Religion & Cosmic Horror in H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu
Having widely influenced and inspired a remarkable number of writers and artists such as contemporary horror writer Stephen King, author and artist Clive Barker, comic artist Alan Moore, film directors Dan O’Bannon, Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter, and Guillermo Del Toro, also surrealist artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud, cosmic horror is a concept which was developed and applied by one of the most influential horror writers of the twentieth century, H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft’s cosmic horror features supernatural entities referred to as the Old Ones, Elder Gods, Outer Ones, or simply gods, complete with their own vague motivations, religious groups, and apocalyptic expectations. It is actually quite easy to see that these stories are suffused with elements of and contemplations on mankind’s relationship with religion. Despite this, scholars of religious studies have paid relatively little attention to his oeuvre; with few exceptions when it comes to unpacking his connections to Western Esotericism.
One explanation of this is Lovecraft’s own position as an avowed atheist and his clear espousal of materialist philosophy, a form of philosophical monism that holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. Scholar of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff concurred that “Contrary to many of his admirers, Lovecraft was a radical materialist who saw all religions (including esotericism or occultism of any variety) as self-evident delusions. He does not ever seem to have been tempted to embrace any kind of religious or spiritual belief.” However, an examination of his biography—detailed further by his own writings—shows a deep resonance of religious thought, a persistent presence of a sense of awe that eventually transformed itself into dread.
Lovecraft’s “Cosmicism” in horror is the idea and philosophy that mankind is absolutely insignificant and irrelevant in the vast intergalactic cosmos arrangement; that life is genuinely inconceivable to the human mind, and the universe is fundamentally indifferent or hostile towards us. And that the smallest peek into this very truth and forbidden secrets of the universe can drive one over to misery, madness, and death.
Cosmic horror invokes within its readers an exaggerated sense of what psychologists refer to as Fear of the Unknown (FOTU), understood as an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by a perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing. In Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, FOTU is written to develop into an Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU); something that is aptly captured in the opening sentence to Lovecraft’s masterpiece “The Call of Cthulhu”.
“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”.
When “The Call of Cthulhu” was originally published in the February 1928 issue of the Weird Tales pulp magazine, its reception and criticism were diverse. Lovecraft, a usual merciless and harsh critic of his own writings, calls the story “rather middling—not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches”. However, these days it cannot be argued that the name Cthulhu immediately brings H.P. Lovecraft to mind.
The story is presented as a manuscript “found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston of Boston”. We follow Thurston as he recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his great-uncle, Professor George Gammell Angell, and his own investigations regarding those notes through various journals, jottings, newspaper cuttings and manuscripts.
In the first chapter of the story, “The Horror in Clay,” the protagonist is reviewing his uncle’s papers, when he discovers a curious box containing a bas-relief of an otherworldly looking creature described in the following manner:
If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.
The bas-relief seems to be of a mysterious, otherworldly, and unheard-of nature. The creature depicted on it resembles nothing known to mankind and the background of Cyclopean architecture—a masonry style with walls built of huge and unworked limestone boulders roughly fitted together—creates an air of alienation and externality about the whole affair.
Accompanying the bas relief are two manuscripts, the first one of which talks about Henry Anthony Wilcox who had called upon Professor Angell with the relief, asking for his help to decipher it, as the Professor was an authoritative figure in ancient inscriptions. It is then revealed that Wilcox is a delirious insomniac; he is plagued by nightmares that he believes are caused by the creature depicted in the relief. In one of his deliriums, Wilcox heard a voice speaking in an unknown tongue, of which he could only make out a phrase similar to “Cthulhu fhtagn.” Translated to “Cthulhu dreams” Lovecraft explains that this language of jumbled letters was an attempt to emphasize the non-human quality of Cthulhu, to show that these utterances were not made by human vocal organs.
Eventually, Wilcox goes back to normal and his feverish nightmares end as if the forces have finally left him alone. Yet, evidence suggests that during his episode of delirium, many other disturbances of the same nature had been observed all over the planet, worrying Professor Angell and the readers. This phenomenon emphasizes the encompassing power of the cosmic other depicted on the relief, and how it is seemingly omnipresent as if a God, powerful enough to spread itself all over the world.
Cthulhu’s appearance and the background on which he is depicted might just propel today’s readers to associate him with the “ancient aliens” school of thought popularized by Swiss UFO-logist Erich van Däniken, who insists that most religions and mythologies are predicated on ancient contact with extraterrestrials. However, such a theory succeeds Lovecraft, and he had built his story upon comparative Victorian religious studies.
Historiographer Daniel L. Pals shows the notion of survivals or “cultural leftovers” such as the bas-relief, as a crucial part of Victorian religious studies. Under this model of thought, one found in surviving superstitions the origins of a multitude of religious beliefs. Through this approach, Lovecraft is not denying the materialist assumptions of religion— he is also not harping on the extraterrestrial or biological nature of Cthulhu and the readers are left to imagine him as either supernatural or entirely natural, though in fact the ancient god seems to blend aspects of both, given his abilities of psychic projection and action from a distance.
In the second half of Professor Angell’s manuscript and the second chapter of the book, “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse,” readers are introduced to a string of previous events which made the Wilcox case significant and interesting for Professor Angell; this is the account of how the Professor had first come around to learn about “Cthulhu”.
It begins with a New Orleans police officer named John Raymond Legrasse, who had brought in a statuette composed of an unidentifiable greenish-black stone to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society in St. Louis, Missouri—where Professor Angell had been present. The police officer explains that it “had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans, during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting”.
The sculpture resembled the bas-relief in representing a “thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters”. This prose-poetic writing is deployed by Lovecraft to imply the existence of horror with deep, ancient, and supernatural roots.
On the other hand, in this second chapter, the readers are also presented with malevolent dark-skinned cultists who not only possess knowledge of Cthulhu, but also worship this being. Lovecraft explicitly refers to these characters as parts of “cults” and “religions,” engaged in “worship,” and also describes them as practicing a form of the Haitian Afro-Caribbean religion Voodoo.
Lovecraft brands these sinister characters with explicitly religious terminology such as idol, fetish, cult, ceremony, worship, and god, albeit language that he associates with “primitive” religion. Lovecraft describes one of the main groups of Cthulhu cultists, a mixed-race gathering in the swamps of Louisiana as comprising of “mongrel celebrants” unambiguously engaged in a form of millennial religious belief and action, hoping to instigate a form of apocalyptic chaos that Wessinger identifies as catastrophic millennialism.
Millennialism is a belief that Catherine Wessinger characterizes as “the audacious human hope that in the imminent future there will be a transition—either catastrophic or progressive—to a ‘collective salvation.’” In this regard, Lovecraft embodies a peculiar form of millennialism, the catastrophic “anti-millennialism,” which entails the reversal of its traditional forms. For Lovecraft, there is no hope in collective salvation, and the imminent future would only bring a transition to something far worse. From his perspective, and especially in light of his political views during the interwar period, the world faced a future of disunity, social collapse, war, decline, and even destruction.
It is this anti-millennialist approach that Lovecraft incorporated into his fiction of religious groups and individuals obsessed with bringing about the end of the world—combining it with his overwhelming sense of the immanence of something greater in the world, yielding what he called “cosmic dread.”
To explain this phenomenon further, author and Lovecraft commentator Alan Moore explains that, “Lovecraft came of age in an America yet to cohere as a society, much less as an emergent global superpower, and still beset by a wide plethora of terrors and anxieties”. Moore points to Lovecraft’s concerns about massive waves of immigration (particularly of non-Anglo-Saxons), opening sexual mores, women’s suffrage, the rise of socialism, and new discoveries in science. All this led to cultural transitions that Lovecraft himself abhorred and envisioned as indicative of the end of American civilization. “It is possible to perceive Howard Lovecraft as an almost unbearable sensitive barometer of American dread,” states Moore.
It can therefore be summarised that Lovecraft’s racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and more are parts of an overall anti-millennialist position that looked to the inevitable decline of human civilization, a decline that will go unnoticed and unheralded by an indifferent universe, all due to cultural change, politics, global affairs, and his own life experiences all combined. In keeping with his constant feeling of immanence or awareness of something greater than himself, his fiction linked this cynical millennial outlook with explicitly supernatural agents imposing themselves into our reality.
Where millennialists generally envision a “imminent, violent destruction of the world as we know it,” they also “envisage that God will then act, with or without human assistance, to accomplish a total renovation of the world,” as Eugene V. Gallagher explains, building in on Wessinger’s approach. Cthulhu cultists see that the “total renovation” represents not a heaven on earth, as one finds in typical Christian catastrophic millennialism and other similar real-life forms of millennialism, but quite literally a hell on earth. Crucially, the cultists believe that this “salvation” will enable them to engage in a sort of ultimate immoral depravity, which effectively represents their soteriological ambition.
Also in this chapter, Lovecraft’s character Old Castro, an informant and one of the only sane members of the cult explains,
That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb and revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile, the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.
Within the text, we see how Castro offers a catastrophic millennial vision of a holocaust of flame and an orgy of violence. The in-story cult existed so as to keep the hopes for this apocalypse alive and work towards its enactment. Yet Lovecraft managed to also reflect on his own anti-millennial sympathies, his nihilistic beliefs that the world was falling into irredeemable disrepair and collapse.
Setting “The Call of Cthulhu” in what was his present moment (the fictitious events described occurred in 1927, the year it was written), Lovecraft implied that the time of humankind acting “free and wild and beyond good and evil” had arrived, at least from the perspective of the characters within the story, but also his own. Unlike the cultists of “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft harbored no hope in any teleological end, neither envisioning actual Old Ones teaching new forms of depravity to their worshippers, nor human beings somehow averting the dawning apocalypse. He simply expected a continuation of “all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy,” as his character describes, until humanity destroyed itself.
In the last chapter of the story, “Madness from the Sea,” the narrator finally acquires a first-hand account of an encounter with the cosmic other, Cthulhu. After some investigations in Australia and Norway, Thurston attains a manuscript written by a Norwegian sailor before his death which reveals the true events of a horrendous sea voyage he and his crew experienced while sailing in the Pacific. This is a literary device which Lovecraft deploys to reach a climax in cosmic horror, by giving a true account of the occurrences after a steady atmospheric build up.
According to the sailor’s manuscript, they had reached an uncharted island described as “a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror — the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh” where Cthulhu has been said to be waiting, while dead and dreaming, for the stars to be right to rise again. When the sailors manage to open a monstrously carven portal, they are confronted by a new horror:
It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway… The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillations of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
Here, Cthulhu is described as “a mountain [who] walked or stumbled…”. The sailor was the only survivor who while fleeing, realized that Cthulhu had entered the water, so he rammed his vessel into the creature’s head only to witness it immediately reforming. After he finishes reading the manuscript, Thurston realizes that he is now a target, thinking “I know too much, and the cult still lives”.
This first-hand account leaves the final decision about what is the truth of the thing to the reader. This is how Lovecraft achieves the effects he is seeking to create; producing cosmic horror through suggestion and uncertainty.
In reviewing Cthulhu’s gait, size, and nature, Lovecraft’s writings have but one aim: to bring the readers to a state of fascination. The only human sentiments he is interested in are wonderment and fear. He constructs his universe upon these and these alone. It is clearly a limitation, but a conscious, deliberate one. Authentic creativity cannot exist without a certain degree of self-imposed blindness.
In the end, the Thurston notes that Cthulhu and his cultists were unsuccessful only in their most recent millennial attempt; but that the cults remain, and that Cthulhu waits, sleeping under the sea, and ready to instigate the end of the world. “Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spread over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think!”.
Fears of religious declension harken back to the Puritan era, but Lovecraft uses religious, social, and physical decay as evidence of a slide towards a violent and destructive end of the world. For many millennialists, such declension is only an advent of the end of the millennium. Christian Dispensationalists—a millennial perspective often found among Evangelicals—look to social and religious decline before the rapture and the unfolding of the millennial timetable. Some millennial-oriented Jews in both medieval and modern times have looked to religious decline as preceding the coming of the messiah. Buddhist millennialists envision the decline of the dharma before the advent of the Buddha-to-come, Maitreya. Lovecraft’s fiction embodies the same millennial focus on declension, yet rather than holding out hope in the arrival of Christ, a Davidic King, or Maitreya, his characters come to realize that inevitably the Old Ones will return and wreak havoc if not complete destruction on the Earth. Cthulhu is clearly not Jesus, Yog-Sothoth is also not the messiah, but they serve the same functional role in the millennial story. Such deities represent the end of the world in its current form and phase and the advent of a new age.
Lovecraft was a materialist and a cynic, and no one can claim that he actually believed in the reality of the Old Ones, yet his fiction encapsulates the sort of intensive awareness of something greater than himself that people still resonate with today in the form of faiths and religions. Authors like H.P. Lovecraft who seem to foresee what the world is today are not prophets, they were merely writing what it is that they were experiencing at their time, greatly exaggerating it for impact, that today we can still observe them and understand their relevance.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, his values as a conservative nativist who envisioned immigration, racial diversity, and cultural change as indicative of the end of Anglo-American civilization, where miscegenation, social collapse, and dark-skinned others represent the advent of the end of the world, resound profoundly with the horrors perpetuated by certain peoples who share his beliefs in today’s global economic socio-political climate. Putting this into the context with religious millennialism, Lovecraft has harnessed the power of religious concepts and language to project a nihilist-materialist worldview through his fiction. He took the sense of wonder that religion promises in its ultimate goal and twists it in a terrifying belittling manner where not even the smallest flicker of hope could live, tapping into some of our most private fears and securing himself as one of the most influential writers of his time.
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