Narrating Anxiety through Lovecraftian Horror

Büke Sağlam takes us through the weird and wonderful world of Lovecraft’s writings, exploring the link between his work, his anxieties, and posthumanist thinking.

Eldritch horror, monsters, Cthulhu…These are the associations that spring to mind in discussions about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  The author is predominantly known for his distinctive and atmospheric horror stories – often referred to as Lovecraftian horror – which centre on the existential dread provoked by the vastness of the universe and cosmic insignificance. However, it is equally crucial to grasp the profound significance that writing had in Lovecraft’s own life, serving as the cornerstone of his existence amid life’s challenges (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 423). Exploring Lovecraft’s life, especially his curiosity for astronomy (Joshi 2013, 181), mixed with family tragedies such as the death of both of his parents in a psychiatric hospital, his self-attributed nervous state (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 97), recurring nightmares that inspired his many works (Joshi 2013, 57), other nervous ailments[1], several breakdowns (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 187), and the sense of anxiety that heavily influenced the tone of his fiction, is essential for a comprehensive understanding of his literary works.

It is important to remember that during his lifetime, Lovecraft was not a widely recognised author (Joshi 2013, 1440). Lovecraft stated that his primary motivation for writing was self-expression (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 685). Consequently, I argue, he was unabashedly honest about his inner world, experiences, and emotions, often expressing them through diverse metaphors without restraint. The autobiographical nature of his work becomes evident only when one is acquainted with the details of his life. I also argue that Lovecraft’s utilization of speculative fiction, particularly within the realm of weird fiction, provides an unparalleled platform for representing auto-biographical elements and articulating his psychic state as well as his worldview. Through the incorporation of metaphors, anti-narratives (types of narrative which violate typical elements of a conventional narrative e.g., by interrupting linearity or eliminating the narrative voice), and supernatural elements, this genre enables the portrayal of the author’s psychic world with boundless creativity and uniqueness.

Lovecraft’s literary philosophy, cosmicism, emerges from his deep exploration of astronomy. Cosmicism fundamentally embraces posthumanist ideals in emphasising humanity’s insignificance in a vast cosmos, a theme vividly embodied in Lovecraft’s weird fiction. As he states: “It is man’s relation to the cosmos–to the unknown–which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.” (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 686) In addition to this anti-anthropocentric (rejecting the centrality of humanity) stance, his stories elucidate humanity’s response to the unknown, and how it ultimately leads to a descent into madness (Joshi 2013, 1444)

Madness is a recurring motif in Lovecraft’s narratives. Many of his protagonists either inherit fragile nerves or suffer from hereditary afflictions or curses[2], and their encounters with the unknown drive them to the brink of insanity. I argue that this resonates with what Lovecraft frames as his own ‘hereditary delicate nervous system,’ which he believed made him susceptible to bouts of psychic distress. As Lovecraft writes: “I didn’t inherit a very good set of nerves, since near relatives on both sides of my ancestry were prone to headaches, nerve-exhaustion, and breakdowns” (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 96). Especially noteworthy in this nervousness, an affliction prevalent in the Victorian period, is his perspective on it as both an existential phenomenon and a psychological state.

Similar to Kierkegaard’s exploration of anxiety (Kierkegaard 1980), which stems from self-consciousness and our awareness of the vast and unfathomable realm of infinite possibilities, Lovecraft perceives the unknown as a “foreign power” (Kierkegaard 1980, 43), inducing deep-seated “fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft 2013, 26), that can even culminate in madness. As philosopher Stefano Micali comments:

 “The essential characteristic of anxiety resides in its lack of reference to any object: anxiety is anxiety of no-thing. Kierkegaard emphasizes the essential role of anxiety in the ambiguous process of self-identification.” (Micali 2022, 3)

I argue that in Lovecraft’s stories, the unknown, simultaneously ineffable and unimaginable, delineates itself through how the narrator reacts to situations where there are no tangible objects present. Consider the inability to describe the Cthulhu, one of Lovecraft’s most famous alien entities, symbolizing the unknown and evoking existential anxiety:

“The Thing cannot be described–there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.” (Lovecraft 2014, 405)

By eschewing definitive descriptions of the unknown and inviting readers to engage their imaginations, Lovecraft creates a deeply personal encounter, almost provoking an anxious response in the reader. The narrator’s response to his confrontation with the unknown also highlights his newfound awareness and fragile emotional state. He expresses: “I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me” (407). Lovecraft utilizes anti-narrative elements to represent the overwhelming emotions of anxiety and dread, thus highlighting how the emotion resists conventional narrative forms.

In Lovecraft’s prose poem/short story, Nyarlathothep- which is drawn from one of his nightmares- the author exemplifies humanity’s clash with chaos and sense of impending doom, and creates a cosmic or alien perspective by shifting the narrative voice. As Carl H. Sederholm states: “There are at least two key moments when the narrator’s voice seems to disappear from the narrative altogether, thereby allowing some other voice and perspective to potentially enter into the tale” (Sederholm 2022, 301). This technique not only reflects Lovecraft’s anti-anthropocentric stance, but also vividly captures the human response to an anxiety-inducing scenario, wherein the protagonist becomes overwhelmed or dissociated. As Sederholm further puts: “The narrative voice, once so confident and rational, is now impersonal, distant, and lost. To underscore the point, Lovecraft turns from the narrative ‘I’ that he has used in the story so far” (Sederholm 2022, 304).

The disappearance of the narrative “I” or narrative coherence is also frequently encountered in illness narratives, particularly when words and syntax prove insufficient or inaccurate in conveying the complexity of emotions or experiences. In Lous Heshusius’s memoir, Inside Chronic Pain: An Intimate and Critical Account, the author recounts:

I try to speak to doctors about the severity of my pain. My words float strangely in the air. As I pronounce them, I myself become a spectator. As soon as I begin to speak, I am no longer there. Someone else is speaking these words. Someone who has not suffered the pain, for it is much worse than she says. How can she say so little? […] How can she, how can I, express this prelanguage torment? (Wasson 2018, 110)

In the works of Lovecraft, traditional narrative coherence or linearity is often eschewed. His narrators tend to teeter on the brink of insanity, residing in old mental asylums or contemplating suicide following encounters with anxiety-inducing phenomena. However, the experience of the characters remains ineffable, defying any attempt at description. Take, for instance, Jervas Dudley, the narrator of The Tomb, who writes from an asylum, lamenting: “It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience” (Lovecraft 2014, 15). Identifying himself as part of this group of sensitive minds (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 1054), Lovecraft regarded this condition as both a curse and a privilege, affording him a deeper comprehension of the indifferent and random nature of existence, yet simultaneously eroded his mental well-being.

Lovecraft conceives of the anxiety-inducing “things”, “monsters” or “Gods” as inter-species and non-human entities originating from unknown realms beyond human comprehension, creating a sense of terror and disgust. These beings defy conventional representation and elude definition through human language, contributing to the creation of an anti-narrative ambiance. Regarding The Call of Cthulhu, China Miéville comments: “‘[T]here is no story, only the slow uncovering, from disjointed information and discarded papers, of the fact of the Weird’. Miéville calls Lovecraft’s ‘anti-narrative’ ‘exemplary of Weird Fiction’ because of its bricolage technique and its unprecedented, unrelatable monster, patched together out of several species” (Glaubitz 2021, 162). His anti-anthropocentric viewpoint, his shifting of narrative focus from human protagonists to non-human entities, and his portrayal of humanity’s reactions to these abominations, should garner significant interest from contemporary posthumanists, who challenge anthropocentrism and prioritize exploration of the non-human and our interconnectedness with it.


[1] In one of his correspondences, Lovecraft talks about his nervous state and chorea-like attacks, stating: “My face was full of unconscious & involuntary motions now & then–& the more I was urged to stop them, the more frequent they became.” (Lovecraft in Joshi 2013, 97)

[2] In The Alchemist, the narrator, referring to the hereditary curse shared by all of his descendants, including himself, states: “(I)n my utter solitude my mind began to cease its vain protest against the impending doom, to become almost reconciled to the fate which so many of my ancestors had met.” (Lovecraft 2014, 10-11) Another example can be found in the famous The Shadow Over Innsmouth, among others.

About the author

Büke Sağlam holds an MA in Crossways in Cultural Narratives from Adam Mickiewicz University (Poland), Universitá degli Studi di Bergamo (Italy), and Universidade de Santiago de Compostela (Spain). Buke earned her PhD in 2023 and was awarded with honors and “International Mention” for her research on anxiety disorders and their representation in H.P.Lovecraft’s weird fiction. She is currently working on her forthcoming monograph and her research areas include medical/health humanities, narrative medicine, posthumanism, trauma studies, and translation studies.

References

Glaubitz, Nicola. 2021. “Mean Streets: Tracking the Dispositives of Address(es) with China Miéville’s ‘Reports of Certain Events in London.’” Zeitschrift Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik 69 (2): 159–71.

Joshi, S.T. 2013. I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. Kindle. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1980. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting

Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. N.J: Princeton University Press.

Lovecraft, H.P. 2014. The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. NY: Race Point Publishing.

2014. “The Alchemist.” In The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, 7-14. NY: Race Point Publishing.

2014. “The Tomb.” In The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, 15-24. NY: Race Point Publishing.

2014. “Nyarlathotep.” In The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, 138-140. NY: Race Point Publishing.

2014. “The Call of Cthulhu.” In The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, 381-407. NY: Race Point Publishing.

2014. “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” In The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, 866- 923. NY: Race Point Publishing.

2013. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Abergele: Wermod & Wermod Publishing Group.

Micali, Stefano. 2022. Phenomenology of Anxiety. Phaenomenologica 235. Cham: Springer.

Sederholm, Carl H. 2022. “Falling into the Void: ‘Nyarlathotep.’” In Lovecraft in the 21st Century:         Dead, But Still Dreaming, edited by Antonio Alcala Gonzalez and Carl H. Sederholm. New York: Routledge.

Wasson, Sara. 2018. “Before Narrative: Episodic Reading and Representations of Chronic Pain.” Medical Humanities 44: 106–12.

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