On July 11 2022 US space agency NASA enthusiastically presented the very first pictures taken by a James Webb Space Telescope introducing them as the beginning of “a new era in astronomy” (NASA, 2022). A look at the series of astonishing, extremely detailed pictures of the cosmos can evoke the whole spectrum of different emotions, some of them darker than others. It can also provoke a reaction that Howard Phillips Lovecraft called “the cosmic alienage or outsideness” (Lovecraft. Ed. Joshi, 2004) explained as not having the feeling of belonging anymore. While looking at the picture of the so-called Cosmic Cliffs, one could easily think about Lovecraft’s “literature of cosmic fear” (Lovecraft, 1973), particularly about a short horror/science-fiction story titled The Color Out of Space.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. Even though he is currently recognized as the father of weird fiction – a subgenre of imaginative fiction – and continues to be an inspiration for numerous artists and readers, he was not appreciated in his own time. The fact that Lovecraft was a racist, xenophobe, and misogynist cannot be ignored, especially since elements backing these views often appear in his work. These views have to be noticed and critiqued before analyzing Lovecraft’s writing, but they should not erase the valuable elements of his work, such as the philosophy of cosmicism, that will be analyzed later in the example of the short story The Color Out of Space.
The story, first published in 1927, is set in the Massachusetts hills, in the fictional town of Arkham. It is narrated in the past tense, 1st person by a surveyor who came to research the so-called “blasted heath” – the disturbingly infertile land where no people nor vegetation managed to stay for long. The area used to be an ordinary part of the town, but everything had changed as a result of a strange meteor falling to the ground and poisoning the soil, animals, and people who lived there. At this point, the connection between the story and NASA’s pictures may still be vague as Lovecraft never had a chance to admire a picture taken in the outer space. He died of intestinal cancer in March 1937 and the first shot of Earth taken from space was taken nine years later, in October 1946. His idea of the outer space was something impossible to imagine or describe, let alone photograph. In his work, he expresses these feelings by negation in phrases such as “words could not convey it” (Lovecraft, 1927). Nevertheless, in order to understand the particular feelings evoked by facing the outer space – even if only through the pictures –, it is still worth immersing oneself in this nearly 100 years old narration and deciphering the author’s philosophy of cosmicism.
S.T. Joshi defines the concept as: “a metaphysical position (an awareness of the vastness of the universe in both space and time), an ethical position (an awareness of the insignificance of human beings within the realm of the universe), and an aesthetic position (a literary expression of this insignificance, to be effected by the minimizing of human character and the display of the titanic gulfs of space and time)” (Joshi, 2001, p. 182). The Colour Out of Space engages in exploring all three elements of the aforementioned definition. This article, however, focuses on analyzing cosmicism as the ethical position, in order to trace the origins of the fear that may be evoked by looking at James Webb Space Telescope’s pictures.
For Lovecraft, the human mind is not able to comprehend the vastness of the universe and to continue living in a reality where people are not only devoid of the status of the most important species, but are also completely insignificant from the cosmic perspective. In The Colour Out of Space, the cosmic manifests itself by provoking unusual activity of usual objects. Suspense is built from the very first moment of the meteor’s arrival – its features contradict the known laws of physics and its nature remains mysterious as it evades analysis and comprehension. The tension rises throughout the story, as the enigmatic matter impacts and transforms the environment, gradually causing more disturbing effects. Firstly, it affects the vegetation, then the animals, and finally the humans. Humans are also affected the most, as their transformation is significantly more scary, repulsive, and total. Additionally, characteristically for Lovecraft, the excess of knowledge causes the unhinging of the human mind. For Lovecraft cosmos is cold, unimaginable, and unknown, and the universe is amoral. Humans are protected from this knowledge as long as they believe in the Laws of Nature and do not wonder too much about otherworldly phenomena. Therefore, in the grand scheme of things the anthropocentric perspective is completely insignificant. In his stories, the knowledge exposing the existence of other natures is presented as a gnostic revelation rather than a gradual understanding, and results in madness.
The Colour Out of Space faithfully fulfills Lovecraft’s ideas of supernatural horror, as it implements all of the ideas listed by him in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, such as fear of the unknown which is also unpredictable, channeling through the unconscious, the outer rim of the cosmos. The descriptions of the meteor that fell on Earth are constructed in a way that evokes concern in readers, as it uses words that connote difference from the known world, and by this also danger, and peril. Also, the features ascribed to the meteor are peculiar – its nature slips away any comprehension, as it contradicts Newtonian physics, which leaves the scientists in the story curious about the unnatural object. However, these circumstances are also presented as dangerous by the way in which the story unfolds – the unknown equals peril. As theorized by Lovecraft: “uncertainty and danger are always closely allied” (Lovecraft, 1973). Presenting the problem this way complies with another feature recognized by Lovecraft as crucial for supernatural horror: exposing the fact that the laws of physics are the only buffer our minds have to protect ourselves from the endless, cold, and hostile cosmos. Without them, humans are left vulnerable and unprotected, which leads them to madness.
Looking at James Webb Space Telescope pictures through the lenses of Lovecraftian cosmicism can offer more than just aesthetic effects. It can give one the power to look at the cosmic void with fear, but also with the comprehension of the origin of this fear.
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Joshi, S. T. (2001). A Dreamer and a Visionary: HP Lovecraft in his Time. Oxford University Press.
Lovecraft Arts & Sciences, Who Is H. P. Lovecraft? https://www.weirdprovidence.org/about.html
Lovecraft, H. P., & Bleiler, E. F. (1973). Supernatural Horror in Literature. Dover Publications, Inc.
Lovecraft, H. P., & Joshi, S. T. (2002). The Call of Cthulhu : And Other Weird Stories (New ed.). Gardners Books.
Lovecraft, H. P., & Joshi, S. T. (2004). Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft: Literary Criticism (Illustrated ed.). Hippocampus Press.
NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2022, June 8). First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope. https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages
Sederholm, C. H. (2016). H. P. Lovecraft, Heavy Metal, and Cosmicism. Rock Music Studies, 3(3), 266–280. https://doi.org/10.1080/19401159.2015.1121644
Figure 1: First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope. [Photograph]. NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl. Retrieved from: https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages
Figure 2: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. [Photograph]. Scriipt. Retrieved from: https://scriiipt.com/auteures-et-auteurs/howard-phillips-lovecraft/
Figure 3: The Color Out of Space (Richard Stanley, 2020). [Film still]. Filmgrab. Retrieved from: https://film-grab.com/2020/08/31/colour-out-of-space/