Yesterday I started discussing W. Scott Poole’s views on H. P. Lovecraft from his recent book In the Mountains of Madness, and I mentioned that I took issue with his allegation that Lovecraft’s stories, his monsters, and his cosmic vision were unique and unprecedented. Today I’d like to talk about why I disagree so vehemently with Poole. To do so, we need to take a look at how he frames the issue:
Lovecraft created horror tales without precedent and monsters without antecedent. It’s become common in books on Lovecraft to describe the influence of Poe or to talk about his reading of writers in the tradition of “weird” fiction, all little known names like Dunsany, Crawford, and Machen. Although these writers contributed much to Lovecraft’s malignant vision, none of them constitute anything like a direct influence on the monsters he imagined. Chasing influences can become a never-ending game that would draw us away from this singular man’s nightmares. These Things came to him in his dreams just as now—after we’ve read him—they come to us in ours.
Stop and consider this for a moment. Yesterday I talked about how Poole purposely and purposefully distorted Lovecraft’s borrowings from Poe to try to cast Lovecraft as self-created, and here we see that he is purposely undercutting the classics of the weird fiction genre in the name of raising Lovecraft above them. Arthur Machen is hardly a little-known name in literary circles, and his work formed a clear template for Lovecraft’s own. The borrowings are too numerous to name here, but “The Great God Pan” colors “The Dunwich Horror,” just as “The Novel of the Black Seal” provided the template for “The Call of Cthulhu” and some of the plot for “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Machen’s theme of ancient folklore referring to real horrors that return when we investigate history too deeply is one Lovecraft acquire wholesale for his own fiction. Walter de la Mare’s The Return provided the template for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft’s tales are therefore not “without precedent.”
Even the cosmic vision of millions of years of aliens and lost civilizations fighting over the Earth can be found, sometimes wholesale, in Theosophy. Lovecraft makes this quite plain in referencing (albeit from secondhand knowledge) Theosophy by name in “The Call of Cthulhu,” and in speaking of Theosophy’s prehistoric claims in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”: “I learned of the Book of Dzyan, whose first six chapters antedate the earth, and which was old when the lords of Venus came through space in their ships to civilise our planet.” This line is taken indirectly, but nevertheless almost verbatim, from Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater.
But it is Poole’s question of Lovecraft’s monsters that interests me more. What does it mean to say that a monster has no antecedent? For Poole, he means that Lovecraft’s Old Ones are not part of the preexisting folklore tradition, and therefore do not continue the Gothic use of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and the other traditional beings. He is right that Poe, Machen, and other Gothic authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not make use of blob-like amorphous monsters of strange power. But Lovecraft wasn’t drawing only on Gothic literature. He also drew on mythology, pseudoscience, and science fiction.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Lovecraft’s monsters weren’t particularly unprecedented. What was different was the use he made of them. Consider, for example, the description H. G. Wells gave of the Martians in The War of the Worlds, a description that bears a striking resemblance to Lovecraftian creatures:
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.
I mean, come on, like that wouldn’t pass for a description of Cthulhu-spawn. And we know that Lovecraft read the War of the Worlds, and he possibly also read its pseudo-sequel Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett Serviss, which had the Martians building the Great Sphinx. The red plants that take over Earth in Wells’s book echo the strange “Colour Out of Space,” and the Martians’ travel by cylinder echoes again the brain cylinders in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
But this is hardly the only Lovecraftian creature found in literature prior to Lovecraft. Although there is no record of Lovecraft having read Jack London’s “The Red One,” that story of an indescribable alien sphere on a Pacific Island that is worshiped as a god anticipates “The Call of Cthulhu” by a decade. Similarly, while Lovecraft probably never read J.-H. Rosny’s “The Xipéhuz,” its story of utterly inhuman cones terrorizing prehistoric humans could not be more Lovecraftian in its cosmic vision. I need not mention that the pulp fiction of the 1920s contained monsters of various sizes and shapes, some of which approached some of the same themes that Lovecraft’s creatures touched upon. Lovecraft’s version was the most successful, but not the only one.
I want to pause here to note that Lovecraft himself offered another clue as to where some of his creatures came from. His first Mythos-style monster, Dagon, bears a very specific name. Dagon is today known as a Philistine god of fertility, but in Lovecraft’s time, due to a translation error in the Biblical text of 1 Samuel 5:2-7, Dagon was wrongly believed to be a fish-man. As a result, images of Oannes, the Babylonian fish-man, were accepted as images of Dagon. Lovecraft’s creature is a fish-man and draws on this tradition and the iconography associated with it.
Similarly, Lovecraft had seen many an old book with its engravings of various medieval and early modern monsters. Consider this Lovecraftian engraving from the 1665 edition of Fortunio Liceti’s De Monstris:
But in a more sedate manner, we might also consider the Classical images of the Gorgon and Typhon, who have tentacle-like snakes emerging from their head and nether-regions respectively. The ancient images of these creatures, familiar to Lovecraft, are rather clear precedent for some of the shapes he recombined into his rogue’s gallery of creatures.
So, while Lovecraft put an indelible stamp on the monster genre by bringing together history, pseudoscience, Theosophy, mythology, Gothic horror, and science fiction, his monsters are not unique, only superlative.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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