Watch carefully.


The Abyss of Madness: Acatalepsia as Horror in the Tales of H.P. Lovecraft

In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft declared,“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Not only does this thesis establish the basis for Lovecraft's literary approach, it also, in the end, sheds light on the manner in which he dealt with his own philosophical premise; belief in an absolute mechanistic materialism.

The themes and elements this essay is primarily concerned with occur most often in what has become known as Lovecraft's 'Cthulhu Mythos'. These are the interconnected stories concerned with Lovecraft's invented cosmology of bizarre, pre-human races, and a pantheon of supremely powerful, extra-dimensional beings such as Cthulhu, who slumber beneath us, waiting for the day they will be awakened to ravage the world. Lovecraft's tales tend to follow a simple framework; a level-headed, sceptical scholar comes across some strange bits of occult knowledge, usually related to the dreaded (fictional) tome Necronomicon, pries too deeply into realms man was never meant to see, and is promptly driven mad by the revelations it brings.

Or, perhaps, the lack of revelations. China MiĆ©ville, in his introduction to At the Mountains of Madness, points out that the key to Lovecraft's horror is not an intrusion into the status quo, as in most horror, but a realization of the true nature of the universe in relation to oneself. This is true, but it ought to be noted that the nature of the realization itself is one of acatalepsia, or unknowability; Lovecraft's universe is implacable, eldrich, and incomprehensible by the human brain. The protagonists are often unhinged as much by the idea of nature as insane, as by the malicious forms it takes on. More often than not, Lovecraft omits detailed descriptions of his creations because they cannot be described at all. In what is perhaps his most effective story, The Colour Out of Space, a family comes across a meteorite with properties unexplainable by modern chemistry, and which begins to infect their farm with a strange, dim luminescence of a colour “...almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it a colour at all.”

Another common method Lovecraft employs in displaying the truly foreign is in how he describes the architecture of his inhuman races. In coming upon the nightmare city of R'lyeh, in The Call of Cthulhu, the narrator recalls the dream of a friend: “He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from our ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality.” Attempting to explore the city, the characters become nauseous and disoriented, as, “twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.” Even direction and parallelism are revoked. This is horror through incomensurability.

Beyond these and many other particulars, Lovecraft says it best when he expressed that, in properly weird tales,

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguards against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”[1]

Here one can see that Lovecraft considers the real essence of terror to be helplessness rather than the perception of peril. If one recognizes a threat from a certain quarter, one can prepare to meet it. Even if one is hopelessly outmatched, one can at least have the comfort of understanding the threat itself. In Lovecraft's world one cannot even do that. The terror originates from a contradiction of man's nature, the desire to know; man fears the unknown only because he fears it may be unknowable. The consequence of this is the crux of the matter; Lovecraft's horror revolves around the understanding that if the universe is not rational, then we cannot be sane. Indeed, The Call of Cthulhu opens:

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in their own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

It is only natural to speculate on why Lovecraft was driven to write along such lines. A lifelong atheist, he once wrote that, “[A]ll my tales are based in the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large...[O]ne must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate...have any existence at all.”[2] One might add to this list, perhaps, truth and falsity. In such a way, Lovecraft portrays a brutal, unflinching, and honest representation of the necessary intellectual consequences of atheism. Rather than declaring our existence to be 'beautifully tragic', 'internally meaningful' or any of the other platitudes one at times hears, he states that given an untranscendent reality, we, as a race and as individuals, are truly pointless. Rather than the deterministic, mechanical laws of the universe preserving its knowability, a universe of such laws destroys the possibility of a rational human soul, and thus possibility of rational laws. To be intellectually honest (if such a thing exists) is therefore to rebel against our nature, and to surrender to the madness of an uncaring and irrational universe.

Through his weird tales, Lovecraft leads one to the conclusion that this view of reality is nothing other than a horror story, which, true or false, remains an ultimate revolt against what man perceives to be his nature and his sanity. That many atheists, including Lovecraft himself, continued to act out their own lives as if they were in fact meaningful, only demonstrates that they have taken the advice of Lovecraft's protagonist and fled from the deadly light, stopping their ears from the sound of Great Cthulhu slumbering under their feet. Perhaps they have realized that intellectual dishonesty is a small price to pay for sanity, however illusory.