Comet of 1811 (www.gutenberg.org)
In his astronomical writings, H.P. Lovecraft cited a number of instances where he observed comets. For example, the first comet Lovecraft observed was Borelli’s Comet in August 1903. However, beyond is articles on astronomy, Lovecraft mentions comets a number of times in his tales. The first time was, appropriately enough, in “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Cthulhu recombining at the end of “The Call of Cthulhu (for beginning readers) by Dr. Fraustusau (www.deviantart.com)
It was toward the end of the tale after Johansen’s confrontation with Cthulhu itself. After Johansen intentionally hits Cthulhu with the bowsprit of the vessel the Alert, causing the thing to explode, recombine and sink back down into R’lyeh, he experiences a cloudy consciousness during a subsequent storm. At that time Johansen had a “…sense of spectral whirling through liquid gulfs of infinity, of dizzying rides through reeling universes on a comets tale, and of hysterical plunges from the pit of the moon and from the moon back again to the pit, all livened by a cachinnating chorus of the distorted, hilarious elder gods and the green, bat-winged mocking imps of Tartarus.” That’s quite a statement! However, Lovecraft’s point was that one way of traveling into the unknown void of the universes is on a comet’s tail. This makes sense since in Lovecraft’s astronomical writings on comets he mentions a class of comets called solitary comets that appear from deep space and return back into the void never to be seen again. I think this traveling on a comet’s tail is to convey this sense of experiencing something truly strange and unique in our universe, never to be seen by that individual ever again.
A bat-winged imp from Tartarus by Les Edwards(www.lesedwards.com)
The next time a comet is mentioned is in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. In it Randolph Carter enters an alternative reality or parallel universe through his dreams. While the “dreamlands” are very similar to Earth in general appearance, there are some substantial differences relative to physical laws. For example, the dreamlands are a flat world and not a sphere like Earth. Also, galley ships can travel to the edge of the dreamlands and float to the moon, which can sustain life. In the tale Carter watches in horror as the ship he is on heads toward the edge of the world ready to plunge into the dark depths of the universe. However, with a “queer whistle” the ship “shot silent and comet-like into planetary space.” Here the reference to a comet may represent something unexpected and surprising, as many comets were before they were known what they were.
Sail to the Moon by Sycen (www.deviantart.com)
Toward the end of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath comets are once again cited. Here is was when Carter realizes that his quest for Kadath was his attempt to find the city he always loved and missed, particularly in the days of his youth – Boston. Here, by the orders of Nyarlathotep a Shantak carries Carter through time, space and outside until, “Matter and light were born anew as space once had known them; and comets, suns and worlds sprang flaming into life, though nothing survived to tell that they had been gone, been and gone, always and always, back to no first beginning.” This may indicate that Carter was transported to other dimensions, realities or branes, where time has no meaning. Thus, Carter experiences the beginning and end of those universes. Once again, comets are specifically cited as a component of universes, familiar or strange, that would be clearly recognizable by humans. Additionally, this may be an indirect reference to the importance of comets as a means of transporting important organic molecules or water to worlds throughout the universe to provide the “seeds” of life.
In an even more incredible adventure, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (co-written with E. Hoffmann Price), Randolph Carter experiences at one point of the tale “phasing” into and out of the bodies of various entities both within and out of our space-time. At one point, one of these entities was described as “…a vegetable brain of the future on a dark radio-active comet of inconceivable orbit…” Again, the inconceivable orbit expresses the fact that even periodic comets have orbits of such incredibly long distances that they may seem to be solitary in nature, particularly to a culture where the majority of the people are not familiar with the documentation of comets that pass by their world once ever tens or hundreds of years. In addition, the “vegetable brain” may be yet another reference to the fact that comets may have brought the simple organic compounds (or organic life?), the basic building blocks of life, to Earth. Indeed, many scientists hypothesize that radioactive heating within a comet may allow water to exist in a liquid state and thus harbor the organic molecules needed to seed new worlds for the eventual development of prokaryotic life.
Through the Gates of the Silver Key by Orbituated (www.deviantart.com)
On 13 June 2015 Philae, a robotic lab from Europe that was transported to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta probe, woke up and made contact with Earth. Since then it has contacted Earth two more times and just started to transmit data back to Earth. Eventually the robot will drill into the comet itself and collect samples for analysis. One of the main goals of this mission is to determine if liquid water can be found inside of the comet along with organic molecules. The next few weeks to months should provide some tantalizing data on the comet’s role in the origins of our Solar System. However, it is interesting to note that Randolph Carter’s journey through the Gates of Silver Key may have been the first documentation that comets provide a safe habitat for the molecules of life from the cold vastness of interstellar space through radioactive heating.
Rosetta mission poster showing the deployment of the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov – Gerasimenko (supplied by ESA/Rosetta/Navcam)
Next time we will discuss meteors and meteorites in the Lovecraftian Solar System. Thank you – Fred.