Rationality and Superstition, some thoughts on reckoning in Weird Fiction

One of the things I find most fascinating in Lovecraft’s writing is the way in which the structure of his fiction actively undermines the very things he claims and seems to hold dear.

I’m currently reading Jason Colavito’s The Cult of Alien Gods, (more on his most recent book: The Mound Builder Myth some time soon). In one of the first chapters––I’m sorry, I’m reading it on the Kindle and it’s an impressively badly structured file, none of the footnote links work, etc. Which is frustrating given that I bought the damn thing OFF AMAZON, but I digress––… In one of the first chapters he outlines the trajectory of the Gothic romance into horror and detective fiction and ultimately into the Weird tale to bring us through the evolution of the literary form which culminated in Lovecraft’s work.

“Thus for Lovecraft, the stories of the age taught him that oblivion was the end result of the unwholesome pursuit of knowledge, a theme he would employ again and again.” (Loc 513)

This quote reminded me of something I often find myself discussing with people who come into my place of employment: while Lovecraft tells us explicitly in his language, via description and story structure, that the rational middle-to-upper class white men who make up his protagonists are of superior breeding, intelligence, and composure than any of the religious, superstitious, and non-white individuals they encounter… Protestant scientific rationalism never saves any of his protagonists from ignominious ends.

This tends to feed into my personal belief that one reason that Lovecraft endures as a writer despite his obvious failings as a human being, and especially despite the way those failings contaminate his fiction, is because this, like other parts of his œuvre, demonstrate that he was a better artist than he intended. His fiction is packed with epistemological ambiguities, the form and the fiction at odds with one another (and especially at odds with contemporary characterizations of both the fiction and the man… Perhaps something to follow up on at a later date). He tells us that the only way to achieve true knowledge and understanding is by following the path of rational scientific inquiry and to cast aside all superstition, but at the same time, he shows us that pursuing rational inquiry into these realms of the vast unknown can only result in madness and death.

I always return to The Dreams in the Witch House, the story which first arrested me with this realization. Because my biggest take away from the story was that the story’s protagonist, Walter Gilman, was an idiot. Throughout the entire story, Gilman is warned by “a superstitious loomfixer named Joe Mazurewicz” that he should abandon his somnambulant inquiries into the mysteries of the witch Keziah and his apartment on the top floor where the witch once lived, lest something terrible happen to him.

Spoiler alert:

Obviously, he doesn’t abandon his exploration of the spooky mathematics he’s involved in, and obviously he does not come to a good end, or he wouldn’t be appearing in this essay. It is important to note that, in defence of Lovecraft’s materialist worldview, neither does Mr. Mazurewicz. It would be blatant falsehood to state that religious or superstitious thinking provides any measure of true safety in the Lovecraft Mythos. But the kind of superstitious thinking which makes one wary of those places where the veil between the worlds is thinnest (if you will) is certainly worth heeding, even in a world populated with Old Ones and non-Euclidean geometries.

Side note: While I don’t think anyone is going to show up to start arguing with me, though I welcome people’s input, I am compelled to mention that I believe that in Dreams in the Witch House Gilman is to a certain degree bewitched (hah) and enthralled and therefore his decision to remain in Keziah’s apartment despite the presence of Brown Jenkins (truly the story’s most terrifying element) is not entirely his own. But that really only brings us to the edge of considering the quest for knowledge as a compulsion/enchantment in its own right.

But Lovecraft often seems to walk on the knife’s edge separating an annihilating Truth (accessible through rational scientific inquiry) and the safety of a recognizable supernatural reality (manageable through superstition and mystical belief). Being able to access a more accurate vision of reality does nothing to improve one’s ability to describe or comprehend it. His rational protagonists might have a “better idea” of what the Old Ones “really are” or better understand themselves or any number of things, but, as evidenced by their gibbering madness, are not at all better equipped to engage with that reality. Indeed, it often seems that the best way to “deal” with a Lovecraftian universe is to approach it with the armature of superstitious belief and a quasi-religious reverence. After all, several thousand years of religious worship clearly demonstrates that the human mind is equipped to handle belief in creatures with powers beyond anything they can imagine.

But Lovecraft often seems to walk on the knife’s edge separating an annihilating Truth (accessible through rational scientific inquiry) and the safety of a recognizable supernatural reality (manageable through superstition and mystical belief).

This approach to the supernatural, and the distance between rationality and superstition reminds me of the work of Lovecraft protégé and weird fiction writer Frank Belknap Long (now there was a man whose racism felt “of the time” by being just a light, temporal seasoning in the fiction, rather than a deeply rooted epistemological function of the fiction itself). I didn’t, on the whole, love Long’s fiction. As with many others, my primary motivation for reading his stuff were the two Lovecraftian stories, “The Hounds of Tindalos” and “The Space Eaters”. “Hounds” was frustrating because it felt like a brilliant premise executed to only a fraction of its full potential.

“The Space Eaters” by contrast is almost singularly brilliant… Up until the very end, where it lost me completely. I will actually refrain from speaking too much about the story itself, because it would be a genuine tragedy to ruin the experience for anyone who finds themself reading the story for the first time. I wish to discuss one element of the story which does not figure into the plot, but I noticed was characteristic of Long’s work, and I will, for better or worse, be discussing the mechanics of the end of the story which were such a disappointment to me.

One thing that struck me about Long’s work, over all, was that in contrast to Lovecraft’s characters who find themselves compelled to gaze into the abyss, Long’s protagonists compulsively look away. Where Lovecraft gives us a horror made of up of disjointed, impossible descriptions made all the more horrible by their almost coherence and comprehensibility, Long operates with a nearly cinematic “cut away” format for horrific reveals. In Long’s stories, we remain with the protagonist as he hears things, perhaps smells things, but he never ever looks, and, in “The Space Eaters”, one of our only hints as to the horrors that he is facing is given through the description of the face of someone who DID look while the protagonist looked away. It’s a fascinating structure, especially when compared to Lovecraft, because it proves to a certain degree how much the joke about Lovecraft’s hysteric “It’s was indescribable!” is in fact a gross mischaracterization of his descriptions. (Though he does overuse the word “cyclopean” it’s true.)

But in “The Space Eaters” Long’s protagonist eventually defeats the invaders by making the sign of the cross. It’s probably not the worst twist a story has ever had, but given the presence of a Lovecraft stand-in and the debates Long and Lovecraft had with one another about the merits of religion in general and Catholicism in particular, it does feel somewhat pointed. It also allows the protagonists to make it out alive in a way that few Lovecraftian heroes ever have. Indeed, Long’s fiction seems often to function specifically to shore up the argument that a healthy dose of superstitious thinking does a body good in a vast and largely unexplored reality. His protagonists tangle with the terrifyingly bizarre and incomprehensible, but then manage to move along consigning such things to the realms of fable and fiction, or secure in the knowledge that humanity’s spiritual and religious beliefs have developed alongside these intrusions into conventional reality for the specific purpose of managing and containing the experience of them.

Of course, modern fiction writers (at least, many of my favorites) like to explore the step beyond both Lovecraft and Long. They recognize the value of each viewpoint: that rational scientific inquiry, based in evidence, can yield a better understanding of reality; superstitious, or religious thinking has held a privileged place in human history and experience as a direct result of its capacity to explain the otherwise inexplicable and advise accordingly. But they don’t stop there. Most importantly, they recognize that life continues after these interruptions in conventional reality; it is often not a question of possibility, but of necessity to acquiesce to the new reality paradigm and continue living. It is possible to chart a path between Lovecraft’s Victorian “madness in the face of the irreconcilable” and Long’s “delivering unto the Outside what belongs to it”. We can and do reshape our realities and our understanding of the realities of others to interface with what was previously outside our direct comprehension.

Madness is a luxury not everyone can afford.

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