Monday, January 19, 2015

On Lovecraft and My Catholic Worldview

A few months ago, I bit the bullet and read my first H.P. Lovecraft story, the novella At the Mountains of Madness. I'd been hearing about Lovecraft for years, and knew he was well-respected by later authors and quite beloved by many, so I figured it was about time.

Bonus points to whoever correctly identifies
the number of eyes on this book cover.
Boy was I wrong!

It was a new-to-me kind of frustrating, because I could tell that I was supposed to be terrified (or at least anxious or creeped out), yet the only emotion I could muster was impatience.

I asked around, to try and understand what I was missing, but all replies suggested that while Lovecraft's mythos is phenomenal, he could have done with an editor. Ok, fine. Forgot about it for a while.

Those eldritch wall paintings are more interesting than wallpaper, at least.

But last week I stumbled upon a virtual book club reading this very book, so I thought I'd ask them if they could convince me of Lovecraft's genius, and their responses were thorough and helpful.

I should consider Lovecraft in his own time, they said, based on the way scientific researched changed their understanding of reality. Okay:
The TL;DR version is that when Lovecraft was born the sun was thought to be, at absolute most, around 20 million years old. When he was an adult we had discovered that the sun was powered by fusion and was around 4.5 BILLION years old. As a child Lovecraft thought the universe consisted of the milky way, around a million stars total, and a few blurry things no one knew what were. As an adult it was known that a) the milky way contained closer to 100 BILLION stars and b) all those weird blurry things were in fact galaxies as large as the milky way.
The cosmos expanded during Lovecraft's life at a rate comparable to the rate of expansion of available data storage during my life. I was born in late 1964. In 1973, the total manufactured fixed disk storage capacity in the United States was on the order of 100Gb. 40 years later, it's really hard to buy hard disks that small; hard disk storage currently costs on the order of 4 cents per gigabyte, giving our 1973 USA's installed hard disk capacity a value of around $5.
Ok, that IS a pretty huge series of changes. But what makes this terrifying? I needed someone to point it out to me. [Spoilers ahead, but plot isn't necessarily the point with Lovecraft, so whatever.]
Now think back to At the Mountains of Madness. The horror is not that the Elder Things, these half-plants / half-animals that have been hibernating for millions of years might come to once again re-inhabit the Earth, it's that even this wondrous creatures, to whom we are nothing more than ants, were themselves wiped out by something even bigger, more awesome, and more terrifying than they were.
Okay! That I can wrap my head around! But I still can't get my emotions there. I can appreciate his creations from an artistic standpoint, but they still don't creep me out.

Although they are still unsettling to look at.

This disconnect between brain and emotions simmered on the back burner of my mind for a few days, until finally, after returning from a wonderful retreat, it hit me:

What completely undercuts the eldritch horror of Lovecraft's world and creatures is Catholic theology!

Sorry not sorry. Couldn't resist!

Now, I've read explicitly atheistic authors before, but none were trying to terrify, so it's hard to compare. And no wonder Lovecraft's creatures do inspire so much fear; the world they represent is precisely the opposite of that in which our all-loving God has not only created but redeemed us!

Think about it. At the heart of Christian theology is that God, who needs nothing, created us just because he wanted to love us. Then he actually took on human weakness and died violently, painfully, so as to redeem not only all humanity, but each human being! His love for each one of us is profound especially in light of the enormity of the cosmos!

This image is not to scale.

It's all so enormous and grand! And we are so small, so short-lived. And yet, what dignity we are afforded, by virtue of the incarnation!

All this, just for a chance to spend eternity with you!

Angels, the only non-human sentient species mentioned in Scripture and Tradition, are metaphysically superior to us, being pure spirit--and we are explicitly praised as higher than the angels! How could any species, no matter how powerful, compete with love like that!?

You may be gigantic, powerful, ugly, and brutal, but you cannot deprive me
of the life that really matters, so why should I fear you? (cf. Mt 10:28)

Deus Pater, qui creavit omnium, miserere nobis.


  1. This is a very thoughtful analysis, Claire. I've never read any Lovecraft (probably I won't now?) but I do find it interesting that all the best stories--whether they be written by Christians, Jews, atheists, etc.--are those that recognize the strength of sacrifice and redemption in their story. I believe that one of the reasons the Christian faith is so appealing is that it automatically touches that part of our souls that is programmed, if you will, to recognize a good, satisfying story. (Of course I believe it is much more than that.) When certain atheist authors lose sight of that, or purposely reject it, their stories will suffer.

  2. It's funny... the bigness to the universe, and the greater bigness of the proposed theories of the multiverse, the bigness of some classes of infinite sets, and the even greater bigness of God and the eternal have always been terrifying to me. And this train of thought is pretty common in Christian thought. The phrase "fear of the Lord" comes to mind. As does C.S. Lewis writes of Aslan as being both good and terrible. The sheer power of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator of all things, the unmoved mover, is terrifying. Infinity is terrifying -- especially when one's soul is at stake.


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