he is able to accept the probabilistic, uncertain nature of the universe posited by quantum physics.
(9) One hears the term “cosmicism” in relation to Lovecraft. What is cosmicism and how does it relate to Lovecraft’s atheism and materialism?
Answer: Cosmicism, or “cosmic indifferentism”, as Lovecraft also refers to it, is his belief and, in a sense, his metaphysical stance, that human life and human concerns, and in fact, the earth itself, is of minimal significance in the great, cosmic expanse of the universe, and that, furthermore, there is no real purpose or direction to human life and certainly, no divine direction or oversight guiding human affairs. This rather bleak view of humanity’s place in the universe doesn’t have any connection with atheism or materialism per se. Certainly, it might be easier for an atheist to accept the premises of cosmic indifference, but a strongly religious thinker can accept these premises as well, making the argument that there are gods (or goddesses) in the universe, but these entities are, in effect, indifferent and uncaring about humanity. Likewise, a materialist is free to accept the notion of cosmic indifference or not at his or her discretion.
(10) Apart from his cosmic indifferentism, scholars often allude to Lovecraft’s “philosophy.” What is Lovecraft’s connection with contemporary philosophical thought?
Answer: Lovecraft’s work is now attracting serious interest among many prominent philosophers. One of these philosophers, Graham Harman, Associate Provost for Research Administration and Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, in his book Weird Realism: Lovecraft & Philosophy (2012), examines Lovecraft’s central role in the development of the Speculative Realist philosophical school.
An important part of Harman’s thesis is that reality is incommensurable with any attempts on the part of human beings to represent or to measure it. Thus, Harman argues, reality is essentially “weird”, since it can only be suggested either by allusive methods (which Harmon refers to as the “vertical” approach) or by cubist methods (which Harman labels the “horizontal” approach).
Since Lovecraft commonly makes use of both of these approaches in his fictional works, Harman ends up asserting that Lovecraft, as a weird realist, offers western philosophy its best chance to break free of the constricting theories and dogmas that have nullified twentieth century thought. This assertion is reminiscent of the types of arguments that literary critics often make about Lovecraft; Lovecraft’s work, in effect, has been perceived as redefining the types of themes, genres and characteristics acceptable to proponents of the high culture.
(11) Does Lovecraft examine such important issues as bias, stereotyping and prejudice?
Answer: As noted previously, Lovecraft was more or less ethnocentric in his thinking and would definitely be classified as a racist by today’s standards. He was, however, very much concerned with the preservation of western culture and this led him to a consideration of racially and ethnically different cultures. Lovecraft, in fact, in his novel The Shadow Out of Time (1935), focuses on a racially and ethnically different culture, a different species from humankind, which he refers to as the “Great Race.” The Great Race lived in the late Paleozoic age on earth well before the advent of mankind. They were an alien culture and resembled enormous, iridescent cones, about ten feet high and ten feet wide at the base, their apexes projecting cylindrical members, some of them terminating with claws or nippers, others consisting of globes with great, dark eyes. The bases of these entities were fringed with a rubbery gray substance, which allowed them to move via a series of contractions and expansions.
In terms of their overall intelligence, the Great Race was far superior to mankind. They communicated with each other telepathically; they built great cities with buildings a thousand feet tall and they traveled in nuclear-powered vehicles. Their political and economic systems were socialist, with economic resources being allocated rationally to each citizen. Their government consisted of a small board of citizens who were elected regularly by the votes of all citizens who were able to pass certain educational and psychological tests. Industry in the cities was highly mechanized and demanded little time commitment from citizens and the resulting leisure time was devoted to intellectual, aesthetic and artistic expression. The technology level of this race, of course, was very high, which was a necessity for basic survival, given the fact that there were often geological upheavals and changes in the climate and the earth itself that demanded constant attention.
One fascinating aspect of the Great Race was that they were patrons and protectors of culture, and not merely their own culture, but the overall culture of the planet itself and, indeed, of the entire universe. The Great Race had developed a technology that allowed them the opportunity to travel backwards and forwards in time and also, throughout space. Certain exceptional members of the race would choose the body of some alien individual, whether in the future or the past, or on another planet, picking a highly intelligent or scholarly host, and then exchange minds with that individual, displacing the latter’s mind and consciousness back to the body of the member of the Great Race that initiated the exchange. Most exchanges took place over the course of five years or so, and during this period, the intrepid Great Race voyager would then study the life of the new society in which it found itself, exploring the history, sociology and mythology of the culture. In the meantime, the displaced host, after acclimating himself or herself to the situation, was invited to write a history of his or hers own time for the Great Race’s archives; the host also, if cooperative, was allowed to make excursions outside the cities, consult the Great Races extensive libraries and converse freely with all member of the Great Race and, in fact, with other hosts from different worlds and times.
Admittedly, the Great Race is a fictional construct, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that the Great Race is an appropriate artifact for study, particularly in light of the fact that this race represents a higher form of life than mankind. But Lovecraft (2005), in commenting on a similar race in another story, makes the following rather startling observation that applies directly to the Great Race itself: “After all… they were the men of another age and another order of being….Scientists to the last-what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn-whatever they had been, they were men!” (p.576). I am claiming that Lovecraft’s comment here is startling because he has deliberately (and rightly, in my opinion), equated these obviously alien beings and this obviously alien culture with human beings and human cultures. As such, he has broadened the definition of what it is to be human, and clearly, the correct definition should not be dependent on superficial considerations such as skin tone, diverse behaviors, and cultural idiosyncrasies
The case of the Great Race, thus, is instructive in examining human misconceptions as well as human bias, stereotyping and prejudice. Indeed, using the Great Race as an example or as an analogy to real, empirical cultures, past or present, is, I would argue, the optimal way to examine such peculiarities of human thought, since this approach removes the whole “black” and “white” dichotomy from the equation and allows all of us as rational individuals to look at things as they actually are, not as the more pedestrian scholars and experts (the authors of textbooks on Diversity, Race and Culture, for example) would have us believe they are.
(12) Is gender an issue in Lovecraft’s work?
Answer: To consider gender, it is instructive to look at the women characters in the Lovecraft canon, and here, we discover a whole spectrum of very terrifying women. There are no comfortable goddesses here; no virginal, young maidens, ripe for romantic love; no sexy, mature women, no matronly women, bearing children, mothering children, or maintaining homes and husbands. Instead, there are crones, or witches, such as Keziah Mason and her familiar Brown Jenkin, half rat, half human, who, in “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), sacrifices infants to devilish gods and goddesses in her garret room in Salem, and traverses alternate dimensions by manipulating the laws of quantum physics. There are trans-gendered women in the fullest sense, such as Asenath Waite, in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933), who resembles a beautiful, fragile movie starlet, but who isn’t really a woman at all, but an empty shell possessed by the spirit of her father and, in turn, possessing the body of her husband, casting him out into her real body, which is decomposing in the basement of her house. There are deformed, misshaped, monstrous women, such as Lavinia Whateley, an ugly, crinkly haired, pink-eyed creature, who, in “The Dunwich Horror,” (1928) gives birth to twins, one of them a goatish, half-human hybrid who passes as human for a short time, and his brother, an invisible, immense avatar of an Elder God, who is kept hidden, again for only a short time, fed on the blood of cattle and humans.
The feminist writer and philosopher, Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae (1991), describes the great Dionysian principle of the world and associates it with the female, with woman as the ultimate sexual persona, demonic, frightening, allied with the powers of the unconsciousness, with emotion, with chaos. Lovecraft, in his own way, gets at the same concept by creating the unnatural, monstrosities referred to above. Indeed, a feminist reader could easily see their liminal position as a bridge of the Other, their breeding and hybridity an undermining of certainties of power, family identity and the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are, who everyone else is, and where the world is going.
Quite clearly, Lovecraft was fascinated by these kinds of women, but he did not fear them, as the feminist critics are fond of asserting. He did, however, understand how fear often festers at the heart of gender considerations, and fear drives gender bias, promotes gender misunderstandings, and lies at the root of the inability of many members of mainstream society to accept gays, lesbians and the trans-gendered. This fear is perceived as simple embarrassment by uneducated, uncultured males and females; the embarrassment that individuals often feel when they visit a zoo and look at a monkey or an ape engaged in sex, or in auto-erotic stimulation. The uneducated and the uncultured refuse to accept women who do not conform to their views of what women should be; i.e. sex objects or homemakers. They refuse to accept gays and lesbians, and abhor same-sex couples and the trans-gendered because these individuals do not satisfy their easy, comfortable expectations. In addition, these “alien” individuals inspire secret fears of the unnatural that may possibly be a part of their own conventional psyches and sexual makeup. But among the highest members of our culture, the so-called cultural elite, the teachers, the college professors, the academics and creative artists of all types, this fear is perceived rightly as fear and fear alone. And it is fear of the unknown, of the darkness, of chaos, and ultimately, of death, coupled perhaps with the suspicion that women as instances of the Archetypal Woman might somehow be exempt from dissolution, since by the natural process of giving birth, they nest in time for a season.
(13) Why Study Lovecraft?
Answer: Books, articles, dissertations, treatises, essays, etc. about Lovecraft and his Mythos are literally proliferating in the new millennium. Indeed, even as I type this, I have no doubts that someone in the world -some writer, artist, scholar, fan, whomever- is in the process of creating a new artifact dealing with H. P. Lovecraft.
The academics argue that Lovecraft is an important literary figure, equivalent in stature to Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville in terms of developing viable literary themes and genres. Jason Colavito, in his book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (2005), argues that Lovecraft’s work inspired the UFO phenomenon and alien astronaut theories, both of which are still important elements in contemporary culture. Graham Harman compares Lovecraft to Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Picasso and sees Lovecraft as a pivotal figure in ontology. And, as the above talking points seem to support, Lovecraft is quickly becoming recognized as a key figure in the history and evolution of western culture as a whole.
For all of these reasons, and for the simple fact that Lovecraft’s work is inspiring, elegant, and just plain fun to read, Lovecraft is worthy of serious study. Elsewhere, I have made the joke that Lovecraft’s name, perhaps, should be forwarded as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I am not entirely joking here; certainly, there are many Nobel Prize laureates whom have had less of an effect on our general culture than H. P. Lovecraft.