Science, Fear of the Unknown, & H. P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Indifference

I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on “Science in the Universe of H.P. Lovecraft” at Salt Lake Comic Con FanXperience last month. As I have a story coming out in Redneck Eldritch this month, I thought it would be fun to revisit and expand on some of my thoughts that I had the opportunity to bring up on that panel.

H. P. Lovecraft’s life and worldviews are so interesting to me, aside from his fiction. Some have speculated he may have had what we would diagnose today as Asperger’s syndrome or Autism. In what I’ve read of both his fiction and his life, it is my impression that he was a very vulnerable writer who candidly integrated some of his deepest personal fears and phobias about sea creatures, foreigners, and losing his sanity into his fiction. Something that fascinates me about him is his brand of atheism, termed a “cosmic indifference” philosophy, which also colors his fiction in interesting ways.

As a scientist of faith myself who is hoping to study and contribute to the fields of paleontology and human evolution someday, I’m concerned about rhetoric from both radical New World Atheism that specifically decries religious and spiritual convictions as delusional, disingenuous, and destructive, and Intelligent Design proponents who subvert the scientific method to “prove” the existence of God. I feel that both of these extreme philosophical attitudes perpetuate misunderstandings about compatibility between science and religious beliefs.

While academic groups like the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program wish to persuade more Americans that the concepts of evolutionary biology need not pose a threat toward individual religious and cultural worldviews, I believe these extreme attitudes are not the only obstacles to such goals. Science fiction entertainment often flatly pairs radical atheistic themes and attitudes in negative ways with scientific exploration time and again. These themes of conflict between science and belief are becoming deeply ingrained in our broader culture, and no place more effectively than in the sci-fi horror and thriller genres where, one might argue, Lovecraftian themes of cosmic indifference are most frequently emulated.

Whatever influence Lovecraft’s storytelling may have in tying anti-religious sentiments to science in our current cultural mindset, his worldview also strikes me as a genuine and historically significant one that I feel is absolutely worth dissecting and understanding. Something else that fascinates me about his fiction is that it often fixates on fear of the unknown, and mankind’s ability to comprehend the universe. Howard Lovecraft lived in a time when the world was becoming more trusting, unified, and reliant on science and scientific methods to quantify and understand the universe. As my favorite Wikipedia article puts it (I know, I know, it’s not scholarly, but it’s been a great discussion-starter source): “Lovecraft portrays this potential for a growing gap of man’s understanding of the universe as a potential for horror.”

In my mind, faith and fear of the unknown and the unknowable feel like fundamentally supernatural concepts—which seems counterintuitive when Lovecraft’s stories are considered trendsetters for our modern brand of “scientific” horror. The reason Lovecraft’s stories are considered scientific rather than typical supernatural horror, however, is because his characters make painstaking references and appeals to scientific evidence or rationalist thinking, even when that ultimately still fails them. It’s the reasoning in their approach to their problems that makes the horror conflicts scientific rather than paranormal from a literary standpoint. Interestingly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written a hundred years earlier than Lovecraft’s tales, evokes a similar sense of horror and caution about the potential unseen dangers and consequences of an attitude that we can control and comprehend everything through science, or “play God.” But it does so with the exact opposite motive of rekindling a sense of the sacred and the profane.

Imitating Lovecraft

It was important to me in writing “Mine of the Damned Gods” to try and capture Lovecraft’s themes of cosmic indifference, and the horror of trying to make meaning out of universal insignificance in my own way. I love using transformation scenes in my fiction in general because they evoke visceral questions about the sanctity of from and the fundamental or indivisible qualities of core identity. What makes me me? And is there a part of me that is not only more than a composite of trillions of individual cells that happen to look and function a certain way, but that would persist if my physical form were to suddenly, completely, and irrevocably contort into something else? How does our fear of mutilation relate to a sense of core identity, and why is the concept of a sudden shift in an individual’s physical form–from one species to another completely alien form–so effectively disturbing in this way?

It was also important to me to bend the tropes that paint misconceptions about how evolutionary processes actually work in particular, and that otherwise make evolution look like a bleak reality or a callous tool scientists (or alien invaders) might use to justify disturbing and cold-blooded activities. In my story I attempted to portray evolutionary processes as “natural,” creatively free-form, and hopeful (however blindly or futile for the sake of the horror narrative). In contrast, the “unnatural” and “damning” horror of my characters’ transformations into unfeeling cosmic entities is portrayed as constraining, annihilating, disorienting, gross, and anti-evolutionary.

There’s a lot more going on in my story, of course. Being a retelling of Oedipus Rex with a pinch of the German Legend of the Water Goblin blended in, a redneck tale, and, ultimately, a horror story meant to entertain, I had a lot of bizarre, creative fun with “Mine of the Damned Gods.” H. P. Lovecraft’s stories have captured the imaginations of many and contributed to modern science fiction literature and culture in broad and significant ways. Writing a Lovecraftian tale has both expanded my own storytelling skills and allowed me to explore themes of cosmic indifference in fiction with deeper appreciation for that point of view and its influence in the genre of scientific horror.