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H. P. Lovecraft: Flight From Madness

Magick book and feather

The writer of horror stories, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890—1937), was a man at war with himself. On the conscious level he was a rationalist, a materialist, and toward the end of his life, an atheist who rejected all forms of religion, spirituality, magic, and mysticism as no more than rank superstitions. Lovecraft did not believe in God or the afterlife. It was his stated conviction that after death consciousness simply ceased. He thought prayer to be a waste of time, and all human striving devoid of meaning in a pitiless universe unconcerned with the fate of the human species. Most emphatically he rejected the existence of the supernatural creatures and otherworldly events described in his fiction. In a 1916 letter he wrote, “I never had the slightest shadow of belief in the supernatural.”1

Beneath the surface, however, Lovecraft’s mind was a chaos of fantastic daydreams, horrifying nightmares, strange impulses, irrational fears, and uncanny intuitions. These chaotic aspects of his deep mind intruded themselves on his waking life in the form of obsessions that are too numerous to list. To mention only the most prominent of them, Lovecraft was convinced that he was a man out of his natural time period. He believed that his time was the eighteenth century, and saw himself as an English gentleman born two centuries late. In the same letter quoted above, he wrote, “I began to dream of myself in those scenes, witnessing tantalising fragments of eighteenth century daily life that faded too soon into wakefulness.”2 As a consequence, he affected the mannerisms, archaic speech, and writing style of an eighteenth century gentleman of New England. He did not regard this as an affectation—it seemed to him the natural way to behave: “In this manner my style was formed; not as a conscious archaism, but as though I had actually been born in 1690 instead of 1890.”3

In a 1926 letter to his aunt, he wrote concerning his powerful sense of having lived in Marblehead prior to the Revolutionary War, “the place (in common with Salem, Portsmouth, and all old New England scenes) gives me at times an intensely poignant illusory sensation of having done so in the period around 1750—1760.”4 This inner conviction of having lived in the past was so clear that Lovecraft was able to recount the details of his previous lives. He recognized that many people would assume these to be true past-life experiences, but since he rejected reincarnation with his conscious mind, he was unable to entertain the possibility, and dismissed such strong déjà-vu events with unconvincing rational explanations.

Connected with this mania for the eighteenth century was Lovecraft’s conviction, formed while he was a teenager, that he was an old man in a young man’s body.5 He took to referring to himself in correspondence with others as “papa” and “grandpa” and the “old gentleman,” and he encouraged his friends to humor him in this bizarre mental quirk. Correspondents who met him for the first time were often amazed at how young he was, since in his letters he adopted the pose of an octogenarian. He sometimes referred to adult friends as though they were children, calling them “sonny” and “lad.” He spoke of his stooped shoulders, even though he had no stoop that is visible in his photographs and was robust of body.

He also suffered from the obsession that his face was hideously deformed, and that no woman could possibly love him. This may have been the result of a problem during his youth with involuntary facial grimaces or twitching, which he later dismissed on the conscious level as having been due to ingrown facial hairs. This complex was exacerbated by his mother, who agreed with him that he was hideous, and may have first planted the idea in his mind while he was still a boy.6 He overcame the twitching as an adult, but the self-consciousness it had aroused contributed to the distance he always felt from other people.

Self-consciousness was not the reason for his withdrawal from society as a young man. Shame over his failure to finish high school, and his corresponding inability to enter Brown University, triggered an extended nervous breakdown. For a five-year period from 1908 to 1913, he seldom left his mother’s apartment during the day, but slept or lay around reading with the curtains drawn. At night he would wander the near-empty streets of his native Providence, Rhode Island, studying the colonial architecture he loved with such a passion, lingering over the grotesque ancient gravestones in Swan Point Cemetery where his mother’s family had its family plot. Throughout his life, Lovecraft remained morbidly fascinated by death and decay.

This irrational, chaotic side of Lovecraft’s outwardly controlled mind showed itself most strongly in the content of his strange dreams. From early childhood he experienced uncommonly detailed dreams, often of a horrifying type, in which he found himself projected into the dream as though he were a disembodied eye that floated above the scene and had the power to move about wherever he directed it. On at least one occasion, he felt that he might be able to will himself to enter into one of the characters of his dream, but fear woke him before he could try—he was terrified that if he entered the dream character, he might become trapped in the dream.

These nightmares often repeated themselves with minor variations for periods of years. His dream of the beings he called night-gaunts, which began shortly after the death of his grandmother when Lovecraft was only five years old, continued until adulthood. The dream character named Nyarlathotep, who would figure so prominently in Lovecraft’s stories about the Old Ones, came to him in various guises in his dreams, as an Egyptian prince and a traveling showman, among others. He later referred to these forms as the “avatars” of Nyarlathotep.

Another of Lovecraft’s deep-seated fears was a terror of the ocean, or more specifically, of the mysteries that lurked beneath the surface. An odd consequence of this terror was the accompanying dread Lovecraft felt toward all kinds of seafood. He told a friend, “I have hated fish and feared the sea and everything connected with it since I was two years old.”7 The very sight or smell of fish made him physically ill. This dread of the sea surfaces in his tales of Cthulhu, Dagon, and the Deep Ones. In the story The Horror at Martin’s Beach, which he wrote in 1922 in concert with his future wife, Sonia Greene, an unseen sea-monster tricks sunbathers on a resort beach into grasping a long rope that extends into the water, and the bathers find themselves unable to release it. Inexorably, they are drawn like fish on a line, screaming and weeping, beneath the waves.

During his years as a recluse, Lovecraft’s deep but unacknowledged need to revel in bizarre and morbid fantasies caused him to seek out and read the fantasy and horror stories in popular fiction magazines. Although the quality of writing was poor, the grotesque content of these stories fed Lovecraft’s unconscious hunger for what he would later term “cosmic horror.” He joined an amateur writing group, and his interaction with other amateur writers drew him out of his reclusive phase. Eventually, he began to write horror fiction of his own.

Writing stories about his nightmares, and about the things that both obsessed and terrified him, was Lovecraft’s way to gain conscious control over their contents, and in this way purge them from his psyche—or at least, to castrate them and deprive them of their power over him. Many of his stories are no more than recorded dreams, or dream scenes and events with a small veneer of fiction to give them a context. His stories Nyarlathotep and The Statement of Randolph Carter, for example, are direct transcriptions of his dreams. His story Polaris is based on a dream in which he flew as a disembodied awareness over a “city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills.”8

There is a term for what Lovecraft was doing in sleep, although it was not in common usage during his period—lucid dreaming. Lovecraft developed the natural ability to retain a portion of critical awareness during his dreams, and to direct that awareness to observe various aspects of the dreams, which were of uncommon complexity and clarity. Lucid dreaming is recognized today as a type of astral projection. Perhaps because of this partial control over his awareness in his dreams, he was able to remember them in great detail, and he used this gift to give his stories their eerie sense of reality. In reading his stories, we literally walk through Lovecraft’s nightmares, observing scenes and events as he must have observed them while having the dreams.

Lovecraft’s greatest character, Randolph Carter, is the alter-ego of Lovecraft himself. The descendant of a line of magicians of New England, Carter has the power to wander through the dreamlands at will with conscious awareness and full volition. Carter figures most prominently in Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which takes place entirely within the land of dreams while Carter is asleep. It is an odyssey through the dreamlands, during which Carter confronts and overcomes, or reconciles with, some of the most terrifying beings in Lovecraft’s own nightmares, such as the night-gaunts of his early boyhood, who in the novel become Carter’s means to obtain the fulfillment of his quest.

In the novel, the dreamlands are a kind of astral landscape common to both humans and other intelligent races. Carter can go where he wants and do what he likes, although the dreamlands have their own laws that apply as much to Carter when he wanders their byways as they do to their strange residents. It is a fascinating concept that could only have been developed by someone to whom dreams have the most profound significance—that the world of dreams is a persistent place, with as much reality as the waking world, or perhaps greater reality.

Lovecraft’s horrifying nightmares find expression not only in his tales of the dreamlands, but in his stories about the Great Old Ones—various ancient beings and alien races that ruled the Earth in the distant past, long before the evolution of the human species, and who wait on the edges of our reality for the time when the stars come right once more. Among their ranks looms mighty Cthulhu with his warrior spawn, who in Lovecraft’s mythos presently dream in a deathlike sleep beneath the Pacific Ocean, in the sunken city of R’lyeh. When the stars come right, R’lyeh will rise, and Cthulhu will raven the world for his delight.

All of Lovecraft’s Old Ones threaten to invade our world, our very reality, from moment to moment, but mankind remains blissfully unaware of their existence, and for this reason alone is able to enjoy the illusion of supremacy on this planet. Knowledge is our foe, ignorance our only salvation, for when science progresses sufficiently to reveal the existence of the Old Ones, and the true place of humanity in the hierarchy of living things, we will either all be driven insane, or will descend into a new dark age of barbarism and ignorance for our own preservation.

This is the message of Lovecraft’s grim stories. Humanity balances on the very brink of oblivion, protected only by our ignorance. The dread power of such books as the Necronomicon, which Lovecraft originated for his stories, is that they lift the veil of unknowing from the minds of those who read them, driving them mad or causing them to kill themselves in order to escape the unbearable horror of the human condition. In Lovecraft’s tales, the naked truth about existence is toxic.

Madness is a common theme for Lovecraft, and little wonder. His father went insane when he was two, his mother when he was 28. Both had to be locked up for the remainder of their years in Butler Hospital in Providence. All his life Lovecraft feared that he would succumb to the same fate as his parents. He suffered numerous nervous breakdowns during the first half of his life, and it may well be that the act of writing about the Old Ones and the dreamlands was the only thing that preserved his fragile sanity.

The enigma of Lovecraft’s life is that a man who possessed a natural ability to dream lucid dreams, and to travel through astral realms, a man to whom the occult and strange were the central motivators of his existence, should proclaim himself to be a complete unbeliever in all things other than the material reality of the senses. But this enigma opens its secret when we realize that Lovecraft not so much disbelieved in the esoteric, as he refused to allow himself to entertain for an instant even the possibility of its reality.

Lovecraft was always terrified that he would go mad. He sought refuge in materialism, embracing it with the fervor of a drowning man who grasps at a floating barrel. The narrowness and simplicity of the materialistic philosophy, which denies all gods and angels, all magic and miracles, was Lovecraft’s personal salvation. It set at a distance and helped him to trivialize the contents of his nightmares, which he was then able to treat as no more than entertainments for his amusement and the amusement of others. Had he been forced to acknowledge their true power, it would very probably have caused him to share the fate of most of the unfortunate readers of the Necronomicon—madness or suicide, both escapes from a reality too horrifying to endure. But Lovecraft found another escape—he fled into a materialistic and atheistic rejection of all reality beyond the most basic level of the tangible. He chose to believe in only what he could touch. In essence, like some doomed hero of Greek tragedy, Lovecraft put out his own eyes lest the things he saw should drive him insane.


  1. Lovecraft, H. P. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000, page 12.
  2. Ibid., p. 24.
  3. Ibid., p. 64. In this same 1914 letter he referred to himself as “an ancient.”
  4. Ibid., p. 188.
  5. In a 1934 letter he referred to himself as “an old man of 14.” Lovecraft, p. 30.
  6. De Camp, L. Sprague. H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975, p. 27.
  7. Ibid., p. 73.
  8. Joshi, S. T., and David E. Schultz. An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2001, p. 211.
About Donald Tyson

Donald Tyson is an occult scholar and the author of the popular, critically acclaimed Necronomicon series. He has written more than a dozen books on Western esoteric traditions, including Tarot Magic, and edited and ...

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