In the fading gray of the Carter years, I spent long Saturday afternoons laying in front of our enormous console TV and watching Shock Theatre. Shock Theatre was a package of films that Universal Studios began marketing back in the 1950s, including a combination of classic Universal Monsters films and some of the newer creature features. They were often shown as late-night fare, but my low wattage station in rural South Carolina (I think they signed off at like 11:00 p.m.) broadcast these films through the long weekend afternoons—a dark pageant of vampires, shapeshifters, giant insects, and fifty-foot women.
For an eight-year-old, nothing quite compared to these black-and-white fairy tales, where fog rolled through semi-European never-never lands, Bela Lugosi slaked his dark desires, Frankenstein shambled about in his confusion, and the wolfman yowled his yearnings at the moon.
My parents were not amused. They held the firm conviction that such entertainment warped young minds, and that fresh air and sunlight had positive mental effects. Yard work built character.
They were probably right. I was, during those years, haunted by night terrors and hallucinogenic dreams, which sometimes featured the Universal Studios monsters but more often included odd symbolism, with meanings beyond my pre-adolescent mind’s grasp, which made it all the more frightening: an old man who crawled across my floor with ill intent, a giant rose that floated free in the air and that I knew without knowing was poison, or a veiled female figure, sometimes with a face I could recognize.
Dark imagery seemed to follow me out of dreams and into the daylight, especially on those long Saturdays of Shock. One Saturday in particular, Boris Karloff’s The Mummy was the feature. If you’ve seen it, you know it’s a story of secrets that are supposed to stay hidden: forbidden knowledge, forbidden love, and the threat of an eternal curse.
As Karloff shambled and moaned, the sky outside darkened into a summer storm, clouds hanging down from the sky like heavy fruit. The day seemed suddenly twisted and wrong, rattled by the cracks of thunder. I found myself thinking about church—not such a strange connection since, at age eight, having to go to church was a weekly horror in and of itself. Mingled images, mingled fears. Adam, Eve, the serpent, the Mummy, the Thing in the Dark, God walking in the garden, angry, with monsters all around.
If only my initiation into the mysteries of monsters by Shock Theatre had been accompanied by an early discovery of H. P. Lovecraft. He might have freed me from the curse. Unfortunately, the dark scribbler of Providence came into my life much later.
Lovecraft is, other than Poe, the most important American horror writer. Unlike Poe, he has become a pop culture phenomenon with films, tabletop role-playing franchises, and even console and computer games based on his mythos. You may have never read his 1926 tale of apocalyptic horror “Call of Cthulhu,” but you might have seen a “Cthulhu for President: No More Years” or even a “Campus Crusade for Cthulhu” bumper-sticker.
Born of New England Yankee stock in the 1890s, Lovecraft began publishing in the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales almost from its inception in 1923. With stories like the “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and especially “At the Mountains of Madness,” he developed a mythology of nihilism. The terror he had to offer was that of the inconsequentiality of human experience.
These stories reflected Lovecraft’s special form of mechanistic atheism, one that saw in the sheer gigantism of the cosmos a sense of terror, and felt a deep contempt for religious worldviews that attempt to encompass it. “We live,” he wrote, “on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we voyage far.”
Lovecraft’s monsters are terrifying not because they are intent on destroying human life, but because they are utterly indifferent to it. Lovecraft tends to represent any direct physical threat as less terrifying than the realization that all human attempts to construct meaning are worse than pointless.
Lovecraft did more than critique religious faith with this idea; he cut out its central nervous system. The Christianity that I knew as a child fostered a sense of the self so expansive that it seemed to make me the center of interest for all the powers of the universe. My childhood terror that a summer thunderstorm might have something to do with me, and what I was watching on TV, was more than the natural narcissism of an eight-year-old. I heard every Sunday that my soul was the battleground between good and evil forces, that God and the Devil centered their attention on me. Lovecraft, instead, taught my self-absorbed self that I am less than nothing to the black seas of infinity swirling around me. Nobody out there cares enough to try and scare me.
Can mysticism be nihilistic? The idea that such a bleak thoughts could be the basis of any kind of spiritual life might seem contradictory. Indeed, Lovecraft himself deeply distrusted mysticism, tending to represent it as an escapist posture, a refusal to look at the universe for what it is.
And yet, for me Lovecraft has opened the way to a dark mysticism, by short-circuiting the longing for rational explanations and intentionality at every turn. Lovecraft’s protagonists are fairly insistent on uncovering mysteries. They attempt to be the Western world’s archetypal heroes who reveal mysteries and save the world. In the end, though, they discover that indifferent dark powers run the show. Madness follows, the last refuge of the self that realizes it is not an indestructible soul with a special destiny in a cosmos that loves it.
Reading Lovecraft’s nihilistic fictions, I think, helps us heed George Santayana’s advice that we become “confessors of our own death.” Santayana, the confirmed atheist who spent his last years in a monastery and kept his atheism intact, writes in Lovecraftian terms about the uncaring nature of the cosmos. He described it as “an immense engine” of both “beauty and cruelty.” In response to this, he imagined a special kind of piety. Instead of taking mystical flights of fancy, Santayana suggested, we should ponder the enormity of the universe. This openness to the overwhelming immensity of things would provoke terror, but also amusement and acceptance of our plight. This is an atheism of wonder, an ecstatic confession of the final extinction of the self.
Lovecraft imagined a world without blessing. But it is also a world without curse. Death itself ceases to be the sum of all despair. It simply represents the non-negotiable nature of the universe, a rough rescue that frees us from idiot gods and their attendant devils. Lovecraft offers us not a barren bleakness but a rich and welcoming darkness.
Scott Poole is the author of Monsters in America: Our Historic Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Baylor University Press, 2011). He’s an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. Follow his adventures in geekery on Twitter @monstersamerica and on the web at www.monstersinamerica.com.