Arcana (3) | HiLobrow
The most unsettling opening line in a horror story, I think, is the famous claim that launches H.P. Lovecraft’s 1926 tale “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.
Because of this inability, Lovecraft’s narrator opines, our reality is equivalent to “a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.” But the time of ultimate correlation is nigh—a time when, by piecing together the fragments of “dissociated knowledge” produced by the sciences, we will be thrust from that island into a vista of infinite reality that will so thoroughly eviscerate human meaning and purpose that we will go insane or flee into “the peace and safety of a new tea party.” Actually the phrase is “new dark age,” but you get the picture.
In this tangy bon-bon of nihilistic materialism, Lovecraft anticipates a peculiarly modern experience of dread, one conjured not by irrational fears of the dark but rather by the speculative realism of reason itself, staring into the cosmic void. Pascal was arguably the first to articulate this existential horror vacui when he proclaimed, in the face of the post-Copernican picture of an endless universe, that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” This terror before the empty and ultimately unknowable universe of scientific materialism is what gives the cosmic edge to the cosmic horror that Lovecraft, more than any other writer, injected into the modern imagination (though props must be given up as well to Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, and, in the closing chapters of The Time Machine at least, H.G. Wells). While many secular people proclaim an almost childlike wonder at the mind-melting prospect of the incomprehensibly vast universe sketched out by astrophysics and bodied forth by doctored Hubble shots, Lovecraft would say that we have not really swallowed the implication of this inhuman immensity—that we have not, in other words, correlated our contents.
As an imaginative writer publishing in the pulps, Lovecraft peopled this meaningless void with squishy monsters—monsters whose unmatchable and perpetually resonant originality must, I believe, be traced at least in part to the particularly secular dread that animates them. (Vampires and demon dogs belong to the ages; Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, and Cthulhu are ours.) Of course there is an immense difference between the equations that define Einsteinean space-time and the monotonous whine of accursed flutes that greet the seething nuclear chaos beyond angled space that is Azazoth, the blind idiot God. But Lovecraft’s genius was to suspend that difference, to, as it were, outgun Goya: it is not just the sleep of reason that breeds monsters, but reason with its eyes open and awake.