Lovecraft and Life on the Moon

Before we move onto the last point of discussion regarding the Elder Ones and Shoggoths, I wanted drift a little off that topic to provide a few notes on Lovecraft and his fascination with the Moon.  As anyone who reads Lovecraft knows, the Moon is an important componet to his stories.  From Moonbeasts, to the “gibbous moon”, to the Moon Bog, to the “horned moon”, and cats flying to the moon, our natural satellite has always had a strong fascination for HPL.

Gibbous Moon (commons.wikimedia.org)
While the moon obviously had a strong impact on HPL, he was also very interested in our satellite from a astronomical point of view and wrote a number of articles on the moon.  Based on S.T. Joshi’s Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science, these articles on the moon were written by HPL between the years of 1902 – 1915.  In his article “My Opinion as to the Lunar Canals” (probably written in 1903; Joshi, 2005), HPL mentioned Prof. Pickering’s theory that the moon has streaks of vegetation.  In that article HPL provided no support for this theory, or more appropriately described as a hypothesis, stating, “…any intelligent astronomer would consider it [life on the moon] unworthy of notice, as our satellite is wanting in both water and atmosphere, the two essentials for life either animal or vegetable.”

In Lovecraft’s small treatise on the moon (written in November 1903, revised in July 1906), he noted that by the 17th century scientists determined that the moon was probably devoid of life, water or atmosphere.  However, HPL also mentioned that recently (in the early 20th century) it has been “demonstrated that life is not yet completely absent, and that the moon possesses a thin atmosphere, low vegetation, hoar-frost, and the last stages of volcanism.” (again from Joshi-edited collection of essays – Volume 3, Science).  It is interesting to note that the revision of this treatise was an Appendix which included a statement that bright streaks were found to be radiating from specific lunar craters and that Prof. Pickering of Harvard hypothesized these to be great fissures filled with hoar-frost.

Later in 1906, Lovecraft wrote an article called “Is There Life on the Moon” with the sub-title “Strange Revelations of Modern Science” (Joshi, 2005), where it discussed the possibility life existing on the moon.  Here Lovecraft states that “ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century the moon has been thought a “dead world”, but now, in the twentieth, this theory is commencing to give way to more advanced ideas.”  Specifically, Lovecraft was referring to work conducted by Prof. William H. Pickering of Harvard, who Lovecraft described as “the greatest living selenographer.”  A selenographer is one who studies the geography of the moon.

While a number of observations were made by Prof. Pickering to form his hypothesis, one of his key pieces of evidence were the small dark streaks within some of the craters that changed over time.  Pickering hypothesized that this represented seasonal growth of low forms of vegetation (Moss? Algae? Lichens?  A specific form of low vegetation is not identified).  Based on Pickering’s evidence, HPL concluded the article by stating, “….we must consider our satellite to be a body which, although not containing any high or animal life, is yet not wholly dead.”

While this idea of life on the moon obviously sparked HPL’s imagination, he still treated this concept as a scientist, stating in an article “Can the Moon be Reached by Man?” (again written in 1906) that one of the benefits of going to the moon would be to verify Prof. Pickering’s hypothesis that low forms of vegetation are present.  Again, more evidence that HPL would have made a great scientist.  Just because you wish for something to true, doesn’t make it so.  Investigations into the matter are required to support or abandon a hypothesis and HPL certainly understood this relative to the idea that the moon harbors life.

HPL also briefly refers to Prof. Pickering’s ideas in his article “The Earth and its Moon” written in March 1915.  After this article, HPL did not mention life on the moon again (at least in the Collected Essays).  While today, talking about the potential of life on the moon may seem silly, aren’t we currently doing the same thing when we hypothesize about the potential of microbial life residing in the soils of Mars or possibly in the ice-covered oceans of Europa or Triton?  Science is not math – science moves forward by asking questions and finding answers; but if a question is never asked, an answer can never be found.  HPL obviously understood this.

It is interesting to note that while this idea of life on the moon was not directly incorporated into HPL’s fiction, it more than likely had a strong influence on his stories, such as in the development of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”.  Next time, the discussion on the relationship between the Elder Ones and the Shoggoths will continue.  Thank you – Fred

Cats on the Moon by the talented artist Jason Thompson (www.mockman.com)

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