cosmic horror

Cosmic Horror and Climate Change: Lovecraft’s Climate Fiction

Nothing stirred the dusty plain, the disintegrated sand of long-dry river-beds, where once coursed the gushing streams of Earth’s youth. There was little greenery in this ultimate world, this final stage of mankind’s prolonged presence upon the planet.

Till A’ the Seas- H.P. Lovecraft and R.H. Barlow

The idea of Climate Change wasn’t even a whisper on the stiffest breeze when Howard Phillips Lovecraft crafted his stories of cosmic horror. Lovecraft worlds are a constant battle between demons within and without. Conflict set against urban settings or dark cellars were one of Lovecraft’s fortes, but it was his restless relationship with the wild that made him unique. From New England’s woods to the Antarctic waste, Lovecraft’s macabre travelogue uses environment, a tangible connection to Biblical and medieval views of the wild, as demonica personified. The best and perhaps prescient example of Lovecraft’s cynical view of nature comes in the form of a dying planet in Till A’ the Seas.

In this single work we see climate change as Earth’s slow demise with rising temperatures, faltering seas and withering environment echoing today’s climate crisis. It is not difficult to see drought stricken California in Till A’ the Seas, co-written with anthropologist R.H. Barlow. Lovecraft’s survivors double for modern inhabitants of Earth, blindly lumbering forward expecting perpetual favor from the world only to be surprised by its eventual doom.

Writing of the change, Lovecraft and Barlow noted, “It had not come at once; long aeons had gone before any could feel the change.” This has a prescience as one of the major debates among social scientists gauging humanity’s physical and psychological reaction to climate change. A growing consensus that climate change is happening (why is still being debated by pundits and from pulpits) is contrasted with the lack of worry. If individuals are not feeling direct and profound effects of a devolving environment, then the urgency and worry is non-existent. For a broader look at this phenomenon check out the Finite Pool of Worry.

At its most bleak, Till A’ the Seas captures the worst case imagery of climatologists, “Steady, universal, and inexorable was the great eviction of man from the realms he had always known. No land within the widening stricken belt was spared; no people left unrouted. It was an epic, a titan tragedy whose plot was unrevealed to the actors—this wholesale desertion of the cities of men. It took not years or even centuries, but millennia of ruthless change. And still it kept on—sullen, inevitable, savagely devastating.”

In the Lovecraft and Barlow work, the Earth is drawn close to the Sun and the oceans slowly dry up. In today’s climate, we see the seas advancing, rising with each year and decade. Yet apply these words to sea-level rise and it is chilling, “Only a few inches during many centuries—but in many centuries; increasing…”

Continuing with this drought theme, lived every day by Californians, the authorial duo wrote, “And now again the peace was disturbed, for water was scarce, and found only in deep caverns. There was little enough, even of this; and men died of thirst wandering in far places. Yet so slow were these deadly changes, that each new generation of man was loath to believe what it heard from its parents.”

The author’s overall relationship with the environment is not overt, but occulted, adversarial and complex. It is a “blasted heath” ready to be leveled by mankind seeking to build a reservoir in The Colour out of Space. Lovecraft’s The Tree on the Hill, co-written with Duane Rimel, features a parcel of land so ominous, inaccessible and dreaded, ” the hillfolk will tell you that it is indeed a spot transplanted from his Satanic Majesty’s front yard.”

Nature, to Lovecraft, is a strange hybrid of the mechanistic, yet too malleable, model favored by naturalists mated with the sleeping menace of a god ready to smite dullard acolytes. It is ancient and foreboding, never a place of respite or adoration for its natural marvels. To Lovecraft the climate, the environment, is a fiendish horror in-waiting.