When I want to nod off at night I often listen to talking books of one sort or another. I have a cheap mp3 player on which I've loaded - along with examples of my embarrassing, middle-aged-bloke taste in music - a number of spooky or sci-fi stories.
Among the latter are the audio productions of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre, one of the alter-egos of the excellent HPLHS. The four Thirties-style 'radio' dramatisations are The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Out of Time. They are all very well done - faithful adaptations of Lovecraft stories. But in listening to them as I wait for the Sandperson to come I can't help noticing how very wonky the central premise of Lovecraftian horror is.
To recap: Lovecraft tried to move beyond the old 'ghosts, vampires and werewolves' brand of supernatural fiction and strove to create a new genre of 'cosmic horror'. This is predicated on the assumption that the modern, scientific view of our world is essentially correct: The universe of billions of years older than the earth, which is itself billions of years older than us; human beings are the product of blind evolutionary processes in a godless cosmos; and our Earth - far from being at the centre of things - is just one minor mote in an unimaginably vast ocean of space.
Fair enough. So why do the Great Old Ones keep trying to conquer it? Why - faced (assuming they have faces) with a universe replete with planets of all shapes and sizes - do ancient, powerful and, one assumes, quite well-informed beings bother with our little world? It's not as if the Earth is even a convenient bit of real estate. As is made clear in The Dunwich Horror, the Earth will have to be 'cleared off', denuded of life as we know it, before it can be properly colonised by Those From Outside. So why bother with Earth at all, when Mars, Venus or some of the larger moons of Jupiter are (probably) lifeless and therefore more desirable residences?
Lovecraft is oddly geocentric. Far from being cosmic in outlook, his monstrous super-beings are fixated on our little planet. They spend an inordinate amount of time palling around with frankly inept (not to mention deranged) occultists, desperate to try any means available to get back to our earthly sphere. In The Shadow Out of Time we are offered a long list of dominant species during Earth's various eras. A surprising number are immigrants, like the things revived in At the Mountains of Madness. It's almost as if the third rock from the sun were composed of some kind of cosmic catnip.
To be fair, Lovecraft was trying to write horror fiction that engages the reader, so there wouldn't be much point in simply saying: 'Well, the Great Old Ones arrived on the distant planet Tharg, and go up to some amazingly naughty things - let me tell you about it.' C.S. Lewis had a point when he said that to describe how odd things struck odd people is to have one oddity too many. No, as an admirer of Machen, Blackwood and M.R. James, Lovecraft wanted to make the cosmic as personal as possible. And the only way he could do that was to yoke together two incompatible Big Ideas - that our Earth is just one insignificant world among millions, but at the same time that the most powerful beings in this or any other cosmos can't wait to get their hot little tentacles on it.
None of which spoils Lovecraftian fiction for me. Far from it, I find it immensely reassuring, like a cosy armchair I can sink into. But some stories do retain a certain frisson of strangeness, such as 'Nyarlathotep'. So, in tribute to HPL, here's my reading of that story.