“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” These are the words of H.P. Lovecraft, an early-20th century writer of “weird tales.” In the essay from which this quotation is taken, he goes on to say that in the “true weird tale… an atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.” Lovecraft’s primary theme was what he called “cosmic fear.”
On the evening of November 2 in the Shook Common Room in PIMS, Professor Alexander Andrée and Postdoctoral Fellow Peter O’Hagan convened a discussion of Lovecraft’s fiction. Sitting on either side of a ghastly white pumpkin that Assistant Professor Jean-Olivier Richard had carved to resemble the monster Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Andrée and O’Hagan read selections from the writer’s eldritch body of work and gave brief explications of his main themes and effects.
Professor Andrée gave a biographical introduction that set Lovecraft in the context of New England tradition; the region has produced an eerie number of acknowledged masters of horror that includes Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson. Lovecraft never went to university, published his work in cheap pulp magazines, and died in relative poverty, but he achieved a remarkable level of fame and influence after his death.
“The cosmos yawns beneath them,” O’Hagan said of the narrators and protagonists of Lovecraft’s weird tales. Traumatized by their encounters with unspeakable monsters, they yearn for “forgetfulness or death” to escape the horror. Professor Andrée sketched the ways in which Lovecraft’s imagination was shaped by a materialist paradigm at grips with the voids left by religion, voids that science is unable to fill. The writer used these lacunae to generate dread in his anti-humanist stories of ancient death cults, “cyclopean” ruins, and incomprehensible forces from “beyond the stars.”
A habitual over-writer, Lovecraft is often remembered nowadays for his purple prose style. However, this element of his work seems to endear his readers to him instead of putting them off, O’Hagan and Andrée noted. Their readings from his stories were often met with laughter at the long chains of adjectives and general sense of overwhelming ponderousness.
Discussion followed the presentation, and comments from the audience drew out connections to contemporary inheritors of Lovecraft’s vision, the writer’s use of unthinkable scale in space and time, and his narrators’ use of the confessional mode.