There is no question in my mind that Mr. H.P. Lovecraft is one of the great American writers. Certainly he is one of the most influential; there has hardly been a horror or science-fiction tale since that has not owed something to his influence (though it’s true most of his progeny are better at copying the surface features than the substance of his work). He was also a master stylist with gorgeously erudite prose conveying the grisly horrors of his fertile and warped imagination. What is equally or more important, he knew when not to describe his subjects and to let suggestion work its magic on the reader’s mind.
Mr. Lovecraft was, of course, an atheist whose fertile mind had marinated in the atmosphere of Puritan New England, yet in my opinion his work is richly rewarding to a Catholic reader. Far moreso, I would think, than to that of an atheist or practical atheist (as most people today are).
Because, you see, unlike many atheists, particularly those with artistic or scientific minds, Mr. Lovecraft had no illusions of what a godless universe actually meant.
Perhaps because he was an antiquarian by taste, loving the refined, the sophisticated, and the elegant while despising the merely commercial or practical, but he saw the consequences of the modern mindset. Not for him the comforting myth of progress, of a mankind rising from the dust and mud to ever-ascending glory. On the contrary, his work paints the picture of a blindly optimistic modern science foolishly pulling back the veil that ancient superstition had wisely placed over reality, defying taboos in the quest of knowledge only to discover that that knowledge does not elevate him, but rather destroys and degrades him.
A recurring theme is that the highest aspirations of mankind are rotted and torn down by encounter with the ‘real’ nature of the world. Such as Pickman’s painting of the ghouls roaring with laughter over the Boston guidebook’s naive assurance that the poets Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow are still peacefully buried in the churchyard. Or the narrator pausing to gaze back at shadow-haunted, but still beautiful Innsmouth and lamenting over what it has become.
In this, Lovecraft undermines the notion that atheism and the rejection of religion would lead to the elevation of mankind. For without that true north of the Absolute Good, ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ have no meaning. The mad, uncaring universe will devour and destroy them without a second thought.
It is a brand of atheism that, if taken seriously, would send any sensible man flying to his prayers and begging to be assured that there is a good God after all.
“You want a world without God?” Lovecraft says to his naively hopeful contemporaries. “Well, I think you’re right. But it doesn’t mean what you think it means. It isn’t triumph and unrestrained glory and progress; it is madness and idiocy and filth, but the worst part is that you no longer have any basis for calling it madness and idiocy and filth. All that is beautiful and sublime shall be destroyed, and you will not even be left with a reason to defend them.”
That is the curse of the Lovecraftian universe; to perceive goodness and beauty, but to know that your perception is an illusion and so can offer neither comfort nor security. Even the few flashes of positivity to be seen in his alien creations – such as the praise of the Elder Things in At the Mountains of Madness – must, by hypothesis, be a mirage. Yet to abandon that ‘illusion’ is itself unthinkable.
Indeed, for all his dislike of religion and rejection of it, the Lover of Crafts seems to have had a clear idea of its place in the world of art and human achievement. His books are steeped in the Puritan beauty of New England, which so often is undercut and destroyed by the monstrous revelations, and in his personal life he was enthralled by the beauty of Catholic Quebec City.
Interestingly enough, the Catholic side-characters who appear here and there in his stories – usually foreigners of unkempt appearance and low manners – tend to show themselves the wiser and more prudent than the sophisticated New Englanders. They know things, and know better than to pry into them. Once again, he turns the naive self-satisfaction of his contemporaries on its head; the enlightened scholars and gentlemen are, in fact, the blind ones, racing eagerly to their own destruction, while the greasy drunken Italians and French Canadians try to warn them off, clutching their Rosaries.
It is a strange combination, one that is not found often; Lovecraft rejected God, but he had no hopes for a world without Him.
In this, the Crafter of Love reveals himself to be something rather more significant (for the modern reader) than an atheist. It is less noteworthy that he rejects God than that he rejects the Enlightenment. He turns that self-satisfied, confident mindset whose tentacles are ubiquitous in our world on its head and mocks it for a naive delusion. Human progress offers no salvation. The traditions and half-forgotten myths of the past often hold more of real truth than the most advanced science. A Godless universe is not one of infinite possibility, but of infinite horror.
That is to say, though Mr. Lovecraft did not see the truth, he did see the lie, and that it was a lie. Clarity in that direction is often as valuable (and less common) today as clarity in the opposite.