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The Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American horror writer. He is celebrated today as an influential figure in “horror fiction,” and had a considerable effect on, for example, Stephen King. His work is often summarized as being about the “Cthulhu Mythos,” or as exemplifying “cosmic horror.” All of these labels are a true as they go, but I wanted to try to get a feel for this writing of this famous author by tackling a good portion of his works directly. I bought a cheap kindle edition of his collected works off of Amazon and just read some of the beginning stories, some of which are certainly among his most famous works. I read:

  • The Nameless City
  • The Festival
  • The Colour Out of Space
  • The Call of Cthulhu
  • The Dunwich Horror
  • The Whisperer in Darkness
  • The Dreams in the Witch House
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • The Shadow Out of Time
  • At the Mountains of Madness

Before starting, it was the last that I heard the most about and I am in the middle of it as I write this. Before giving my thoughts on Lovecraft, I want to note that he has backward and offensive views about race. He adopts the cheap and demeaning habit of using the blackness of a person’s skin color as a reflection of their character or moral purity. Thus, cultists are often black, servants of dark gods are often black, and there are also offhand references to the savagery of black people. These references, as I said, are unethical and should be seen as such. They are also a demonstration of how naively even a somewhat skilled writer can reach for cultural stereotypes and prejudices to write fiction.

If we ignore these references, and I am aware that there may be no such thing as safely racially “quarantining” the analysis of fiction in this way, I think we see a fairly developed world and style. I am not really aware of the intricacies of the Cthulhu mythos in that I am not sure which books are “canon” for this mythos and I did not pay careful attention to the different monikers given to various creatures and dark gods that would allow someone to find continuity among them and to differentiate their personalities.

*spoilers follow*

However, there is certainly a feel to Lovecraftian stories. Indeed, I had to go back and read summaries of the stories to remember them and differentiate them from each other since they are all kind of the same in the feeling the evoke. This is not a knock on Lovecraft. They don’t all slavishly recreate that feeling, but they all kind of riff on the same themes. Others have tried to encapsulate these themes, but the feeling is not far from the feeling that one gets when one considers an octopuses’ tentacle on one’s skin — a kind of revulsion at the sheer alienness of the thing. A brute kind of disgust. If one were to go beyond feelings, then one might characterize his stories as about the unknown, its vastness and scale, and the fragility of the human mind in the face of space, time, and denizens that traverse these dimensions as we would traverse our living room. Also there is the idea of a kind of creeping corruption. Many of the “evil” creatures in the stories do not really seem to harbor malice (like villains in movies who have an evil plan to gain something or to do harm, get revenge, etc.) as much as to be so other and indifferent to human life that their very existence and propagation is a threat to our kind of life or a threat to our way of seeing the world, hence the persistent reference to madness in these stories. It is successful and some of the better stories did not make me afraid, as much as uncomfortable, agitated, infected, disgusted, and revolted and yet with a desire to read on. This is interesting as a literary fact since many of the protagonists of the stories are seekers of knowledge who “go on” exploring a ruins, a city, an object, or a sound, well beyond what most ordinary people would do (or would they — are there relentless seekers in all of us, in the human condition?).

So let’s go deeper.  How does the label “Lovecraftian” play out in the originator of that term? Well there is almost always a reference to places like Arkham, Miskatonic University, various New England towns, and the protagonists is almost always recounting his stories as the narrator in the first person, looking back on what happened. There is an element of scientific community in most stories as the person is trying to convince people that certain incredible things DID happen even though they seem impossible. Seeking knowledge is a theme. Oftentimes, the protagonist is a scholar of some sort, and they cannot help but pursuing something that they should not. This is interesting because today we often think knowledge is good, or that it is “power,” but not for Lovecraft. He sees knowledge as frightening, terrifying, and maddening. Sometimes, the knowledge is something obviously evil — as when the protagonist in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” finds out that a race of corrupted ocean-dwelling creatures has slowly been interbreeding with humans in an effort to…we don’t know what…dominate the human race? Invade? (No, the story claims that the race prefers not to fight openly with humans if possible) It seems that this race is merely existing and is horrible, disgusting, and corrupting, making humans into slaves and subservient worshippers of them. They just are and that is enough to make them evil given that they are so different from us.

Many stories do not go in the direction that one expects. The “Shadow Over Innsmouth” is the most plot based in that things actually happen that we recognize as “action” or as something driving a series of events forward. The main character visits Innsmouth, a cursed town that others have warned him against. He’s a scholar and wants to see architecture, but he soon sees and hears some very disturbing things about the city. He “uncovers,” as scholars are supposed to do, and in the process, finds things that cause madness — that one would rather not see. Indeed, many characters explicitly tell the reader that they would rather have not discovered what they do discover.  In any case, the main character is forced to stay in the town overnight, but becomes subject of an attack by the local cultists and sea-creatures. He escapes, and since the story begins with his statement that he brought the authorities to the town to investigate further and possibly destroy/capture the ocean monsters, it seems that the story would go in that direction. Instead, there is, a little out of nowhere, a subplot or revelation that the main character is RELATED to the race of sea creatures and is one of them himself. This is a persistent theme — that one has become unknown or other, and the realization of one’s origin or corruption is maddening and unbearable. In “the Shadow Out of Time” the main character is also horrified when he finds out that he “was” one of the cone-shaped “Great Ones” during his amnesia.

My main problem in approaching the stories was, without doing any prior reading, to try and decide if the stories were art, or were pulpy, kind of comic-booky material. Like, what level or kind of literary talent and achievement are we dealing with? Ultimately, I decided that there is something here. What I mean is that there is some genuinely good writing and good-storytelling combined with an exploration of themes in a provocative way. In a word, this is art. Maybe not Proust, Shakespeare, or Faulkner, but some kind of art. Some kind of engagement with timeless and powerful themes in an, artful way.

I tried to highlight some passages I thought represented compelling writing, but I was not very dilligent in this task. Nonetheless, I came up with some examples.

  • Indubitably there was a sort of heavy dragging, and a most detestably sticky noise as of some fiendish and unclean species of suction. The Colour Out of Space
  • …curvilinear hieroglyphs on the walls would blast my soul with their message were I not guarded by merciful ignorance The Shadow Out of Time
  • One detail that annoyed me was the distribution of the few faint sounds I heard. They ought naturally to have come wholly form the visibly inhabited houses, yet in reality were often strongest inside the most rigidly boarded-up facades. Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • I did not undress, but decided to read till I was sleepy and then lie down with only my coat, collar, and shoes off. Taking a pocket flashlight from my valise, I placed it in my trousers, so that I could read my watch if I woke up later in the dark. Drowsiness, however, did not come; and when I stopped to analyse my thoughts I found to my disquiet that I was really unconsciously listening for something — listening for something which I dreaded but could not name. That inspector’s story must have worked on my imagination more deeply than I had suspected. Again I tried to read, but found that I made no progress. After a time I seemed to hear the stairs and corridors creak at intervals as if with footsteps, and wondered if the other rooms were beginning to fill up. There were no voices, however, and it struck me that there was something subtly furtive about the creaking. I did not like it, and debated whether I had better try to sleep at all. This town had some queer people, and there had undoubtedly been several disappearances. Was this one of those inns where travellers were slain for their money? Surely I had no look of excessive prosperity. Or were the townsfolk really so resentful about curious visitors? Had my obvious sightseeing, with its frequent map-consultations, aroused unfavourable notice? It occurred to me that I must be in a highly nervous state to let a few random creakings set me off speculating gin this fashion — but I regretted none the less that I was unarmed. Shadow Over Innsmouth

So, all told, what was the best and worst of these stories? I think the Call of Cthulhu is very paradigmatic of Lovecraftian style, but not the most enjoyable from my perspective. I think the Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of the very best that I read, especially the set up but not necessarily the ending. The Shadow Out of Time was also very, very good. Again, it’s ending is a little bit of a let down, but that is Lovecraftian style. Stories kind of just peter out into madness, with no real resolution. That’s their nature. I think as a complete story, including the ending, the best story was the Whisperer in Darkness, but it does go on  for a while setting things up. The ending is sinister though, and that is a word that I have not used yet but that I should — sinister.


European History Pt. 50 — The Conservative International System

Last time I looked at the aftermath of Vienna. Basically, agitation began immediately. Napoleon had tried to impose a revolutionary changes to government from above, but now there were movements from below to reform and change the way that power was distributed. For example, last time we saw that England, which had been EXEMPTED from Napoleon’s rule, was not especially due for changes, and the working class along with even certain business leaders wanted to reform the voting system and corn laws.

Now I want to look at the way in which the signatories to Vienna worked largely cooperatively to manage a series of revolutionary attempts throughout Europe.

Aix-la-Chapelle 1918

At this conference, the victorious powers over Napoleon agreed to withdraw their occupying troops from France. They wanted the new Bourbon monarch, XVIII to stand on his own. France’s reparation debt was privatized. The allies were paid immediately and France paid back the private bankers over time.

Alexander proposed a kind of league of nations whereby a standing international force would act to guarantee the international order (read: status quo). The British, like the U.S. today, refused to commit themselves to unforeseen situations. They promised only to make alliances for specific scenarios (like a resurgent France).

Troppau 1820

At the congress of Troppau, the main issue was the agitation in souther Europe, such as in Italy (Naples) and Spain. At first, these countries accepted Napoleonic rule as progressive, but then they went their own way and created new constitutions that were then forced on the Bourbon rulers that were installed after the war. The funny thing was that the regimes in Spain and Naples were so decrepit and corrupt that the “revolutionaries” were nothing more than average, probably somewhat prosperous, citizens.

Metternich, ever on the watch against change, was scared. He thought the rest of Europe should be quarantined from the revolutions. He called the congress of Troppau, to which Britain and France only sent observers. There, at Troppau, something extraordinary happened. Metternich met privately with Alexander at an inn and had tea. Metternich convinced Alexander to change his entire political philosophy. After this meeting, Alexander admitted that the was wrong about constitutionalism and popular sovereignty and that he would join Metternich’s crusade for stability and against political agitation.

The “Troppau Protocol” was drawn up which declared the need for European great powers to band together against revolution. Neither France nor Great Britain signed, but Neapolitans were put to the sword anyway and Ferdinand I was restored as “absolute” king. The book says it well, “…the Congress of Troppau, ostensibly a Europewide international body, had in effect functioned as an antirevolutionary alliance of Austria, Russia, and Prussia.” Yes.

Congress of Verona 1922

In 1821, a Greek man named Alexander Ypsilanti, a former Russian soldier, initiated a series of revolutionary acts in order to separate a Greek part of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire. He thought he would receive help from Russia since a Grecophile conversion of the Ottoman empire had been a long time Russian project. Metternich was scared of what a pro Russia Greece (and more) would mean.

Alexander, who going by pure self interest should have supported Ypsilanti, joined Metternich in quashing the uprising. 

Also very interesting was that France, growing weary of spies and revolutionaries on its western border, asked permission to lead an army into Spain. Of course, those at the congress eagerly agreed. Spain was reconquered and the French army was greeted with cheering crowds. This was a sad development because Spanish liberals could only watch as the general populace supported a completely counterrevolutionary, foreign army reinstall the king and crush “heretics” and “masons.” Spain’s essential conservatism was utterly confirmed.


European History pt. 49 — Mid Century Agitation

Last time I started on a short chapter that tried to do a kind of potted intellectual history of the early 19th century. I found it kind of tedious, so I’m basically skipping it. Most of it was about nationalism and how various movements formed secret societies with national identities as well as reviving peasant languages of one type or another (in Russia particularly).

Eastern Question

If you remember, Metternich managed to solve the eastern, Polish question by getting Russia to accept a congressional Poland. As soon as the ink was dry on this proposal though, agitation begun. Poland wanted to be re-unified and did not want Russian control. They longed to be connected with Prussian Poland and Austria Hungary Poland.

Germany Proper

Metternich was watching Germany closely, and he didn’t like what he saw. He saw the creation of Burchenschafts, youth clubs that were in favor of a peasant (read, democratic) Germany. A German writer who was an informant for Russia was assassinated. The assassin was sent gushing letters of gratitude. Metternich could not stand for these agitations and so called various leaders together at Carlsbad. There they issued the Carlsbad decrees which renewed repression in parts of Germany and Austria Hungary. Some German leaders retracted constitutions that they had granted.


In England, parliament passed the corn laws to raise the revenue for landowners. This made grain much more expensive and the lower classes rebelled. There were some uprisings and some peaceful protests, some organized by the powerful new factory class. Most people at the time joined in the call for annual elections of parliament by universal male suffrage along with the repeal of the corn laws. At one such peaceful demonstration, British soldiers fired on the crowd in what was termed the “Peterloo” massacre (1819). It was also at this time that a conspiracy to assassinate all the members of the cabinet was hatched. They were caught on Cato street, hence “cato street conspiracy”


European History Pt. 48 — Beginning of the “isms”

Last time I looked at the industrial revolution. After 1830, Britain was the factory for all of Europe. Up  until 1901, the share of GDP grew enormously in trade, transport, and manufacture. It was not until 1870 that Britain even faced any competition from other countries in the area of manufacturing.

This time I want to look at the social changes that accompanied the first half of the 19th century.


It was around the beginning of the 19th century that various political and social doctrine began to to flourish. “Liberalism” first appeared in 1819, “socialism” in 1832, “feminism,” “humanitarianism” and “communism” date from the 1840s. This was indicative of a philosophical revolution that was trying to catch up with the massive changes that took place in the industrial and french revolutions. These concepts were not new. People talked about living together before “socialism” was coined, but the systematization of these doctrines along with their explicit recognition was a powerful change in the intellectual landscape.


The book talks briefly about romanticism around this time. People like Wordsworth and Lord Byron in England and Victor Hugo in France epitomized an artistic movement that reveled in the unknown and the unknowable in addition to rejecting classical forms and systems. Architecture underwent a gothic revival. For instance, the British parliament building that still stands is influenced by gothic architecture.

Feminism, Radicalism, Nationalism

At this point, the book goes through several “isms” in turn, in kind of a disorganized way. I don’t want to just recite them, but these isms were particular important.

Radicalism primarily came about in Britain as the heirs of people like Thomas Paine. The problem with earlier radicals is that the wars with France discredited such positions. People were nationalistic and banded together to war against France. Anyone who stood in the way o that was not listened to.  However, the radicals came back at this time and advocated for democracy (which not all liberals at the time were in favor). Around this were the beginnings of UTOPIAN movements, like Robert Owen (ideal paternalistic capitalism) and Charles Fourier (localism) and Count De St. Simone (socialism, but they called their doctrine, St. Simoneanism). In France, radicalism came from those who thought the French revolution was not complete.

Feminism gained at this time. The feminism on offer was primarily egalitarian feminism, which was influenced by liberalism and argued that men and women were morally equal and so deserving of the same rights. Harriet Taylor was a force for these ideas and she worked with John Stuart Mill over many years developing a defense of feminist principles and applications. Feminism, understood as a quest for voting rights, proceeded more quickly in the U.S. and Britain.

Next time Ill pick up by looking at nationalism.


European History Pt. 47 — Industrial Revolution

Finally, we’re past the French Revolution, having closed out the Napoleonic era by looking at the Congress of Vienna, which would provide the basis for roughly 100 years without a major great power conflict.

Now we’re going to switch gears and look at the economic revolution that was taking place in this same period, the industrial revolution. The book I’m reading notes that even though both the economic revolution in the industrial revolution and the political changes in the French revolution was surprisingly separate. Of course, there are interrelationships between the two — probably a huge number, the book merely makes the astute point that one did not entail the other because though England was not swept in the revolutionary fervor on the continent, it was the leader of the economic revolution that took place from roughly 1780-1830.

Industrial Revolution

The book starts by talking about how the industrial revolution marks one of the great epochs in human history, the first being started by agriculture. This bold statement is confirmed by reading of another book on population dynamics over human history. Up until the industrial revolution, power was mainly provided by humans and their domesticated animals, with some occasional help from wind and water. But the industrial revolution unleashed a different ORDER of power with steam, coal, oil, and then nuclear power. These massive increased in energy was accompanied by a lasting and large increase in world population.

The industrial revolution was caused mainly by an agricultural system that had been growing more and more sophisticated in the century following the glorious revolution (1688) and relied on a particular British conception of property and risk taking. Throughout this time, England was ruled by the “Gentleman of England” or the “squirearchy.” The advances in agriculture made food more plentiful, living more comfortable, and freed up labor for other tasks.

Where did this “other labor” go? It went largely to the production of cotton in a complicated dance of social and technological innovation lasting decades. In 1733, John Kay invented the fly shuttle cutting weaving labor in half. This increased the demand for yarn. In the 1760s, the spinning jenny was set up to respond to that demand. In 1769 and 1780s, Richard Arkwright patented the water frame, which could spin multiple threads, and his machine became steam powered in times. In the U.S. the demand for raw cotton stimulated the plantation system (damn) which increased outputs with technology like the cotton gin.

The steam engine was being refined at this same time. At first it was not efficient enough to be used outside of coal mines themselves (where their fuel was right there) — the engines pumped water out of the mines at first. Then they were refined, and by 1780, the firm of Watt and Boulton was a profitable steam-engine manufacturing business. 

By the 1830s, one phase of the industrial revolution was complete, that of textile automation. Next would come the railroad phase. The first locomotive was built in 1829.

Social Consequences

The industrialization of Britain brought women from the “putting out” system into factories. Children were employed. Skilled laborers were displaced by machines. Urban life began in tenements and factory cities, especially in new cities in the middle of England like Manchester.

Wages were high by the standards of the time, but sometimes unpredictable due to business cycles. Days were 14 hours long, which sounds brutal — and it was — but it must also be kept in mind that those who worked on a farm at this time easily worked such hours in the care of their land. Of course, one might wonder how those 14 hours FELT in a factory versus on one’s own plot of land.


European History Pt. 46 — Congress of Vienna

We saw how the European powers finally banded together to end Napoleon’s reign. Afterwards, a workable peace had to be built by the powers of Europe in one of the most important diplomatic conferences in history.

France — Talleyrand

Prussia — Hardenberg

Austria — Clemens von Metternich

England — Castlereagh

Russia — Alexander

Of course, a big part of the negotiations was how to contain France. States around France in all directions were strengthened. Princes were propped up if need be. Prussia was created as a buffer state between Russia and France; it was given more land to accomplish this.

The first sticking point was the Polish Saxon question. It was quite simple really. Russia wanted to control Poland (which had been partitioned into nothingness), and Prussia sought to have Saxony, a land in between Germany and France. Metternich was horrified by this prospect because it would mean a strengthened Prussia. Castlereagh hated the proposal because he thought Russia was the main strength to be feared in Europe, and he wanted to contain it.

France jumped at the prospect to become relevant to the congress proceedings, and here was there chance as the fifth and tiebreaking great power. Talleyrand agreed, with Britain and Austria, to go to war against Prussia and Russia in a triple alliance. News of the alliance leaked, and Alexander backed down, content to control an short-lived entity known as “congress Poland.” Prussia had to back down.

At this point, all the negotiations were thrown into doubt when Napoleon escaped from Elba in March 1815. He returned to Paris where old guard revolutionaries flocked to him. He promised to dismantle the congress of Vienna. During his “100 days” he raised the spectre of resurgent revolution, empire, and war.

Again, the four powers dusted off their muskets and bayonets. They beat Napoleon at Waterloo and wrote a new, harsher treaty with France, saddling them with war indemnities and promising amongst themselves that a bonaparte would never rule France. Napoleon was sent to St. Helena.

Closing Remarks On the Napoleonic Era

I thought it would never happen, but we are now largely done with the French Revolution and its Napoleonic capstone. The book notes in closing that the French Revolution provided a model for independence struggles elsewhere.

The book rightly places the Congress of Vienna a critical pivot point in European history. Its upsides: it dealt with France without creating too much anger on their part (compare this to the Peace of Paris at the end of WWI) and it smoothed the Polish-Saxon question for 50 years. It also created, in a sense, peace. There was no major conflict in Europe for the roughly 100 years leading up to WWI.

The book notes though that the treaty fared better with past issues than with future issues. Haha, of course, that’s the nature of human fallibility. The issues on the horizon are much harder to see and deal with. The failure in this department was the treaties suspicion to liberalism, self determination, and democracy. German patriots particularly upset. The congress of vienna was about the old way of restoring the balance of power, but that concept was changing drastically, as we will see.


European History Pt. 45 — The (First) end of Napoleon

In the last post, I looked at Napoleon’s weakening as a result of his unworkable continental system. Now we arrive at the events where he really falls from power. For a history buff, this is like the super bowl. I was really blown away by this chapter.

At the end of 1811, the British were well along in the industrial revolution, amassing a vast fortune and planning to deploy it in Europe. In Germany and Austria, many were ready to rise again against Napoleon. However, the most dissatisfied power was Russia. Alexander had gained nothing from his alliance with Napoleon and he was tired of it. (Remember Talleyrand let him know that Napoleon was overreaching).

In December 31, 1810 Alexander withdrew from the continental system and resumed trade with Britain. Napoleon vowed to crush Russia and invaded in June of 1812.

Napoleon intended for the war to be brief, but it was anything but. He marched to Moscow and it found it inhospitable. He could not stay the winter there and so he decided on a retreat, but it got damn cold, and his army was harassed into disintegration. The book has a powerful quote here: “For a century after 1812 the retreat from Moscow remained the last word in military horror.”

Napoleon himself escaped the disaster back to Paris where he raised a new army. In the early months of 1813 he led it against a now rising Europe. This army was smashed at the battle of Leipzig, a battle known to the Germans as the “Battle of the Nations.” In terms of number of men who participated, this was the largest engagement in history, until the 20th century.

Things get really complex from here, because diplomatic maneuvering begins in earnest. All of the main countries opposed to Napoleon had different hopes for what a post-Napoleon France would look like. In November 1813, Clemens von Metternich offered Napoleon the Frankfurt Proposals. However, Napoleon rejected these proposals which gave British Foreign Minister Viscount Castlereagh a chance to secure British war aims. He secured the Quadruple Alliance of the British, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. They entered Paris in 1814 and forced Napoleon’s abdication.

At the behest of French citizens as well as the quadruple alliance, the Bourbon monarchy was restored in the person of Louis XVIII who had been ignored for over a generation. He adopted the Napoleonic codes in France. Louis XVIII signed the first treaty with the quadruple alliance. France’s borders were restored to their 1792 geography, but beyond there were no punishments or indemnities imposed on France. The rest of Europe wanted a resurgent, peaceful France. Napoleon was exiled to Elba. England embarked on a century of world leadership from 1814-1914.

Next is the Congress of Vienna.