My Debt to H. P. Lovecraft
By Robert Anton Wilson
Crypt of Cthulhu #12, Vol. 2, No 4, Eastertide, 1983
The influence of H. P. Lovecraft on my fiction is rather obvious – mostly because I never tried to hide it. HPL appears in person as a character in The Golden Apple. Some of his Old Ones pop up in that book and in Leviathan and Masks of the Illuminati. The last-named book is written in a variety of styles, because James Joyce is one of its major characters and it seemed artistically apt to present Joyce in Joyce’s own manner, changing “styles” and narrative voices rapidly as he did in Ulysses; but one of the voices is, of course, the typical Lovecraft narrator perpetually worried about what “nameless” or “blasphemous” secret is about to be revealed next. Even my autobiographical fragment, Cosmic Trigger, begins with a paragraph that is a deliberate parody of the standard Lovecraft opening.
More subtly, my typical structure – which I call guerilla ontology – is designed to keep the reader guessing about what is real and what isn’t. That derives partly from Borges, of course, and from Joyce, and from my classes in semantics and perception psychology when I was in college; but it all began when I was thirteen and started reading HPL. The “classical” Lovecraft book-list, in which real works like The Golden Bough are cited side-by-side with the Necronomicon, is the germ out of which I devised the labyrinthine puzzles which have caused so many readers to ask me with painful sincerity, “Hey, really, how much of that stuff is a put-on?” My answer is always a deliberate ambiguity, since, unlike HPL, I am not satisfied to scare my readers, nor am I satisfied to make them laugh; I am trying to arouse their curiosity to a pitch that will intrigue them into such dangerous hobbies as undertaking original research and starting to think for themselves. I am didactic at heart, I guess.
The Lovecraft story, generally, is the gradual revelation, through a series of increasingly explicit hints, of some Horrible Secret that the world should never know. I use this form constantly, but never in the way HPL used it. Rather than building toward horror, I build toward both horror and humor, and I never climax on the Final Secret but on a further ambiguity. This reflects the difference in philosophy and temperament between HPL and me. He was a rationalist and materialist, so he naturally believed there was some final “explanation,” some ultimate truth. Since he specialized in horror, it was always an ugly truth. I am, on the other hand, an agnostic and a “mystic” (of some sort) and I do not believe in any final truth. Like Nietzsche, I believe that behind every deceptive mask – is another deceptive mask. Nietzsche’s aphorism, “The true nature of things is a profound illusion” sums up my attitude better than any other single sentence I have ever read.
Like Colin Wilson (no relative, as far as I know), I am also temperamentally incapable of writing the typical Lovecraft ending – the note of bleak cosmic despair that makes HPL strangely akin to mainline fiction of our day with its ever-defeated heroes and ever-hostile universe. I use Lovecraftian horror because I think it is an aspect of the truth, a poetic mythos that says something real about our predicament as mammals aware of our own fragility and mortality. I cannot restrict myself to that horrible perspective, because I think it is only one aspect of many. Again I echo Nietzsche in seeing us as midway between the primate and something beyond all previous nature. As a veteran acid-tripper in the ’60s, I have seen the Ultimate Horror, but I have also seen beyond that to the Cosmic Joke and the Starchild and the Superman and the One Mind and a variety of other odd, amusing and educational perspectives. Like a Tibetan mandala, my fiction shows both the Wrathful Demons a la HPL and the Protective Buddhas; more like a circus, it also shows the clowns and the heroes who walk the tightrope over the Abyss.
What annoys me most in HPL criticism is the constant reiteration of the same complaints about his style. At times, this moves me near to the despair of the history teacher, in chapter one of Aldous Huxley’sAntic Hay, who in correcting student essays on Nineteenth Century Italy finds each and every student has described Pope Leo XIII as a goodhearted man of low intelligence. That not one student has cared enough, or thought enough, to have a differing opinion – that each has simply regurgitated an epigram from Lord Acton that the teacher quoted in class – drives the teacher to give up all hope of educating anyone. He retires from academia and becomes an inventor and seducer.
Lovecraft’s style is rather awful at times; but that is true of every writer whoever risked the conscious development of a personalized and highly unique style. Hemingway sounds like a parody of himself as often as HPL does; Faulkner sounds like a parody of Faulkner at times; the same is true of Melville and Henry James and Conrad and most of the classics. It seems to me that at its best HPL’s style does exactly what he invented it to do – it becomes the perfect medium for the kind of mythic effect he wanted to convey. I also suspect that where unconscious self-parody is “discovered” by critics one should be extremely wary. Every writer has moments of irony in which he engages in subtle self-parody; I am convinced that Hemingway did this, at times, with his eyes open, and I think HPL did it, too. His letters contain so much humor, and so many hidden jokes have been found in his stories, that I think it badly underestimates him to think that he was incapable of trying for a double effect, creating an emotion and simultaneously parodying the technique by which he does it.
Basically, I like Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon better than any other writers in the areas of fantasy, science-fiction and “speculative fiction.” This is because I think HPL and Stapledon succeeded more thoroughly than anyone else in creating truly “inhuman” perspectives, artistically sustained and emotionally convincing. That HPL makes the “inhuman” or the “cosmic” a frightening and depressing thing to encounter, while Stapledon makes it a source of mystic awe and artfully combined tragedy-and-triumph, registers merely that they had different temperaments. Each succeeded in his own way; each managed to jump beyond humanity and see further than mere humanism. The “animal” perspectives in my books – the gorillas and dolphins in Eye in the Pyramid, the “six legged majority of Terrans” who comment so cynically upon the behavior of us “domesticated primates” in The Universe Next Door – derive from ethnology and sociobiology, of course, but they also derive from the “inhuman” or “trans-human” perspectives I learned from HPL and Stapledon.
Ultimately, I think the value of a writer can be measured by how much he is merely expressing his own idiosyncratic moods of joy or misery and how much he is expressing something that is common to all humanity. I feel that HPL and Stapledon expressed very powerfully a species-wide problem – our disorientation in space and time, consequent upon the Copernican and post-Copernican discoveries which revealed that the human race is not the center of the universe and not the special darling of the gods. Few “mainstream” writers have tackled that intellectual and emotional shock as unflinchingly as did HPL and Stapledon. For that reason, I think many, perhaps most, “mainstream” writers are not ultimately serious. HPL, in his terrified way, and Stapledon, in his (guardedly) optimistic way, were serious.
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