How does Lovecraft speak to our relationship to the cosmos?

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is well known for the “weird fiction” he wrote in the early 20thcentury. He combined elements of gothic writing and newly emergent science fiction to create a unique mythos about humanity’s place in the cosmos. Like other influential writers, Lovecraft has left a legacy that informs how many people think about humanity’s place in the universe. To learn more about Lovecraft, we spoke to Sunand Tryambak Joshi, a literary critic whose career has largely focused on weird fiction, particularly Lovecraft’s work. Mr. Joshi shares his views on Lovecraft’s mythos, Lovecraft’s relevance, and Lovecraft’s impact on his career.

What are Lovecraft’s views on humanity’s place in the cosmos?

From the age of eleven – no later than 1902, when he first discovered the myriad realms of space from his early study of astronomy – Lovecraft evolved a belief that humanity (and, in fact, all life on earth) was of utter inconsequence to the universe at large. At that age, he confessed to an awareness of “man’s impermanence and insignificance.” Although he moderated this view somewhat in later years, he continued to believe that human beings were of no importance to the cosmos, even if we are obviously of importance to one another. This view had an important consequence: atheism. As early as 1917 he wrote, “A mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead.”

This view worked its way into the weird fiction he began writing in 1917. It eventually led to the notion of “cosmicism” – the depiction of the incalculable vastness of space and the resultant ephemerality (in both space and time) of the human race. The “gods” or “monsters” that Lovecraft postulated in his stories (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc.) were not actual gods but merely aliens from outer space. They were symbols of the inscrutability and immensity of the universe. The short novel At the Mountains of Madness(1931) is probably the most quintessential expression of Lovecraftian cosmicism, focusing on an alien species that settled Antarctica hundreds of millions of years ago. In this work, Lovecraft brought to bear his wide scientific knowledge of astronomy, paleontology, geology, biology, and other sciences. He created a chillingly convincing view of an alien race that actually created human beings “as a jest or mistake.”

In the 1920s, Lovecraft wrestled with some of the radical theories being advanced by astrophysicists such as Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg. As a layman he was not fully able to grasp some of their details, but these conceptions did lead him to adopt a modified materialistic outlook that still retained atheism and the absence of teleology. His view was roughly similar to that of Bertrand Russell, whose work Lovecraft read in the later 1920s. He did not lapse into credulous mysticism or believe that these new theories somehow made orthodox religion any less preposterous than it was before.

What is Lovecraft’s legacy, particularly in terms of engagement with space?

Lovecraft has become one of the most widely imitated writers in literary history, and his influence has extended from literary works to film, television, comic books, video games, and much else. In earlier decades, writers were content to mimic certain external elements of his fiction in producing crude pastiches that were in no way reflected the essence of Lovecraft’s work. Of late, though, a number of writers, filmmakers, and others have understood that cosmicism is at the heart of Lovecraft’s work and have sought to depict it in their productions. Lovecraft’s influence has, for instance, been detected in the work of Arthur C. Clarke, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that book, Clarke broaches the idea of alien entities guiding the intellectual evolution of humanity – a notion found in Lovecraft’s novella “The Shadow out of Time.” More recently, the film Underwater(2020) duplicates the chilling sense of human insignificance in an uncaring universe that is at the core of Lovecraft’s fiction.

And he has inspired astronomers as well. A “Cthulhu Macula” (formerly “Cthulhu Regio”) is now the name of a topographical feature of the dwarf planet Pluto. Lovecraft wrote “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930) at the very time that the discovery of Pluto was announced. His planet Yuggoth was meant to be the “real” name of Pluto. Lovecraft has also inspired philosophers such as Graham Harman, who proposed the philosophical theory of “weird realism” based on Lovecraft’s work.

How did you come to professionally focus on Lovecraft and how does this relate to your other work?

I discovered Lovecraft as a teenager, as so many others did. But right from the start, I found a fascination not only with his stories but with the man himself and his philosophical outlook. There wasn’t a great deal of information on these latter aspects, but I did read the first three volumes of his Selected Letters(1965–71) and saw that Lovecraft and I shared a number of attitudes, superficial or profound. (Thankfully, racism was not one of them. I saw this as a regrettable feature of his thought but one that did not materially affect his overall worldview.)

It was Lovecraft himself who directed me toward other writers and other subjects of inquiry. This included the entire history of weird fiction – from Poe to the Gothic novelists to Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and so many others. He also directed me to such topics as atheism, eighteenth-century literature and culture, the role of politics and economics in society, and the aesthetic status of literature and other arts.

To this day, I still find Lovecraft inspiring. He has helped me build several pillars of my own understanding of the world. His aesthetic sincerity, for instance, sees artistic creation as a quest for honest expression and scorns money as a motivating factor. His sees industrialism and technology as playing a role in corrupting our minds and society. He holds a forthright atheism and keenly analyzes the intellectual, cultural, and societal harm that religion causes. Many of the projects I have undertaken owe their origin to Lovecraft. These include a comprehensive biography of Lovecraft (drawing upon his immense body of revelatory letters, among other source material), my history of supernatural fiction (Unutterable Horror), and, more recently, a massive world history of atheism that I have begun. Even after nearly fifty years of reading him, I continue to find him bracing and stimulating.