As someone who has had a passing familiarity of the Mythos through popular culture, upon reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft I was not expecting to find much representation of women like me. I was then pleasantly surprised to find themes and ideas within the works of H.P. Lovecraft that have resonated with my personal experiences as a transgender woman. While there is no typical trans experience, there are tales of discovery and the questioning of accepted reality that appear regularly in the works of Lovecraft, which have certainly struck a chord with my own transition. These tales within the Mythos have helped me reflect and understand my own feelings towards myself, my dysphoria, and our society.
In this essay I have selected a few short stories to give a fresh perspective on, and how they are relevant to my lived experiences and perhaps by extension to women like me. I was in fact very disappointed to find that in “The Transition of Juan Romero,” Juan merely transitions from being alive to dead. Of course, I still enjoy works such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but much of that appreciation comes from the same place as that of other readers. Instead, I have picked on themes which may have been overlooked by a cisgender mindset. I hope my thoughts are both informative and entertaining for all audiences.
The details of a typical protagonist are often ambiguous and left to the reader’s imagination, but share the common theme of reacting in a human and relatable way when presented with something out of the ordinary. This does drag up memories, sometimes painful, of the early phases of my transition having been young, confused, and unequipped to deal with my own feelings towards gender. As Lovecraft favours the short story format, the process of discovery of the unknown as a direct consequence of the protagonist’s curiosity is a common theme that is visited often. This shedding of innocence towards the supernatural has many parallels to the “incredibly knowledgeable about transitioning” stage whilst I was struggling with denial.
One example of this feverish curiosity is that of the young man in “The Music of Erich Zann.” While living in a flat in the Rue d’Auseil, he becomes fascinated with the music of the old viol player, Erich Zann. Not necessarily understanding the true nature of his obsession, he repeatedly seeks out the elderly musician, desperate to hear and make sense of the music coming from the penthouse flat. Upon discovering an unnamed horror behind the genius of Zann’s music, he flees and is relieved that he cannot find his way back to the Rue d’Auseil.
I can envision myself as the naïve young student, getting a glimpse of something extraordinary and compulsively following the trail of discovery before realising that there is no way of unlearning that which has been learned. Instead of a haunted German viol player, it was the knowledge that I could and eventually should transition. Learning what transitioning involved and knowing that it was achievable, in my stages of denial there was definitely a feeling of regret that I had pulled that thread and where it had led me. In this sense, I had tried fleeing my own Rue d’Auseil and hoping that like the young metaphysics student, I could never return to what I had discovered. Where my story differs in its ending was that I did find my way back and in fact began to rationalise my discovery and take positive steps forward.
The use of dreams as a vector of worldbuilding and creeping horror is an iconic part of many of Lovecraft’s stories and by extension the mythos as a whole. Whether by having nightmares or particularly vivid dreams, I am sure I am not alone in having those nights of dream filled sleep that have persisted long into the waking hours and even into my long-term memory. Before I accepted my gender identity, dreams where I was female would give lingering pangs of guilt and confusion over my enjoyment and comfort, coupled by feelings of bitter disappointment upon awakening. Nowadays I mostly dream in my preferred gender role, however the most precious dreams are when physically everything is vividly correct. One of the most common phrases coming from people suffering from gender dysphoria is that they wish they could somehow awaken as the opposite gender, a phrase so common it is considered cliche. This is where the blending of dreams and reality prominent in stories such as “Celephaïs” really hits home.
The story “Celephaïs” focuses on the main character Kuranes, a middle-aged man who is the last of a respected family line that has almost faded into obscurity. Visited by dreams from his youth, he pursues the land of Celephaïs within his periods of slumber. It is quickly established that Kuranes is not the character’s original name, but rather one he chose himself for this new venture of seeking Celephaïs. Kuranes then becomes obsessed with his dream world, spending the last of his wealth frivolously on narcotics to increase his periods asleep. Ultimately, the fate of Kuranes is a tragic one. Upon travelling with fanfare to his beloved Celephaïs, we are brought crashing back to the waking world with the body of Kuranes washing up on the shore.
For me, the change of name really drives home the idea that in the dream we are unburdened by the roles and responsibilities that society has put upon an individual, instead we are free to be who we choose. As someone who has changed name, the gravitas of a character changing his name during his dreams says that Kuranes was so unhappy with his old identity that he felt it necessary to shed it entirely. Being the last of an esteemed family line, I imagine what little pride Kuranes had left existed in that name, so to rid himself of this hereditary pride shows complete commitment to abandoning his old life and starting anew in Celephaïs.
The curious phenomenon that occurs within the tale of Kuranes is his inconsistent ability to reach Celephaïs, much like my inconsistent ability to dream in the correct gender. I have a particular sympathy with Kuranes when he starts spending the last of his wealth on drugs to extend his dreaming hours to further his search for Celephaïs. We, as a reader, may look upon Kuranes as foolish and desperate to take such actions. However, as someone who was desperately unhappy with my previous waking self, I can truly sympathise with the need to escape my physical self and pursue my own image in a dream. I am rather glad that in this day and age, I may instead work towards this existence in the waking world, instead of chasing a perpetual slumber to achieve transitioning.
Continuing with the theme of dreams, I will next look at the short story “The White Ship.” Here, our protagonist is a third-generation lighthouse keeper, who boards a strange white vessel known to his family. Accompanied by an old man and guided by a bird of heaven, they visit many wondrous lands with the land of Sona-Nyl seeming like a paradise. The Keeper’s hubris is a central theme, where he pursues ever more lands until he is warned against venturing further to Cathuria. Refusing to heed these warnings, he insists on sailing onward, before the voyage ends in catastrophe with the white ship smashed upon the shores of Carthuria.
When the keeper awakens with no time having passed, there lies the bird of heaven and a single spar from the white ship. Unlike in Celephaïs, our keeper has ended up here out of his own actions rather than the everyday event of awakening from a dream. Upon awakening, he gives no indication as to whether he regrets pursuing Cathuria and giving up the timeless paradise on the shores of Sona-Nyl. I personally resonate with the keeper when he looks at the bird on the shore and that scene really hit a nerve.
As a reader, I feel two parts to observing our protagonist leave Sota-Nyl to pursue Cathuria. Initially, I feel a sense of superiority and smugness, thinking that I would never be so foolish as to throw away the golden opportunity of remaining in an idyllic land. On closer inspection however, what made them leave Sota-Nyl was what made this story special to me. When I first started transitioning, I understood that I was giving up an easier life with much less obstacles than that of a trans person. Without meaning to sound bitter, life is easier being cis and to give that up was an incredibly daunting journey to set out on. Much like our lighthouse keeper, I too had many warnings and faced adversity in my choice of path and where it would lead me. So, to see our keeper stay true to his conviction and press on regardless, that gave me strength in my own journey. I can then fully understand the reasoning behind leaving what might seem a perfect world, because to people like me and the keeper, it was only ever the choice we ever had.
Lovecraft’s tales are often horrifying in nature and end in tragedy, they nonetheless have had the positive impact of exploring negative and self-destructive thoughts. By using the architecture of cosmic horror, it helps frame our thoughts and desires outside the norms of everyday life and rationalise them. I don’t wish I never pursued learning about transitioning, instead I see that curiosity is a common trait of humanity. I understand the futility of pursuing dreams as a substitute for existing happily in the waking world. Finally, I realise that like the lighthouse keeper, I would have been miserable upon the shores of Sona-Nyl and pursuing Cathuria to live what resembles an ordinary life was the best and only option for me. By reframing such tough introspections through the works of H.P. Lovecraft, these works have made me feel more comfortable with myself and my identity. At least until the old ones rise from the depths anyway.
Copyright 2022 by Sophie Litherland.
Sophie is a writer, stand-up comic, and presenter who tends to work with the sciences, but can’t keep her mouth shut on other subjects.
4 thoughts on “A Transwoman Looks At Lovecraft by Sophie Litherland”
Found this to be a great read, thinking in cosmic terms helps me deal with death and the chaotic nature of the universe to ruin my plans like everyone else’s. That even if everything went my way, that would only be a sign that something is wrong in the universe. That keeps me grounded. If Azathoth(climate change) is waking up, the only thing to do is whatever you think you can.
Surprised that you did not see “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” as also containing similar elements to those you see in “Celephais.” This apart, a brilliant piece that certainly helped me, a non trans person, better understand the issues and dilemmas a trans person faces.
I’m cisgender and queer and thoroughly enjoyed your written piece. Thank you.
I think it shows real insight, careful thought, and emotional intelligence to illustrate so clearly how Lovecraft’s very specific style can inform the experience of gender transition. Beautifully done, and something very valuable to cisgender persons like myself to read.