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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

H. P. Lovecraft: An Overview of His Work

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


Leslie S. Klinger, in editing The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, provides an account of the development of the so-called “CthulhuMythos,” citing some of the specific short stories and the single novel by Lovecraft that furnished the hints, bits, and pieces that would become the basis of what another writer, August Derleth, transformed into Lovecraft's supposed mythology. This essay is based on Klinger's analysis and his insights into this topic, as set forward in the “Introduction” of his annotation of Lovecraft's work. Unless stated otherwise, the direct quotations are of Klinger. (Words in bold blue font are defined or discussed in more detail at the end of this essay.)

Derleth, not Lovecraft, is responsible for the idea that Lovecraft meant “to create a permanent or unchanging pantheon.” Actually, as stated, Lovecraft preferred his work to represent an “'open source' universe” that others interested in his work could visit. At most, Lovecraft referred only to an “Arkham cycle,” without identifying which of his stories comprised this group of tales. However, Derleth imagined that he saw, in Lovecraft's fiction, “a fixed framework,” based on the idea that earth had once been home to an ancient alien race who were prepared to repossess it. Lovecraft's supposed “Mythos” is really a creation of Derleth, who invented it in the stories that he, Derleth, wrote as addenda to Lovecraft's canon.

For Lovecraft, the universe is indifferent to human existence and to human aspirations. Rather than offering his readers reassurance as to their place in the cosmos, Lovecraft's fiction suggests that it is up to each individual to make his or her own way in the universe. Critics have labeled Lovecraft's position “cosmicism.”

Klinger identifies these narratives (all of which are short stories except for the novel At the Mountains of Madness) as providing the hints, bits, and pieces of what Derleth claims is Lovecraft's “Cthulhu Mythos.”


Dagon” is “the earliest [of Lovecraft's stories] to contain any elements of . . . the Cthulhu Mythos”: “truly ancient beings, experiences and sensations that cannot be processed by human brains, and a deep sense of doom.” 

Nyarlathotep” introduces a “persona” who reappears “in future versions of the Cthulhu Mythos.” 

The Nameless City” introduces Lovecraft's mythology, such as it is, describing “an elder race and a civilization predating humans” and making references to the mysterious Necronomicon, though not by name). 

TheHound” specifically names Alhazred's Necronomicon.

In “The Festival,” Lovecraft “revisits the true horror of 'Dagon'—the narrator's discovery that there are things still present on this planet that began before human history.” 

TheCall of Cthulhu” offers Lovecraft's “first comprehensive view of his cosmicism as it [“The Call of Cthulhu”] expands on 'Dagon.'” 

Buildingon 'The Call of Cthulhu,'” “The Dunwich Horror” provides an extended excerpt from the Necronomicon.” 

TheWhisperer in the Darkness” gives an account, in some detail, of the origin and history of the Outer Ones, the alien race mentioned in Lovecraft's earlier story, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” 

Atthe Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft's only novel, mentions several themes and elements related to the Arkham cycle and to the Cthulhu Mythos, including the Shining Trapezohedron, Arkham's Miskatonic University, artifacts of a pre-human civilization (the “Elder Things”), and shoggoths (biologically engineered slaves who may have been the ancestors of all life on Earth). (This note is not based on TheAnnotated H. P. Lovecraft). 

TheShadow over Innsmouth” is set in the New England village that is home to the alien race known as the Deep Ones.

In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” Lovecraft mentions the Old Ones and “tries to imagine the fourth dimension.” 

The Thing on the Doorstep” recounts personality transference through “dark magic invoking Lovecraft's Cthulhian deities.”

The end of “The Shadow Out of Time” confirms humanity's “relatively minor role on the cosmic scale.”

In addition to providing “the history of an ancient cult,” “TheHunter of the Dark” adds “an element of cosmicism” while hinting that “an extraterrestrial stone [called] the Shining Trapezohedron” may be “a window on all time and space.”





Cthulhu Mythos: “Term coined by August Derleth, biographer and editor of H. P. Lovecraft, writer of supernatural fiction. The term denotes the mythology invented by Lovecraft for a group of horror stories. According to Derleth, Lovecraft once told him, 'All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on the outside, ever ready to take possession of this earth again' (“Cthulhu Mythos” in Encyclopedia.com). Note: Leslie states that Derleth invented this quotation; Lovecraft himself never made this statement. 

Arkham Cycle: Although Lovecraft never identified the stories he referred to collectively as the “Arkham cycle,” Leslie states that the 22 Lovecraft stories that he, Leslie, includes in The Annotated H. P. Lovecraftcomprise the group that Lovecraft described as the “Arkham cycle”: “Dagon,” “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “Nyarlathotep,” “The Picture in the House,” “Herbert West: Reanimator,” “The Nameless City,” “The Hound,” “The Festival,” “The Unnamable,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Silver Key,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” “The Haunter of the Dark.” 

Cosmicism: “Cosmicism sees the human race and all its 'civilization' as senseless against the backdrop of Deep Time . . . . Cosmicism says that beyond the 'reality' defined by our five-senses, human norms are not normal . . . . [Cosmicism views] the Universe is a cold, uncaring place,” i. e., as indifferent to humanity and its affairs. 

Necronomicon: Invented by Lovecraft, the Necronomicon does not exist except in the pages of his fiction. In his work, the Necronomicon is “a tome filled with secrets and rituals that can drive a reader to the brink of insanity. . . . Lovecraft mentions the book in 18 of his stories, more than any other mystical book (real or otherwise) that he references. Many fans of the mythos think of the 'Necronomicon' [sic] as the Bible of Lovecraft's pantheon. . . . the author of the book was the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, who perished in A.D. 738 after being eaten by one or more invisible monsters. . . . Alhazred mostly wrote about a race of extraterrestrial creatures with cosmic powers. He calls them the Old Ones,” one of whom was Yog-Sothoth; a distant relative of theirs is Cthulhu.” In short, “the book is a fictional history about our world and the creatures that eons ago ruled the Earth and other realms.” 

Outer Ones: The Outer Ones are a group of Cthulhu Mythos deities invented by August Derlerth. They are ruled by Azathoth. 

Deep Ones: “The Deep Ones are a race of intelligent ocean-dwelling creatures, approximately human-shaped but with a fishy, froggy appearance. They regularly mate with humans along the coast, creating societies of hybrids.”



Cthulhian deities: The Cthulhuian deities are comprised of the Outer Gods, the Great Old Ones, the Great Ones, and the Elder Gods. 

Shining Trapezohedron: A stone able to summon a dreaded being from deepest time and space. Once ensconced in a temple, it was thrown, in “The Hunter in theDark,” into the Narragansett Bay. The Trapezohedron is also featured in Lovecraft's “The Whisperer in Darkness,” his novel Atthe Mountains of Madness, and his tale “The Outsider.”

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.


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