Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Lovecraft’s Incarnation Inversion: How the "True Pagan" Stole Christmas

When H.P. Lovecraft stated in one of his letters that “the Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE” (1965, 60) it is doubtful he was speaking of mythology in the sense that Mircea Eliade meant when he said that “…in proclaiming the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Word, early Christians employed ancient categories of mythical thought” (Kleiner, 14). Lovecraft was simply stating that he was not a believer of the Christian faith, and because of this, it would be arrogant presumption to enlist Lovecraft’s work in an attempt to produce actual religious belief in Christianity. However, given the ability to compare the “Judaeo-Christian mythology” as “history metaphorized, that is, as metaphorical narratives” (Borg, 1219), I propose that by travelling Rudolf Otto’s via negativa of “darkness and silence” as a “means of arousing the numinous consciousness by artistic works” (Varnado, 208) the reader of “The Dunwich Horror” may through a process of inverted imagery, find the Christian story (specifically the Birth Narratives) provided with “a fresh excitement by retelling it as if it were a new myth” (Carpenter, 66).

Both Mark Lowell and Donald Burleson have observed that Lovecraft’s mythos “contain a perversion of what Joseph Campbell called the mythic cycle” (Lowell, 48). Lowell explains the monomyth as being a tale where “a herald calls a hero into a realm of myth and the unconscious where he confronts various tribulations and emerges with a boon for his fellow men” and contrasts this with Lovecraft, where “this realm of myth contains only sorrow, insanity and death.” (48) Burleson notes that the Whatley twins fit all eight stages of the hero monomyth “quite closely” (146), which is an inversion of who the reader expects the hero of “The Dunwich Horror” to be; on the surface, Dr. Armitage seems a more ‘heroic’ candidate (although Burleson notes with irony that in truth, it is the university guard dog who rips Wilbur to pieces who “has saved the world (148)).

In the majority of these eight stages Burleson uses Jesus as an example. In the case of the “miraculous conception or birth, as in traditional accounts of the virgin birth of…Jesus” (146) corresponds to the Whateley twins as “products of a sort of miraculous conception and birth, sired by the “god” Yog-Sothoth in May-Eve rites on Sentinel Hill” (147). The final stage of Ascension “as in the case of Jesus” (147) is achieved by the Whateley monstrosity “when the twin returns to the place of conception, the great table-rock atop Sentinel Hill”. In reference to the monstrosity bellowing for help from Yog-Sothoth, its father, Burleson says, “One almost expects, “Why has thou forsaken me?” The scene is a clear tongue-in-cheek parody of the crucifixion; the monstrous entity returns to the father” (145-146).

The comparisons and contrasts between Jesus and the Whatley twins are numerous. As Edward Ingebretsen writes:

“Born of the hardly virginal Lavinia, Wilbur is fatherless: spiritually adept at a very young age, he is early about doing the work of his unknown father. Lavinia’s son, in short, is a dark conceit of the Incarnation. Like Jesus, he is a god among us, monstrously conforming to our flesh. The people who have lived in darkness have lived to see a greater dark.” (160-161)

Jesus’ genealogy runs from the Jewish patriarch Abraham to Israel’s greatest King David (Matthew 1:17) while Wilbur and his twin are descendents of “the decadent Whatleys” (374). The strict morality of Jewish society requires Joseph and Mary to cover up the divine nature of Jesus’ birth so as to avoid “public disgrace” (Matthew 1:19, NIV), while Lavinia “according to the custom of the region made no attempt to disavow the child” (374). Where Mary sings a magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Lovecraft has Lavinia “mutter many curious prophecies” (374). Like John the Baptist for Jesus, Wilbur “makes straight paths” (Luke 3:4 NIV) for his monstrous sibling through the numerous renovations to the Whateley home, as well as in pursuing the Miskatonic university’s copy of the Necronomicon, a pursuit which leads to his death, and consequently to the advent of his horrible twin, emerging from the farmhouse when Wilbur dies.

At this point the “three wise men” enter the tale; “old, white bearded” (408) Dr. Henry Armitage, after studying the portents contained within the “curious manuscript record or diary of Wilbur Whateley” (397) calls a “long conference” (401) with “stocky, iron-grey” Professor Warren Rice and “lean, youngish” (408) Dr. Francis Morgan of the Miskatonic university. Like the Zoroastrian astrologers who followed a star to Bethlehem, these three travel to Dunwich, not to pay homage, but to face and perhaps destroy “the earth-threatening entity which…was to burst forth in a few hours and become the memorable Dunwich horror” (402). Since Dunwich, like Bethehem is as disturbed as “all Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:3) was at Christ’s advent, “in the end the three men from Arkham…ascended the mountain alone” (408) where they do battle and finally defeat the monstrosity.

These comparisons seem more like blasphemy than aids to “arousing the numinous consciousness” or retelling the Christmas story “as if it were a new myth”. As Ingebretsen notes, “Indeed, the story of Jesus, when viewed from Lovecraft’s point of view, could well be simply another case of an “intruding horror” (170). However, if one accepts Vijay Mishra’s definition of the Gothic sublime as “the “embodiment of pure negativity” into which the subject inscribes itself as an absence, a lack in the structure itself” (17), then it is precisely within a universe where “man is but an evanescent mote in the universe of stars” (Burleson, 148) and “the Elder Gods never truly died, but they could be aroused from their slumbers” (Bloch, xvii), a place that is “cold and negative, with no place for humanity in it” (Lowell, 50), somewhere “in close proximity to phases…wholly outside the sane experience of mankind” (Lovecraft, 408) where we can unwrap Jesus’ birth narratives from “a rhetoric of the Sacred”. Unhampered by the “The cloying contemporary fetishization of the Baby Jesus and his spectacular marketing at Christmas” the reader might find “the stories of the manger, the animals, the angels and the shepherds” no longer sentimentalizing and thus diminishing “the power of the awe-ful” but rather “would be read as disgusting, horrible, unspeakable.” (Ingebretsen, 158)

If the reader finds blasphemous shadows of the Christmas story in “The Dunwich Horror”, and thereby sees the tale from a Lovecraftian perspective, then perhaps the angel Gabriel will have good reason to speak the words, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:3, NIV). And perhaps like Mary, we too, will be “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29, NIV), as Ingebretsen suggests: “We’d be fools not to be scared out of our wits, as indeed we are when we shift our focus and see the Christmas story from a completely different perspective…” (171).

Works Cited

Bloch, Robert. “Heritage of Horror.” The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre Ballantine Books: New York, 1982, vii-xxii.

Borg, Marcus J. “Light in the Darkness.” Christian Century 115 (1998): 1218-1221.

Burleson, Donald R. H.P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings : C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends / by Humphrey Carpenter. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

Ingebretsen, Edward. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Kleiner, Elaine L. “Mircea Eliade's Theory of the Fantastic.” Visions of the fantastic : selected essays from the Fifteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts Allienne R. Becker, Ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, (1996): 13-18.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror.” H.P. Lovecraft: Tales Ed. Peter Straub. New York: Library of America, 2005, 370-414.

Lovecraft, H. P. Selected Letters Eds.August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Vol 1. Sauk City, Wis: Arkham House, 1965.

Lowell, Mark. “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU MYTHOS.” Explicator 63 (2004) 47-50.

Mishra, Vijay. The Gothic Sublime. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Varnado, S. L., “The Idea of the Numinous in Gothic Literature” Romantic Reassessment. Ed. James Hogg. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität, Salzburg, (1982): 200-212.

Lovecraft's "Dunwich Horror" full text online

Images by Simon Bisley from "Illustrations from the Bible: A Work in Progress", linked from The Rion Web

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