Jewelers refer to the brilliance of well-cut diamonds as their “fire.” There are a variety of factors that allow a diamond to sparkle: the quality of the cut, the clarity of the diamond’s surface, the carat size.
The same can be said, I think, of literature. A writer’s brilliance can be determined by a number of things: the quality of craftsmanship, the clarity of the message, the sheer enormity of the story.
But ultimately, the written work, like the diamond’s fire, is only as good as the light pouring through it. Often, I’ve marveled at the multifaceted worlds of some luminous writer, and thought to myself, “What beautiful intricacy, but what a dingy light.”
I regret to say this was my reaction to much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.
As I’ve culled through the mainstays of his work, I must admit, I’ve been blown away by the cohesive universe he built around the Cthulu mythos. Previously, I’d read “The Dunwitch Horrors” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” Recently, I’ve delved into “The Call of Cthulu” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” Most of Lovecraft’s corpus of work weaves seamlessly into the fabric of the Cthulu universe–populated by “Old Ones,” multidimensional beings, and non-Euclidean geometry.
But the aspect of Lovecraft’s work that most interests me most is his particular attentiveness to the numinous.
I’ve written in depth about the concept of the numinous in the past, which can be broadly defined as the “uncanny” or “wholly other” impression left upon human beings by the supernatural. In spiritual terms, the numinous is the aspect of holiness beyond the grasp of human’s rational mind. But in Lovecraft’s pulpy, weird tales, the numinous takes on a much more ominous connotation. His works are replete with beings and knowledge that exceed humanity’s reach. These alien beings overwhelm and mystify Lovecraft’s protagonists, driving them to madness, homicide, or suicide.
What makes Lovecraft’s stories so chilling is that they have a basis in reality: the numinous devoid of benevolence is unsettling.
It’s one thing to think of God in terms of the numinous. As we read scripture, many of us have grappled with the thought of “fearing God.” We may wonder if the Hebrew or Greek word for “fear” connotes the same feelings of trepidation as the English one. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that when we experience the numinous aspect of God, we “feel wonder and a certain shrinking.”
But no matter how you define the “fear of God,” we as believers in Christ can ultimately put our trust in Him because we know that his intentions toward us are good, and that He is loving.
Not so with Lovecraft’s creatures. The numinous divorced from holiness becomes something utterly profane. They’re not supernatural, but instead become something preternatural, and eventually even subnatural.
In Lovecraft’s works, he imagines entities from other realms beyond humanity’s understanding–aliens as malevolent as they are beyond us, and that is what makes his work truly horrifying.