Whenever I need a break from my more serious studying, one of my occasional guilty pleasures is reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft, he was an American author from the early 1900s famous for his eerie and atmospheric short stories. He was born on this day in 1890, so I thought it might be fitting to do a little bit of reflecting on his literature from a Christian perspective.
Although he was actually not very famous during his lifetime, and was basically broke when he died, Lovecraft still managed to leave a strong and lasting influence on the genres of horror and science fiction in the years since his death.
In fact, his impact has even led to the use of his name as an adjective – as in “Lovecraftian horror.” From films like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus, to video games like Skyrim and Bloodborne, to comic series like Batman, Lovecraft’s influence persists.
And while I’m not a big fan of horror as a genre, the main thing I appreciate about Lovecraft is his inimitable mastery of creating atmosphere through his words. It takes considerable artistry to draw readers into a scene and stir powerful emotions in them, even when very little is actually happening in terms of action.
As an example, here’s the opening paragraph from one of his short stories, “The Colour Out of Space”:
“West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentle slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs. The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. It is not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined. The place is not good for imagination, and does not bring restful dreams at night.”
With carefully-chosen vocabulary, Lovecraft could take a description of a mundane country setting and make it exciting and haunting — essentially turning it into an character of its own.
But the irony is that while I enjoy Lovecraft’s style of writing, I couldn’t be further apart from him in terms of worldview.
An avowed atheist, Lovecraft drew the inspiration for his literary terrors from his belief that the universe is a frightening place characterized by random chaos. He felt that if people only realized how insignificant they really were in the grand, cosmic scheme of things, they would likely go mad.
Consider this quote from his most well-known story, The Call of Cthulhu:
“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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Pretty bleak stuff, even before we get to the parts where all the terrifying alien monsters show up.
Now, you may be thinking at this point: Why would a Christian be interested in reading stories with such a perspective?
To make a long story short, I can respect a person like Lovecraft because he at least followed his beliefs through to their logical conclusion. If atheism were true (which I don’t believe at all), then Lovecraft is right — we would have every reason to be terrified. For even the very idea of “goodness” would be a meaningless illusion. There would really be nothing left for us but cosmic indifference; a chaos of absurdity ending in dark oblivion. Why bother with such trivial concepts like “justice,” “family,” “love,” etc.?
And yet, deep down, we know these concepts aren’t mere illusions. Even those atheists who claim to believe this way still live as though behaviors like raising your children to be responsible adults or contributing to society truly are good things, and cruel acts like genocide or bigotry truly are bad things.
But where do these notions of “good” and “bad” come from, if there is no absolute standard of good by which to measure?
This was the argument once posed so eloquently by C. S. Lewis. As he puts it:
“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something — some Real Morality — for them to be true about.” — Mere Christianity (Book 1 Chapter 2, “Some Objections”).
For Lewis, and indeed for all Christians, this absolute standard of goodness is God himself, the infinitely good Creator who loves his children.
Obviously I believe Lewis’ vision of the nature of the universe to be true and Lovecraft’s to be false. But let’s consider just one more question that Lovecraft’s literature brings up: what if God existed, but he wasn’t totally good?
What if he were more like Cthulhu and his pals — an almighty but ultimately indifferent or arbitrary Being, the sight of whom would conjure terror more than love?
After all, there are some theistic religions whose concept of “God” matches this description. It even appears among some Christians!
A chief example would be “Hyper-Calvinism” (or “Incompatibilist Calvinism”), what with its concept of a God who unconditionally decrees everything that takes place, including that some will be saved while many more will be damned, entirely irrespective of any human choice, solely for his own “glory.”
Such a deity sounds just as frightening, if not arguably more so, than any eldritch horror Lovecraft could conceive.
But, once again, I believe it is our implicit understanding of goodness that points us to the reality that the true God is not like that at all.
For if we recognize that goodness, kindness, and fairness are better/greater than selfishness, arbitrariness, or caprice, then does it not make sense that the God who made reality reflects such greater qualities? If we perceive that human life is in fact a valuable thing, isn’t that a reflection of the God who loves the people he made in his image?
And if we understand and acknowledge, even on a human level, that one who loves without denying freedom to their beloved is better than someone who unilaterally enforces their will, then shouldn’t we suspect that the greatest Being in the universe embodies such love supremely?
And so we should begin to see that the God who set our vast and awe-inspiring universe into motion looks nothing at all like Cthulhu.
Instead, he looks exactly like Jesus — the One who embodies perfect love and kindness. The One who lovingly surrendered his own life on behalf of the human creations he so deeply loves. The One who overcame all the true cosmic horrors of sin, evil, and death to offer life everlasting.
That God is very good.
I hope you enjoyed this rather nerdy theological reflection! Let me know what you think in the comments — would you like to see me do more reflections on fiction and pop culture?
Also, if you’re interested in going deeper in regard to moral arguments for God’s existence, be sure and check out Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, particularly Chapter Nine (“The Knowledge of God”).
See you down the path.