A few years ago, Skholiast wrote a lovely post on the philosophical significance of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, two early 20th-century writers who shaped the genres we now call fantasy and horror, respectively. I was reminded of it this year at an enjoyable AAR panel entitled “Cthulhu’s Many Tentacles”.
Cthulhu, of course, is the best-known character (if that is the word) from Lovecraft’s stories, enough that the fictional pantheon he created has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Cthulhu is one of a set of “Elder Gods”: horrifying, vaguely amorphous, often tentacled monstrosities that have lain dormant for millennia and will soon devour humanity; their horror is such that the mere knowledge of them could drive one mad. The AAR panel gave recognition to many aspects of Lovecraft’s work: starting with a presentation on the man and his work itself, the presenters proceeded to examine the varied dimensions of the fandom that has grown up around Lovecraft (noting, in particular, that fan creativity has been greatly enabled by Lovecraft’s work rising into the public domain).
The most interesting point I took away from the panel came from a talk by David McConeghy (who also, coincidentally, was the respondent to my paper on teaching with technology). McConeghy noted that while a great deal of modern speculative fiction (he cited Mike Mignola’s comic-book series Hellboy) is clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and makes references to it, these works also typically have happy endings. The plucky band of heroes manages to banish the Elder Gods with their lives and sanity intact. Happy endings do exist in Lovecraft stories, but they’re rare. More commonly, the heroes go mad or are devoured, possibly on the way to the end of the world.
As I understand it, Lovecraft’s work is written this way for a reason. His was a time coming to grips with what Nietzsche – a major influence on Lovecraft – had called the death of God. Not so long before, it had been easy to think that everything in the world existed for the purposes of a divine creator who made human beings in his own image. It wasn’t just that this explanation helped make sense of metaphysics and ethics, it even was the best explanation of biology. After Darwin, this all changed drastically. God was no longer the most straightforward explanation for the diversity and functioning of life on Earth. For many he still survived as the source of value, but the physical world could be explained and explained well without him.
Meanwhile, as always, there remained a great deal that was harder to explain with God. Innocents suffer and die horribly every day, at the hands of humans and of nature; an omnipotent being that permits all this makes a sick joke of any claim to omnibenevolence. A world with God is now harder to make sense of than a world without him.
The important point, though, is that a world-without-God is not just a world-with-God with one entity subtracted from it. If we conclude that there is no God, then our understanding of the world around us must change drastically with it. It is that conclusion that was understood deeply by Nietzsche – and by Lovecraft.
One of the most familiar tropes from a Lovecraft story is the scholar who pores through dusty, long-forgotten books and discovers knowledge so horrible it drives him mad. (One of the panelists noted that Lovecraft’s parents were both committed to psychiatric hospitals.) There are dark secrets, things man was not meant to know. It is hard not to read this trope as an allegory for the scientists who discovered we could do without God. The idea of a world intelligently designed – still the most plausible biological hypothesis until Darwin – was a very comforting idea. It is a terrible and disturbing thing to learn that it is also a false idea. It turns out that the physical universe is a cold, dark, insentient place that does not care one whit about the insignificant accident that is the human race. It is easy to personify this universe as a collection of horrific, gargantuan monsters. For his part, Nietzsche, almost like a caricature of a Lovecraft character, spent the last ten years of his life unable to utter a coherent sentence.
As I understand it, this all is the appeal of Lovecraft to the Speculative Realist philosophers, many of whom are apparently quite fond of Lovecraft’s work. The key idea of Speculative Realism, as I understand it, is a decentring of human subjects from the prominent position they have been given by many modern philosophers (especially Kant). Lovecraft depicts this godless world, a world in which the human species is dust in the wind.
Skholiast, meanwhile, helpfully contrasts Lovecraft with J.R.R. Tolkien, an author similarly beloved by geek fandom. Tolkien, of course, remained a Christian through his life (like his good friend C.S. Lewis), and Skholiast remains a Christian to this day. And Skholiast emphasizes the importance to Tolkien of “eucatastrophe”: a reversal of fortune that brings about good results, because of the nature of the world. It is a natural result for a world genuinely created by an omnibenevolent God – which Tolkien’s Middle-earth was, just as he believed the real world to be.
It is essential to Tolkien’s writings, then, that they end happily. It is far stranger that contemporary “Lovecraftian” writings should do so. While such endings were not unheard of in Lovecraft’s own work, for them to be prevalent goes very much against the grain of Lovecraft’s own themes. If there’s an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, then we can expect happy endings. But the world isn’t like that. Far too often real stories end not in eucatastrophe but in simple catastrophe, and Lovecraft aimed to reflect that.
The question that interests me is: why this change? Why do authors in our day feel a need to paper over even Lovecraftian fiction with a “Hollywood ending”? Part of it is surely just that many fans don’t take Lovecraft’s ideas seriously, not the way the Speculative Realists do. With his works in the public domain, they become icons of geeky popular culture usable for any purpose, including a wide variety of parodies.
But it does raise the question: why are we so devoted to happy endings, that we would write “Lovecraftian” stories where all is nevertheless resolved? I can imagine two answers. One is that happy endings offer us a pleasurable escape, of a form recognizable as kitsch. Alternately, though, it could be that we have never really adjusted to the idea that the world doesn’t care about us and that bad things are not part of a larger plan. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” Perhaps this is the literary manifestation of a theodicy instinct – the impulse that led Buddhists to answer the problem of suffering even though they don’t believe in a God?