H.P. Lovecraft and the Unthinkable Terror of Nihilism

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When I was in middle school and high school I was a self-identified atheist after having watched YouTube videos about it online. My parents raised me in a rather atheistic fashion and my mother encouraged my newfound position by providing me with propaganda books such as The End of Faith by Sam Harris as well as all of the most significant works by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. She herself was an atheist, and rather militant at that. I however was determined to proselytize my newfound faith, and it most certainly was a faith. I had not personally gone over the fossil records to which Dawkins loved to allude in his Darwinian tracts, nor had I the philosophical background to question any of Sam Harris’s wild and uncouth accusations that Christians were wicked bigots looking to oppress the world and bring us back to some age of squalor and wretched prayer routines. I simply took these men at their word that they were the defenders of liberty and light and progress, and those who stood in their way were sinister lunatics who wanted to oppress everyone, including themselves, based on outdated ideas which had been replaced and improved upon by events such as the Enlightenment.

Soon after getting entrenched into this world I, being who I am, would seek to debate people. More or less anyone who would tolerate me while disagreeing with me on this subject was unfortunate enough to hear me again and again repeat tiresome tropes which were themselves poor reconstructions of sophistic arguments I had heard on a Hitchens or Harris debate. I was every bit as annoying as the stereotype of an atheist is, and more than this I was the fanatic in these scenarios, despite my wrongly accusing my opponents of the same. I fit perfectly the definition Winston Churchill gave for a fanatic: “someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Even my parents who were already atheistic got annoyed once or twice when at the dinner table I brought up a new argument I had heard which in my mind completely eviscerated anything those silly Christians could ever come up with (not that I had ever even bothered to listen to the opposing side in those debates, that was much too boring and lacking in moral condemnation for my sensibilities). And yet, there was always one subject that lurked eerily in the dark recesses of my mind: what if they were right and this really is it?

This was a thought so terrifying that I kept it shoved far back in my mind, from whence it only erupted to the surface in my worst bouts of depression, which of course drove those moments to spiral out of control to depths of darkness and solitude which were so grim that I dare not even attempt to articulate them. There is a very serious morbidity to atheism to which none of the major atheists has ever given an answer that I find even remotely satisfying, for how could they? The atheist would have us believe that not only is there no God, there is also no afterlife and nothing after this short blip of time we have on this earth. We have according to atheists 80 or so years, many of which are quite horrid even for the most fortunate among us and then poof! we turn to stardust and our stream of consciousness ends as if it had never begun. Perhaps I am the sort of person or was the sort of person who had the instability of mind necessary to dwell on such terrifying prospects more than others, but I fail to see how any atheist can go through life consciously rejecting God without dealing with this inescapable fact. Nobody really believes the Hollywood “New Age” drivel of “we are all connected and will become one after death;” no, it has to all go black, to nothingness, if all existence is merely an accident of physics.

Theirs is a worldview infinitely more bleak than the ancient pantheists who believed that there were many gods and that they were fickle and malevolent and had to be appeased with blood sacrifice. The atheist is more morbid than the Aztec priest, because a sinister existence after death is an infinitely more comforting answer than one which prophecies a return to the void. As much as I want to avoid hell and to be invited into the house of our Father who art in Heaven, hell is a vastly preferable place to an eternal sleep with no dreams. How could it not be? Consciousness is ontologically better than unconsciousness; even if it is a tortured existence it is better than no existence. I believe that confronting this indescribable existential dread was one of the primary ways the Lord opened my heart to Him. The petrifying angst of living in such a world where we have seven or eight decades (if we are lucky) then it’s all over and our consciousness dissolves into infinite darkness – that is something to fear much more than any pain or sadness of this world. Nihilism is so terrible that only the prince of darkness and the father of lies could come up with a prospect so cripplingly horrible.

It is after all this that I finally introduce you to the main character of this article, who is neither me nor any of the atheists I mentioned earlier. The man whom I want to center your attention on is none other than horror titan H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft has infected popular culture as much as any other writer in the history of horror, including Steven King, who admits he takes great inspiration from Lovecraft’s work. Relatively speaking, Lovecraft himself did not write very much, but what he did write particularly in the middle period of his life has become profoundly influential on how we think of horror and science fiction today. His mythos of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon brought to us in works such as Mountains of Madness and Call of Cthulhu have permanently instantiated themselves into the western canon of literature. What sort of mind could have possibly come up with such terrifying and fascinating fiction? The answer is of course only a tortured one.

Lovecraft was noted for having night terrors as a child and would often wake up screaming to recurring dreams, perhaps a sign of the sinister imagination he would later turn to writing. He was very shy even as an adult and spent most of his life cooped up in various homes owned by relatives, with his one marriage being quite brief and broken up by his relatives so he could return to live with them once again. Staying socially isolated and having early childhood psychological trauma might as well go in a recipe book for creating a horror writer, which was perhaps the one productive endeavor Lovecraft could put his mind to, and he likely would have lost his sanity had he not. Lovecraft was a rather unpleasant man as a result of his antisocial lifestyle and upbringing, he was a fervent racist beyond even the standards of the times and seemed full of contempt for normal society and normal people.

If a tortured life is the recipe for a horror writer, then antisociality coupled with narcissism is the recipe for atheism, which Lovecraft espoused militantly from quite an early age through the rest of his short life. He in fact wrote quite a lot about the subject of his materialism and atheism, full of vitriol and hatred to an extent which even Christopher Hitchens wouldn’t have written. Perhaps Lovecraft saw it as an institution of normality and community which he envied and hated because he never had it, a pattern in prominent atheists. Now, he most certainly had a deranged imagination and a tortured life which might account for much of his nihilism, but I would say that perhaps something further is going on. Many recluse writers have existed throughout history, many of whom have written great fiction. None before or since H.P. Lovecraft has had quite the flavor of existential dread that his brought. Why was Lovecraft’s so unique and so impactful? Lovecraft wrote his fiction in a world still reeling from the shock of Darwinism and more recently World War One, both of which in some ways had seen the collapse and discrediting of churches, institutions, and Christian worldview in the minds of western intelligentsia, of whom Lovecraft was one. God was killed by man in a very real sense, though only in the minds of those academics and elites who were stupid enough to spit in His face. This is probably the earliest point at which one could say the West was no longer Christian in its fundamental character, and the terrifying nihilism of an accidental world was just beginning to seep into the minds of western intellectuals. Lovecraft was one of the first and most prominent to so openly and unequivocally reject religion in American society, and this deeply affected his work. Mountains of Madness, for example, is about an expedition to Antarctica that discovers that an ancient civilization of aliens was living there and that they were immeasurably more ancient and more powerful than man. It is a frightening prospect to be sure, and makes for a great tale, but where does it come from? This type of mythological science fiction is Lovecraft’s attempt to replace the understanding that God is in control with something else that is sinister. An existence without essence is even more terrible than an existence with a frightening and sinister essence, and so the latter is exactly the image Lovecraftian “cosmic” fiction is attempting to construct in the minds of its readers. Darwin seemed to have proved that God does not exist, but the accidental reality of the void and Newtonian physics is too harrowing to even contemplate; thus as strange as it sounds the more comforting explanation is that we are mere pawns of impossibly ancient alien tyrants who created us to subjugate us, capable of it through feats of magic, and accessible to us only through esoteric knowledge. That is the Cthulhu universe, the majority of Lovecraft’s well-known work, in a nutshell.

Thankfully, we can come to understand through reason alone that this is not the best alternative we have to contend with intellectually. Saint Thomas Aquinas proved that through reason alone we can come to know that God exists and discern some of His characteristics. One of the proofs of God as best I can articulate it goes like this: we know from Newton’s laws of motion that motion requires an external force acting upon a body in order to create the movement. All aspects of the universe which are observable are in fact in motion. Think of a train which is in motion, and all the boxcars you can see ahead of you and behind you are in motion; you cannot see the front, but there cannot be an infinite number of boxcars and the boxcars could not continue moving indefinitely on their own explained only by a “big bang” which set them in motion – something is acting upon the boxcars to keep them moving. The locomotive of the universe, which keeps everything in motion and created life on earth through various processes which we do not understand, is what we call God. From there it is a matter of theology to understand the nature of God, but the metaphysics is clear and intelligible to merely human reason.

Now that it has been established that it is in fact a reasonable thing to believe in God we must answer another question: why is it that people do not want to believe in God? Peter Hitchens, younger brother of late atheist Christopher Hitchens, put it better than anyone else I have heard on the matter, and I shall paraphrase him here: “The thing is that it is a matter of choice to believe in Christianity. I choose to believe in a world with a purpose, with a creator, with hope in eternity wherein I and others will see final judgement and be rewarded for our good behavior because that is preferable to the alternative, and the great question which I [Peter Hitchens] have posed to these atheists is why would they choose to believe in a doomed nihilistic world where nothing matters and there are no ultimate consequences for our behavior here? I have not received an adequate response to this question, and I think we all know why.”

I implore all who read this, as someone who has been farther than most into the abyss of nihilism and seen firsthand the darkness up close, choose the path of light for your own sanity in this life and for closure and glory in eternity. Perhaps only a handful of us will experience in this life the depths of spiritual depravity which H.P. Lovecraft felt, or the awe-inspiring faith of the saints, but it should be apparent to all that nothing good comes from the former road and perhaps all that can be called good is on the latter.

Edward Grant is Catholic writer and current college student, who was raised by atheist academic parents, who enjoys writing from his secular upbringing perspective.

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