Cults of an Unwitting Oracle: The (Unintended) Religious Legacy of H. P. Lovecraft
A horror writer, self-proclaimed atheist, and "mechanical materialist" who spent most of his life ridiculing religion, H.P. Lovecraft invented one of the most absurd and terrifying pseudomythologies in the history of modern literature. So, how is it that some of his audience came to take his cosmology seriously?
Legacies are a bit like children. We wish them well, but have very little control over them. And although we are most of the time happy to even have one, a few wind up becoming an embarrassment. Take, for example, the strange case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), who, if he were still alive, would be celebrating his 120th birthday on August 20, 2010. Of the various legacies to which H.P. Lovecraft lays claim, one turned out to be a set of fascinating individuals and subcultures that find religious inspiration in this most creative, though irreligious parent.
In later works, Lovecraft makes his gods into aliens who arrived on earth millions of years ago. These beings see us as little more than a nuisance, and those of us who have even the faintest understanding of the power of these creatures -- one of which, Cthulhu, is waiting until the "stars are right" to call these aliens back and take over the world -- worship them as gods mainly because, as Lovecraft would have it, that is how foolish humanity has always approached what they don't understand: prostrated reverence. A recent book by famed Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi collecting the author's writings on religion, aptly titled Against Religion: The Atheist Writings of H. P. Lovecraft, with a Foreword by the incomparable Christopher Hitchens (New York, NY: Sporting Gentlemen, 2010), further punctuates Lovecraft's anti-religious views. Although Lovecraft's literary legacy can bee seen far and wide, with some critics hailing him as second only to Poe in his influence on the genre, a strange fascination by those seeking something "spiritual" in his work was evident from the very beginning.
In his lifetime, some people were already finding religious inspiration from Lovecraft's literary work. He wrote in a 1933 letter that the author William Lumley believed that Lovecraft and his literary pals who used his pseudomythology were "genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension." Lovecraft recognized the dilemma that he had become an unwitting oracle with some humor: "Bill tells me that he has fully identified my Cthulhu & Nyarlathotep … so that he can tell me more about 'em than I know myself." The irony was not lost on Lovecraft. In fact, it confirmed his views that people fall for some of the most absurd religious beliefs: even from his own pen! Nevertheless, this was a portentous moment. Lovecraft's religious seed had been spilled.
Since William Lumley, the people finding a religious message in Lovecraft have slowly proliferated. It is a very dark, though ironically appealing message for many. The beginnings of the occult fascination with Lovecraft may be attributable to the number of forged Necronomicons, purporting to be the actual book that Lovecraft mentions in his fiction, that were forged as early as the 1940s and sold to unsuspecting seekers. The Simon Necronomicon (1977) is but the most popular of many predecessors. But it was not until the 1970s that Lovecraft's fate as an unbeknownst prophet, one who made contributions to a recognized religion, was solidified by the notorious, but often misunderstood Anton LaVey's Church of Satan.
Cthulhu and the others of Lovecraft's imagination, like Satan, are more abstractions than real beings. It is the ritual power of fantasy that is most important for LaVey, whether that fantasy comes from the pen of Lovecraft or ancient Jews and Christians. LaVey's Satanism is not a theistic system. The Devil is in many ways a symbol of rebellion for mainstream members of the Church of Satan. Lovecraft was an "advocate of Satanic amorality" even though he did not know it, according to The Satanic Rituals. Lovecraft's atheistic worldview may not have fit well with the hedonistic sensibilities of LaVey's brand of Satanism, but this use of Lovecraft in a non-theistic way was the exception rather than the rule. There are many Lovecraft-inspired religions that take the reality of his mythos for granted.
The enigmatic Chaos Magician Frater Tenebrous, active since the late '80s, wrote Cults of Cthulhu, which is a manual of magick that invokes Lovecraftian deities to do the magician's bidding. For Tenebrous, William Lumley was right, regardless of Lovecraft's ridicule. As Tenebrous writes in the introduction, "Although he outwardly espoused a wholly rational and sceptical (sic) view of the universe, his dream-world experiences allowed him glimpses of places and entities beyond the world of mundane reality, and behind his stilted and often excessive prose there lies a vision and an understanding of occult forces which is directly relevant to the Magical Tradition." Cults of Cthulhu interprets the Lovecraftian pantheon allegorically to show how the gods represent certain powers of the universe that can be controlled. Another Chaos Magician, Phil Hine, who may be known as much for the many typos in his works as his magickal wisdom, recently proposed a sort of literal reading of Lovecraft's works. For example, Dunwich Horror for Hine can be mined for religious rituals since it "clearly illustrates that hilltop rites, associated with stone circles and strange geophysical phenomena, are a key when approaching entities such as Yog-Sothoth."
How can we make sense of all this?
Lovecraft considered his own philosophy to be based on a "cosmic indifferentism" in which there are no gods here to help us. Morality is socially constructed. His scientific worldview led him to believe that the universe simply goes along without concern for us. His alien creatures represent this view. For Lovecraft, they were not to be taken literally. So how is it that some people are drawn to his message of alien gods in a literal sense?
To understand this, we need to start with Lovecraft's writing itself. In his greatest works -- those considered to be the basis for the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, such as "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Whisperer in Darkness", and At the Mountains of Madness, to name a few -- Lovecraft weaves real people, places, and events in with his own fiction so seamlessly that it is often difficult to distinguish real from Lovecraft's imagination. At the Mountains of Madness is filled with so much technical jargon drawn from 1930s geography, paleontology, and biology that one needs an encyclopedia to follow the story and a map of Antarctica to follow the precise latitude and longitude specifics included in Lovecraft's dense first few chapters. So when "secrets" of the Old Ones and Shoggoths become unveiled later on in the story, the reader has already been drawn into the realism of the story and expected to trust the "discoveries" of the researchers. This realism is what draws many into the imaginary Lovecraftian cosmology. (I remember assigning "The Call of Cthulhu" in a college general education course and a few students asked me if it was based on a true story!)
Also important, the flowering of the Cthulhu Mythos did not end with Lovecraft's death. Lovecraft's gods are not held in copyright and are freely incorporated into literature, film, and music. Many of his contemporaries, friends, and correspondents used Lovecraft's invented mythology in their writings, expanded the universe, and even influenced Lovecraft himself to expand what he created. Perhaps the most important transmitter of the Cthulhu Mythos was August Derleth (1909-1971), who tirelessly preserved Lovecraft's fiction and other writings, published them through his own publishing house named after Lovecraft's fictional city, Arkham, and used Lovecraft's gods and invented his own in his own writings. He, more than anyone, popularized the Cthulhu Mythos and was responsible for Lovecraft's posthumous rise as a significant writer in the American literary pantheon. However, Derleth transformed the Mythos into something quite un-Lovecraftian. No more were the gods of the Cthulhu Mythos amoral aliens. For Derleth, they were players in a quasi-Christian demonology in which good Elder Gods battled evil Old Ones. This dualism certainly would appeal to theistic Satanists, such as Dishaw, or chaos magicians, such as Frater Tenebrous, since Cthulhu represents the dark forces preached about in church sermons throughout American history. Drawing on imagery of evil has been a hallmark of many occult groups.
Secondly, and related to this, Lovecraft's mythos, in stark contrast to its creator's own ethnocentric views and overall xenophobia, is a perfect mythology in a multicultural world. Lovecraft's gods are not bound to any ethnicity, as are the gods of Greece, Rome, Israel, Arabia, Northern Europe, the Americas, Africa, etc. Although they were invented by a New Englander, they are by definition cosmic and out of this world. They are extra-terrestrial, extra-dimensional, and post-race. Like other alien gods, Lovecraft's gods are of a cosmic ethnicity that makes our continued squabbling about race and ethnicity on this planet seem infinitely petty.
Perhaps religions inspired by H. P. Lovecraft should not be so surprising after all. Written works inspiring religions seems to be the norm in the Western world. Look no further than religions based on books such as the Bible, Qur'an, and the Book of Mormon. Even modern literary works have spawned religious communities and spiritualities. In science fiction, Robert Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) spawned the Church of All Worlds, and of course the Church of Scientology was based on the stories of L. Ron Hubbard. The Church of the Jedi, based on George Lucas's Star Wars film franchise, is the fourth largest religious institution in Britain! In fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Marion Bradley's The Mist of Avalon, Brian Bates's The Way of Wyrd, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld have become deep spiritual reservoirs for many in the modern pagan communities. Perhaps we will see Lovecraftian religions become as popular as these others. Had Lovecraft lived to see the proliferation of religions based on his fictional creation, he may well have laughed at the irony and perhaps made them characters in one of his weird tales.