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The Nature of Victory and Defeat in H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction

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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Cthulhu insignia

Cthulhu insignia

The Cthulhu Tragedy

One of the most terrifying and powerful elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror is the toll taken on characters, even those who emerge as successful.

As with much horror writing Lovecraft’s protagonists are pitted against stronger forces. Though they are frequently educated, economically secure men, they do not stand a chance as Van Helsing does against Dracula, for the cosmic monstrosities of the Cthulhu mythos are nearly invulnerable.

Even those who have physical form are enormous, destructive, and so alien in appearance that no weakness to exploit can readily be found. These massive immortal foes have more in common with H. G. Well’s Martians in War of the Worlds than with the conventional antagonists of horror stories such as vampire, werewolves, and ghosts. As such, Lovecraft's fiction is often called cosmic horror. The antagonists are not only extraterrestrial in nature, but they also represent the enormous and often impersonally destructive nature of the cosmos, wherein human being are not powerful or special in any way.

Mental Fractures

Beyond their terrifying physical presence Lovecraftian monsters are notorious for destabilizing the sanity of even the sturdiest protagonist. Where conventional horror stories induce fear, creatures such as Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth all drive people to insanity, too. The madness not only affects fanatic devotees—like those seen in “The Call of Cthulhu”—but also affects the protagonists. These individuals of sound reasoning are reduced to raving madmen by their confrontations with these inhuman forces.

These breakdowns, such as those capping off gruesome tales such as “Dagon,” "Shadow of Innsmouth," or “The Rats in the Walls,” leave the protagonists appearing crazed or criminal, but even worse fates are possible such as macabre finale of “The Dreams in the Witch House.” No one escapes unscathed, and even the passive narrators in stories such as “The Colour Out of Space” are disturbed by simply hearing about the catastrophic events that befell others caught in conflict with Lovecraftian monsters.

A sketch of the fictional character Cthulhu, drawn by his creator, H. P. Lovecraft.

A sketch of the fictional character Cthulhu, drawn by his creator, H. P. Lovecraft.

Pyrrhic Victory

Even when protagonists manage to triumph, as in “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” the physical and mental costs make success seem paltry. At best the agents of evil are halted for a time, but no lasting defeat is ever dealt to these creatures making them seem nearly omnipotent especially compared to the frail individuals trying to stop them. These circumstances further depress the protagonists and the reader who, seeing that these monsters will surely attempt their evil another day, doubts the effectiveness of making these costly stands time and time again.

Success by Accident

In a few instances a serious blow is dealt to Lovecraftian villains not by the intelligent, well-meaning protagonists but by groups that stumble into the unfolding narrative. In “The Call of Cthulhu” the cultists in Louisiana are routed almost unintentionally by Inspector Legrasse and the New Orleans police, and the mighty Cthulhu is wounded by the stalwart crew of the Alert who find the fiend’s nightmare city by accident. Of course even those who survive these encounters are haunted and psychologically marred by the experience. Also, as with other stories, there is no suggestion that these victories represent a triumph of good over evil for all time. At best, destructive entities are staved off and the fullness of their alien power is not made manifest.

Similarly in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” the inhabitants of that town are detained and their frightening homes—including Devil Reef—demolished by Federal agents. While this seems to be a serious act against the mutant people of the town, the reader learns that the monstrous progenitors the people of Innsmouth worship cannot ever die but only be held in check, and even those measures cannot work indefinitely. The discoveries made by the narrator about his own parentage and the desires in his blood make this seem certain.

Fear Itself

The real horrors of Lovecraft’s short stories are two-fold. First there is the standard horror convention of relatively helpless protagonists struggling against terrifying creatures. In these instances the monsters outclass their competition so completely it often drives the heroes into extreme depression or insanity. Secondly, the unfathomable and seemingly unstoppable nature of these monsters leads to a sense of despair or defeatism since the protagonists--and by proxy the readers who identify with them--appear outclassed and outmatched by the cosmic horrors they face.

© 2009 Seth Tomko

Comments

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on October 02, 2013:

I appreciate your comments, cperuzzi. Lovecraft created a distinct style of horror writing. The fate of the crew of the Alert is a good example of the best sort of ending characters could hope for in a Lovecraft story.

Christopher Peruzzi from Freehold, NJ on October 02, 2013:

Great article.

I recently finished reading a plethora of Lovecraft stories in order to prepare a short story I wrote for Chaosium, Inc. Lovecraft has a dangerous, cumulative effect on the reader as he has made large story arcs involving Cthulhu, the elder gods, and the Necronomicon. I've found that after reading any of his stories I need to stop as his writing style and plot are mentally pervasive.

You've hit upon something very interesting on what defines a "win" in Lovecraft's stories. I often think about Captain Johansen and the Alert in the final part of The Call of Cthulhu. The win was that he got away and survived. The loss was that he got away and survived - knowing that those images of the great beast would haunt him for the rest of his days.

Once again, a great read.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 27, 2011:

No problem at all, ruffridyer, and thank you for reading.

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on June 26, 2011:

Lovecraft was one of my favorite authors. This hub brings back some good memories. thank you.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 13, 2010:

Thank you, BumptiousQ. I appreciate your comments.

BumptiousQ from Asheville, NC on June 13, 2010:

Loved this hub. The opening paragraph really hit the nail on the head, and you kept the insights coming throughout.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on May 12, 2010:

Thanks for reading the hub, M.T. Dremer. I didn't know about the video game, so that's news to me.

M. T. Dremer from United States on May 12, 2010:

There was a video game based off of both the call of cthulhu RPG and several of Lovecraft's short stories. It was a brilliant game and it was based around a system that your character could go insane just by looking on these horrific creatures. (You had to balance your sanity otherwise your character would kill himself, it was pretty freaky). But anyway, Lovecraft was a brilliant writer and you're right about his monsters being indestructible. Just refer to 'At the Mountains of Madness'. You go through the story thinking these creatures that they found are the horrific element of the story, only to realize that there is something even worse underneath the mountains; something that the first monster should fear. I'm not usually a fan of short stories, but Lovecraft managed to create a rich universe of terror that I thoroughly respect.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 26, 2009:

And thank you for reading. I've heard that characters don't last long in Lovecraftian RPGs because they, like the protagonists in his stories, become crazed within the course of one or two adventures.

Simon Cook from NJ, USA on September 26, 2009:

I used to play Call of Cthulthu rpg game based on Lovecroft's writing! I've always been interested in the way he deals with characters - thanks for your insight.