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At the Mountains of Madness, Part 1: Lovecraft’s Continent

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While we had record low temperatures throughout a large portion of the United States at the turn of the new year, its nothing compared to some of the low temperatures and high winds experienced on Antarctica, the continent where Lovecraft’s tale At the Mountains of Madness takes place. As Joshi describes in this comprehensive biography (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013), Lovecraft was extremely fascinated with Antarctic geography and exploration since he was 10 or 12. In fact he wrote three treatises on the subject: “Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.” (1902), “Wilkes Explorations” (1902) and “Antarctic Atlas” (1903).  Unfortunately, these treatises are lost; it would have been fascinating to read these documents and exam the map of the continent Lovecraft illustrated in “Antarctic Atlas.”

The “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration was a period of time between the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century when there was an intensive and international effort to explore the continent of Antarctica. This unique period of time for Antarctic exploration is frequently cited as being between the “Heroic” and “Mechanical” ages, when individuals tested their mental and physical endurance in conjunction with using new and emerging technologies in transportation and communication. Lovecraft takes full advantage of this merging of 18th / 19th century exploration with early 20th century technology and scientific discoveries in the development of his tale.

HMS_Erebus_and_Terror_in_the_Antarctic_by_John_Wilson_Carmichael HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic by John Wilson Carmichael

James Clark Ross (1800-1862) discovered the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, the Great Ice Barrier (later named the Ross Ice Shelf in his honor) and two large volcanoes, which he named after his two ships, Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror.  As Joshi has described, the Ross expedition had a profound impact on Lovecraft as well as his development of At the Mountains of Madness. For example, Joshi noted that the ship’s doctor, Dr. Joseph Hooker, wrote in response to his initial view of Mt. Erebus, “This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined…that is really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time, an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of His hand.” (Joshi, 2013). With the exception of the mention of the Creator, this passage really describes the cosmic indifference Lovecraft attempts to convey in his tales.

British (English) School; James Clark Ross (1800-1862)               James Clark Ross (1800-1862)

As a result of his expeditions to Antarctica, Ross believed that the continent was actually two land masses, a larger eastern part and a small western part (see below), separated by the Weddell and Ross Seas and their associated ice shelfs.

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Lovecraft believed in this hypothesis was well and in fact included a passage in an earlier draft of At the Mountains of Madness to reflect this:

“…west, but radically different from the parts lying eastward below South America, which in all probability form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger by a frozen junction of the Ross and Weddell Seas.” (from The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, edited with an introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi, 2001).

However, this version is not found in the actual tale. Lovecraft modified this passage in the final submission to Astounding Stories in late 1935 to state:

“west, but somewhat different from the parts lying eastward below South America – which we then thought to form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger one by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas, though Byrd has since disproved this hypothesis.” (from Joshi, 2001).

The bolded passages are the ones that were added. Joshi does cite that Lovecraft is incorrect in stating that Byrd disproved this hypothesis; actually, it was Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon who disproved it in late 1935 during the first airplane flight crossing over Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea (Joshi, 2001. However, the fact that Lovecraft took the time and care to make that small yet significant change to the text in At the Mountains of Madness, provides additional support to the claim that Lovecraft made every effort to make his tales as scientifically accurate as possible, with the information that was available at the time.

Mt-Erebus-lg_c9bfa69e-b296-45ca-9655-ec2347a0ddc0_1024x1024 Mt. Erebus on the continent of Antarctica

Next time we will discuss the geologic history of Antarctica as discussed in At the Mountains of Madness.  Thank you – Fred.

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Lovecraftian Scientists: The Scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” or also known as Scientists Behaving Badly

Colour_IgorVitkovskly The Colour by Igor Vitkovskly

Crawford Tillinghast was a vengeful mad scientist, while Herbert West was cool and calculating, willing to use anyone as a test subject for his reanimation experiments.  However, of the Lovecraftian scientists reviewed to date, the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are probably the most dangerous. Instead of being individual “mad scientists” the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are elitists and do not have that critical, open minded attitude required in science. Put another way by Carl Sagan, “It pays to keep an open mind but not so open your brains fall out.”

In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteor falls to Earth, landing on farmland owned by Nahum Gardner. Nahum and his wife bring three professors from Miskatonic University to the farm to examine the meteor the day after it arrives. Nahum said the meteor shrank in size and in spite of having some physical evidence to back this claim (“It had shrunk, Nahum said as he pointed out the big brownish mound above the ripped earth and charred grass near the archaic well-sweep in his front yard…”) the professors simply stated “…stones do not shrink.” Thus, the professors would not even entertain or consider the idea that Nahum may be correct, even with the supporting evidence.

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The professors collect a sample of the meteor and place it in a pail since it is still generating heat almost a day after it landed on the farm.  Even when Ammi Pierce’s wife notes that the fragment appears to be burning and getting smaller in the pail, the professors still think nothing of the claim that the meteor is shrinking. Their response to Ms. Pierce’s observation of the shrinking sample was “…perhaps they had taken less than they thought.” This total disregard to observations made by non-scientists is a form of professional elitism that is more extreme than that of the protagonist in “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.”

The professors take the sample back to Miskatonic University to run a series of physical and chemical tests with very baffling results. I have reviewed the science behind these tests in previous articles reviewing the “The Colour Out of Space,” so such matters are not discussed here. After the strange results of their tests on the meteorite sample, the three scientists return to the Gardner Farm and visit the impact site once again. Now they final admit that the meteorite is shrinking, noting that its diameter was not barely five feet even though the previous day it was seven feet.

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When the scientists collect another sample, they gouge more deeply into the meteorite and uncover a strange globule that has the same strange colour found when they heated and placed the first sample under a spectroscope. One of the professors hits the globule with a hammer and it bursts with a “nervous little pop.” Nothing visible was emitted and no other globules were found in the meteorite. The scientist take the second sample to the laboratories at Miskatonic, run some more tests but still could not identify the exact composition of the sample and “…at the end of the tests the college scientists were forced to own that they could not place it. It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”

IMG_2687                                                 An illustration of some of the chemical tests run by the Miskatonic University scientists in the Necronomicon Press (2015) chapbook of “The Colour Out of Space.” Illustration by Jason C. Eckhardt

By the third visit, after an evening thunderstorm, none of the meteorite was left – it completely vanished. At this point the scientists just give up and lose interest, which shocks me. Any other scientist that I know would have at least sampled the surrounding soil and test it to see if it emitted the same strange colour as the meteorite. This would have at least supported the hypothesis that the meteorite somehow contaminated the soil with some type of volatile compound, which may also contaminate the associated groundwater. However, after all of the direct physical evidence disappeared so did the Miskatonic scientists.

Even in the following spring when some of the locals brought to their attention that the skunk-cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) were exhibiting some abnormal growth and possessed some strange colours, the scientists’ response was, “The plants were certainly odd, but all skunk-cabbages are more or less odd in shape and odour and hue. Perhaps some mineral element from the stone had entered the soil, but it would soon be washed away.” Really? Skunk-cabbage is a strange looking plant that is foul-smelling and is one of the first plants to be observed leafing out near streams and in wetlands in late winter / early spring. However, it does not emit a strange colour. None of the scientists from Miskatonic hypothesized that the meteorite may have contaminated the soil and groundwater, after hearing about the skunk-cabbage emitting a strange colour?

Skunk Cabbage                    Skunk-cabbages emerging from the ground in early spring

I find the absence of any measurable degree of curiosity by the Miskatonic scientists to be absolutely stunning. The meteor hit the Gardner Farm in June so the student body was home for the summer. By spring, classes were back in session. Is it possible that the scientists had a passing interest in the meteorite because they had more time on their hands over the summer months but once the academic year began this interest waned? If true, find this explanation sad to say the least.

The scientists continued to express their lack of scientific curiosity through the rest of the story, and part of this can be attributed to an “ivory tower” attitude that the reports coming from the Gardner Farm was just superstitious folklore. Even toward the end of the tale when an investigation team was assembled to inspect the farm, none of the Miskatonic scientists were involved. The team comprised of Ammi Pierce (neighbor of the Gardner’s), three police officers, the County coroner, a medical examiner and the veterinarian who treated the Gardner animals. Were the Miskatonic scientists so ineffective in their past dealings with the meteorite and its impacts that no one even bothered to ask them to join the investigation?

the_colour_out_of_space_by_verreaux-d59u4pb The Colour Out of Space by Verreaux (www.deivantart.com)

Finally, when samples of the residual dust left on the farm was taken to Miskatonic University, it gave off the same colorimetric spectrum observed under the spectroscope as the meteorite samples. This supported the idea of some ecological contamination. I completely understand that ecosystem ecology was in its infancy in the early 20th century, but this is some pretty compelling data to support the idea that the mortality associated with the farm was directly attributed to the meteorite and the idea that any mineral element would simply be washed away as being incorrect. Thus, it is surprising to me that there is no additional sampling or concern over more widespread contamination.

To conclude, I find the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” to be the worst in their profession, at least within the tales of Lovecraft. They have a very disparaging attitude toward non-scientists, possess no natural scientific curiosity and were extremely ineffective in terms of providing any sort of construction guidance over the occurrences at the farm. The Miskatonic scientists were confronted with something outside of our reality or at least within the realm of our understanding of physical / chemical laws and instead of trying to understand it they simply gave up when back to grading papers. Such a lack of curiosity and concern over the environment or individuals can lead to variety of problems such as the spread of invasive species or the contamination of drinking water. Thus, I find the three scientists from Miskatonic University in Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” to the be most dangerous of all of his scientists.

untitled2                   Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” by Asahi Superdry (http://www.deviantart.com)

Next time we are going to begin a detailed, chapter by chapter review of the science associated with At the Mountains of Madness, where some Miskatonic University scientists are shown in a better light. Thank you and Happy New Year! Fred

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Downfall of Dr. Herbert West

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As the protagonist suggested in “From Beyond,” a scientist should be a “frigid and impersonal investigator…” While Crawford Tillinghast did not exhibit these traits as a scientist, this certainly described Herbert West, at least in the initial chapters of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Initially West is your typically cold scientist, closely following the rigors of the Scientific Method. However, as the story proceeds, West’s fanatical pursuit of knowledge is only exacerbated and pushed to the extreme. West started his experiments with animals and then moves to human cadavers. Each experiment with a human corpse revealed that the body must be very fresh with little or no decay.

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West’s obsession with conquering death and need for a fresh body eventually led to him actually murdering someone – a salesman traveling to Bolton Worsted Mills. West killed and the preserved the salesman with an embalming fluid and waited for his friend to return to inject his reanimation serum. When the salesman was revived, it was obvious from his reaction that West murdered him.  Although West’s general philosophic perspective was consistently described as that of an absolute mechanistic materialist, this was still a major shift in his scientific endeavors.  While his extreme materialism may have fostered his general amoral attitude toward life and humanity, West was always grounded in the Scientific Method and that the ultimate goal of the reanimation serum is to bring people back to life. This jump from a scientist working with biological material that happens to come along his way, to one who actively produces the needed biological material is Lovecraft’s example of what happens when a scientist is the “frigid and impersonal investigator…” completely devoid of any humanity, compassion or empathy.

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Herbert West used the embryonic cells of an exotic reptile in his experiments (illustration by Steve Maschuck)

Once West murdered to produce is needed biological material, even his foundation grounded in the Scientific Method began to erode. Toward the end of the story West goes into full “mad scientist” mode, thinking up “what if” scenarios in his mind.  While his use of some embryonic cell material from an exotic reptile had some potential promise to function as stem cells, he wasted this in his mad experiments.  The puffy reptilian cell matter sounded like it could function as undifferentiated stem cells and may have had great applications in repairing nerve damage, producing skin grafts for burn victims and possibly even re-growing lost limbs. However, playing with his discovery like a morbid little child, West experimented on body parts with no regard for the ethics or morality of such actions. It reminds one of Dr. Ian Malcolm’s quote from Jurassic Park shown below.

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Obviously toward the end of “Herbert West Reanimator” all of West’s experiments catch up with him. Like Dr. Frankenstein or the Elder Things West was excited to create but did not care to deal with the responsibility of being the creator of such life. In the case of the Elder Things, the shoggoths were essentially biological tools that were created for specific functions. However, once the shoggoths began to attain consciousness, the Elder Things did not want the responsibility of coming to terms with this in a mature manner. In the case of West and Frankenstein it was the act of creation that was so exciting. The created being was merely an annoying by-product. In West’s case we see where a completely uncaring, amoral, mechanistic, materialistic attitude can result in a mad scientist. However, the mad scientist of Herbert West seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to the passionate and vengeful mad scientist of Crawford Tillinghast.

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Experiments on parts

Next time we will discuss another type of scientist in Lovecraft’s tales – the group of scientists who conducted the initial investigations in “The Colour Out of Space.” Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraftian Scientists: Cold and Calculating Mechanistic Materialist Dr. Herbert West

herbert_west_mscorley.blogspot.com Herbert West (from http://www.mscorley.blogspot.com)

In the previous article we suggested that Crawford Tillinghast from H.P. Lovecraft’s tale “From Beyond” was a disciple of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s modern philosophy of mechanistic materialism. However, Elliot also served as a mentor to one of Lovecraft’s most notorious scientists – Dr. Herbert West.

In “From Beyond” the protagonist explicitly states that Tillinghast should never has studied science and philosophy since these “…things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator…” Indeed, when he failed Tillinghast was described as being solitary and melancholy and when he succeeded he became a vengeful, stereotypically “mad scientist.” The phase, “they laughed at me at the university but I’ll show him!” certainly comes to mind when Tillinghast invites one of his few friends to his home.

herbert_west_the_reanimator_by_ozzkrol-d9f6hop Herbert West, the Reanimator by Ozzkrol (www.deviantart.com)

In sharp contrast to the wide emotions of Tillinghast, Herbert West is described more as a frigid and impersonal investigator. In fact, West was probably too much of a frigid and impersonal investigator, caring little for what species was being used for his experiments. While his experiments started with rabbits and guinea-pigs, he quickly moved to cats and dogs and then monkeys before his first human trails. Whatever species West was working on, he treated them all the same – biological resources to test his animating solutions. Thus, West appears to be on the opposite end of a spectrum of personalities for Lovecraftian Scientist, yet both are conveyed as highly negative and enough dangerous. Tillinghast’s emotions got the better of him, apparently whether he succeeds or fails. In sharp contrast, West was cold and completely clinical in his experimentation, which at first seems like this is exactly what Lovecraft perceives as what makes for a good scientist. However, West obviously takes his clinical approach way too far, which is exacerbated by the fact that he is a medical doctor. As we will discuss in the next article on Herbert West, his scientific attitude and behavior substantially changes through the course of events in “Herbert West – Reanimator.”

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As previously indicated, Herbert West was a disciple of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s modern philosophy of mechanistic materialism, even more so than was Crawford Tillinghast. There are a number of instances throughout “Herbert West – Reanimator” where Elliot’s third principle of the denial of any form of existence that cannot be described in terms of matter or motion is being restated. In other words, everything in existence can be described under the laws of physics and chemistry. Some supporting evidence for this can be found in passages such as:

“His (Herbert West’s) views, which were widely ridiculed by the faculty and his fellow-students, hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes.”

“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth…”

“West was a materialist, believing in no soul and attributing all the workings of consciousness to bodily phenomena; consequently, he looked for no revelation of hideous secrets from gulfs and caverns beyond death’s barrier.”

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These passages confirm that West’s philosophical outlook and scientific endeavors were firmly rooted in Elliot’s mechanistic materialism and his cold and calculating methods of experimentation where justified in his mind with the idea that the soul does not exist and everything in reality can be explained through physics and chemistry. While not explicitly stated, such an attitude justified West’s experiments and disregard for potential moral dilemmas associated with his work. This attitude has been seen in other scientists.

While Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein (in the 1932 movie) was emotionally volatile, similar to Crawford Tillinghast, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein (of the Hammer Films) was more like Herbert West. Cushing’s Frankenstein was very cool and calculating in those films. He did not care who he affected, harmed or even killed as long as he had the raw biological resources he needed for his experiments. Anytime an assistant expressed concerns or questions over the morality of the situation, Cushing’s Frankenstein justified it by emphasizing that his work may help millions and may even overcome death. Herbert West, particularly in the Stuart Gordon “Reanimator” films used a similar augment of justification whenever something got out of control.

206a7b5d6249395f70cefa5c953e625f                                               Peter Cushing at Dr. Frankenstein

Another comparison to Herbert West is David the android in the “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” films. Soon after his creation David realizes that humans are a flawed species and he may even harbor some resentment over how most humans treat him. A large part of this was how humans would remind him he did not have a soul or was not “a real boy.” However, David’s response was typically, you will die, I will not. Being an android David was very cool and calculating so when he made it his goal of creating the perfect organism in “Alien: Covenant” he did not care who he used in his experiments. Even Elizabeth Shaw, the one human who shows some degree of kindness to David and even gave him a second chance, was used as biological material in his alien experiments. In “Alien: Covenant” David wipes out an entire alien species just to run his experiments with the biological material found in “Prometheus.” Finally, in one part of the film a character asks David what he believes in and his answer is “creation.” Thus, David is similar to both Herbert West and Cushing’s Frankenstein, but is probably the most extreme example, of a scientist following Elliot’s mechanistic materialism to the point where all that matters is physics and chemistry. The results of the experiments and progress toward the ultimate goal is all that counts. In a sense, David is the direct by-product of mechanistic materialism.

alien-covenant-footage-description-begs-question-if-david-has-soul-13 The android David from “Prometheus”

While Herbert West was a mechanistic materialist his behavior and personality does become more erratic through the tale. This will be discussed in greater detail in the next article. Thank you – Fred.

covenantshaw1 One of David’s test subjects, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (from Alien Covenant)

Lovecraftian Scientists: Hugh S.R. Elliot, the mentor of Crawford Tillinghast

resonator_done The Resonator by Steve Maschuck

In tales like “From Beyond” Lovecraft tried to convey that how we see and experience our world and universe is only a small portion of the true nature of reality. In the tale Crawford Tillinghast explains that are perception of reality is limited by our five senses and that even the senses we have are severely limited in their capacity. The best example of this is sight. Humans can “see” only a small portion of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, which is a continuum of EM waves of varying energy arranged according to frequency and wavelength. More energetic waves have shorter wavelengths but higher frequencies. The EM spectrum ranges from 100 meters (radio waves) to 1 x 10-12 meters (gamma rays). Out of this huge EM continuum humans can only see wavelengths between infrared and ultraviolet, which is the visible light portion of the spectrum, varying in wavelength between 4.00 x 10-7 meters and 7.00 x 10-7 meters (400 – 700 nanometers).

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From Beyond by Michael Lyddon

From an Earth-based perspective, it makes sense that humans, in fact most Earth organisms, can see primarily within the visible light portion of the EM spectrum, since the majority of the sun’s rays that reach the surface of the Earth are primarily composed of light rays. However, there are some variations to this. For example, while bees cannot see the color red, they can see ultraviolet light (UV-light). However, imagine if we could see not only UV-light but the entire EM spectrum! This idea of opening up our senses to all of reality is what Lovecraft was conveying in “From Beyond.”

4Eyes_www.beeculture.com www.beeculture.com

The idea of expanding the limits of our existing senses or having more than simply our known five was something that certainly stimulated Lovecraft’s imagination when he read Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot’s book Modern Science and Materialism (published in 1919). In S.T. Joshi’s essay “The Sources for “The Beyond,”” found in his book Primal Sources: Essays on H.P. Lovecraft (Hippocampus Press, 2015), he compares a number of Crawford Tillinghast’s quotes to passages found Elliot’s book. For example, Tillinghast’s discussions on how we have only five senses and how they limit our ability to perceive reality from a holistic perceptive, are very similar to some detailed passages found in Elliot’s book. There are also discussions, both in “From Beyond” and Elliot’s book, on how a large portion of an atom is composed of empty space as well as how human sight is limited to the light waves of the EM spectrum and how typically we cannot see UV-light. So, who was this mentor of Crawford Tillinghast’s?

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Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot, better known as Hugh S.R. Elliot, was a writer of science and well known for his favorable view of scientific materialism and his criticism of metaphysical speculation. Elliot established three main principles of scientific materialism that included:

The Uniformity of Law – the sequence of cause and effect is constant throughout the universe.

The Denial of Teleology – the denial that the cosmos as a whole is progressing in some direction from a religious, metaphysical perspective.

The Denial of Any Form of Existence that cannot be described in terms of matter and motion – this denial states that under the laws of physics and chemistry every type of existence can be described.

As S.T. Joshi has cited, mechanistic materialism was originally described under Pre-Socrates, Greek philosophy (S.T. Joshi’s I Am Providences: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013). However, Elliot developed a modern view of mechanistic materialism, from an early 20th century perspective, through his three principles. In spite of this mechanistic view of having the potential to understand how everything in the universe operates, Elliot freely admitted that our limited capacity for detecting everything in our reality with our five senses severely limits our ability to truly understanding the universe.

tillinghast_hutchinson1860 Crawford Tillinghast by D. Hutchinson

This 20th century view of mechanistic materialism is at the heart of Lovecraft’s philosophical cosmic view as well as the development of many of the cosmic horrors in his tales. The Mi-Go and Cthulhu are beings from “outside” of our known reality, so many of the physical and chemical rules of our universe do not apply to them. Thus, by being outside of our universe these beings have a supernatural aspect to them. However, Lovecraft’s scientific, materialistic view states that these beings are not supernatural. Instead, it’s just that we don’t understand (and maybe we never will) the rules of those other universes that have different sets of physical and chemical rules. Relative to “From Beyond,” by generating specific fields of waves, Tillinghast is awakening dormant sense organs (e.g. the pineal gland) that can sense or perceive things that exist but we cannot detect with our operating senses. The result is a scientific effort to describe something that would otherwise be described as supernatural. Thus, in a sense, Hugh S.R. Elliot was the mentor of Crawford Tillinghast, establishing the principles that Tillinghast needed to bend to see into the Beyond.

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Lovecraft has utilized the three principles of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s mechanistic materialism in other stories and we will be covering one of these in the next article. Specifically, we will be looking at one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated and notorious scientists – Dr. Herbert West. Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Mad Genius of Crawford Tillinghast

Crawford Tillinghast one of the most notorious scientist in Lovecraft’s tales. In addition, Tillinghast is one of the most easily identified relative to science fiction or weird fiction in general. Tillinghast is the “mad genius” scientist. While Tillinghast may not be first of this character type to appear in weird fiction, he is certainly one of the first relative to application of “modern,” early 20th century science and the attitudes the general public had toward science.

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First, is it very easy to compare Tillinghast to Frankenstein, however, I would caution one to understand that this comparison is more appropriate for Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 Universal movie rather than Mary Shelly’s novel. In Shelly’s novel Frankenstein is more of a metaphysical scientist, whose creation of a man is a broader line mix of alchemy and science. In addition, Frankenstein in the novel is more of a narrative of someone who abandons their responsibilities associated with their creation. Like many of the literary metaphysical scientists, Frankenstein worked in isolation to produce his creation.  I read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for the first time last February and I highly recommend it!

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In contrast to the novel, Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 film is a medical scientist who wanted to create life from dead tissue and body parts. Here the mad genius trope is exemplified, particular when his creation comes to life. Dr. Frankenstein shouts, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” While initially extremely pleased with the success of his experiments, Dr. Frankenstein largely abandons his responsibilities for his creation, very similar to Frankenstein in the novel, when compilations arise. In contrast to the Frankensteins, Tillinghast takes full responsibility for his creation and discovery. For the sake of ease when I mention Dr. Frankenstein, this is in reference to the movie version of the character.

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Crawford Tillinghast displays three of the most common tropes we associate with this type of literary scientist.  First, he is a “mad genius” who is so intelligent that he thinks “outside the box.” He or she puts together concepts or ideas that look ridiculous or unfruitful to the rest of the scientific community. Second, they work mostly in isolation since their ideas are thought of as so unconventional. Both Tillinghast and the Frankensteins display this trope and this is commonly exhibited in many science fiction movies such as The Fly (both the original and the Cronenberg remake) and in Ex Machina. Third, there is the thought of “getting revenge” against those within the scientific community who disagreed with him or her. This revenge can be as simple and disproving the scientific community or it can be as extreme and killing those who disagreed with him or she by using their creation as the murder weapon. Tillinghast displays this to an extreme degree.

In “From Beyond” Tillinghast invites his friend to his home after the creation of his “electrical machine.” Ten weeks earlier the protagonist disagreed, even protested, Tillinghast’s scientific ideas, which sent Tillinghast into a fanatical rage. Tillinghast throws one of his few friends out of the house. Clearly, right at the beginning of the story we understand that while a genius, Tillinghast is mental unstable.

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From Beyond 01 – Crawford Tillinghast by Iposterbot (www.deviantart.com)

Early in the tale the protagonist states, “That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair, if he fails in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.” While any scientist needs to be objective and impersonal in developing their hypotheses and in the design and execution of experiments, all scientists (at least the ones I know) have a passion for what they do. All scientists have a common interest and passion for wanting to understand and know more about our world and universe. Additionally, within the realm of pure science (the type of science that Lovecraft was more interested in) an experiment that disproves an established hypothesis is not considered a failure; it still provides useful information that can be used to better understand our reality and help further develop the existing hypothesis or generate new ones. Thus, while Tillinghast is clearly mentally unstable, I think the protagonist has a very melodramatic attitude about individuals who pursue scientist investigations.

Toward the end of the tale when Tillinghast turns on the electrical device, we realize his ultimate goal is to use the protagonist’s scientific curiosity against him to ensure is death. Essentially, the “thing” that is coming once the device is on will destroy a person if they see it. Tillinghast states that he “…almost saw them, but I knew how to stop.” He asks the protagonist if he curious to see the approaching thing and even taunts him as a professional. “You are curious? I always knew you were no scientist.” In this situation Tillinghast wants to kill one of his few friends because as he states, “You tried to stop me; you discouraged men when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get; you were afraid of the cosmic truth, you damned coward, but now I’ve got you!”

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Again, Tillinghast exhibit the three tropes we find so common in the mad scientist cliché. First, extremely intelligent but mentally unhinged to some degree, resulting in unconventional ideas and concepts. Second, working in seclusion, in an almost hermit-like existence; such pursuits tend to be more associated with metaphysical investigations instead of scientific. Science, particularly since the turn of the last century, is a very community-based endeavors. Papers and studies are critically reviewed by peers and experiments are repeated by other to confirm the resulting findings. Third, there is a need or desire for revenge against those who either did not encourage their research or wronged them in some capacity. This formula for the mad scientist would be repeated countless times in both literature and film. However, in Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” Crawford Tillinghast may be one of the earliest examples of this, as least within the development of modern science in the early 20th century.

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The Electrical Device in “From Beyond” by Steve Maschuck

Next time we will discuss Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot, the science writer who Lovecraft drew from for many of the concepts expressed in “From Beyond.”  Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraftian Scientists – Astronomers from Beyond the Wall of Sleep

In Lovecraft’s tale “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” the entity that possesses Joe Slate leaves his body and in a semi-corporeal state travels through the cosmos to battle Algol, the Demon-Star.  In an intriguing move that will become a staple of Lovecraft’s fiction, he links an actual scientific discovery to a specific instance in this tale. The entity that leaves Earth to do battle with Algol is documented in a newspaper article Lovecraft read on the discovery of an actual astronomical phenomenon.

ed3632b4692360175d47f642cc33a6c7 Beyond the Wall of Sleep by Virgil Finlay

In 1901 the Scottish clergyman Thomas David Anderson discovered Nova Persei (GK Persei). At the end of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Lovecraft quotes an article written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss (more on him later) that documents the appearance of Nova Persei and its discovery by Anderson:

“On February 22, 1901, a marvelous new star was discovered by Doctor Anderson of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months, it was hardly discernible with the naked eye.”

Indeed, Nova Persei was documented to become one of the brightest objects in the night sky in 1901. Today we classify Nova Persei as a classical nova and is popularly called a Firework Nebula. It is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth and is thought to have been a binary system consisting of a compact white dwarf star and a swollen cool giant star in a tight orbit with one another. The buildup of mass transferred to the surface of the white dwarf from the giant star through an accretion disk eventually triggered a thermonuclear outburst, blasting stellar material into space without destroying the white dwarf star. This would explain the increased luminosity back in February of 1901. However, even to this day, smaller outbursts are detected.  Did the luminescent being who possessed Joe Slater become a physical manifestation in our space-time as the cooling giant star or was it the white dwarf? Did it attempt, and ultimate fail, in battling Algol?

gkper_block Remnants of Nova Persei (www.nasa.gov)

In the quotation provided above it states that the “new star” is not very far from Algol, which is 93 light years from Earth (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by Leslie S. Klinger, 2014).  According to Klinger this means that the actual occurrence of the nova would have taken not in 1901 but approximately 93 years earlier – in 1808. However, it has been established that Nova Persei is about 1,500 light years away, which actually means that Anderson’s discovery of the bright nova in 1901 was actually documenting an event that occurred in the year 401.  Still we do not know if the luminescent being that possessed Joe Slate could travel through time as easily as space so its existence was not limited to strictly linear time as it is with us. Or, did the being miscalculate the distance between Algol and where it appeared as Nova Persei, which contributed to its ultimate failure in completing its mission.

As cited by Lovecraft, the article that concludes “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss. According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Lovecraft essentially took that quoted passage directly from Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye written in 1908 (An H.P Lovecraft Encyclopedia, published in 2001). Lovecraft was well documented to be a fan of Serviss’s fiction and non-fiction.

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Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929) was an astronomer, a popularizer of astronomy and an early science fiction writer (Klinger, 2014). Based on what I have read about Serviss, in particular by Lovecraft, he seems to have been a “Carl Sagan” of the early 20th century. That is, he made science, primarily astronomy, readily available and accessible to a general audience, which was hungry for such information at this point in history. Indeed, Serviss had a unique talent in describing and presenting scientific ideas and concepts in a clear and direct manner to a layperson with little to no scientific training. Serviss definitely had a flare in writing about scientific topics in a very literary manner.

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from http://www.wickipedia.com

For example, in an article called “October Skies” for the Providence Evening News, 49, No 104, 2 October 1918, Lovecraft wrote that in referring to the absence of other bright stars in the vicinity of Fomalhaut, Serviss described that star as “a distant watch-fire gleaming in the midst of a lonely prairie.” Such passages obviously stirred Lovecraft’s imagination for all things cosmic. In the same article Lovecraft himself briefly described Fomalhaut as a strangely fascinating orb (Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Even today this statement holds true. Fomalhaut is actually a triple star system and was one of the first stars where an exoplanet was actually visible to the eye in photographic images (Science, November, 2008). However, unlike our solar system, the planet Fomalhaut b is constantly plowing through a series of debris disks that surround this star system.

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Fomalhaut system with the identification of the first exoplanet to be visually confirmed (www.earthsky.org)

To conclude, Lovecraft did enjoy Serviss’s fictional and non-fictional writings. Lovecraft frequently referred to Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye in his astronomical articles. Additionally, he stated that Serviss and another astronomer Richard A. Proctor were “…two popular astronomical writers, similar in many ways, have by means of their double gifts of scientific and literary skill accomplished marvels in dissipating superstition and propagating truth…” (Joshi, 2005). Again, to me Serviss sounds like the Carl Sagan of the early 20th century.

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Artist’s conception of Fomalhaut b moving through the debris disks of the Fomalhaut star system (www.earthsky.org)

Next time we will discuss a very different type of Lovecraftian scientist – Crawford Tillinghast in the tale “From Beyond.” Thank you – Fred.