Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cosmic Ants

S.T. Joshi has offered the word cosmicism to describe the underlying unity of Lovecraft’s “mythos” stories.  This unity lies in the perception of humanity as trivial and inconsequential aside of the vast universe and the incomprehensible ‘powers and principalities’ that inhabit it across eons of time.  Some of Lovecraft’s best stories seem to emphasize this theme, such as The Shadow Out of Time, At The Mountains of Madness, and The Colour Out of Space.  Not surprisingly, this is most strongly seen in Lovecraft’s science fiction. Joshi’s concept of cosmicism may also apply to Lovecraft’s view of the universe as expressed in his letters, which would be consistent with Lovecraft’s professed atheism, (and Joshi’s).  But cosmicism is not always clearly in view in many of his stories.     

Lovecraft’s Old Ones often seem to take a very close and personal interest in humankind. For example, in The Dunwich Horror, Yog-Sothtoth impregnates the mother of Wilbur Whately and his even stranger twin brother following rituals and incantations taken from the dreaded Necronomicon.  (The idea of immortals consorting with mortal women to produce strange hybrid beings is probably taken from ancient Greek mythology.)  The boys later attempt to bring their father and his colleagues back to earth using similar means. 

There are other examples in Lovecraft of Old Ones’ reliance on humans and human religious practices to “bring them back” or to conjure them for some sort of mischief.  Where would Cthulhu be without his Cthulhu Cult?    Why would Nyarlathotep torment Randolph Carter with visions of his home town in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath?  The various extraterrestrials and their minions are not necessarily blind accidental forces, but rather malevolent, calculating and purposeful--and they need the help of humans to carry out their wishes on earth and elsewhere.  So the relationship of Lovecraft’s characters with beings and forces beyond comprehension is actually personal, even caring at times.

In fact, it is Puritan Christianity turned on its head, with multiple deities actively seeking mankind’s destruction—through dreams, psychic possession, or seduction by way of forbidden scriptures.  “Ye shall know the truth”, but instead of setting them free, instead of offering them salvation, Lovecraft’s fictional scholars are enslaved to an unending fear of the future.

However, a very good example of the cosmicism Joshi describes may be found in George Allan England’s The Thing From Outside, originally published in 1923.  England was one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries and once ran as a socialist candidate for governor of Maine.  (He lost.)

The Thing From Outside literally begins midstream, as a party of explorers is in flight from some invisible entity that has already killed their three Indian guides.  The party has been canoeing south from the Hudson Bay along the Albany River.  They are paddling upstream, which makes the journey even more arduous.  The invisible entity relentlessly follows them from camp to camp, along miles of forested river bank.  Strange circular marks, frosty with an icy cold that never dissipates, begin to appear around them.  Other signs of its presence soon appear:  intense cold, campfires and tobacco pipes that will not stay lit, scarce wildlife, and strange atmospheric effects.

In their desperation, members of the party debate and speculate about what is happening to them and what they should do.  There is an interesting reference to Charles Fort (1874-1932), an actual expert in supernatural phenomena who was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and George Allan England.  His Book of the Damned is quoted in England’s story as an authoritative reference regarding extra-terrestrial involvement on earth.  (The notion that extra-terrestrials visited earth throughout the early history of humankind and influenced ancient architecture will remind some readers of Erich von Däniken’s 1969 book Chariots of the Gods?)

In The Thing From Outside, humankind is repeatedly compared to ants.  That ‘we are mere ants’ is a classic statement of cosmicism.  Describing the demise of one of the characters, the author writes: “It moved its hands as a crushed ant moves its antennae, jerkily, without significance.”   

Members of the party begin to succumb to the fear and duress.  They experience severe headaches, hallucinations, disorientation, and inexplicable rages.  One by one they begin to perish, as those remaining descend into madness.  Eventually the party arrives at a deserted lumber camp.  Two of them manage to survive the encounter with ‘the Thing’, but only because it is momentarily distracted. 

The Thing From Outside has fairly obvious flaws, but some compelling scenes and themes.
The dialogue is wooden, characterization is weak, and the text seems very sketchy in sections, as if one were reading the outline of a much more involved and detailed work.  The author uses capital letters in the same way Lovecraft uses italics to augment the melodrama:  “A house, even a poor and broken one, is a wonderful barrier against a Thing from—Outside.”  The loud quavering tones of a theremin would be appropriate at this point.

However, the story is effective in depicting an entire region haunted by the presence of something beyond understanding.  Lovecraft achieves a similar effect in The Colour Out of Space and in other stories where evil and horror appear to permeate an entire landscape and are manifested through swollen trees, misshapen vegetation, queer animal calls and atmospheric changes. 

The Thing from Outside is reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows (1907), which also takes place along a river.  The invisible beings in both stories leave unusual marks on their surroundings and on their victims.  Their interactions with human characters have an accidental, disinterested, and incomprehensible quality—which are elements of cosmicism in these stories.  The ensuing loss of sanity and orientation in England’s tale will remind some readers of the Blair Witch Project, another story of campers slowly losing their minds to fear and isolation.

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