The Shock of the New Universe.
The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed a fundamental and radical shock to how we conceive of the universe and our place in it. Prior to that shift, the order of the universe was seen as something which contained a basic semblance to the order of our own minds, however elevated from us in grandeur and complexity. The universe and the natural world were felt to embody an intentionality, a purpose, and a moral dimension like that of the human world. The scientific revolution engendered a new way of thinking about the universe, whereby the natural and the human worlds would gradually be seen as wholly separated and intrinsically different from one another. The human world would increasingly come to be seen as a contingent and minor event occurring in a vast cosmos that possessed no intentionality, no purpose, and no moral dimension; hence, the human world becomes a tiny, fragile enclave hopelessly projecting its dreams and fantasies onto a vast, abstract and fundamentally alien cosmos. This was a profound transformation from the cosmos of the ancient Greeks, for example, where the goodwill of the gods might be solicited by ritual, sacrifice, and pious conduct, or the cosmos of the Middle Ages, where the poet could ascend the ladder of being and be vouchsafed a vision of the “love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
The socially realistic novel of the 18th and 19th centuries completely lacked the vocabulary to reflect the disorientation and shock of this new vision of the cosmos. The literatures of the antique world tended by their nature towards a cosmic perspective: in creation myths, heroic epics, and the later allegories and dream visions of the Christian period, the human being was overwhelmingly conceptualized in terms of its relation to the whole cosmic sphere. In this regard, the literatures of antiquity had a tendency to examine human nature from a universal and existential perspective. The general evolution of literature in the modern period, in contrast, followed after the trajectory of the microscope: its focus shifted from the cosmic perspective to that of the social and psychological, and from the universal and eternal to the local and contemporary. With the upheavals engendered by the age of scientific discovery, a new type of literature was required which could attempt to view humankind once again from the necessarily existential vantage of the vastness of time and space. New myths were required to orient ourselves to the shock of the new cosmos. This need, of course, goes some way to explain the explosion of science fiction and fantastic literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. The emergence of strange and exotic ideas requires a suitably exotic fictional medium to process them. Realistic fiction delineates the immediate world with journalistic scrupulousness; only, however, in the mythical and fantastic register can the effects of a major change to the dominant worldview be traced, and its effects on the realm of the unconscious accurately recorded. The paradox here is that the antique and irrational often proved to be the most effective fictional medium with which to express the shock of the newly objectified and rationalized cosmos, and nobody exemplified this paradox better than H.P. Lovecraft.
“Possibly Gilman ought not to have studied so hard. Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension.”
Lovecraft, The Dreams in the Witch-House.
In science fiction itself, the greatest expression of the new cosmic sensibility came in two novels by the British author and philosopher Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930), and Star Maker (1937).
Last and First Men was a speculative “future history” which traces the human race through eighteen future evolutionary offshoots, spanning a mind-boggling two billion years; Star Maker was an even loftier and more ambitious attempt to chart the history of the universe itself. Possessing enough imagination and ideas for about ten or twenty speculative writers, Stapledon’s two classics are probably the finest works ever produced under the parameters of pure science fiction. Like Wells, however, Stapleton was essentially optimistic about the implications of the newly emerging scientific view of the cosmos. In this sense, while both writers were truly great mythologists of the scientific worldview, neither might be said to have fully captured its visceral sense of shock and disorientation to conventional human values. H.P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was ideally constituted to do so by virtue of certain odd and paradoxical personal characteristics. On the surface, Lovecraft was as enthusiastic an advocate of the scientific worldview as Wells or Stapleton; his basic philosophical orientation appears to have been that of a thorough-going rationalist materialism that wouldn’t be out of place among contemporary New Atheists. Yet Lovecraft was also a man haunted by various severe neurotic maladies that were inextricably linked with very vivid, visionary dreams and nightmares. It was through a marriage of these extreme oppositional forces of the rational and irrational that Lovecraft’s fiction derived its unique character.
All of Lovecraft’s greatest tales were essentially a dramatization of a philosophical viewpoint which he labelled cosmicism. Cosmicism cast the implications of the scientific view of the universe in extreme, nihilistic terms, arguing for the total insignificance of human beings and human value systems in the face of the vastness of space and time. According to Lovecraft’s cosmicist outlook, our increasing knowledge of the universe constituted a microscope, whereby we could view ourselves for the first time as a kind of miniscule, crawling bacteria:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form - and the local human passions and conditions and standards - are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all….. when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown - the shadow-haunted Outside - we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.
Hence, despite his great enthusiasm for science, Lovecraft’s great fictions depict true knowledge of the universe as a forbidden and hideous thing; a dark, negative gnosis of the true emptiness of all human aspirations and the horror of the biological existence to which they are temporarily shackled. The forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden brought Adam and Eve a knowledge of life and death; in Lovecraft’s cosmos, the forbidden apple of objective knowledge brings something far worse: the knowledge that life and death simply don’t mean anything:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (The Call of Cthulhu)
It remains slightly paradoxical that Lovecraft should elaborate this modern scientific theme by means of an atavistic return of ancient gods and antique terrors, or that an avowed enthusiast of scientific materialism should present its ultimate fruits as being so bleak as to send the species either insane or into the embrace a “new dark age”, but that’s an argument for another occasion. This intuition – that the very defining characteristics of the modern worldview might best be viewed through a literary prism of the antique, the primitive, and the superstitious – forms the backbone of cosmic horror, a little-practised sub-genre of popular fiction that mixes elements of gothic horror with the cosmic perspectives and extra-terrestrial/dimensional themes of science fiction. Lovecraft was the first theorist of cosmic horror, and remains its most noted practitioner; his major precursor, however, was William Hope Hodgson, whose remarkable 1908 novel The House on the Borderland is probably the first authentic expression of cosmic horror.
Borderland is a really strange, almost inexplicable book. Its plot is simple enough on the surface. In 1877, two British gentlemen travel to a small, isolated village in the West of Ireland for a fishing holiday. While exploring the local country-side, they discover what appear to be the remnants of an old house bordering a water-logged pit, and an old manuscript nearby. The manuscript is written by the former owner of the ruined house, a figure whom we know only as the Recluse. The Recluse, we learn, lives a quiet, sedentary existence in the isolated house which he shares with his sister and his faithful hound “Pepper.” There is, however, a strange, unsettling quality to the house and its surroundings; or perhaps only in the mind of the Recluse himself. He soon has a vision in which his consciousness is transported across interstellar space to an eerie plain which he calls the arena or the plain of silence. At its centre, the plain contains an exact, though much larger replica of his house back on earth, constructed of a green jade-like substance. On hillsides surrounding the jade house, the Recluse sees a plethora of ancient gods and monstrosities that seem to exist in a kind of watchful half-slumber:
Now I saw that there were other things up among the mountains. Further off, reclining on a lofty ledge, I made out a livid mass irregular and ghoulish. It seemed without form, save for an unclean, half-animal face, that looked out, vilely, from somewhere about its middle. And then, I saw others – there were hundreds of them. They seemed to grow out of the shadows. Several, I recognised, almost immediately, as mythological deities; others were strange to me, utterly strange, beyond the power a human mind to conceive.
Shortly after this vision, the Recluse begins to explore the pit near the house, whereupon he is attacked by a group of savage porcine humanoids which he christens the Swine Things. A prolonged siege and struggle with the Swine Things ensues, and the Recluse, after killing several of them, appears to emerge as the victor. This is followed by the novel’s most remarkable and justifiably acclaimed section, in which the Recluse has a vision of time speeding up in an effect similar to that of time lapse photography: days and nights fly by with increasing velocity until they blur together into a vertiginous continuous dusk; in passages that alternate between awesome psychedelic beauty and a stark sense of absolute cosmic loneliness, the Recluse witnesses whole ages and eons pass by before his eyes, extending all the way to the slow atrophy and death of the sun, and the end of the world.
The House on the Borderland's originality and strangeness made it an important precursor to a variety of strains of later science fiction and horror. Hodgson's visionary cosmic odysseys predated those of Stapledon, and might be said to have instigated an imaginative tradition that extends all the way to the cinematic journey through the Stargate in Kubrick's 2001. The Recluse's desperate struggle for survival while besieged by the Swine Things must surely be the first elaberation of all the classic tropes of the modern zombie genre, coming long before Richard Matheson's more widely read I am Legend. Hodgson's work also provided the vital spark to Lovecraft's transformation of his personal misanthopric philosophy into a kind of pulp mythology of the age of evolution, Einstein, and quantum mechanics. But The House on the Borderlands stands on its own merits as one of those strange and almost ineffable works of the British visionary imagination. It's greatest virtue lies in the fact that it makes no effort whatever to explain any of itself: the origin of the Swine Things, the true nature of the Recluse's cosmic and interdimensial visions remain as pointedly specific and inexplicable as the details of a nightmare. In a lesser writer, this total lack of explanation would have reflected a shoddy sense of construction; but in Hodgson it imparts a genuine and subtly unsettling sense of otherness, as Clark Ashton Smith points out in his Apprecation of the author:
In some ways, Hodgson's work is no doubt most readily comparable to that of Algernon Blackwood. But I am not sure that even Blackwood has managed to intimate a feeling of such profound and pervasive familiarity with the occult as one finds in The house on the Borderland. Hideous phantoms and unknown monsters from the nightward gulf are adumbrated in all their terror, with no dispelling of their native mystery; and surely such things could be described only by a seer who has dwelt overlong on the perilous verges and has peered too deeply into the regions veiled by invisibility from normal sight.