Sunday, May 7, 2017

Did H.P. Lovecraft believe in God?

This is an interesting question. Horror is the fictional genre in which the lines between good and evil are most starkly drawn. Horror fiction is ultimately about good vs. evil. 

(One reason that horror is currently in the doldrums, both in print as well as in film, is that postmodern Western culture is uncomfortable with the notion of evil. But this is another, deeper topic for another day.)

The forces of good and evil in horror fiction do not necessarily have to be supernatural, but they often are. Any horror fiction with a supernatural antagonist would have to make room for—by corollary—a God of some sort, right?

You would think so, but once again: Not necessarily. H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction is focused on the so-called Cthulhu mythos. His fictional universe includes a wide array of supernatural beings (though generally not the ghosts, witches, and vampires of traditional supernatural horror fiction). These are the so-called “old ones”. 

I’ve read almost everything that H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote, and nowhere do I find an appeal to a Christian deity, as one sees in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example. The cosmological message of Lovecraft’s fiction seems to be that humans are insignificant pawns in the grand universal scheme, incapable of either saving themselves or influencing nature in any significant way.

I want to analyze this one without venturing into the tempting pitfall of the atheism vs. faith debate. As I’ve hinted in previous posts, I find the evangelical atheists every bit as tiresome as the smug, bible-thumping crowd. But this isn't the right post to go off on that tangent. 

We can, however, say this much about the reductive materialism of atheism, and the religious faith of the believer: Both provide a certain measure of comfort to their adherents. Religious believers take solace in the belief of a higher, benevolent power—and an afterlife of some sort. Scientific rationalists believe in the ultimate power of logic and human reason to solve any ill over the long haul. 

Metaphysics according to H.P. Lovecraft, meanwhile, seems to encompass the worst of both worlds. On one hand, H.P. Lovecraft sees a universe in which humankind is bedeviled by supernatural powers that we cannot understand. But in Lovecraft’s essentially atheistic cosmology, there is no counterbalance of a loving spiritual presence. 

It is a world of monsters, but no God. In Lovecraft’s universe, therefore, both reason and prayer are ultimately futile.  

We cannot ask H.P. Lovecraft to weigh in on this one in the present, but his extant letters suggest that he was an atheist. He wrote the following in a letter to Robert E. Howard in 1932.

"All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don't regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory, I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.”

Fair enough. But H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction suggests that he was far from a scientific rationalist—even if that’s the self-image that he cultivated for himself. He seemed to grasp that there were limits to what science could explain. But Lovecraft was equally unable to embrace a religious explanation for life’s many unknowns.