Lovecraft: Science and Charlatanry

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Here at Eldritch, we sometimes talk about Lovecraft's fears of what science would eventually uncover and what terrible vistas it would unlock. That really sells the Old Man of Providence terribly short. Lovecraft's stories are very frequently the myth of Pandora updated to the scientific age in horrible new ways, but Lovecraft wasn't an occultist or a mystic. He might have been a social reactionary in some ways, but he was also a futurist and a man of reason if not of letters. Lovecraft saw life as a battle between science and charlatanry.

In fact, the oldest surviving writing of his -- in 1906, at age 16 -- was a scathing letter about an astrologist:

"To the Editor of The Sunday Journal: In the Journal for May 17, I notice among the letters to the editor a set of astrological predictions for 1906. Passing over the fact that astrology is but a pseudo science, not entitled to intelligent consideration, I wish to call attention to a striking inaccuracy in the aforementioned article. Its writer mentions a transit of Mars over the sun in July. Of course, as Mars is a superior planet, or one outside of earth's orbit, it cannot transit over the sun."

His attacks on astrologers just got better and more outrageous the older he got. In 1914, he began a flame war in his local newspaper for which he also wrote a column, railing against a local astrologer's predictions:

"No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaeval disbelief."

In The Call of Cthulhu 12 years later, he flips that around -- suddenly it is "the sciences" that have harmed us little but will eventually make us "go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." On face value, they seem like different arguments, but Lovecraft is more subtle than that, and is making a finer point.

Eventually, Lovecraft got so frustrated in that particular letter war in 1914, he resorted to satire under a pseudonym borrowed from Swift to bash a famous astrologer. Suddenly, Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr.'s letters to the same paper supported the astrologer and bashed Lovecraft, all while making even more outrageous predictions for the future than the real astrologist:

"Last and more terrible of all, the collusive quarternary trin of Mars, Mercury, Vulcan and Saturn, in the 13th progressed house of the sign Cancer on Feb. 26, 4954, stands out as plainly as the handwriting on the wall to shew us the awful day on which this earth will finally and infallibly perish through a sudden and unexpected explosion of volcanic gases in the interior."

Of course, less than two weeks later Isaac would announce in another letter he had solved that problem  by considering a recently discovered comet:

"From all of which we may easily deduce that on June 29, 4898, or nearly 56 years before the great catastrophe, the comet XY4 will harmlessly encounter our terraqueous globe, safely taking away on its tail the entire human race!"

Lovecraft wasn't the only person of that era fighting superstition, spiritualism and charlatanry. In one example, Harry Houdini recruited Lovecraft to help formalize that effort in one of the stranger bits of Lovecraft biographical lore. No one could tell the story better than S.T. Joshi in Collected Essays Volume 3:

"In 1926 the magician Harry Houdini hired Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr., to write an entire book combating superstition. This work -- perhaps analogous to Houdini's own previous work, A Magician Among the Spirits (1924), a debunking of spiritualism -- was to be called The Cancer of Superstition. Houdini had earlier asked Lovecraft to write a rush article on astrology, for which he paid $75; this article apparently does not survive. A detailed synopsis prepared by Lovecraft for The Cancer of Superstition does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy; but Houdini's sudden death on 31 October 1926 derailed the plans, as his widow did not wish to pursue the project."

Joshi is being kind to Houdini's widow in the above, because Houdini's legacy is historically unclear. In might very well have been that his widow had been seduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as part of a plot to convince the world that their spiritualist accomplice (the Reverand Arthur Ford) was bringing messages from Houdini back from beyond the grave. Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and champion of literary deduction, was also a firm believer in mediums and spirtualism and despised Houdini for his debunking activities (but that is a twisted tale of its own).

Lovecraft didn't really fear science, and his use of superstition in his stories is a key to his message about science. Sadly, he actually feared humanity and was convinced that the cosmic scale of reality, and our insignificance, would always be too mind-shattering to witness. People are all too infected by the cancer of superstition to save, but at least we have another 2,891 years to contemplate that shortcoming before we all need to catch that sweet comet out of here!

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