As it’s Halloween, we examine the life and works of HP Lovecraft, author of horror classics including The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow over Innsmouth. How did his lifelong interest in astronomy influence his work?
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is praised as one of the twentieth century’s most influential writers of fantastic fiction. Throughout his life he took a deep interest in astronomy and this enthusiasm informed his work. I will state straight away that his stories are not perfect. Lovecraft was an odd and eccentric man. Although he was charming and sociable in person, in his stories he often reveals unpleasant streaks of snobbery and venomous racism. Even in his best works, the writing can be sometimes awkward. Yet, although I have many misgiving, I think he is worth reading, his stories can conjure a sense of unease and their endings can startle, and as Halloween is approaching I think it is time to look at this amateur astronomer and creator of his own unique genre of horror stories.
Lovecraft’s early life was unusual and unhappy, clearly influencing his writing and well-being. When he was three years old, his father was institutionalised for a severe mental illness, dying years later in the asylum. Then financial misjudgments led the formerly well-to-do family to fall suddenly into poverty causing their eviction from their family home. Shockingly, later his mother too suffered from mental illness, she also spent the remainder of her life in an institution. Themes of madness and families declining into decay and degeneracy reoccur in Lovecraft’s work and throughout his life he was afflicted by odd phobias, bouts of illness and breakdowns.
The precocious young Lovecraft was an avid reader but rarely attended school thanks to his severe bouts of illness. Despite his lack of formal schooling, he was well-educated through his reading. Literature, history, chemistry and astronomy were his favourite topics. He received a small telescope as a gift from his mother and by the age of nine he was writing, publishing and selling a science newsletter from door to door in his district. By the time he was twelve, astronomy was his obsession. He specialised in observing the Moon and Venus, obsessing over what mysteries were concealed by the clouds of Venus and what could lie on the unmapped farside of the Moon. For the next few years he hoped to become an astronomer, but a breakdown prevented him from graduating from school and he never attended college. This was both a source of shame and disappointment for the rest of his life.
Instead of practicing science, Lovecraft developed his writing; his early and rather dire poetry and stories were published in amateur fiction magazines. In those pre-TV days, there were mass-market fiction magazines with huge circulations and titles like ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’ and ‘Weird Tales’ and once he began to sell stories to them he was able to just about support the dwindling family fortune with the meagre royalties from his writing. Strangely he made more money as a ghostwriter (appropriately enough) writing horror fiction for others (including Harry Houdini) than from works under his own name.
He lived in Providence, Rhode Island with a couple of elderly aunts (apart from a brief period in New York during his unsuccessful marriage) in what Arthur C. Clarke called “genteel poverty”. Throughout his life he continued his astronomical hobby, observing comets, Saturn and a solar eclipse in 1932. He attended lectures from leading astronomers (he listened to Percival Lowell expound his theories of Martian canal builders and was distinctly unimpressed) and physicists and visited the Hayden Planetarium (which did impress him). He welcomed these distractions from his hard life; Lovecraft was suffering from malnutrition when he died from cancer at the age of 46.
Lovecraft’s early stories were classified as “Weird Fiction” at the time, today we would describe them as fantasy and horror. His prose was dense, archaic, sometimes lurid or unintentionally hilarious, but often hypnotic. He persisted in developing his art and over the years he developed his own genre, often called “Cosmic Horror” today.
Cosmic Horror largely eschews the standard tropes of horror stories; haunted houses, vampires and so on. There are still monsters, and Lovecraft was good at imagining monsters, but his bestiary of Deep Ones, Shoggoths, Mi-Go and other shambling, unspeakable Things are just the tip of the iceberg. The real horror lies underneath. A typical Lovecraft’s character might be holidaying in rural New England, exploring Antarctica or just researching an ancient artwork when he gradually comes face to face with the stark realization that we live in a cold and uncaring Universe, vast and ancient, shared with creatures not only utterly alien but also hostile and superior to humanity. At the moment, they are largely quiescent but one day “when the stars are right” these beings will turn their full nightmarish attention to the human race and inevitably descend to our fragile planet to devour us or worse. To the wider cosmos, we are nothing but ephemeral insects.
The advance of science was his inspiration; contemporary discoveries in this and other sciences of biology, geology, and physics, suggested to Lovecraft that the human race was insignificant and transient on the cosmic scale. As Charles Stross, author of several works inspired by Lovecraft, has pointed out “he had Edwin Hubble’s cosmology to work with, not Bishop Usher’s”. Throughout his stories Lovecraft showed an appreciation of then current astronomy and related sciences. Two of his early stories (and not really typical of his work) are Polaris (1918) and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919). In Polaris the narrator sees the eponymous star as somehow malevolent, under its influence he relives a past life as a member of a lost civilization which existed 26 000 years ago when the Earth’s precession made Polaris previously the Pole Star. In the latter story, a psychiatrist discovers his patient, a brutish hillbilly, is ‘possessed’ by an apparently benign cosmic being (unique in the Lovecraft canon) which is somehow opposed to the “Demon Star” Algol. The story drops in a lengthy reference to the nova GK Persei observed in 1901.
Later stories became increasingly science fictional, what looks like the supernatural is probably the application of incomprehensible and vastly superior extra-terrestrial (or even extra-dimensional) science. For example, the evil witch Keziah Mason in The Dreams in the Witch House (1932) had “an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter”. She uses this knowledge to escape her captors by opening what we would nowadays call a wormhole and fleeing to an alien planet orbiting a triple star “between Hydra and Argo Navis”.
In his youth, Lovecraft had dreamt of a trans-Neptunian planet, “a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system”, which he called “Yuggoth”. In his 1930 story The Whisperer in Darkness, a hapless pair of folklorists discover that legendary beings said to haunt isolated mountain tops in Vermont are very real visitors from this world, and they are starting to take notice of us…Lovecraft explicitly states that Yuggoth is in fact the then-recently discovered Pluto. I am sure that one day a Kuiper Belt Object will be named Yuggoth.
Two of the stories he wrote towards the end of his life describe how Earth was colonized by alien beings in prehistory, relics of their presence are waiting to be found by unwary archeologists. This was almost forty years before Erich von Däniken and his imitators tried to sell this idea as fact! Both stories show Lovecraft carried out extensive research into geology and palaeontology. At the Mountains of Madness (1931) tells of a doomed Antarctic expedition and its disturbing discoveries about Earth’s previous tenants. In The Shadow out of Time (1935) the protagonist is left deeply traumatized after he experiences a bizarre form of amnesia, followed by vivid dreams of aliens cities among the jungles of Triassic Earth. To describe this story’s plot further would be to utterly spoil it so I shan’t.
During his lifetime he never became a popular or critical success, but after his early death, a handful of his admirers continued to promote his work and today more than 70 years later HP Lovecraft is better known than ever. Were he alive today it is intriguing to imagine what new terrors today’s astronomy and cosmology, with their black holes, plutoids, dark matter, multidimensional theories and so on, could conjure from his imagination.
(In March 2013 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced that a crater, 52 km wide, on the planet Mercury had been named for Lovecraft. The crater is close to the planet’s south pole.The name had been proposed by the Science Team for NASA’s MESSENGER mission.)
Collections of Lovecraft’s stories are available from various publishers, notable examples include ‘Necronomicon‘ from Gollancz and S.T. Joshi’s annotated anthologies published by Penguin in the UK.
Clarke, A.C, Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography, Gollancz, London,1989
Colavito, Jason, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture, Prometheus Books, 2005
Williams, Stuart, The terror out of space, Popular Astronomy, Vol 55, No 4, October-December 2008
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)