The Embroidered Robes of Myth

Perhaps it was natural for him to dream a new name; for he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and remind him who he had been. His money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams. What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he shewed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. The more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to try to describe them on paper. Kuranes was not modern, and did not think like others who wrote. Whilst they strove to strip from life its embroidered robes of myth, and to shew in naked ugliness the foul thing that is reality, Kuranes sought for beauty alone. When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams.

DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “Celephaïs” (1920), the narrator describes how Kuranes, by distancing himself from modern civilization, finds beauty and meaning in his dreams.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Celephaïs.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 24-30.

The Oldest and Strongest Emotion

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft claims that the weird tale, despite the objections of its critics, is a legitimate form of artistic expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 82-125.

Momentary Vistas

Sometimes I stumble accidentally on rare combinations of slope, curved street-line, roofs & gables & chimneys, & accessory details of verdure & background, which in the magic of late afternoon assume a mystic majesty & exotic significance beyond the power of words to describe. Absolutely nothing else in life now has the power to move me so much; for in these momentary vistas there seem to open before me bewildering avenues to all the wonders & lovelinesses I have ever sought, & to all those gardens of eld whose memory trembles just beyond the rim of conscious recollection, yet close enough to lend to life all the significance it possesses. All that I live for is to recapture some fragment of this hidden & just unreachable beauty …

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Donald Wandrei, Lovecraft describes the meaning of his life as an attempt to capture beauty.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Donald Wandrei.” 21 Apr. 1927. Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2002, pp. 84-93.

Reading James Joyce

There is no more true sense and artistick discrimination in a modern coxcomb’s praise of Jurgen or Ulysses … than there is in a small boy’s praise of the dirty words which a bigger boy has dared to chalk up on the back wall of the stable.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft ridicules the praise being given to James Joyce and other modernists, whom he considers vulgar.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” 8 Jan. 1924. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 281-5.

A Cheap Puppet Show

In everything I do there is a certain concreteness, extravagance, or general crudeness which defeats the vague but insistent object I have in mind. I start out trying to find symbols expressive of a certain mood induced by a certain visual conception …, but when I come to put anything on paper the chosen symbols seem forced, awkward, childish, exaggerated, & essentially inexpressive. I have staged a cheap, melodramatic puppet-show without saying what I wanted to say in the first place.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft expresses doubts about the value of his writing.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 13 Dec. 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 328-36.

An Aesthete Devoted to Harmony

So far as I am concerned—I am an aesthete devoted to harmony, and to the extraction of the maximum possible pleasure from life. I find by experience that my chief pleasure is in symbolic identification with the landscape and tradition-stream to which I belong—hence I follow the honour expected of a descendant of English gentlemen. It is pride and beauty-sense, plus the automatic instincts of generations trained in certain conduct-patterns, which determine my conduct from day to day. But this is not ethics, because the same compulsions and preferences apply, with me, to things wholly outside the ethical zone. For example, I never cheat or steal. Also, I never wear a top-hat with a sack coat or munch bananas in public on the streets, because a gentleman does not do those things either. I would as soon do the one as the other sort of thing—it is all a matter of harmony and good taste—whereas the ethical or “righteous” man would be horrified by dishonesty yet tolerant of coarse personal ways.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Woodburn Harris, Lovecraft describes aesthetics, rather than morality, as the guiding influence in his life.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Woodburn Harris.” 25 Feb. 1929. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 226-9.

The Perfection of the Hideous

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “The Picture in the House” (1920), Lovecraft claims that rural New England can be far more frightening than the castles and catacombs of Gothic literature.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Picture in the House.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 34-42.

The Scottish Rite

Washington itself—mostly the older Georgetown section—claimed considerable of my attention. Of the newer buildings I think I was most impressed by the imposing temple of the Scottish Rite Masons at 16th and S. Sts. I saw this first at night; and something about the Cyclopean windowless façade, with its guardian Sphinxes and cryptical twin braziers burning beside the great bronze door, gave me an ineffably poignant sense of brooding, transmitted mystery—of terrible secrets and obscure arcana of an elder earth, handed down in nocturnal incantations amongst the ancient and privileged group whose meeting-place the temple is. I could understand the sensation of awe, sometimes amounting to fear and aversion, with which the masonic fraternity was generally regarded by outsiders in naiver ages than the present.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Zealia Bishop, Lovecraft describes his impressions of the Masonic Hall in Georgetown.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Zealia Bishop.” 28 July 1928. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 241-3.

Intolerable Restraint

A great part of religion is merely a childish and diluted pseudo-gratification of this perpetual gnawing toward the ultimate illimitable void. Superadded to this simple curiosity is the galling sense of intolerable restraint which all sensitive people (except self-blinded earth-gazers like little Augie DerlEth) feel as they survey their natural limitations in time and space as scaled against the freedoms and expansions and comprehensions and adventurous expectancies which the mind can formulate as abstract conceptions. Only a perfect clod can fail to discern these irritant feelings in the greater part of mankind—feelings so potent and imperious that, if denied symbolic outlets in aesthetics or religious fakery, they produce actual hallucinations of the supernatural, and drive half-responsible minds to the concoction of the most absurd hoaxes and the perpetuation of the most absurd specific myth-types.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft argues that many people, when contemplating the inflexibility of natural law, feel a sense of “intolerable restraint,” which often finds expression in either religious or artistic symbolism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” Feb. 1931. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 257-60.

The Abhorred Practice of Grave-Robbing

May heaven forgive the folly and morbidity which led us both to so monstrous a fate! Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world, where even the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St. John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui. The enigmas of the Symbolists and the ecstasies of the pre-Raphaelites all were ours in their time, but each new mood was drained too soon of its diverting novelty and appeal. Only the somber philosophy of the Decadents could hold us, and this we found potent only by increasing gradually the depth and diabolism of our penetrations. Baudelaire and Huysmans were soon exhausted of thrills, till finally there remained for us only the more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures. It was this frightful emotional need which led us eventually to that detestable course which even in my present fear I mention with shame and timidity—that hideous extremity of human outrage, the abhorred practice of grave-robbing.

DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “The Hound” (1922), the narrator explains how ennui drove him and his friend St. John to rob graves.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Hound.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 81-8.