With the opening of Jurassic Park: Forbidden Kingdom a few weeks ago I thought I would review Lovecraft’s thoughts on dinosaurs and his use of these ancient organisms in his tales. In S.T. Joshi’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2013), Joshi did note that in his diary Lovecraft mentioned that on 6 October 1925 he went to see the film The Lost World, which is based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name. The film features some stunning stop motion special effects that were amazing for its time and actually hold up even today. These special effects were achieved through the efforts of Willis O’Brien who also worked on King Kong (1933) and Might Joe Young (1949). O’ Brien was also the mentor to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. It would have been interesting to hear Lovecraft’s opinion of the film The Lost World. However, Lovecraft did mention seeing King Kong and only stated that it had “good mechanical effects” (Joshi, 2013).
King Kong vs. a T. rex in the original 1933 film.
Additionally, Lovecraft recorded in his Common Place Book in 1919 the statement, “As dinosaurs were once surpassed by mammals, so will man-mammal be surpassed by insect or bird – fall of man before new race.” (Collected Essays: Volume 5: Philosophy, Autobiography and Miscellany – H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi; 2006). In the revision of Zealia Bishop’s tale “The Mound,” Lovecraft cites that an “altered” George E. Lawton emerged from the mound and was muttering a variety of things including, “…always down there, before there were any living things – older than the dinosaurs…” In both instances Lovecraft is using the dinosaurs as some type of indicator organisms to exemplify the extremely large spans of geologic time associated with rise and fall of species or civilizations.
A member of the Great Race with a Velociraptor.
Our species (modern humans), Homo sapiens, is said to be at least 200,000 years old, although some studies that came out in 2017 indicate that, based on fossils recovered in Ethiopia, that modern humans may be as old as 350,000 years old. Our genus, Homo, is estimated to be a little over two million years old. In sharp contrast, dinosaurs are said to have been around from 250 to 65 million years ago (Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman, 2005); essentially the Mesozoic Era. Thus, while our genus has been around for a little more than 2 million years, dinosaurs as a group were around for approximately 177 million years ago. While we consider ourselves to be the dominant organism on Earth as this time, from a geologic perspective, dinosaurs were far more successful. No wonder that Lovecraft used the dinosaurs as a sort of “geologic time stamp.”
Lovecraft used dinosaurs as a means of conveying cosmic horror not associated with outer space but with geologic time; in other words, our time being in existence is but a fleeting second in the grand scheme of the history of Earth and the universe. Carl Sagan put this within a context that we could understand – a calendar year. If the history of the Universe was scaled into a calendar year, where the Big Bang occurred on the first second of midnight on the 1st of January and the end of the year was the present, our cosmic insignificance from a temporal perspective is demonstrated. For example, in the history of the Universe all of human history would be limited to within the last minute of the last day of the year, the 31st of December. Again, within the temporal scale of the Cosmos humans are literally just a minor blip.
A graphical view of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar
To get back to the dinosaurs, Lovecraft continues to use these organism as geologic indicators several times in At the Mountains of Madness, where the Elder Things cities were said to have existed at the time of the dinosaurs, during the Mesozoic Era. Additionally, compared to the Elder Things the dinosaurs were described as “…almost brainless objects…”. Indeed, in Lovecraft’s time dinosaurs were considered large but stupid ancient reptiles. While investigating what was known about dinosaurs in Lovecraft’s time, it was revealed that unlike most fields of science and technology (e.g. integrating genetics with evolution; the theory of relativity; quantum mechanics, etc.) in the early 20th century, paleontology was a fairly stagnant field. Bones and fossils were still being discovered but very little was being done to further this type of science (Norman, 2005). It would not be until the later part of the 20th century (the 1960’s and 1970’s), when paleontology would reveal that instead of being mindless brutes, dinosaurs were highly intelligent, many being social creatures who in a sense are still with us today as birds.
In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” while being in the body of a member of the Great Race in the distant past, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee remembers recognizing “…dinosaurs, pterodactyls, ichthyosaurs, labyrinthodonts, plesiosaurs…”. The one group I was not familiar with on this list was the labyrinthodonts, which is an extinct subclass of amphibians that evolved from lobe-finned fishes in the Devonian and is a key ancestor to all extant land-living vertebrates. Again, the reference to dinosaurs and other animals helps to put Lovecraft’s story into the proper perspective relative to geologic time.
A labyrinthodont (http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/Sidmouth-Devon.htm)
To summarize, while dinosaurs were never the primary focus of any of Lovecraft’s stories, he would occasionally use them as indicator organisms of immense spans of geologic time; unlike labyrinthodonts, dinosaurs are recognized by most people. However, what a dinosaur was thought to be in the Lovecraft’s day, in the early 20th century, is very different than what we know about these extinct organisms today. I’m sure Lovecraft would be absolutely amazed what we know about dinosaurs today. It makes you wonder what humans will know and understand about dinosaurs in 50 to 100 years from now. Will there truly be a Jurassic Park someday?
A scene from Jurassic Park III
Next time I will go back to reviewing some of Stephen Hawking’s ideas on multiple universes. Thank you – Fred.