A dark, hazy scene of a figure in a top hat walking near a building with large columns. The background features a dimly lit path alongside water, with street lamps illuminating the night. The setting appears lonely and atmospheric, with distant hills visible under an overcast sky.

The Night (1908) by Léon Spilliaert. Courtesy Vincent Everarts/Collection of the Belgian State, in deposit at Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels


Terrifying vistas of reality

H P Lovecraft, the master of cosmic horror stories, was a philosopher who believed in the total insignificance of humanity

by Sam Woodward + BIO

The Night (1908) by Léon Spilliaert. Courtesy Vincent Everarts/Collection of the Belgian State, in deposit at Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels

In July 1917, Howard Phillips Lovecraft of Providence, Rhode Island wrote a short story called ‘Dagon’. ‘If you don’t care for this,’ he wrote to one editor, ‘you won’t care for anything of mine.’ In the tale, a sailor lost at sea in a wooden rowboat finds himself abruptly stranded on a vast stretch of seabed that had risen to the surface, pushed up by volcanic activity. As the territory of marine muck hardens in the sun, the sailor begins to walk across it, heading westward towards a distant hummock. But after days of walking, he realises the knoll is in fact a high hill. Camping in its shadow, he awakes one night in a cold sweat and endeavours to climb it. But at the summit, he looks over the side ‘into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine.’

As the moon rises higher, he sees an enormous carved monolith on the far side of the water-filled canyon, an object ‘whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures.’ As he watches, the moonlight catches ripples moving across the water:

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

‘Dagon’ has all the elements of a classic Lovecraft tale. Here, as in many of his later works – including ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (written in 1926), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), and At the Mountains of Madness (1931) – optimistic endeavours for knowledge, even the simple act of seeing what’s on the other side of a hill, are thwarted by incomprehensible terrors and a horrifyingly arbitrary cosmic order. These revelations shatter the minds of Lovecraft’s truth-seeking characters, including doctors, archaeologists, lost sailors, metaphysicians and scientists of all kinds.

Lovecraft honed these elements through his short stories (along with two novellas and a single novel), developing a unique version of the weird fiction pioneered by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen and M R James. However, Lovecraft did not enjoy mainstream success during his lifetime. He barely survived on a measly wage brought in by his short stories (which did not sell well) and freelance editing services before he died of intestinal cancer in 1937, aged 46. Some continued to appreciate his strange stories after his death, but others found them distasteful and ineffective. In 1945, the literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote that the only real horror of Lovecraft’s fiction ‘is the horror of bad taste and bad art’. None of his contemporaries, nor perhaps even Lovecraft himself, could likely have imagined the influence he would come to exert over literature and thought as the 20th century progressed. Today, Lovecraft has become the father of cosmic horror and weird fiction – Stephen King considers him ‘the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of the horror tale’. But his influence is not limited only to literature. His more enduring influence may be as a philosopher.

This might come as a surprise since Lovecraft was, first and foremost, a writer of the weird tale, and he would have said as much himself. But underneath those weird tales was a distinctive philosophical project, one that can reveal as much about our anxieties today as about those of a man living in Providence in the early 20th century.

Lovecraft captures the spirit of his philosophy in the opening paragraph of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, a story about an expedition to the sunken dwelling of a tentacled Old God worshipped by an ancient cult who pray for their deity to awaken from its slumber and resume its control over mortal-kind. How would Lovecraft start such a fantastic tale? Like this:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Most of his stories, however, are less philosophically explicit. Lovecraft’s thought is often obscured in his tales, and must be pieced together from various sources, including his poetry, essays and, most importantly, his letters. Lovecraft wrote an estimated 100,000 during his life, of which around 10,000 have survived. Within this substantial non-fictional output, the volume of which dwarfs his fictional writing, Lovecraft expounded the philosophical concerns – whether metaphysical, ethical, political or aesthetic – which he claimed underpinned his weird fiction. These tales, he wrote, were based on one fundamental cosmic premise: ‘that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large’.

In H P Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990), the scholar S T Joshi analysed many of those letters and essays to create an image of ‘Lovecraft the philosopher’. Joshi claimed that Lovecraft’s identity as a philosopher is a direct outcome of the genre he mastered: weird fiction. This genre, Joshi writes, is inherently philosophical because ‘it forces the reader to confront directly such issues as the nature of the universe and mankind’s place in it.’ Not everyone has agreed that Lovecraft’s thought should be so elevated. The Austrian literary critic Franz Rottensteiner, in a review of Joshi’s book, attacked the idea of Lovecraft as a philosopher: ‘The point is, of course, that Lovecraft as a thinker just wasn’t of any importance,’ he wrote ‘whether as a materialist, an aestheticist, or a moral philosopher.’

However, in the 21st century, Lovecraft has been resurrected as a philosopher again and again. This resurrection has been performed by, among others, the French author Michel Houellebecq, the pessimist philosopher Eugene Thacker, and the speculative realists Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. The latter states that ‘although the four original Speculative Realists do not share a single philosophical hero in common, all of us turned out independently to have been admirers of Lovecraft. Though the reasons for this are different in each case, my own interest stems from my view that his weird fiction sets the stage for an entire philosophical genre.’

‘We are all meaningless atoms adrift in the void,’ he wrote in a letter

But what did Lovecraft the philosopher think, in his own words? In his letters, he referred to his philosophy as ‘cosmic indifferentism’, which he also called ‘cosmicism’. He derived the three main tenets of this doctrine – materialism, determinism, atheism – from the work of philosophers and scientists writing between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, George Santayana and T H Huxley were all on the reading list; so too were Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe (1899) and Hugh Elliot’s Modern Science and Materialism (1919). Lovecraft also embraced the ancient atomists (Democritus and Leucippus) and Epicureans (Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius). And he read The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905) by William Benjamin Smith, which would have reinforced the stubborn xenophobia and racism inculcated by his upbringing. Although Lovecraft’s views on race were antiquated even while he was alive, and seemed to denote a lack of attention to philosophical currents of his day, his philosophy is otherwise surprisingly holistic and unified, combining metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.

As an absolute determinist, Lovecraft’s metaphysics describes an infinite universe in eternal predetermined motion: ‘each human act,’ he wrote, ‘can be no less than the inevitable result of every antecedent and circumambient condition in an eternal cosmos.’ This left no room for teleology, the notion that the universe is moving towards some pre-ordained goal, or that humans and other species are evolving for some purpose. His determinism was accompanied by a strict materialism that, in line with the views of many of his contemporaries, made the immaterial – the soul and spirit – inconceivable. These views shaped the nightmarish figures in his tales, which are not apparitions or spectres, the ‘supernatural’ beings of conventional horror writing, but materially real horrors that only appear supernatural because of humanity’s inability to comprehend their true nature.

However, though Lovecraft may have aligned with some of the philosophical currents of his age, he developed a pointedly pessimistic worldview shared by few of his contemporaries. It was an outlook that he claimed, in his essay ‘A Confession of Unfaith’ (1922), to have first considered when he was 13 years old. Throughout his life, he maintained in his ethics the total insignificance of humanity in the face of a vast and inherently unknowable universe. ‘We are all meaningless atoms adrift in the void,’ he wrote in a letter to his friend, the publisher and writer August Derleth. Though he was pessimistic about humanity’s cosmic position, Lovecraft did not fall victim to the fatalist fallacy in his tales; the actions of his characters still have moral value and meaning on the individual level for the purposes of bettering the self and society. In the same letter, he adopted a relativist stance towards moral values. Elsewhere, he attributed this ethical system to his reading of Epicurus and Lucretius. Lovecraftian ethics and metaphysics therefore owes a great deal to the ancient and modern thinkers to whom Lovecraft subscribed during his lifetime. This may seem to suggest that he was merely a bricoleur of philosophical scraps. But something distinct, even anti-philosophical, emerges from his letters and essays: a general ambivalence towards epistemology, in which ‘the joy in pursuing truth’ is offset by its ‘depressing revelations’.

Anathema to many philosophical systems, or perhaps philosophy itself, Lovecraft’s philosophical project fundamentally holds that contemplations of higher reality or the nature of things can never be fully realised. Ultimately, the search for knowledge does not constitute some telos, some purpose, for humankind, but rather leads to the violent dissolution of the self. Higher reality is that which the limited human psyche can never fully comprehend.

‘The Music of Erich Zann’ (1922) is a good early example. In this short story, a student of metaphysics finds himself in a strange, nebulous town while searching for the Rue d’Auseil. When the student happens upon the street, he becomes lost and confounded by epistemological darkness; the contingency and illusory nature of the world is conveyed by the shadows cast by the houses and the smoke from the factories that obfuscate his path. At the top of the street, a high wall, signifying a barrier to higher philosophical understanding, confronts the student. He believes that, if he could just find a vantage point above the wall, he could behold the ‘wide and dizzying panorama of moonlit roofs and city lights beyond the hill-top’. To discover what’s out there – to know the nature of reality – the student rents a room in a house high up the Rue d’Auseil. Above him is an attic rented by the mute viol player Erich Zann. Here, at the highest point on the street, Zann can look through his window and see what is beyond the wall. But when the student finally enters the attic and looks out, all he sees is ‘the blackness of space illimitable’. All that is beyond is an incomprehensible void.

In this and other stories, Lovecraft suggests that higher philosophical knowledge should not be sought, since finding it entails learning of our cosmic insignificance and purposelessness. Zann seems to know this truth. He tries to drag the student away from the window and also attempts to keep the looming nothingness at bay by playing his viol frantically, but the void leaves him catatonic. The philosophy student manages to escape, and descends back down the Rue d’Auseil and into the familiar shadowy streets of epistemological dullness. This return to metaphysical ignorance is a balm against the total ruination of the mind: Lovecraft transforms the student’s quest for knowledge into a realisation of soul-annihilating cosmicism.

This ‘negative revelation’, as it might be called, is a crucial aspect of Lovecraft’s philosophy and his desire for epistemological quietism. It is what makes his philosophical project distinct. In the sensationalist dreamscapes of his stories, the father of cosmic horror learned to take refuge from the true reality of a soulless and mechanistic universe.

For Lovecraft, art and literature are the ideal means for individuals to find beauty and meaning, despite humanity’s profound lack of cosmic purpose. If the universe is infinite and indifferent, one can ward off nihilism by seeking solace in artistic self-expression. This idea appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories, but the best example is the author himself. Throughout his life, the act of writing weird fiction became a modus vivendi for finding meaning. Though his letters might describe his philosophy most clearly, Lovecraft’s stories – all written in a single genre – are the primary mode through which he creatively expressed those ideas.

In his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927), Lovecraft characterised weird fiction as a genre unsuited to quotidian human events and emotions. Instead, he writes that it requires a fervent imagination and sensitivity to ineffable, unknown forces outside of human experience. Lovecraft believed the weird fiction genre itself was innately philosophical because to write something truly weird required engaging with thought itself:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint … of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Crucial to the weird tale is its cosmic, beyond-human orientation. Lovecraft’s injunction that weird fiction authors suspend or defeat the ‘fixed laws of Nature’ is particularly elucidating. As any strict materialist and determinist knows, violating natural law is impossible in practice. But Lovecraft’s stories are dotted with attempts to describe the impossible within the limitations of human expression and experience. Cthulhu, his ancient cosmic god, is described as constituting ‘eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order’ and its dwelling comprises ‘non-Euclidean’ geometry with angles of masonry seemingly acute but that ‘behaved as if [they] were obtuse’. Through a belief in the impossible, Lovecraft thought we might ‘acquire a certain flush of triumphant emancipation comparable in its comforting power to the opiate dreams of religion’. But that would happen only if we had, he believed, ‘the illusory sensation that some law of the ruthless cosmos has been – or could be – invalidated or defeated’. In that sense, the illusory depictions of nature contravened in weird fiction tales provide some respite, even if only aesthetic, from the rigid and unerring clockwork of the mechanistic and predetermined universe.

These gods are uninterested in human affairs, reflecting the indifference of the universe and our insignificance

For Lovecraft, horror is found in what we think could be out there in the universe, given our glaringly deficient knowledge about reality. ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,’ he writes in his 1927 essay, ‘and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’. It is ironic, then, that Lovecraft couldn’t see past his own racist prejudices (which he might have seen as utterly trivial on a cosmic scale). Fear of the ‘unknown’ informed many of his worldviews, including this ugly blemish upon his legacy. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the ‘unknown’ often manifests through ‘Old Gods’. In the surreal odyssey The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Azathoth is the instantiation of primordial chaos, who lives beyond ‘the bright clusters of dimensioned space’. In ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ (1932-33), Yog-Sothoth is the infinity of all that is, an entity resembling ‘congeries of iridescent globes’ that encompasses the past, present and future. In addition, these and other gods are all amoral and utterly uninterested in human affairs, thus reflecting the indifference of the universe and the insignificance of humankind more broadly.

One might think it strange that Lovecraft, an atheist, created a pseudo-pantheon of primordial gods, but they perform a distinct function within his fiction. Such metaphorical, ‘supernatural’ terrors appear only through humanity’s ignorance of the universe: these horrors represent the ‘cosmic spaces which would otherwise be an ambiguous and tantalising void’.

Learning of these gods and their kin leads only to ‘negative revelations’ that shatter epistemological optimism. For Lovecraft’s characters, such revelations often enkindle a desire for quietism, causing them to take refuge within their own self-constructed dreamscapes to avoid the revelations of cosmicism. Across his fiction, Lovecraft portrayed these stunned characters, who urge others to avoid seeking knowledge of true reality. This theme is nascent even in his earliest short stories. In ‘Celephaïs’ (1920), we follow as Randolph Carter visits a man calling himself Kuranes, who seeks the titular city in his dreams to shut out the ennui of daily existence. For him, everyday human concerns are inherently meaningless; life is a cosmically trivial existence. So, Kuranes searches for Celephaïs, his own internal source of self-constructed aesthetic beauty derived from fancy and illusion. To aid his search, he prolongs and intensifies his dreams with drugs, but in the process happens upon a deep recess of boundless and unknown space ‘outside what he had called infinity’, which causes him profound anxiety. Eventually, an entourage of knights from Celephaïs leads a nervous Kuranes into the abyss, where he reigns as regent within his own dream-space. As ruler over Celephaïs, he also controls his existential cosmic anxieties by revelling in his own illusory aesthetic delight. This mirrors at a metatextual level the enjoyment and relief from cosmic anxieties that Lovecraft likely derived from weird fiction itself.

Negative revelation is fully fleshed out in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s recurrent protagonist, hopes to journey in his dreams to the city of Kadath to obtain esoteric knowledge from the Great Ones. Before commencing his dream-journey, he is warned by two priests of the dangers that lie ahead. Most hazardous is the possibility of happening upon the ‘boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth’, the deific cosmic centre of chaos and infinity accompanied by the Other Gods who dance along to the insanity-inducing music it makes. Carter, naturally, ignores the priests’ warnings.

For him, knowledge of the boundless and unknown is a profound source of anxiety

Upon arrival at Kadath, he finds the city empty. A pharaoh approaches him, explaining that the gods have abandoned it. He sends Carter to return the gods to their rightful seat. But the pharaoh, who is really Nyarlathotep, the intermediary between humans and Old Gods in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos (and who relishes in meddling in mortal affairs), deceives him. The disguised Nyarlathotep addresses the dreamer in an extended monologue. He tells Carter that the city he ought to seek is not Kadath wherein lie the secrets of the Great Ones, but Providence, Rhode Island, which contains the beautiful and delightful memories of Carter’s youth. The mind-shattering void that is Azathoth (a revelation of cosmicism) should be avoided in favour of self-constructed internal beauty derived from memories relived in dreams. Nyarlathotep’s advice is sound, but he has no intention of allowing Carter to leave. Carter is sent plummeting towards Azathoth, past the ‘vague blackness and loneliness beyond the cosmos’. He attempts to escape, falling ceaselessly through void and infinity, and wakes in his Boston home.

For Lovecraft and his protagonists, knowledge of the boundless and unknown is a profound source of anxiety eased only by taking refuge in illusory dream-space.

The aesthetic liberation of the weird tale comes from its depiction of the impossible. But, as the history of science shows, not all unimaginable and unexplainable realities elude us – consider the discovery of quantum mechanics or black holes in the mid-20th century. Lovecraft understood this relationship with the impossible: he suggests that if science, hypothetically, were to explain at some point in the future any phenomena depicted in the weird tale, then the story would cease to represent the suspension of natural law. It would cease to be ‘weird’. This might go some way to explain why a lot of Lovecraft’s later fiction made efforts to reconcile the weird tale with modern science, not by providing what he terms ‘contradictions’ of natural law, but rather ‘supplements’ to it. The conventional supernatural elements of horror – werewolves, vampires and other supernatural phenomena (variations of which appear in Lovecraft’s earlier tales) – are aesthetically inadequate in the face of our understanding of modern science and the universe. The Old Gods even seem to take a back seat.

‘The Colour Out of Space’ (1927) exemplifies this development. This story follows the Gardner family, who see a strange, glowing rock-like entity, the ‘colour’, fall from the sky into a field near their property. This ‘colour’ begins to spread throughout the Gardners’ property, infecting the flora (rendering it grey and crumbly), the farm animals (who turn feral), the water supply, and the family themselves. Mr Gardner’s oldest son goes insane, and his other son goes missing while fetching water from the well. He and his wife become hideously physically deformed and lose all sense of themselves. When the farm is eventually inspected, all living things within it have perished and nothing remains but blighted land. The ‘colour’ had siphoned life from the landscape.

Eventually, the ‘colour’ launches itself from the ground and flies upwards from wherever it came. Upon scientific examination, the residue it leaves behind defies all known chemical and physical laws. It tests negative for any known metals, does not exhibit any sensitivity to changes in temperature, and no chemicals react with it. This rock-like substance emits only an iridescent glow, the shade of which is not identifiable on our colour spectrum. In fact, it is not a ‘colour’ at all; it is only referred to as a ‘colour’ because this is the category that most accurately describes it.

There is no telling what we might find in the deepest recesses of the universe

In this tale, contradictory apophatic descriptions, reminiscent of the properties of Lovecraft’s Old Gods, are now firmly focused through a scientific lens, marking an integration of the weird with scientific reason. But for the weird tale to remain truly ‘weird’, it must be cosmic in the science fiction sense, involving only the boundless and unknown phenomena for which science has not (yet) accounted. In this sense, the negative revelation of cosmicism is rendered more acute in this story because Lovecraft reveals his ideas through the cold and logical rationalism of science, without any of the quasi-religious embellishments of the dreamscape, which might otherwise provide relief from the harsh realities of the universe.

Though Lovecraft embraced scientific rationalism wholeheartedly during his life, his fiction still comes with a pessimistic warning to those who engage in unbridled scientific endeavour: there is no telling what we might find in the deepest recesses of the universe as our understanding of reality grows. Real knowledge, Lovecraft suggests, is impossible; humans have a limited capacity to think in truly rational ways. This perspective might explain why Lovecraft was not an evangelical atheist and accepted the usefulness of religion for the vast majority of the population, for whom a godless existence would be intolerable: ‘It helps their orderly conduct as nothing else could,’ he wrote, ‘and gives them an emotional satisfaction they could not get elsewhere.’ And besides, if we ever discovered that the universe really was as cosmically purposeless as Lovecraft imagined, then delusions of Cthulhu-esque gods might seem reasonable — or even desirable.

So where does this leave us today? Lovecraft’s legacy at present is truly astonishing, especially when we consider the state of obscurity in which he died. Crucially, his philosophy has endured, outlined through bewildered protagonists who watch their sense of self dissolve as they gain a (limited) appreciation of how things truly are. At the end of ‘Dagon’, his story of one man’s ill-fated journey to see what is on the other side of a strange hill, we see this philosophy in action. For Lovecraft, ‘man’ is not the measure of all things. Humans are not a superior species. Our customs, trivial. Our time, fleeting.

‘I cannot think of the deep sea,’ Lovecraft writes at the end of ‘Dagon’, ‘without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind – of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.’