This personal and racial identity crisis shows in his work and perhaps his life; both his parents ended up in an insane asylum and he suffered night terrors. This condition is where the dreamer has nightmares that they carry over to waking, screaming in terror, sitting bolt upright in bed and not responding to the real world when running around in blind panic.
H P Lovecraft’s main protagonist in several stories, wander vast alien landscapes or discovers alternative realities, co-existing within our own as in Dagon (1917) or At The Mountains Of Madness (1931). If his heroes don’t lose their lives they may lose their minds, becoming crushed wrecks , whose world view is shattered by their discoveries. Only the modern horror / science fiction films of directors like Ridley Scott (2), have managed to capture these strange vistas of alien worlds, full of hostile life forms and the changeling angle of people not being what they seem / were as in Prometheus, where one of the astronauts becomes infected by an alien life form, turning into a subhuman creature. Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a short story about a man who turns into a giant cockroach overnight also comes to mind in this context (4). An example of Lovecraft’s attempt at this, includes The Rats In The Walls (1923), where the hero sinks deeper and deeper into recidivism, the further he explores the secrets in his ancestral home, becoming more and like an animal than a civilized human being: the psychoanalytic movement would explore this area of the unconscious through the works of Freud (5) and Jung (6), in dreamwork and relaxed recall on a couch (7). In The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931) the hero discovers that he is tainted with the very genetic make-up he feared in the locals: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus harks back to this too.
Lovecraft’s horror of coloured people and his fear of having ‘tainted blood,‘ has been disclosed as a possible reality in a scientific study (8) which showed that people can indeed appear white but have genetic characteristics, revealing African ancestry. In psychological terms his reaction could be categorized as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), behind which lies the phobia of being contaminated by external forces, most notably germs but also other poisonous materials. In the film Coming To America (1988), Eddie Murphy donned make-up that turned him from a coloured man into a caucasian. Imagine how Lovecraft or other racists would react to this trick being played on them and how it would shatter their certainty of superiority?
This whole question of identity or who are we really was also covered by Edgar Allan Poe (9)in the story William Wilson (1838) and in the Roger Moore film, The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Even Peter Sellers portrayal of Dr Strangelove (10), disclosed a man at war with himself. These two sides of reality or primitive versus civilized or past versus present was explored by Robert Louis Stephenson in his book and various film versions (11). In the film by Amicus, From Beyond The Grave (1973), David Warner faced this mirror image self or alter ego and in the end was replaced by it: two way mirrors can hide an unseen, unconscious predatory self which makes the conscious self, paranoid prey or victim of this unknown being.
Returning to Lovecraft, the 1993 film The Necronomicon, based on three of his stories, had a segment called Whispers (12), where one of the characters explained very eloquently to the female lead that once her human consciousness was replaced by one of the creatures she faced, she would see them in a whole new light and her old self likewise. Poe himself carried this theme forward in Ligeia, where the main protagonist’s second wife dies, coming back to life but with the personality of his first wife, reborn.
Even in our own lives is to be seen this dual nature of reality; the child, a clean slate out to fill the emptiness of experience, its primitive mind yearns for and at the other end of life, the wrecked body and mind of the worn out explorer, the shuffling zombie - the child comes from this state of nothingness and the old return there. Ouroborus (13) or the mythical snake eating its own tail, reflects the future feeding off the past. In between lies lies normal life or continuation of existence. This conveyor belt of growth, leads us into the world with wonder and out of it, in the horror of knowing it is all going to end and not necessarily pleasantly. Horror is this dissolution of the body, the destruction of form or the loss of our faculties.
Awareness is that blank slate which records everything as it goes along, the camera, the observer, the learner, the child. It is the mindless dreamer, swimming in a sea of new experiences as opposed to the old person, drowning in a plethora of memories – a mobile library of saved information from the past, slowly rotting back into the dust it came from. Here we see in Lovecraft and others of that ilk, a fear of sleep as being that little death that takes us away, however temporarily, from the certainty of the created world around them and into the palette, where creativity can make hell in all its fear i.e. the symbolism of dreams as envisioned by the psychoanalysis movement.
Those who saw Lovecraft only from the point of view of schlock horror (14) missed the dreamscapes and alternative realities, featured in his other stories (15). Freud would have understood the nightmare terror and Jung the archetypal figures, haunting those vast, alien landscapes. Lovecraft feared dissolution of the self as an existential angst, not physical death so much as loss of identity. His horror at the idea of a sophisticated self being replaced by a more primitive version is not totally racial but one whose faculties have been lost through old age.
The past is the only thing we can be certain of as recorded time, whether individual memory or written archives by society. In memory is to be found a sense of identity, that is belonging but the change that movement brings, erodes that certainty, however slowly and replaces it with a quicksand of sensory doubt. It is what leads to sleep deprivation, where fear of loss takes over from wakeful certainty. Ironically this cannot be avoided as hallucinations drags us screaming and shouting back into the world of dreams and visions, a fluid reality, where nothing is what it seems – hence perhaps Lovecraft’s night terrors and powerful imagination.
1) Douglas Adams portrayed the same concept, through the Total Perspective Vortex, in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a BBC Radio 4 comedy series broadcast in 1978
2) The author of this book proposed that interbreeding with African Americans and giving them equal rights would bring down Western society.
3) Alien (1979), Prometheus (2012); John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), based on John W. Campbell’s short story in Astounding Science Fiction magazine (1938), Who Goes There? The various film versions of, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, based on the 1955 novel by Jack Finney;1956, Directed by Don Siegal and starring Kevin McCarthy; 1978, starring Donald Sutherland;1993 and 2007, featuring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
4) Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924), Czech writer of strange stories
5) Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), founder of the psychoanalytic movement
6) Carl Jung (1875 – 1961), founder of The International Psychoanalytical Movement
7) See also Spellbound, the film by Alfred Hitchcock, for Daliesque dream symbolism
8) Smedley & Smedley (2005) Race As Biology is Fiction – Racism as a Social Problem is Real and Serre & Paabo (2004) Evidence for Gradients of Human Genetic Diversity Within and Among Continents
9) Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), an author known for horror fiction
10) Stanley Kubrick’s cold war satire (1973)
11) Portrayed by Frederick March (1931), Spencer Tracey (1941), Christopher Lee in The Two Faces Of Dr Jeykell (Hammer. 1960) as well as the other Hammer sex change characterisation Dr Jeykell and Sister Hyde as well as a silent and cartoon version. The modern version of this could be considered the cartoon series, The Hulk but without either figure considered evil.
12) Based upon The Whisperer in The Darkness (1930)
13) Egyptian symbol for eternity
14) Reanimator 1985, starring Jeffrey Combs and directed by Stuart Gordon, plus other films that followed in the same vein)
15) Lovecraft also covered dreams, specifically in the Adventures of his hero Randolph Carter, The Dream Quest to Unknown Kadath being the most important work in this series (1927 – published after his death by Arkham House)