HP Lovecraft and Pierce Mostyn – Part 3

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HP Lovecraft was the creator of the cosmic horror subgenre. I find cosmic horror much more terrifying than some crazy axe wielding maniac jumping out of a closet and chopping up someone.

We want to have value. Today’s educational system is busy trying to build children’s self-esteem. “We’re all winners.” “Everyone has value.” “You have a purpose.”

And while those are indeed lofty sentiments, in reality the children taught those sentiments are going to have a difficult time when they encounter their first selfish SOB out in the real world.

When I was in fifth grade, I lived in terror of the bullies who every recess when we were outside pantsed wallflowers such as myself. Those bullies didn’t give a fig about playing nice, or that everyone had value, or that everyone was a winner. They operated on a primeval level. Those who were stronger got their way. They were the winners.

Lovecraft’s point was no different. We humans sit on this speck of dirt and tell ourselves how important we are. That we have intrinsic value just because we’re human. However, the universe isn’t listening. And it isn’t listening because it doesn’t care. We don’t matter. It’s indifferent to us. We have as much value as the ball of ice orbiting our sun known as Haley’s Comet.

Everyone in the tiny Greek city-states was important (if you weren’t a slave, that is). When Alexander the Great suddenly expanded the world across a huge chunk of Asia, those same Greeks were suddenly faced with an identity crisis.

“Who am I in this huge new world?” they asked. The Epicurean and Stoic schools of philosophy arose in response to that question and attempted to provide answers.

Today we are faced with the same question. For the sake of literary convention, Lovecraft personified the universe’s indifference to us in The Great Old Ones. For Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos was an attack on religion and it’s false hope. And the irony should not be lost that Lovecraft gave The Great Old Ones worshipers.

Lovecraft was throwing down the gauntlet. All of our cherished beliefs are false. We have no objective meaning. We are living in a dream world if we think we do.

And the terror comes when we suddenly awake and are confronted with the meaninglessness of reality. That’s why I think The Great Old Ones and their minions are described as insanities, contrary to nature, blasphemous, and the like. They are contrary to everything that we think is normal.

Those bullies on my playground didn’t care about values or artificial constructs of behavior. They were contrary to everything that was considered normal behavior. If they could catch you, they would pants you. That was their reality. And their laughter at your pain and embarrassment was a reminder that the universe did not play fair and did not care.

Lovecraft’s heroes are basically helpless. They can do nothing to stop The Great Old Ones. All they can do is warn us that they are coming.

Pierce Mostyn, then, is not your typical Lovecraftian hero. He fights back against that cosmic indifference. He does so out of a sense of duty. Much like the Stoic who lives his life according to the principles of virtue and duty. Duty arises out of our being part of a whole, and we have obligations to that whole. Obligations that the virtuous person is bound to discharge.

Mostyn doesn’t see himself as helpless, even when facing an entity such as a shoggoth (one of those walking insanities that is a blasphemy of nature). He’s willing to admit there is a lot out there that we don’t understand. And maybe can never understand. He uses reason, and approaches the problems of life rationally. Not unlike the Stoics before him.

Dr Dotty Kemper, Mostyn’s main sidekick, on the other hand is a materialist. She believes science has all the answers. She’s a paranormal skeptic. It is science that replaces superstition with knowledge. Sometimes though she has a rough time of it, especially when science has no explanation.

In a sense, the Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations aren’t pure cosmic horror. Because in the face of the universe’s indifference, and I do agree with Lovecraft on that, I think Marcus Aurelius provides us with a ready answer. Namely, that life is opinion. Or, if we expand the translation, life is what you make it to be.

I hope you enjoyed this little discussion of Lovecraft, cosmic horror, and Pierce Mostyn. The series, Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations, launches in 3 weeks on the 29th. So mark your calendars!

The emblem at the top of this post is the emblem of the Office of Unidentified Phenomena (OUP), which is part of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which is a child agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. But don’t Google it, or check Wikipedia. You won’t find it there. Maybe if you went to the dark web…

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, happy reading!

Dr Dotty Kemper trying to prove the efficacy of this dimension’s lead bullets and physical laws versus the physical properties of other dimensional beings.
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HP Lovecraft and Pierce Mostyn – Part 2

Cosmic, or Lovecraftian, Horror

Cosmic horror is largely, if not solely, the creation of HP Lovecraft. Of whom Stephen King said he “has yet to be surpassed as the Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

There are certain themes that differentiate Lovecraft’s brand of horror from other horror subgenres. Let’s take a look at some of the key themes.

Humans Are Insignificant

It’s a big universe out there. And we don’t know even a fraction of it.  As Lovecraft commented often (and I’m paraphrasing), we are an insignificant species on a fly speck. And if there are in fact multiverses, then that fly speck just became innumerable times smaller.

Philosophically, Lovecraft was basically a mechanistic materialist. We exist, but that doesn’t mean we’re more important than anything else. In fact, the universe is indifferent to us. We aren’t objectively special. For Lovecraft, we definitely weren’t made in God’s image. There’s no God, for starters. Rather, he was inspired by the atheistic Epicureans and the theory of evolution.

Therefore, in the typical cosmic horror story there is little focus on characterization. The main character is usually the story’s narrator. We get to know something of him, although sometimes he’s an unreliable narrator.

The focus of the story is on the gradual revelation of that which is hiding behind the narrator’s (and our) illusion of reality. That which is greater than us and views us as we view ants on the sidewalk.

The Great Old Ones, at least for Lovecraft, didn’t actually exist. They were literary devices to convey our position in the vastness of the universe and that the universe doesn’t give a fig about us.

The Heroes Are Loners

The hero of the cosmic horror tale has affinities with the punk hero. He is socially isolated, and therefore frequently a loner. Occasionally an outcast. He is often reclusive, and possesses a scholarly bent.

This puts the cosmic horror hero in the unique position of being able to peel back the veneer of what we think is reality to see the real reality behind it. Often at the expense of his sanity.

Pessimism, or Indifference

Lovecraft insisted later in life that his philosophy was not pessimistic, but rather led one to indifference. A fine line there. Basically, though, there is nothing in the universe that cares about us or values us. We humans are alone on a tiny speck of dust. We are dwarfed by the vastness of space. The very vastnesses of which Whitman sang so positively and eloquently about. For Lovecraft, there is nothing positive about them.

In this, Lovecraft was very much in line with the ancient Greek Epicurean philosophy. The universe was simply chaos. It provides us nothing. We must focus on ourselves and find pleasure and happiness in intellectual pursuits away from the madding crowd.

The Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s invention aren’t so much malignant or malevolent as that they just don’t give a fig about us. We are inconsequential to them.

However, to us their indifference might seem to be malevolent or evil. But in reality, like us, they just are. They’re doing their thing. If we suffer as a result, well, do we care about the ants we step on?

Therefore the hero in the cosmic horror tale is often incapable of doing much to thwart the cosmic forces ranged against him. The best he can do is warn us of the truth that is out there.

The Veneer of Reality

We live in a dream state, as it were. Lovecraft was fascinated by dream worlds. In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he postulates a parallel world only attainable by means of dreams.

Because we are in a dream, as it were, what we see and think to be reality isn’t in fact reality at all. It’s Dorothy in Oz. Only we see a nice old man until Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the monster at the controls.

The real reality is too horrible for us to comprehend. In our dream state we believe we have value — when in reality we have no value at all. We have no significance in the universe. And by extension nothing else has any significance either.

That is the true terror of cosmic horror: the revelation and realization that we are living a lie. It is the literary portrayal of the Nietzschian coming to awareness of who and what we really are.

That realization is also the basis for the “leap of faith” to find meaning for our existence. Epicurus sought meaning in intellectual pleasure. Nietzsche sought meaning in the pursuit of art; that is, creativity. The Existentialists made that leap to whatever might have meaning for them as individuals. And argued that we do the same.

Not unlike the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “life is opinion”. That is, life is what we think it is. Although, for the Roman emperor, the statement was more an affirmation of the contemporary saying, It’s all in your ‘tude. Because Stoicism is inherently a much more positive philosophy.

Fear Of The Other

We have an innate fear of that which is not like us. This goes back to the very beginnings of the human species when we existed in family units and tribes. Anything that was not us, was to be viewed with suspicion — if not outright fear.

Lovecraft is frequently criticized today for being xenophobic and racist. By today’s standards he was — but in his own era I’m not so sure he was any different than most of his peers. There is a danger in judging the past by other than it’s own standards.

Even today, Western views of what constitutes xenophobia and racism are not universally shared. Which means the question must be asked, what makes Western views any more valid than any other views? That, though, is another discussion.

One thing is for sure — the xenophobia and racism we see in Lovecraft’s stories feeds on our own innate and latent fear of those people and things that are different from us and of our fear of the unknown in general. They feed on our own tribal mentality. The primeval us-them dynamic. The dynamic that made us who we are today: too often judgmental, critical, and suspicious. We and our opinions are good. Everyone else and there opinions are bad.

Throughout most of our history as a species, the tribal mentality allowed us to survive. The problem being that as we developed civilization, many of those survival traits became a hindrance to our working together in a genteel environment. Hence the creation of religious moral codes and cultural mores and folkways to control those “undesirable” traits.

As Will Durant noted, “Every vice was once a virtue, and may become respectable again, as hatred becomes respectable in war. Brutality and greed where once necessary in the struggle for existence, and are now ridiculous atavisms; men’s sins are not the result of his fall; they are the relics of his rise.” Do note that every vice may become respectable again. Something to think about.

In Lovecraft’s worldview, the Other consists of all the impersonal cosmic forces that exist. In his fiction, he personified these impersonal forces as The Great Old Ones. Inter- or Other-dimensional beings who have moved into our territory.

Just as we give little thought to mosquitoes, or gnats, or ants, so The Great Old Ones give little, if any, thought to us. To repeat, they aren’t so much malevolent, as they are indifferent to our existence and survival. Just as we are indifferent to the survival of mosquitoes, gnats, or ants.

Lovecraft is simply positing that cosmically speaking — we aren’t necessarily at the top of the food chain. Something to think about as we venture into outer space. Which was cleverly addressed in The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”.

In light of the above, the Pierce Mostyn adventures may not be pure examples of cosmic horror. But we’ll look at that next week.

Comments are always welcome! And until next week, happy reading!

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It’s a Wonderful Life

No, I’m not talking today about the 1946 film directed by Frank Capra. I’m talking about life. About why life is worth living. Which, by the way, is the theme of the movie. We are going to spend a little bit of time today chatting about philosophy. I know, I know. Philosophy. Boring. Bear with me and see how eminently practical philosophy is.

We all have one, you know. A philosophy, that is. We may not be able to articulate its tenets, but how we live our lives tells others what those tenets are. Even if they can’t enumerate specifics either, they know exactly what drives us and what we value.

What we value and what motivates us is in fact our personal philosophy. And if we can’t utter it with our lips, we certainly do so by our actions.

I’ve been interested in philosophy for nearly 50 years, ever since high school, and the one philosopher I continually come back to is the ancient Roman Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger.

Seneca was a fascinating individual in his own right. A man often at odds with his own school of thought. A man who was eminently guilty of not following his own advice.

However, where Seneca, in my opinion, redeemed himself was in his old age. There, in his last years, stripped of power, position, and wealth, Seneca embraced his philosophy and wrote the best advice one person could ever hope to give to another. His Letters to Lucilius are short and pithy and cover a wide range of topics. They are very readable and enjoyable today — almost 2000 years after they were written.

What in particular do I like about Seneca? I’d have to say it is his very practical and realistic approach to life. His advice is reasonable and not freighted with pietistic or moralistic sentiment. It is pre-Christian and fits well with those of us living in a post-Christian age. Ironically enough, early Christian morality and ethics were based on Stoic principles.

As an example, let’s take a look at Seneca’s opinion about wealth. According to our philosopher, there is nothing wrong with having money. Even lots of money. The problem comes, according to Seneca, when we try to cling to our money. The solution, he offers, is to live as if we didn’t have any money. In other words, to live a simple life. By so doing our lives won’t be cluttered with the problems one encounters when one has lots of money.

Seneca himself learned this lesson the hard way. At the highpoint of his career he was one of two tutors to the very young Nero. He had tremendous power and was one of the wealthiest men history has ever known. Bill Gates’ wealth would have been casual spending money to Seneca. When Nero became of age and Seneca realized what the Emperor was truly like, our philosopher gave his money to the young man and retired from public life. Seneca went from being in control of the vast Roman Empire to being a humble patrician farmer.

From Seneca, I learned to value life for its own sake. Not for what I have, because tomorrow everything I have might be taken away from me — as it was for Seneca. The small things and the intangible things give value to life. Things like friendship and contentment. And those are found within a person, not without.

No one has friends who is not first a friend to himself or herself. I cannot love another, unless I first love me. I must, first and foremost, love myself and be friends with myself. Only then, am I capable of truly loving and befriending others.

Contentment does not come from without. It comes from within. If I am satisfied with who I am, then I will be satisfied with what I have. And I will be content.

The human being is a reasoning animal, Seneca wrote. And when reason has been brought to perfection in the soul, we fulfill the good for which nature designed us. We live then according to our nature, as reasonable beings. If we are out of control, if we lack contentment, is we lack love for ourselves, then we are imperfect beings and do not live reasonable lives. We are not living, Seneca would say, according to nature.

The goal of philosophy is to bring us to a state of mind where we live according to that for which we were designed. That is, lives marked by reasonable thoughts and behaviors.

This is a wonderful life if we live according to our nature, according to reason. If we are balanced and content, everything within us and around us will be wonderful.

That is philosophy. And why I find it such a wonderful, non-judgmental guide to life. The good life. The wonderful life.

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