C.S. Lewis moral imagination alien worldsRecently some astronomers discovered two earth-sized planets orbiting Kepler-20, a star roughly 1,000 light years away. Congratulations to them; their detective work was nearly as awe-inspiring as the news. A flurry of articles followed the find, speculating on the nature of these worlds, along with a little speculation on whether or not we will ever get to them for some firsthand research. Almost immediately another flurry followed, speculating on the significance of the find for our world. Predictably, the religious were informed that they must readjust their doctrines to make room for extraterrestrial life, the writers apparently unaware that the religious have always believed in extraterrestrial life.

CS-Lewis1

C.S. Lewis

The whole thing reminded me of a similar phenomenon that occurred some hundred years ago, when earlier astronomers announced similar findings. The worlds they discovered were not so far away, but they were no less alien. Interest was so pervasive that even literary types took up the subject. Two writers to do so were H. P. Lovecraft and C. S. Lewis.

The two men, in many ways, were opposites. Lovecraft was a recluse from an old New England family, deeply insecure, an autodidact keenly aware of the gaps in his education. Lewis was a boisterous and gregarious man, classically educated in English boarding schools, a public intellectual justly celebrated in his own time.

Yet both had experienced childhood loss, Lewis losing his mother at age ten and Lovecraft his father to mental illness at age three and ultimately to death when he was almost eight. As children, both were sensitive boys with rich imaginative lives. Both, amazingly, married Jewish admirers and later lost those wives, Lewis famously losing Joy Davidman to cancer and Lovecraft losing Sonia Greene due to his incapacity to provide for a wife when doing so was both a cultural expectation and a practical necessity. And they were contemporaries, sharing the same cultural moment; Lovecraft was born in 1890 and Lewis in 1898. Finally, of course, both were pioneers of the fantastic, writing fantasy, science fiction, and in the case of Lovecraft, horror.

Lovecraft’s Legacy

While Lewis is known to Christians as an apologist for the Christian faith, he is better known to the world for his Narnia stories. The richness and depth of those stories provide a witness to permanent things amid the ephemera of popular culture.

Now popular culture is a large and variegated thing, and while there are huge regions where Lovecraft is unknown, there are dark, subterranean recesses where he looms gigantic. Those who frequent comic-book conventions, Wiccan chat-rooms, and tattoo parlors either know of him or have felt his influence. Frequent references in Lovecraft’s stories to the fictional Necronomicon, the book of forbidden lore by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, as well as to the equally fictitious Cthulhu Mythos, have inspired an impressive body of fan fiction.

That Lovecraft has acquired a level purchase among people who are “into that sort of thing” is not surprising. But when several best-selling authors, including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, call you an inspiration, you are important. And when Penguin Classics publishes a selection of your short stories, and Brown University maintains a repository of your papers, as is the case with Lovecraft, it is safe to say you have arrived.

H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft

The Plausibility of Alien Worlds

In the last half of the nineteenth century, the notion of other worlds—once the province of fairytale, folklore, and myth—acquired new legitimacy, aided, surprisingly, by science. The tools developed by scientists to measure things had gradually grown in range and precision until, by the turn of the twentieth century, they revealed a universe far larger, older, and stranger than our ancestors had suspected.

And floating in this vast and ancient cosmos were other worlds, worlds you could not visit but nevertheless could see through telescopes and speculate about. While the hidebound dismissed all talk of “little green men” as childish, or even as evidence of mental instability, the plausibility of aliens invading our world had grown sufficiently that by the time of Orson Welles’s broadcast of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds in 1938, thousands of people would confuse the broadcast with actual news reporting.

Both Lewis and Lovecraft were interested in other worlds, that is, in alien worlds. And using the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, they explored the implications of alien worlds for human beings. But their respective visions are as alien to each other as the worlds they wrote about are alien to our own.

Lovecraft’s Nihilism

When he was a teenager, Lovecraft dabbled in astronomy and was even published on the subject in newspapers such as the Pawtuxet Gleaner and the Providence Tribune. There is something boyish and endearing in his reflections on the subject. Less endearing is the lesson he felt astronomy taught us about man’s place in the cosmos. In a letter to a friend in 1927, he explained how this lesson informed his approach to storytelling:

[A]ll my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds and universes.

For Lovecraft, man was not a microcosm, a Rosetta Stone to the cosmos, as medieval men believed. Nor was he the pinnacle of creation, as the Bible teaches. For him, astronomy taught that man couldn’t even think of the universe as his home. If anything, man was an anomaly, a microscopic and trivial bubble of consciousness in an infinite sea of indifference. Unsurprisingly, Lovecraft believed that the universe gave us no warrant for faith in God. Here he is in another letter:

I certainly can’t see any sensible position to assume aside from that of complete skepticism tempered by a leaning toward that which existing evidence makes most probable. All I can say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses that can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of rational evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.

Lovecraft the Alien

The heavens have been considered the Lord’s signature. That Lovecraft did not think so may say more about him than about astronomy. Even Lovecraft’s admirers concede that he was not a healthy man. Most of what he wrote is full of loss. That is understandable, considering that his childhood was punctured by it. Not only did he lose his father, but also the well-to-do grandfather who had taken him in, the industrialist Whipple Van Buren Phillips, who died when Lovecraft was fourteen.

The more hardscrabble existence that followed Phillips’s death left Lovecraft feeling that he had come down in the world. This sense, combined with the effects of his mother’s protective and emotionally overwrought childrearing, undermined his confidence. He later confessed to thoughts of suicide.

All this formed a poor basis for a political outlook. Lovecraft consoled himself with the race-consciousness familiar to anyone acquainted with the Brahmins of old New England, and he made racist and xenophobic pronouncements that are a continuing source of embarrassment to his admirers today. He also waxed nostalgic for the prerogatives of eighteenth-century English gentlemen, apparently believing they would have been his to enjoy if only he had been born in the right century.

Generously, we can say he was out of touch with the bustling, commercial, immigrant-packed eastern seaboard of the 1920s and 1930s. The man who wrote stories about aliens was an alien to the world around him.

The Aesthetic of an Alien

An aesthetic expresses an outlook; you could say that art is an outlook frozen and shared. If it were pointless, there would be no reason to talk about it seriously. Lovecraft was up to something very serious. He wanted to change the way his readers thought about the world and, by implication, themselves.

Lovecraft believed he possessed greater insight into the nature of things than better-adjusted, healthier people. He took dark comfort in breaking the news to the rest of us that we are all as strange and out of place as he felt he was. He wanted to take his readers Outside, or, perhaps better, to bring the Outside inside. Here’s Lovecraft from yet another letter:

To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human characters must have human qualities . . . but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

This is the aesthetic of H. P. Lovecraft—not all of it, but the heart of it. And his appeal to outsiders—the lonely, the geeks, the pierced—is understandable. Still, it seems self-pitying and vindictive. It would be contemptible if it were not so well done.

An Awful Revelation

The problem faced by the protagonist in a Lovecraft story is not the problem of proper adjustment. We are not presented with a maladjusted person in need of a psychological fix—some form of therapy. That presumes a healthful order. Instead, the protagonist seems normal and well-adjusted; then, through a process of slow revelation, an awful reality from Outside breaks in upon him. With him—the stories are almost always presented in a first-person account—we come to see that the universe is inhospitable and unfit for human habitation. There is nothing in it we should want to adjust ourselves to. The stories usually climax with maniacal screaming.

The nature of the alien is presented in various ways in Lovecraft’s tales. The short story “The Whisperer in Darkness” and the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, for example, suggest that an indifferent and alien intelligence with the power to overwhelm humanity exists very close by, and that our continued survival depends very much on its benign neglect. “Dagon,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “The Rats in the Walls” present the idea that, in the prehistoric past, humanity placated monstrous beings from out of time and space with pagan sacrifices. And the fine story “The Colour Out of Space” intimates that even our natural laws do not apply to the truly alien.

The latter story takes place in rural New England. Most of Lovecraft’s tales take place there, and he did such a fine job of painting the region as a home of “deep secrets,” “hidden lore,” and “elder mystery” that even British writers influenced by him have felt a need to locate their stories in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.

A meteor falls to earth near a well at the old Nahum Gardner place. The setting is doubly alien: the vestiges of the rustic, stern, and unadorned world of old Puritan New England, with its people named for obscure Old Testament characters, are as strange as the rock from the sky. But to accentuate the utter otherness of the meteor, the narrator tells us that the scientists who have come out from nearby Miskatonic University find it beyond the scope of human science to comprehend.

Emblematic of this invasion of the alien is its color:

They had uncovered what seemed to be the side of a large coloured globule. . . . The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by way of analogy that they called it a colour at all.

This theme is repeated throughout the course of the story. The narrator again: “It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”

The effects of this “color out of space” are as toxic as they are inexplicable. Initially, the surrounding vegetation is affected by it: “orchard trees blossomed forth in strange colours.” Soon insects and nocturnal creatures are also changed; then livestock sicken and become deformed; and finally, one by one, the members of the Gardner family go insane and die.

The horror of the situation is intensified by the apparent purposeless of it all. Not only does the mysterious thing seem to mock natural law, but there are also hints that it houses a malign intelligence. The simple farmer whose land and family are blighted by it cannot even find solace in attributing it to divine judgment. Not only is he unable to identify any sin meriting such a curse, but the origin of the meteor itself appears to lie beyond the pale of God’s creation, as the farmer makes clear: “The way it’s made an’ the way it works ain’t like no way o’ God’s world. It’s some’at from beyond.”

C. S. Lewis & Aliens

What did C. S. Lewis think of alien worlds? He had read about the same scientific breakthroughs as Lovecraft did. Indeed, he probably understood their implications more deeply. He certainly knew the past far better than Lovecraft; he was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature. And he agreed that the universe was far larger than mankind had assumed. But Lewis had quite different things to say about it all.

Although Lewis lived in a modern world, his Christianity was not the modern sort. Paradoxically, this was why he was prepared to appreciate alien worlds. He had read about many of them in old books.

Even superficial readings of the Narnia stories and the Space Trilogy reveal that Lewis was preoccupied with the subject: Out of the Silent Planet is about a trip to Mars, and Perelandra about a trip to Venus. Narnia itself is an alien world—even subject to different natural laws. How else could time flow at a different rate there?

Concerning the Space Trilogy, today we have the hard facts that confirm what people already knew when it was originally published: Lewis got the science all wrong. Arthur C. Clarke famously upbraided him for it. But Clarke was like an obnoxious student who corrects a venerable professor on what he assumes is a spelling error, only to be told that the spelling is Old English. Lewis knew what he was doing. He was working in a different vernacular, for a different purpose. He was telling the truth with literary license. Clarke preferred moral flatness with a scientific gloss.

Science pursues the truth about “lowercase” reality. It is intentionally narrow, limiting itself to material and efficient causes. Materialists like Clarke, or Lovecraft, cheat when they imply that science fully explains reality. Science cannot even explain why people like Clarke and Lovecraft write the stories they do. Lewis honestly focused on “uppercase” Reality, using fictional worlds to do so.

The “Space” Between the Worlds

Before moving on to the worlds Lewis explored, let’s look at the intervening space between those worlds. For Lewis, it was not empty space. In The Magician’s Nephew he describes it as a great, silent wood. When Digory goes to this wood, he sees a “green light that came through the leaves” and concludes that there must be a “very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm.” Concerning the wood itself he observes, “It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. . . . This wood was very much alive.”

Something similar is experienced by Ransom in the Space Trilogy. For Lovecraft, space was a dark void that seemed to declare that the objects suspended in it were just as void of meaning as space itself was. In contrast, Lewis tells us that, as Ransom journeyed to Mars, the experience of space produced in him a progressive “lightening and exultation of heart.” He explains why:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. . . . “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. . . . How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was a womb of worlds. . . .

Lewis did not subscribe to Lovecraft’s mechanical, clockwork understanding of the cosmos; he was a Platonist as well as a Christian—two good reasons to reject it. He believed that the material universe participated in a deeper, more meaningful reality, and that it is this deeper reality that confers meaning on our material one. The world we live in is like a clouded glass through which the filtered light of a higher reality shines. If the higher reality remains opaque to us, it is because we are stuck in a cave of ignorance and sin.

Furthermore, since that other reality is the source of all worlds, we can say two things at least. First, all worlds have it in common. And second, while in one sense the worlds are alien to one another, yet in another sense they are neighbors. We live in a neighborhood of worlds governed by a common, overarching reality.

The One & the Many

For Lewis, reality is one, but fruitful. It contains variety and multiplicity beyond human comprehension because there is a Creator above, who creates with a range of expression that dwarfs and overwhelms the imagination of his creatures.

This does not mean that all worlds are equally home to all creatures. When Ransom or the Pevensie children wish to enter other worlds, they are at times unfit to do so. For example, after Prince Rilian, Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum defeat the witch in The Silver Chair, they happen upon a chasm that reveals a marvelous hidden world.

They dismounted from their horses and came to the edge, and looked down into it. A strong heat smote up into their faces, mixed with a smell which was quite unlike any they had ever smelled. It was rich, sharp, exciting, and made you sneeze. The depth of the chasm was so bright that at first it dazzled their eyes and they could see nothing. When they got used to it they thought they could make out a river of fire, and, on the banks of that river, what seemed to be fields and groves of unbearable, hot brilliance—though they were dim compared with the river. There were blues, reds, greens, and whites all jumbled together: a very good stained glass window with the tropical sun staring straight through at midday might have something of the same effect.

This world, we are told, is Bism. They are all invited by Golg, the Earthman, to come down into it. And even though Rilian and Eustace are greatly tempted, the good sense of Jill prevails and they decline. Clearly, Bism is a beautiful and alluring place, but it would be the death of those not made for it.

In Lovecraft, a particular world can only be beautiful to its inhabitants; those who belong to another world will necessarily find it ugly. We see the protagonist in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, by the end of the story, change in his opinion of the ocean depths from which the monsters came. But that is because he is being transformed into one of them. And in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” the protagonist’s friend changes his view about the crustaceous extraterrestrials inhabiting the wilderness of Vermont, but that is only because the aliens have removed his brain and put it in a metal box.

Lewis knew that people can be prejudiced against the unfamiliar: he was an Oxford don who spent the better part of his life trying to free the minds of students by means of the liberal arts. But he also knew that there is more to it than a simple dislike of what is strange. Like Lovecraft, he wrote about malign extraterrestrial intelligences that could warp a man’s mind. In a scene from Perelandra that almost could have been written by Lovecraft, he describes Ransom’s state of mind as he awaits the emergence of a subterranean creature he has heard following him.

What he had called the worlds were but the skins of the worlds: a quarter of a mile beneath the surface, and from thence through thousands of miles of dark and silence and infernal fire, to the very heart of each, Reality lived—the meaningless, the un-made, the omnipotent idiocy to which all spirits were irrelevant and before which all efforts were vain. Whatever was following him would come up that wet dark hole, would presently be excreted by that hideous duct, and then he would die.

After that cheery thought, a Lovecraftian horror emerges:

First came what looked like the branches of trees, and then seven or eight spots of light, irregularly grouped like a constellation. Then a tubular mass which reflected the red glow as if it were polished. His heart gave a great leap as the branches resolved themselves into long wiry feelers and the dotted lights became the many eyes of a shell-helmeted head. . . . Horrible things followed—angular, many joined legs, and presently, when he thought the whole body was in sight, a second body came following it and after that a third. The thing was in three parts, united only by a kind of wasp’s waist structure—three parts that did not seem to truly be aligned and made it look as if it had been trodden on—a huge, many legged, quivering deformity. . . .

But Ransom comes to recognize that an alien influence is shaping his perception, and after a sort of self-administered exorcism he sees the creature very differently:

Ransom . . . turned to face the . . . horror. But where had the horror gone? The creature was there, a curiously shaped creature no doubt, but all the loathing had vanished clean out of his mind, so that neither then nor at any other time could he remember it, nor ever understand again why one should quarrel with an animal for having more legs or eyes than oneself. All that he had felt from childhood about insects and reptiles died in a moment: died utterly, as hideous music does when you switch off the wireless. Apparently it had all, even from the beginning, been a dark enchantment of the enemy’s.

Because there is a “Wood Between the Worlds” for Lewis, creatures can be said to be beautifully fitted for their respective realms. Beauty does not merely reside in the eye of the beholder (although it certainly should reside there); it is recast. When prejudice and pride are cast away, the lines of alien beauty can come to the surface. Because the Wood Between the Worlds is common to all worlds, inhabitants from each world have the power to recognize the beauty resident in another world. This is not a species of relativism—it is classical Realism in a coat of many colors.

The Sea’s Limits & Ours

In Lovecraft, the sea plays the same disturbing role it plays in the Bible. Although in one respect, it is just one more feature of creation, to the Semitic mind it stands for chaos and death. Thus, in order for our world to come into being, the sea had to be given limits. In Genesis, God separates the land from the waters, but from that point on the waters hang over the world as an ever-present threat. In judgment, the Lord opens the spigot of heaven for Noah’s flood. Later, the armies of Pharaoh are swallowed up by the Red Sea, and later still the fleeing prophet Jonah is cast into the raging waters of the Mediterranean. The Lord Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee, demonstrating his power over death; and we are told in Revelation that in the new creation there is “no more sea.”

Lovecraft was very much attuned to the menace of the sea, even though he was tone-deaf to the Power that keeps it at bay. He lived in Rhode Island, where one is surrounded by it. Among alien worlds, the sea is our nearest neighbor. And its inhabitants are odd-looking things: creeping crustaceans, tentacled denizens, unblinking wide-eyed fish. It even leaves behind odd odors at low tide. It can be very unnerving. From Lovecraft’s early story “Dagon,” and throughout his fiction, the sea is a threat and full of alien purpose.

Lewis famously treats the sea in two books, Perelandra and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There is plenty of danger in both; drowning is an ever-present threat. And in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a sea monster as hostile as any Lovecraft could imagine nearly sinks the ship. But we see something at the end of that Narnian tale that places a different frame on things.

As the ship draws near the edge of the world, the waters grow so clear that Lucy can see the bottom of the sea, many fathoms down. As she looks, she sees the shadow of the ship passing over an underwater civilization peopled by beautiful but fierce inhabitants riding upon gigantic sea horses. These people in turn see Lucy and the Dawn Treader, but rather than wave up at her like friendly Polynesians, they shake their spears at her in challenge. Here we see an aspect of the alien that completely escapes Lovecraft.

The underwater kingdom Lucy sees is not for her. It is none of her business. If she had dived into the waters and attempted to enter that realm, she would either have been drowned or been killed by the mer-people she so admires. (Lovecraft would have nodded approvingly to that.) But there is no doubt that the mer-people are Aslan’s creations, and that the realm they inhabit has been given to them. It is not alien to them; it is their home. It is the Dawn Treader and its crew that are alien. They are the threat from the Outside. And from the mer-people’s perspective, we can imagine why the Dawn Treader could be perceived as a threat: it passes over the sun, and it contains strange air-breathing creatures that are as strange to the mer-people as the mer-people are to Lucy.

For Lewis, the boundaries separating the worlds are not only practically impassable in some cases; they are also morally inviolable in all cases. Even when material conditions permit passage from one world to another, moral limits still govern tourists. The Pevensie children can only enter Narnia by the will of Aslan. And whether the passage to an alien world is made possible by good magic (as in the Narnia stories) or by science (as in the Space Trilogy), intruders are expected to be respectful upon entering it and to learn the rules that govern it and submit to them. Only evil characters like Weston and Devine, or characters who have yet to be redeemed, like Edmund and Eustace, find these limits galling. As with the sea, there are limits in every world.

Where Monsters Really Come From

Lewis believed that God is good—but his goodness is unleashed from human management. As he famously said: Aslan is not a tame lion. Nevertheless, even though Aslan disturbs characters in the Narnia stories, he does not disturb the reader. Lewis is too avuncular for that. He wrote the Narnia stories with children in mind, and his hands are warm and reassuring as he holds the hands of his readers. Even the Space Trilogy reassures us.

That is not what Lovecraft was after. He wanted to disturb us. At his best, we can detect in him a longing for the power that underlies all things. But for Lovecraft, it is an amoral power. Like people as wildly different as Mary Baker Eddy and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lovecraft believed morality to be a human attempt to tame and sublimate this power and to make it socially acceptable and useful.

Lewis did not think morality was a human artifice imposed on a primal life-force. Like the Apostle John, he proclaimed that life and light have the same source and occupy the same space. For Lewis, life is found in morality, and, like life, it is a gift we do not give ourselves.

 It is this alien source of morality that modern people find disturbing. Reducing morality to human origins is a human attempt to tame it. For Lewis, that effort is the source of all our ills; the refusal to submit to our given limits is what alienates us from God. And that is where monsters really come from. Whoever they may be now—the White Witch or Weston—the monsters were once people. That is the frightening news Lewis has to share about human nature. It turns out that Lewis can scare people after all.

Lovecraft also believed that there is something monstrous at the bottom of human nature. Nearly all his stories have the feel of a confessional about them. They often narrate a process of discovery, creating within the reader a sense of dawning horror. Not infrequently, there is—at the zenith of the story—some dark revelation concerning the protagonist’s origins. In the case of “The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” the protagonist discovers he is the descendant of a union between his great-great-great-grandfather and a white ape. In “The Rats in the Walls,” a wealthy Massachusetts businessman returns to his ancestral home in England to find he is descended from cannibals. In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the narrator finds, through a process of genealogical inquiry, that he is the descendant of an unholy union between his great-great-grandfather and a sea monster.

These stories end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.

But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.

Aliens at Home

Lovecraft was not known for happy endings. Sadly, his own life ended unhappily: he died of cancer and malnutrition in 1937 in Providence, Rhode Island. At the end, he was still largely unknown and unappreciated by the world. Even though he has received a measure of vindication with his posthumous success, he would have agreed with Lewis that there was no meaning in success if this world is our only home.

Lewis did not believe this world is our only home. He did not even think it is our true home. Much has been said about Lewis and Sehnsucht, the German word for “longing” or “yearning.” Lewis thought that this species of longing was itself a precious possession, more precious than anything to be found in this world, because it directs us to another world, a “far off country” whence all the good things in our world derive their goodness. We feel it in those fleeting moments when we sense beautiful things beyond our grasp. It is, as Lewis famously said in his afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress,

that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

Christianity has always been the home of the homesick. And, in a delightful way, Lewis tells us in The Great Divorce that when we find our true home in heaven, we will discover that this world was a sort of front porch. The Pevensie kids make this remarkable discovery in the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia. They die in a railway accident, but rather than passing into nothingness, or into a strange, utterly unfamiliar place, they find themselves in Narnia—or at least a place strongly resembling Narnia. But this Narnia is marvelously different. Somehow it seems even better, more real. Jewel the unicorn, who came into this better Narnia by another door, declares, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

Lovecraft was not an alien to this longing. He felt it, too, but without the satisfaction hope gives it. This comes out poignantly in his story, “Celephais.” There he tells the story of Kuranes, a man who, as a child, dreamed of the marvelous city of Celephais, a place described with prose as enchanting as any found in Lewis. But the child is rudely awakened, and for the rest of his life he pines for that place where the “sea meets the sky,” where the line separating earth from heaven is permeable and one may pass from one to the other.

Kuranes’s life in our world becomes dreary. He is not a “modern” man, according to the narrator, but one who prefers his dream world to the world he finds himself in. Finally, after many years, he gets back to Celephais with the help of hashish, and the tale ends with him at peace, dwelling in that blessed place—but we are also informed at the last that “below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides play mockingly with the body of a tramp . . . and cast it upon the rocks by ivy-covered Trevor Towers, where a notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility.”

It is so clear that Kuranes is Lovecraft that it hurts. He is that displaced dreamer—that extinct noble evicted from his ancestral estate. Is this what becomes of Sehnsucht when it is disappointed? Does it become the phantasmagoria of Lovecraft? Must those who either cannot or will not believe in the promise implicit in our longing turn upon the reminders of another world and defile them? The prospect fills me with pity.

For those who do believe, the story ends quite differently. Lewis also died unnoticed. Someone even more famous than he died on the same day. That day was November 22, 1963—the day John F. Kennedy was shot.

But I imagine that Lewis did not mind. He had something better to think about. I share his faith, and I believe he saw the person that inspired Aslan and inspired these words: “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity and is published here by permission of the author.

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12 replies to this post
      • I concur. Brilliant piece of work. I now have to add some Lovecraft to the stack….

        Are you familiar with Robert E. Howard? More or less a contemporary, a writer of fantasy, and though he did achieve some notoriety in his day it was popular not critical. Personally, I find him to be more literary than you might think with an initial reading where his imagery, strength and vitality overwhelm you. (I might be wrong in that assessment, however…). In any event, worth a look.

        The 20th century is….difficult and painful but also fascinating and complex. For Christians, I’d nominate Lewis as our Virgil to guide us through it. No doubt he would scoff at that notion…which is another reason why he is a good candidate.

        Again, a great piece of work.

        • Thanks Mark–yes, I am familiar with Howard: Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane. I was a fan of both as a kid–esp. in the comics. Howard was actually a good friend of Lovecraft. Lovecraft was crushed by Howard’s suicide.

  1. Excellent piece! I’m always delighted to see Lovecraft being engaged by those who clearly appreciate (even while disagreeing with) his thought. If you do podcasts, there’s one called the “HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast” that might be worth your attention…

    • Cool–thanks, Coyle. I just became a fan of the show on facebook. I also sent those folks a link to this article. Either I’ve stirred up trouble, or I may be in store for a fruitful conversation.

      Yes–Lovecraft is hugely important, Penguin Classics didn’t publish his short stories just for fun and profit.

  2. This is one of those articles that I will copy and paste to a Word document, highlight the best parts, and file away in the “keeps” file on my computer for the purpose of revisiting at some point. I can’t say I knew much about Lovecraft, but I read some of CS Lewis’ fiction as a child and have read Mere Christianity off and on to have a general understanding how Lewis’ mind worked. This article definitely illustrated a side of Lewis I had never really noticed and the contrast to Lovecraft is interesting to say the least.

  3. It was a brilliant move to put these two authors in a single study. The resulting contrast illuminates both very effectively. Well done.

  4. Excellent read. Just what this Christian and CS Lewis fan was looking for tonight, after having read from a Lovecraft anthology. I’ve been afflicted since childhood with a bent towards scifi, fantasy, horror (and nostalgia), and in recent years occasionally trouble myself about synthesis between themes in writings about these imaginary worlds and theism… tonight was such a time.

  5. One of the lovely things about modern diversity is that writers like both Lovecraft and Lewis exist and readers are free to encounter both and gain more from their contrasts than anyone could by reading only one of the two. This article demonstrates that perfectly.

  6. Well, that was a brilliant piece. I myself love CS Lewis, Lovecraft and Robert E Howard (as someone mentioned above). Strangely I feel sensations of sehnsucht through fictional monsters (like the cybermen in Dr Who…something about them). It’s interesting that such things can be felt through what is not, by most people, considered, er, ‘sweet’ material. I’ve been delving into the 18th century concept of the sublime (writing about it at University- I’m a student)and I can’t help feeling that ‘fiction’- whether lions or even Lovecraftian beasts- don’t contribute something to the way we can still be amazed and enthralled by an increasingly studied Universe. By still imagining there’s something lurking in the dark can arrest one with such a contemplation (and almost comfort in the smallness-) of mankind’s place in the Universe. That is why I disagree with some fellow Christians who see Halloween and dressing up as ghouls and goblins as harmful. Hope that makes sense.

  7. Interestingly (interesting to me anyway), Lewis’s Weltanschauung was very like Lovecraft’s when he was young. Cf. e.g. the first chapter of ‘The Problem of Pain’ in which Lewis outlines how he saw the world when he was an atheist.

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