A Survivor Looks At Lovecraft

A Survivor Looks At Lovecraft
by James Harvey

Lovecraft’s protagonists are usually victims of severe trauma with lasting effects on their mental health. Given the cosmic scale of Lovecraft’s fiction, they are comparatively naïve in their level of awareness; as a result, they uncover information about and experience things that they are wholly unprepared for. Traumatic events are so jarring and out of the range of normal experience that they produce an existential crisis in the victim. Trauma in the real world can even cause effects that have many similarities to the supernatural: antagonists that can transcend time and space (flashbacks), hauntings and possessions (disassociation), even the ritualistic way in which survivors can manage symptoms and heal (grounding exercises, exposure therapy, mantras and verbal reinforcement).

What appeal does Lovecraft have for a survivor of trauma? Why would such bleak and frightening scenarios be of interest? Perhaps they won’t be, for some. Trauma has too many sources and effects to have a single author that can speak to all who experience it; I speak only from my own experiences as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and my resultant post-traumatic stress disorder. When I first began to grapple with the memories and emotions that were tearing my life apart, I happened upon Lovecraft’s writing and found things that I didn’t understand about my own feelings articulated nearly perfectly by this strange dead writer from Providence. The metaphysics of the worlds he created held an uncanny resemblance to the chaos in my mind, and in those dark, early days of my recovery I was reading stories of people who seemed to feel the way that I felt.

The only saving grace of the present is that it’s too damned stupid to question the past very closely.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

Though I truly immersed myself in Lovecraft in my late twenties, I had heard of him before and forgotten. In high school, the abuse I had suffered for years finally at an end, I had decided to never think of it again. Almost giddy with freedom from fear for the first time, I resolved to put the years of suffering behind me and began more than a decade of avoidance. At the same time, a close friend told me about a weird story he had read in which an old man plays the “violin” at a garret window to keep “demons” at bay—”The Music of Erich Zann.” As I was already spending a great deal of time keeping certain intrusive memories and thoughts from my mind, the image resonated with me.

When I took Lovecraft up again years later, I came to blame myself rather less for not processing my trauma. Who could, knowing that inconceivable horror exists, think that any good could come from interacting with it? I don’t think Danforth dared to take a second look as he flew away from the Plateau of Leng in At the Mountains of Madness, and the “pledges of secrecy” he and Dyer took seemed like prudent measures.

In my worst times, I constantly feared I was losing my mind. Even after I broke my silence on what had happened to me, I had no words to explain the kind of places I went to in my nightmares. In the years when I could do nothing but keep my head above water, Lovecraft’s writing told me that someone else knew the same kind of fear as I. While I was in a place that could know little relief, there was at least understanding. I know now that there are many ways to connect with fellow survivors—SNAP and 1in6, to name only two—but being able to simply pick up a book and see something of my own experience was an easy and comforting way that I felt less alone in my pain.

As I read Lovecraft’s correspondence and heard more discussion of his worldview, I also felt that there was a place for my burgeoning sense of nihilism. I was afraid of and unused to the concept of a universe with no benevolent god or gods at first. To a devout believer in a benevolent god, the terrifying shifts precipitated by trauma can be particularly damaging. My parents had placed all of their faith in the wrong people and raised my brothers and I accordingly. I had built up a child’s sense of identity and self around religious concepts that would be hideously taken advantage of. 

For me, the horror comes from the destruction of self, not only through direct trauma but by the existential crisis that arose from realizing that the universe contains forces that are malevolent or at best uncaring. During the healing process I came to a happy peace with my new understanding of the universe, enjoying the “whimsical sentimentality” that Lovecraft spoke of: 

For my part—as a realist beyond the age of theatricalism and naive beliefs—I feel quite certain that my own known last hour would be spent quite prosaically […] I’d probably spend the residual minutes getting a last look at something closely associated with my earliest memories—a picture, a library table, an 1895 Farmer’s Almanack, a small music-box I used to play with at 2 ½, or some kindred symbol—completing a psychological circle in a spirit half of humour and half of whimsical sentimentality. Then—nothingness, as before Aug. 20, 1890.

H. P. Lovecraft to the Coryciani, 14 Jul 1936, Lovecraft Annual 11.144-145

While Lovecraft used his talent for writing to make beautiful compositions on the theme of cosmic nihilism, his intense fear of the Other manifested in racism and xenophobia throughout his life.

The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government.

H. P. Lovecraft, “In A Major Key,” Collected Essays 1.57

While his descriptions of helplessness and despair can evoke sympathy from survivors, his misplaced antipathy towards people of color is a bitter reminder of the many poor coping mechanisms trauma can encourage. Characters like Zadok Allen in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and the sailor from “Dagon” turn to substance abuse, but fail to escape their trauma-filled pasts and meet poor ends. Using the metaphor of cosmic horror to cope with my own trauma, I see these as cautionary tales for survivors to not lose ourselves entirely in our efforts to escape.

The question of whether or not Lovecraft personally suffered from a trauma-related mental illness is not at all clear. Even if Lovecraft had gotten professional medical care on a regular basis, the mental health resources of his lifetime were very limited. However, it is known that he experienced intense nightmares as a child and suffered from a nervous breakdown serious enough to prevent his graduation from high school, despite his obvious intelligence, enjoyment of learning, and stated intention to attend Brown University (I Am Providence 1.34-35, 126-127). I will refrain from attempting any posthumous diagnoses, but familiarity with fear, depression, and the overwhelming anxiety Lovecraft described could only make his writing more resonant to those suffering from PTSD; perhaps too much so, for some.

From the view of a survivor, I will say this about Lovecraft and the wondrous, terrifying, weird mythos that has sprung from him: it creates a rare sense of camaraderie to find someone who knows that the greatest magnitudes of fear are those that shatter your illusions and defy your ability to describe them. The oppressive role that trauma plays in a survivor’s life is softened by encountering someone else who has seen fear in a handful of dust… Or perhaps, essential salts. Lovecraft is a lifeline and a warning, a rare kindred spirit to the broken, and a solemn reminder that no matter the pain one feels, it is always possible to create works of beauty that can inform and inspire.

James Harvey is a playwright and academic writing tutor living and working in New Brunswick, Canada. His published plays can be found at https://www.lazybeescripts.co.uk/

Copyright 2022 James Harvey

3 thoughts on “A Survivor Looks At Lovecraft

  1. I too am a survivor. Sexual abuse, and molestation as a child. Post traumatic Stress from nearly dying while at work. Complex post traumatic stress induced from my first marriage and the interference from my wife for many years. The list is not short.
    I was not aware of my trauma, however, when I first came to Lovecraft, having dissociated so much. I found his work interesting, and devoured everything I could. Being naive myself, I failed to see the racism and xenophobia for what it was at first, deluding myself into categorising his work into two spheres, Thanatophobia, the fear of death in his works that focused on Eldritch Horrors, and Xenophobia in his works that focused on the strange and the new. Knowing that he was raised and writing in the heart of ‘old New England’ and of the prevalent racism of that time, I didn’t, despite my progressive attitudes (ah the privilege of being a white ‘liberal’), see that here was a racism that ran deep, and plumbed depths that were beyond the norm of his time.
    Later I grew to understand this, and while I do not like it, nor condone it, it is dross that can be and should be ejected from what otherwise is a masterful telling of the sense of horror that hid behind my eyes, at the back of my mind, dwelling, festering, and growing in strength until I was ready, as the light bulb in the psychiatrist’s office, to change.
    I still find the theme of cosmic horror a powerful one.
    I use literature and its devices to help me explore and explain my own recovery from my traumas. Once, I realised that one cannot simply know the destination and go there without actually traversing the intervening ‘geography’ and I likened it to why the Fellowship of the Ring had to Walk to Mordor, with the exclamation “But I don’t wanna walk to Mordor, Borormir was right, you don’t simply walk, it is a struggle!” and while my therapist and I had a good laugh at that, it is true, the process is long, involved, and can feel very perilous to those who are unfamiliar with the way, which as a Dissociative, I am. I’ve worked long and hard to forget the road back to where that malevolent ring around my life was forged.
    Like Jacob Marley, I have, in my efforts to put the past behind me, made a chain of these rings locking me to my trauma, and now, I seek emancipation, I must break each one, though some crumble or split faster than others, the weight of those unbroken still drag me down, slowing me, holding me back from the progress I seek to make in my recovery.
    Reading about others triumphs and traumas does help me. They provide insight and sign posts along the journey, making it easier to navigate through the mires that are the grave sites of ancient battles. “Don’t follow the lights” Smeagol says, and that wretched creature is right.
    I am walking to Mordor, and I’m walking with the aid of Lovecraft, and Pratchett, Gaiman and LeGuin, Howard and Cornwall, and many other authors to form my fellowship.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s