Some pictures from beyond the Earth have become part of our landscape. We know them and their meaning. They fit neatly on our desktop.
But before we become too comfortable that we comprehend what we see in space, it is worth recalling the writing of HP Lovecraft. His ‘open slice of fear’ (the phrase is Michel Houellebecq’s) is a literature of warning against certainties.
Lovecraft was a committed amateur astronomer. 'Astronomy began to engross me completely,' he wrote in January 1903. 'Not one clear night passed without long observation on my part, and the practical, first-hand knowledge thus acquired has ever since been of the highest utility to me.' But it is as the great exponent of weird fiction that Lovecraft is best known, writing out of the content of his own dreadful dreams:
I began to have nightmares of the most hideous description, peopled with things I called ‘night-gaunts’
It is these creatures of the mind that led him to construct short stories of extraordinary power but also purpose:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
It is worth spending a little time with just that inability. It is a way of keeping wonder alive.
Lovecraft is sometimes credited with a thought-world called cosmicism, not so much a metaphysics as an anti-system. Cosmicism is about human insignificance and the breaking down of the easy connection between evidence and conclusion. His great short stories are studies in the unstudiable. They are stories of collapse.
Take The Colour Out of Space as an example. “Nothing but The Colour Out of Space really satisfies me as a whole,’ Lovecraft wrote of this 1927 short story. In it, a surveyor sent to the west of Lovecraft’s fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham, finds the site of a projected reservoir to be first ‘bad for the imagination’ and ‘no region to sleep in,... too much like some forbidden woodcut in a tale of terror.’ The cause of this seems to be a meteor fall, ‘strange days’ remembered by Ammi Pierce that began with a white noontide cloud, a pillar of smoke and a rock falling into the trim farm of Nahum Gardner. Professors came to examine the rock and took some away. ‘It acted quite unbelievably in that well-ordered laboratory.’ It had a strange luminosity, a softness that was impermeable to solvents. It also possessed a colour that was real but could not be described.
While the scientists failed, so did the countryside. ‘A stealthy bitterness and sickishness’ crept over plants and trees and people. Bodies changed shape while ‘the dark fears of rustics were held up to polite ridicule.’ Everything lay under that diseased colour, the one ‘without a place among the known tints of earth.’ People went mad. Children died. Police and examiners can make no sense of it.
Finally, while they examined the eldritch remains of the Gardner farm, a cloud creeps over the moon and ‘a thousand tine points of faint and unhallowed radiance’ alight onto the treetops, a kind of anti-Pentecost as ‘the shapeless stream of unplaceable colour... seemed to flow directly into the sky.’ It melts back into the Milky Way. The narrator says of what he has heard:
Do not ask me for my opinion. I do not know – that is all.
At stake in this short story is the notion of a stable structure to reality. Colours, science tells us, live along a spectrum. But from outside comes a colour that does not fit category or language, ‘insolent in [its] chromatic perversion.’ The people fail to salvage their certainties. Even the Biblical is undone – the meteorite is a pillar of cloud and it brings light, but they do not guide. This new Un-Pentecost reduces humanity to an incomprehending silence.
Lovecraft’s sense of the otherness of space reaches a peak in his Beyond the Wall of Sleep. In this story, an unnamed narrator (they usually are) encounters Joe Slater in a psychiatric institution and becomes increasingly interested in the murderer’s life and visions, so grand in such a pitiful personality. He conducts a test on Slater such that the contents of his dreams are transferred to the examiner’s mind. He is aroused by heavenly music and by the sight of an elysian realm. He meets a luminous one, Slater’s brother of light living in the freedom of sleep. Finally he meets the Oppressor:
You on Earth have unwittingly felt its distant presence – you who without knowing idly gave to its blinking beacon the same of Algol, the Daemon Star.
It is to fight this daemon star that the luminous one is going. Joes Slater dies as his other, more real self, departs for battle. The story ends with a quotation from an astronomical author reporting the discovery on 22nd February 1901 of a new star not far from Algol.
Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, then, is a warning against a kind of certainty : we know, we comprehend, we are not changed, we can move on. His short stories violate this kind of containment. They put our structures in the titanic context of time and space. His scientists are truthful. Therefore they often say - we do not understand.