On “The Crawling Chaos” by H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson

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 bad trip into the outer darkness.

The Crawling Chaos” (complete text) was first published in the April 1921 issue of the United Co-operative. I’ve been trying (with little success so far) to established either when this issue was published or when the story was written as while “The Picture in the House” opens with a monologue about the benefits of setting a story in the real world, the story that appeared immediately after that marked a return not only to Lovecraft’s old methods, but also to an old collaborator.

The collaborator in question is one Winnifred V. Jackson who had previously worked with Lovecraft on a rather striking and under-rated dream story entitled “The Green Meadow”, which was written in 1918/1919 but only achieved publication in 1927. So I wonder whether “The Crawling Chaos” might not be a story that also got stuck in a drawer. It’s certainly a bit weird to make a big thing about how you only want to set stories in the real world and then immediately return to stories produced using dreams as writing queues. The combination of disjointed narrative and intense visuals bound by dream-logic certainly reminds me of a dream and I wonder whether this story might not have started life as something fuelled by opioids.

Lovecraft opens the story with a riff on opium that references people like Baudelaire and De Quincey but Lovecraft is quick to point out that his unnamed narrator was not taking drugs for fun… no, no… he was given a load of drugs by an over-worked doctor and as a result wound up over-dosing and ‘travelling too far’.

It’s interesting to read a dream story that originates in drug use as it forces Lovecraft to shift the way manner in which he frames their sense of physicality. For example, a lot of the earlier dreamlands stories are about people wishing themselves elsewhere (as in “The White Ship” and “Polaris”) only to have an adventure and be deposited back where they started. Lovecraft then riffed on this idea with “Celephais”, a story where someone visits the dreamlands, gets deposited back home, and then spends the rest of his life desperately trying to escape the real world in order to reclaim the throne he acquired whilst dreaming. “The Crawling Chaos” extends the riff even further by suggesting that you can also travel to the dreamlands by getting high, thereby suggesting that when people like De Quincey, Baudelaire, or Burroughs wrote about their experiences taking opiates, they were actually describing trips to the dreamlands. Most of the people who travel the dream-roads either do not return or choose to explain away the things they have seen, but some acknowledge the reality of the other space whilst trying and failing to make sense of it. Here we are treated to a lovely little swipe where Lovecraft suggests that while De Quincey did visited the dreamlands, his imagination was such that he was only able to understand the ‘trip’ in terms of a visit to Asia:

De Quincey was drawn back into Asia, that teeming land of nebulous shadows whose hideous antiquity is so impressive that “the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual”, but farther than that he dared not go.

Pfft… fucking lightweight.

This visit to the dreamlands also feels a lot more dangerous simply by virtue that the story does not end with the traditional dumping of the protagonist back where he started. Lovecraft states that a lot of the people who visit the dreamlands wind up either dead or insane and we are left to consider the possibility that while the narrator is present to tell us their story, maybe they didn’t actually survive the overdone they received at the hands of that over-worked doctor. Maybe they delved deeper than De Quincey because there was never any chance of their getting back out?

The dreamer awakens in a strange house but pleasantly decorated house, the only note of unreality being a persistent but distant pounding that initially prevents the dreamer from feeling comfortable but then starts to curdle into a deeper sense of dread accelerated by the surreal views and seascapes visible from the structure’s windows:

The building stood on a narrow point of land—or what was now a narrow point of land—fully 300 feet above what must lately have been a seething vortex of mad waters. On either side of the house there fell a newly washed-out precipice of red earth, whilst ahead of me the hideous waves were still rolling in frightfully, eating away the land with ghastly monotony and deliberation. Out a mile or more there rose and fell menacing breakers at least fifty feet in height, and on the far horizon ghoulish black clouds of grotesque contour were resting and brooding like unwholesome vultures. The waves were dark and purplish, almost black, and clutched at the yielding red mud of the bank as if with uncouth, greedy hands. I could not but feel that some noxious marine mind had declared a war of extermination upon all the solid ground, perhaps abetted by the angry sky.

Terrified, the narrator stumbles out of the house and into the surrounding forests where they encounter first an unnamed beast, then a group of glowing figures who calm the dreamer and spit a few bars of that old school high-fantasy codswallop:

Come, child, you have heard the voices, and all is well. In Teloe beyond the Milky Way and the Arinurian streams are cities all of amber and chalcedony. And upon their domes of many facets glisten the images of strange and beautiful stars. Under the ivory bridges of Teloe flow rivers of liquid gold bearing pleasure-barges bound for blossomy Cytharion of the Seven Suns. And in Teloe and Cytharion abide only youth, beauty, and pleasure, nor are any sounds heard, save of laughter, song, and the lute. Only the gods dwell in Teloe of the golden rivers, but among them shalt thou dwell.

As the dreamer listens, they are enchanter but suddenly become aware of their surroundings and the sense of menace and decay that surrounds them as the world starts to degrade and collapse under the onslaught of that infinite ocean:

Down through the aether I saw the accursed earth turning, ever turning, with angry and tempestuous seas gnawing at wild desolate shores and dashing foam against the tottering towers of deserted cities. And under a ghastly moon there gleamed sights I can never describe, sights I can never forget; deserts of corpse-like clay and jungles of ruin and decadence where once stretched the populous plains and villages of my native land, and maelstroms of frothing ocean where once rose the mighty temples of my forefathers. Around the northern pole steamed a morass of noisome growths and miasmal vapours, hissing before the onslaught of the ever-mounting waves that curled and fretted from the shuddering deep. Then a rending report clave the night, and athwart the desert of deserts appeared a smoking rift. Still the black ocean foamed and gnawed, eating away the desert on either side as the rift in the centre widened and widened.

Gorgeous stuff I’m sure, but completely untethered from any fictional contrivance: No plot, no character, and no obvious theme barring a sense of doomed entropy that ends with the complete destruction of the planet and a lovely little phrase that could very well be Lovecraft’s first serious attempt at articulating cosmic horror:

And when the smoke cleared away, and I sought to look upon the earth, I beheld against the background of cold, humorous stars only the dying sun and the pale mournful planets searching for their sister.

A lot of the Lovecraft nerds take their cues from Joshi and suggest that while Lovecraft may have started out as a Fantasy writer, many of his best-known works are actually O.G. works of science-fiction.

I think you can unpack this claim in two different ways: On one level, Lovecraft makes a conscious and overt attempt to shuffle his stories away from the sub-Dansanian dreamlands and towards the real world. Part of that shuffle is that he replaces Fantasy tropes with Science-fictional ones; so fantasy races with funny names become alien races that rose to power and disappeared from sight long before humanity dragged itself from the primordial ooze. Similarly, fantasy gods worshipped in ruined-temples become big rubbery aliens worshipped by demented humans living in the bad part of town. On another level, Lovecraft abandons writing stories set in a universe governed by the logics of poetry and narrative and starts writing stories set in a universe governed solely by the laws of physics. Laws that stress humanity’s powerlessness and the universe’s absolute indifference to their suffering.

To me, the final words of this story are pure cosmic horror and they remind me of a line from Olaf Stapledon’s observation that “Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them”. From Stepledon through to Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter and Peter Watts, a form of existential horror runs straight through the heart of so-called Hard Science-fiction and the ending of this story feels very much a part of that tradition.

One could also argue that the movement from opium overdose through to the consumption of a world and the pounding that eventually grows quiet position this story as a visualisation of someone dying of a morphine overdose whilst tripping their balls off: We have the sense of pain that drifts away, the pounding of a heart that eventually grows silent,  and that sense of a world consumed by entropy as well as the stuff in the middle about the prowling beast and the Angelic visitors who stretch out a hand to the unnamed narrator whilst promising much and speaking of rivers of gold. Had this story been written solely by Lovecraft, I would immediately discount this reading as too on the nose as Lovecraft does not write in that kind of metaphorical register, and even if he did, it would be strange to see him writing about death in terms that not only approach the Christian but also end with a character speaking out from beyond the grave after an overdose. However, while Lovecraft wrote this story, it is rooted in a vision that was experienced by Jackson and given that Lovecraft’s previous co-operation with Jackson also had big ‘afterlife’ vibes, it would not surprise me if it turned out that Jackson had approached Lovecraft with a near-death experience and asked him to turn it into a story.

Either way, this is a very strong deployment of techniques that Lovecraft had effectively matured out of by the time this story first saw print. It’s an interesting return to the dreamlands that raises some interesting questions but it is still just a story woven around a load of disjointed dream visuals. The tone is there, as is the language, but this feels very much like a throwback to an earlier stage in Lovecraft’s creative career.

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