Tomorrow, August 22nd, Providence, Rhode Island will play host to this year’s Necronomicon, the “largest gathering of Lovecraft devotees ever,” according to its website, with amusements in proportion to its population. There will be games, parties, scholarly papers, panel discussions: all in the ill-fitting and antique name of Lovecraft, Howard Phillips — author of “weird fiction.” It might be suggested that Lovecraft himself, now 123, grace the event with a personal appearance — a back table at McCormick and Schmick’s, perhaps — just for the chance to raise a glass of chilled water (he was a lifelong teetotaler) with a roomful of appreciative readers, and reflect on a life well lived.
It is an unlikely scenario. Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer and malnutrition in 1937, after a year of constant pain. More importantly, however, the scene of a grave-ghoul disturbing a living revel has already been used by Lovecraft, in one of his first finished tales, 1921’s “The Outsider.” At the age of 125 or 150, such repetition might be taken as chiasmus. At 123 it just seems desperate.
Desperation is a word that comes to mind in discussing the “religion” of Lovecraft. It’s a tempting topic, given that the tales which have won his enduring fame are, essentially, concerned with invented divinities, “holy” texts, and the complications of ritual. Yet their author was a vocal and argumentative atheist. Popular wisdom has it that Lovecraft’s philosophy of religion, to the extent that it existed, was an uncomplicated negative, and the “religious” features of his stories function as a kind of burlesque.
I agree with this position up to a point. In Lovecraft’s most popular stories, the religious element is often shallow. However, “religion,” as a category was, for Lovecraft, a constant source of speculation and concern. This is well attested by his essays and correspondence on the topic (many of which have been helpfully collected in S.T. Johsi’s 2010 volume Against Religion: The Atheist Writings of H.P. Lovecraft) as well as in elements of his poetry. Taking these sources together, it is possible to sketch Lovecraft’s personal religious philosophy with some nuance. Doing so, one discovers the unexpected: a hint of melancholy longing. Lovecraft may have been “against” religion, but his opposition was neither painless nor uncomplicated.
Lovecraft’s most complete articulation of his religious philosophy comes in his 1922 “Confession of Unfaith,” first published in the amateur paper The Liberal, in which his work made numerous appearances. In his “Confession,” Lovecraft traces the development of his atheism and defines it, somewhat thornily, as a valid philosophical position. Sunday school, Lovecraft reflects, had no more validity for him than Santa Claus. His exposure to the myths and legends of antiquity, however, had a far more profound effect. According to Lovecraft:
When about seven or eight I was a genuine pagan, so intoxicated with the beauty of Greece that I acquired a half- sincere belief in the old gods and Nature-spirits… Once I firmly thought I beheld some of these sylvan creatures dancing under autumnal oaks; a kind of “religious experience” as true in its way as the subjective ecstasies of any Christian. If a Christian tells me he has felt the reality of his Jesus or Jahveh, I can reply that I have seen the hoofed Pan and the sisters of the Hesperian Phaëthusa.
This passage reveals a great deal about Lovecraft’s concept of religion – the use of “religious experience,” and “subjective ecstasies,” gives away the game. Whether he was a direct reader of William James or not, Lovecraft inherited a number of assumptions from the phenomenology of religion – most notably, the elevation of private experience as religion’s principle building block. Lovecraft’s experience is, however, more guardedly sensual, hence his dismissal of Christian “feelings” in favor of his own pagan “sight.” Ultimately, Lovecraft rejects his visions of Pan as the work of imagination – a kind of waking dream.
Dreaming is perhaps the most prominent theme in Lovecraft’s writing, threading easily through his philosophical investigations, his correspondence and his fiction. It is no accident that a large percentage of his weird tales are categorized as “dreamland” tales, taking place in a strange and fantastic slumberland sketched most clearly by his 1927 private novel The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Too, it is also no accident that the divide between Lovecraft’s dreamlands and the “reality” of his fiction is so porous. Place names are transposed between one world and the other, characters are shared, and, often, stories originally presented as occurring in the “waking” world (albeit in the distant past) are often recast by Lovecraft, in later works, as part of his dream cycle. The line between real and dream, in Lovecraft’s weird fiction, is blurred. As, indeed, it was for the author himself. As Lovecraft expresses in a 1918 letter to his longtime correspondent Maurice Winter Moe:
I recognise a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities. I confess to an over-powering desire to know whether I am asleep or awake—whether the environment and laws which affect me are external and permanent, or the transitory products of my own brain. I admit that I am very much interested in the relation I bear to the things about me— the time relation, the space relation, and the causative relation. I desire to know approximately what my life is in terms of history—human, terrestrial, solar, and cosmical; what my magnitude may be in terms of extension,—terrestrial, solar,and cosmical; and above all, what may be my manner of linkage to the general system.
For Lovecraft, there are two types of experience: the dream and the real, the appearance and the actual. One is externally generated, the other an internal or “subjective” fancy. Lovecraft’s desire to differentiate the two is overpowering – precisely because, for him, the categories are nearly impossible to differentiate.
Just as Lovecraft inherits his concept of internal, private experience from James and the phenomenologists, he adopts a position on the origin of religion directly drawn from early anthropologists of religion, most visibly E.B. Tylor, for whom religion was an attempt, by early man, to comprehend the experiential challenges of dreaming and the existential challenge of death. In Lovecraft’s seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the author investigates the origin of his particular obsession: cosmic fear, or the fear of the unknown which rests at the heart of his preferred genre. This type of fear, is, according to Lovecraft, “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it.” He goes on to explain that both cosmic fear and the essential religious feeling are generated as a response to “the phenomena of dreaming,” which “helped to build the notions of an unknown or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduct toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man’s very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition.”
This placement of religion’s generative moment in dreaming specifically and, more generally in the psychological condition of “savage dawn-life,” reflects Tylor’s model plainly. Both hinge on, essentially, the misinterpretation of experience: dreams are taken for “reality,” because, for primitive man, the distinction between the two is non-existent and the phenomenological experience of them is, essentially, the same. It is this tension, in Tylor, which produces the dual worlds of the material and spiritual. So too for Lovecraft, although for him the contested nature of the real is not restricted to “primitive” man.
Distinguishing the dream from the real was an ongoing challenge for Lovecraft, a matter of vigilance and concern. As he explains it in his “Confession of Unfaith”:
The seeker of truth for its own sake is chained to no conventional system, but always shapes his philosophical opinions upon what seems to him the best evidence at hand. Changes, therefore, are constantly possible; and occur whenever new or revalued evidence makes them logical.
For Lovecraft there is an obligation to be current–to stay ahead of contested dream-reality with the most effective tools. The process is unsentimental, and most importantly, completely conditioned by its historical moment. As he later elucidated in a 1932 letter to his fellow writer Robert Ervin Howard, Lovecraft’s atheism is the result of the best evidence available to him.7 In the early 1930s Lovecraft saw no better supported position than atheism–which does not, it should be noted, preclude the idea that atheism may be supplanted in the future by an alternate system, or the notion that in a previous historical moment atheism may not have been inevitable.
The best evidenced argument was a central moral obligation for Lovecraft, and often, a disappointing one. For example, in a 1929 letter to his correspondent Woodburn Harris, Lovecraft expresses “a profound intellectual distaste” in adopting “the main points of relativity.” There is evidence that Lovecraft’s atheism may have been, in some ways, similarly distasteful for the author.
This is best demonstrated by Lovecraft’s sentimental association with the England of the 18th century, including its religion. This nostalgia permeated the author’s life to such a degree that he held it as one of the three central tenants of his character in his famous letter on the subject to Rheinhart Kleiner in March of 1920 (the other two were “love of the strange” and “love of scientific truth and abstract logic”). Lovecraft signed many letters as a subject of the Queen, and openly stated that the American Revolution was a mistake. He took long trips to seek out Georgian architecture, and spoke reverently of evening walks in the Massachusetts town of Marblehead, where the aging buildings allowed him to imagine himself back in glorious colonial New England. His longest poem, 1918’s “Old Christmas,” features an idyllic depiction of a Christmas night in 18th century England – including a reverent and inspiring Church scene4:
Within the church a fervent sermon rings,
and the full choir a pious anthem sings;
The rural choristers chant loud and strong,
And have in spirit what they lack in song.
The black-gowned chaplain, modest of wit,
Reads the wise precepts other parsons writ;
No laurels for himself he seeks to gain,
But gives his flock the best his books contain.
It is tempting, in this selection, to view the parson as a sarcastic jab at religious demagogues. However, this read ignores the basic structure of “Old Christmas,” where the failures of “ye modern throng” are answered with enviable achievements of Lovecraft’s preferred antiquity. In this context, the parson’s deference to the “wise precepts” of others is a positive — rather than grandstanding. This authority figure is content to trust “the best” information available to him. Just as Lovecraft followed the physicist of his age into relativity, so does Lovecraft’s parson follow his intellectual superiors. “Old Christmas,” then, may be taken as a nostalgic work with a specific valence: it mourns the loss of an earlier period when religious belief was possible.
Lovecraft never directly labels his atheism as transitory, and the matter is certainly not helped by his passionate defenses of atheism in letters Lovecraft wrote to his religious correspondents. However, adopting a view of Lovecraft’s atheism as historically constituted and, hence, conceivably changeable, explains several references, such as those in “Old Christmas,” which confound a purely adversarial reading.
Lovecraft’s concept of religion, in summary, is one founded on experience: the experience of the real, which originates outside of man, and the experience of dream, which has an internal point of origin. The navigation of these categories is, for Lovecraft, the central challenge of living–and a task which must be met with the most robust intellectual frames on hand, no matter what one’s sentimental preference. This view positions religion as doubly important to Lovecraft: first, it has importance as a sister field of inquiry to his beloved “cosmic horror.” Second, it has importance as a historical construction of reality: a potential “best response” from another era.
Don Jolly is a graduate student in New York University’s Religious Studies Program, as well as a freelance writer and artist. His work can be followed at www.donjolly.com.