Opening shot of Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House
Mathematics is an important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. The main character, Walter Gilman, is a student of non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics at Miskatonic University. Gilman moves into the upper floor room of a house with odd / strange angles forming the ceilings and walls. At one time a known witch, Keziah Mason lived in the house along with her familiar Brown Jenkin (more on him in a later article). Apparently, Keziah’s magic was essentially the use of complex mathematics and physics to travel through time and space. Gilman was learning to apply his mathematics to accomplish a similar goal.
Walter Gilman and the witch Keziah Mason from Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House
The Dreams in the Witch House is HPL’s interpretation or modernization of the myth of witches, giving a scientific explanation to their magical abilities (Joshi and Schultz, 2001; An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia). However, in an article titled H.P. Lovecraft and Pseudomathematics in the book Discovering H.P. Lovecraft (edited by Darrell Schweitzer), Robert Weinberg is a little harsh on Lovecraft’s take on the use of mathematics and physics.
While Weinberg states that there was a lot of misinformation being generated through the “translation” of scientific and mathematical accomplishments in early 20th century, he criticizes Lovecraft’s use of such concepts and ideas. For example, Weinberg states that “non-Euclidean calculus” does not exist and the phase itself is meaningless. In addition, “quantum physics” is just a fancy way of saying quantum mechanics. However, more critical than the terms HPL comes up with is Weinberg’s concluding comment in the article:
“Unfortunately, while his grasp of science and mathematics might have been greater than the layman, it was not strong enough to present a convincing picture to the careful reader. Futher, Lovecraft made the cardinal mistake of speculation of the impossible. While to the non-scientist, this may not sound like much of a sin, it is the cardinal mistake of the uninformed.” – Weinberg.
“Mistake of speculation of the impossible?” – is that a problem here? I am a scientist and I can appreciate that Lovecraft is crafting fiction, using these phases and concepts to convey a story, not to give a lecture on mathematics. I know that the Earth is not hollow but I can enjoy a story about adventures in a hollow Earth (as long as it’s an interesting story). I can’t tell you how many times I see basic concepts of biology and evolution violated in movies and books but I don’t dismiss the art itself. Sure some of the ideas seem to be so ridiculous (as a biologist) that I may laugh at it, even though that may not have been the intention of the artist. While some movies or stories may blatantly show a lack of understanding of basic concepts of biology, I can still enjoy the fiction, particularly weird fiction.
I think Mr. Weinberg was being much to harsh in this article. I can understand contrasting HPL’s pseudomathematics to existing mathematics but to chastise HPL over his partial understanding of the subject in his stories is not needed.
The Dreams in the Witch House by Enrique Cedillo
Ironically, I found an article on HPL and mathematics, written by a professor of mathematics. The article is called H.P. Lovecraft: A Horror in Higher Dimensions (written by Thomas Hull of Merrimack College, North Andover, MA). The article appeared in Math Horizons, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Feb. 2006), pp. 10-12, published by the Mathematical Association of America (www.maa.org). In the article, it is clearly understood that HPL was not a mathematician or scientist, however, Hull did state – “Lovecraft’s use of strange geometry is effective for both the mathematical literate and the layman.”
While I do not know Mr. Weinberg’s background and experience with science and math, he is a well known and respected writer and editor of many volumes of weird fiction. I just find it amusing that the writer was very critical of HPL’s pseudomathematics, but the mathematician found it effective. Whether the phrases or concepts HPL used were real or imaginary, they sparked my imagination when I was a boy and that’s what is great about Lovecraft’s work – it make you curious to know more about both the real and the unreal.
Next time we will be talking about the concept of hyperspace and how Keziah and Walter used mathematics to travel through time and space – Thank you, Fred.
The witch Keziah Mason from Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House