On “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

A truly classic piece of horror fiction that speaks directly to the fears and anxieties that made Lovecraft the man he was.

“From Beyond” is a story that reminds you why it is that a fucked-up weirdo like H.P. Lovecraft is still being read in the 21st Century. To describe “From Beyond” as influential is to do the story a grave injustice as the narrative it contains has been re-worked and re-visited by so many people that reading it feels like coming home. However, this not just a fantastically written and hugely-influential piece of short-fiction, it is also an intensely personal piece of writing as it speaks directly to Lovecraft’s worldview and is arguably Lovecraft’s first attempt at writing a work of cosmic horror.

“From Beyond” was first written in 1920 but it was not published until 1934, three years before Lovecraft’s untimely death. It was first published in a fanzine called The Fantasy Fan, edited by Charles Hornig. Hornig was a fascinating figure in that he was one of the first capital-F fans of pulp science fiction. He wrote letters to the editors, he collected issues of the magazines, and his enthusiasm and industry were such that he wound up becoming editor of Gernsback’s Wonder Stories Magazine before he had even graduated high-school. This meteoric rise through early fandom naturally earned him enemies and Isaac Asimov famously singled him out as one of the few people in science fiction with absolutely no discernible talent. Sadly, his editorial career was brought to an end when World War II required him to join the military, prompting Hornig to register as a conscientious objector and then to go AWOL from the forced labour camp he was interned in for his refusal to go and fight in World War II.

Long before Hornig was giving the middle-finger to the military-industrial complex, he ran a small amateur zine called The Fantasy Fan. This zine had close ties with members of the Lovecraft circle as aside from being the first place to publish “From Beyond” it was also the first magazine to publish the Robert E. Howard Conan story “The Frost King’s Daughter”. The Fantasy Fan was well-known and well-respected in part because its content favoured the weirder forms of fantasy literature and entire issues were devoted to reprinting and discussing authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Clark Ashton Smith. While the zine was never that widely read, it was read by most of the big names in Weird Fiction and when the zine folded various attempts were made to resurrect it as a professional endeavour including one with Lovecraft himself as editor. So while it may seem odd that a story as influential as “From Beyond” would first see publication in a mere fanzine fourteen years after it was first written, it’s worth bearing in mind that this was no mere fanzine.

“From Beyond” sees Lovecraft moving away from the Dreamlands and returning to the more overtly science-fictional register he’d experimented with when writing “Beyond the Walls of Sleep”. The story revolves around the un-named narrator re-connecting with an old friend named Crawford Tillinghast. While the narrator had known Tillinghast to be a brilliant scientist with a melancholic temperament, he is shocked when he turns up at his door and finds him to be emaciated, unwell, and visibly out of his mind. Lovecraft layers the descriptive prose on with a trowel, describing Tillinghast as a ‘shivering gargoyle’:

“It is not pleasant to see a stout man suddenly grown thin, and it is even worse when the baggy skin becomes yellowed or greyed, the eyes sunken, circled, and uncannily glowing, the forehead veined and corrugated, and the hands tremulous and twitching. And if added to this there be a repellent unkemptness; a wild disorder of dress, a bushiness of dark hair white at the roots, and an unchecked growth of pure white beard on a face once clean-shaven”

Tillinghast’s idea is that the human ability to perceive the world is limited to the five senses and limited even further by the lack of sensitivity afforded to these senses by our frail human forms. Given the limited nature of human perception, it seems reasonable to assume that humans do not get to see all of nature and so Tillinghast set out to construct a device that might somehow boost the gain on the human sensorium to the point where a human might get to perceive the stuff that is normally invisible to them.

In and of itself, this is a great science-fictional conceit as it taps into the question of the ontological status of objects and particles discovered by science despite being invisible to the naked eye. While this may seem like an insane question to ask, it is worth bearing in mind that many scientists have a tendency to be rather pragmatic about the entities posited by their favoured theories. For example, it is one thing to argue that quarks are literally real things out in the world and quite another to argue that “dark matter” is a convenient way of engaging with data developed as part of specific lines of empirical investigation. You can study “dark matter” without being committed to the literal existence of dark matter. While it seems reasonable to be pragmatic about the existence of invisible objects whose existence is merely a theoretical possibility that helps explain some empirical data, this type of scientific antirealism actually dates all the way back to the renaissance and early scientists would often adopt a similar degree of pragmatism when it came to objects visible only through telescopes. What is the difference between an object whose existence is mooted on the ground that it helps explain some data spewed from a computer attached to a particle accelerator and an object whose existence is mooted on the ground that it helps explain what it is we see when we look through a telescope? Lovecraft takes this philosophical question and applies it to the effects of ‘resonance waves’.

The first effect is that Tillinghast becomes able to perceive ultraviolet. However, the longer he stays in the proximity of the machine, the more he is able to perceive the invisible parts of the world:

I was now in a vortex of sound and motion, with confused pictures before my eyes. I saw the blurred outlines of the room, but from some point in space there seemed to be pouring a seething column of unrecognisable shapes or clouds, penetrating the solid roof at a point ahead and to the right of me. Then I glimpsed the temple-like effect again, but this time the pillars reached up into an aërial ocean of light, which sent down one blinding beam along the path of the cloudy column I had seen before. After that the scene was almost wholly kaleidoscopic, and in the jumble of sights, sounds, and unidentified sense-impressions I felt that I was about to dissolve or in some way lose the solid form. One definite flash I shall always remember. I seemed for an instant to behold a patch of strange night sky filled with shining, revolving spheres, and as it receded I saw that the glowing suns formed a constellation or galaxy of settled shape; this shape being the distorted face of Crawford Tillinghast. At another time I felt the huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body, and thought I saw Tillinghast look at them as though his better trained senses could catch them visually. I recalled what he had said of the pineal gland, and wondered what he saw with this preternatural eye.

Then things start to get really scary:

Indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise were mixed in disgusting disarray, and close to every known thing were whole worlds of alien, unknown entities. It likewise seemed that all the known things entered into the composition of other unknown things, and vice versa. Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I saw to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids. These things were never still, but seemed ever floating about with some malignant purpose. Sometimes they appeared to devour one another, the attacker launching itself at its victim and instantaneously obliterating the latter from sight.

The creatures then become aware of the narrator’s existence and Tillinghast makes it clear that more visible the creatures become, the more visible you are to them. See… it turns out that the narrator is not the first person that Tillinghast has exposed to resonance waves as Tillinghast wanted his domestic staff to ‘see’ as much as they could and this lead to them being disintegrated by the creatures. Tillinghast rants and raves, the narrator pulls a gun and fires on the machine. This terminates the experiment in a huge explosion and when the police turn up to investigate, they try to tell the narrator that the entire thing was a hallucination brought on by the radiation created by the machine… but if that’s true then what happened to Tillinghast’s servants?

While I absolutely and unabashedly adore “From Beyond”, I feel that the ending is somewhat rushed: You have the gun-shot, then you have the cops turning up, and then you have Lovecraft unexpectedly flirting with the idea that the entire thing might have been a hallucination.

While I generally quite like stories that undermine their own ontological status through devices like dreams, hallucinations, virtual reality, or anything else you care to name, I am not sure what Lovecraft was hoping to achieve by including it. From a narrative point of view, it helps get the narrator off the hook for Tillinghast’s crimes, but that point why bother with the police investigation at all? Why not just end the story with the explosion and the police turning up? I think the hallucination angle works a bit better if you view it less as an element of foreground plot and more as a background motif designed to draw the reader’s attention back to the theme of humanity’s flawed perception. The problem with this is that motifs tend to be recurring because the point of them is to lurk in the background and subtly draw the punters’ eyes back to the thematic core of the story. Here the motif does not recur; it’s just a way of drawing the readers’ attention back to stuff that the characters were discussing quite openly only a few paragraphs earlier. This feels rather unnecessary and really only serves to muddy the waters in a story that is not so much about the fallibility of human perception but its systemic limitations and the world that is hidden from us even when we are not hallucinating.

As I said earlier, this is a story that has been adapted, re-visited, and re-told so many times that it feels familiar even without having read it before. Like “The Whisperer in the Darkness” with its aliens tormenting a man in an isolated cabin, this is one of those stories that got written and worked so well that it just organically became part of the genre’s literary vocabulary. In the same way as Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words into the English Language, Lovecraft wrote stories that would later become the narrative building blocks of other stories. That was his true gift to horror.

However, while we can talk about the evocative power of the idea that the world is filled with hideous creatures that exist just outside of humanity’s sensory capacity, I would like to spend some time about how that idea fits into what we know about Lovecraft’s thinking.

Lovecraft was a man who wanted to be deceived. Having grown up surrounded by wealth and status, Lovecraft never really recovered from the disappearance of his family fortune. He was a man born of one social world but forced to live in another: He had been raised to see himself as some sort of aristocrat whose inherent superiority more than justified both his family’s disproportionate wealth and their elevated status. However, when his family fortune disappeared, Lovecraft was forced to content with the fact that there was very little about him that was superior to his fellow man. Most people his age went to high-school and got jobs but Lovecraft lacked the spoons to finish high-school and when he tried his hand at being a scientist he discovered that he struggled with the mathematics. Even worse, Lovecraft didn’t just struggle to find work; he struggled to set foot outside his mother’s apartment. If Lovecraft’s breeding made him superior to his fellow man, then how come life was so hard?

Even early Lovecraft stories such as “The Alchemist” and “The Tomb” speak to a profound sense of cognitive dissonance: They are both about people who claim aristocratic pedigrees despite living as virtual derelicts. In “The Alchemist”, a man lives like a homeless person in a ruined castle while the protagonist of “The Tomb” interferes with corpses and believes this gives him special powers. These are intensely personal stories that speak to a man struggling to reconcile his lack of success with the fact that he is supposedly some sort of aristocrat. These are stories about a man trying to blot out reality by immersing himself in a tenuous connection to a semi-fabled past. Faced with a choice between surrendering his self-esteem and doubling down on a load of lies told to him by his family, Lovecraft chose to swallow the lies but he could never quite escape the fact that he knew exactly what it was that he was doing.

In a book entitled The Reactionary Mind, the American political theorist Corey Robin argues that the primary psychological drive behind conservatism is a desire to avoid being the lowest head on the totem pole. To a conservative, it does not matter how rotten society becomes as long as you are not trapped on the lowest level. As a result, most conservative politics revolves around a sadistic application of downward force to ensure that nobody rises above you. As times change, so do the justifications for social hierarchies and so the bottom-most group changes along with the language used to justify punching down. For one generation, the group that must be kicked are peasants, then it becomes the rural working class, then it’s the urban working class, then it’s the blacks, the Asians, the gays, and most recently the trans. The names change and so do some of the faces but conservative politics are always about punching people who are weaker than you be forced down to their level. Lovecraft was a reactionary because he feared being dragged down from his perch and placed on an equal footing with the people who were happy and making something of their lives while he lived with his mother and struggled to go outside. In stories like “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” we see him gratefully accepting the verbal abuse of his social superiors while stories such as “Old Bugs” find him fantasising about the possibility of his friends winding up in the gutter. Meanwhile, stories such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, “Polaris”, and “The Street” are fantasies of racial persecution designed to justify his fear and hatred of other races. His fear of being dragged down to the level of the people he was raised to believe were his inferiors.

Unfortunately for Lovecraft he wasn’t very good at being a reactionary. Gifted with enough intelligence and sensitivity to have some degree of self-awareness, he would parody himself in stories like “The Temple” and write stories like “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” where he seems to identify more with the helplessly downtrodden than the successfully aloof.

The acidic and down-beat nature of such Dreamlands stories as “The White Ship” and “Celephais” both speak to the fact that Lovecraft was clearly struggling to maintain the integrity of the fantasies that were bolstering his self-esteem. He wanted to escape into the fantasy of being an aristocratic New England gentleman, but patriarchal white men do not struggle to step outside. They don’t find it impossible to gain a single qualification or hold down an entry-level job. Lovecraft’s self-esteem and sense of self all rested on a fantasy and he knew that the fantasy could dissolve at any minute.

An important turning point was reached when Lovecraft decided to write “The Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family”. Now… at first glance this story is nothing but silly racist nonsense in it involves a man setting himself on fire when he discovers that one of his female ancestors was a gorilla. However, once you learn a little bit about Lovecraft’s family history you realise that the story was rooted in personal experience in that Lovecraft’s father went mad with syphilis and was literally dragged away to an insane asylum never to be seen again. To make matters worse, Lovecraft’s mother would also spend her final days in an insane asylum. Aside from being incredibly traumatic experiences, the institutionalisation of Lovecraft’s parents must have left him convinced that he had inherited some terrible neurological disease. This idea of being the unwitting inheritor of monstrous inhuman genetics will of course re-surface when we get to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” but almost all of Lovecraft’s stories to this point in his career point to the fact that he was terrified of the truth and believed that trying to discover the truth was generally a bad idea that would result only in terror and madness. Think of those glorious opening lines from “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family”:

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.”

 The same hostility to the truth finds its voice in “From Beyond”: Tillinghast has neither lied nor created a bunch of monsters out of whole cloth. What he has done is simply expanded the range of human perception and revealed the horrific truth that we live our lives surrounded by gibbering amorphous blobs that pass by us and through us at all moments of the day. When the narrator reaches for his gun, he does not fire at the monsters in order to protect himself, or fire at the scientist in order to get revenge, he shoots at the machine in order to return the monsters to their invisible state. For Lovecraft, the truth does not set you free… it drives you mad and the only way to retain your sanity is to blot out the real world and pretend it doesn’t exist. Lovecraft is a terrible reactionary but a great writer because he knows full well that the reactionary mind-set is incompatible with both intelligence and sensitivity. The tension between the endless horror of truth and infinite fragility of fantasy is the true source of the horror that fills Lovecraft’s most effective stories. Had he been less intelligent, he would have spent his time churning out fantasies of racial persecution like a right-wing newspaper columnist. Had he been more psychologically resilient, he would have rejected the falsehoods forced upon him by his family. Too smart to be dumb and too sensitive to be tough, Lovecraft was a man forever trapped in hell.

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