Tag Archives: science

Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 1)

ATMOM_Steamgear_deviantart At the Mountains of Madness by Steamgear (wwwdeviantart.com)

During the Pabodie – Lake, Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, a number of fascinating fossils were discovered, in addition to the dormant Elder Things.  Frank Pabodie was a professor of engineering who developed a specialized drill that was used to bore through the Antarctic soils and bedrock, while Professor Lake was the expedition’s lead biologist who oversaw the collection of the fossils and other specimens.  In addition to Pabodie and Lake, the other two lead Miskatonic professors on the expedition were Professor Atwood of the physics department (also a trained meteorologist) and William Dyer of the geology department (S.T. Joshi [editor], H.P. Lovecraft – The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, 2001).  Over the next few articles we will be reviewing a number of the fossils founds during the Miskatonic expedition.  It should be noted that Pabodie’s experimental drill was first used just above Beardmore Glacier approximately 8,500 feet above sea-level on Mt. Nansen.


Beardmore Glacier (www.coolantarctia.com)

Some additional drillings to the west, near Queen Alexandra Range (see figure below) revealed a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, crinoids and two molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.  With the exception of the trilobites, all of these identified organisms are still living today.  Thus, in order to be a “time stamp” on this collection of fossils, we will first discuss the trilobites.

Central Transantarctic Mountains

Queen Alexandra Range (www.michelle-kotnik.com)

Trilobites are a group of extinct arthropods, making up their own class, the Trilobita.  These organisms were some of the most successful early animals, living on Earth for almost 252 million years.  They first appear in the fossil record in abundance around in the early Cambrian around 521 million years ago.  However, there is some evidence to suggest that trilobites may have existed as far back as 700 million years or even earlier.  Once the trilobites appeared in the Cambrian, they rapidly diversified into a number of major orders. Trilobite diversity appeared to be highest in the Cambrian but were still fairly common in the Ordovician.  However, through the rest of the Paleozoic Era, trilobite diversity and abundance appeared to decline with a number of near-extinctions.  Finally, by the end of the Permian period all trilobites went extinct, leaving no known living, direct descendants. It should be noted that the trilobites were not alone in this.  Over 96% of all marine species went extinct during the Permian – Triassic extinction event, which occurred approximately 252 million years ago.  This extinction event was the largest of the big five events, where a total of 90% of all species went extinct (Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, 2009; Evolution: The First Four Billion Years).


Fossil trilobites

Ferns are a group of “primitive” plants that have specialized tissues such as trees and flowers but reproduce by spores and not seed or flowers.  Ferns first appeared in the late Devonian, approximately 360 million years ago.  Thus, if all of these fossil finds of the Miskatonic expedition were from the same geologic time, they must have originated from somewhere between the late Devonian and the end of the Permian.


Seaweed (complex algae) may have been some of the oldest multicellular organisms on Earth, dating back more than 555 million year old, well into the Precambrian (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160322134110.htm).  Thus, of all of the fossils organisms identified, the seaweeds are the oldest.


Crinoids, commonly called sea lilies, are a group of marine animals that are in the phylum Echinodermata, also known as echinoderms.  With the exception of a few specimens found in the Burgess Shale, the crinoid group (class: Crinoidea) was first well represented in the Ordovician period, between 485 and 443 million years.  While this class of echinoderms were fairly abundant and diverse in the past, today they are represented by about 600 living species.

800px-Crinoid_and_comatule A living Crinoid, also known as a sea lily.

The last set of fossils cited in this passage were “…molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.”  The Mollusca is one of the largest phyla of animal life, second only to the Arthropoda (the insects and their relatives).  Mollusks are soft-bodied animals that have some type of internal or external shell and include clams and squid.  Gasteropods are a class of mollusks that include the snails and their relatives (L. Margulis and K.V. Schwartz; Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 1982).  However, the term lingulae probably refers to genus Lingula (lamp shells), which is placed in its own phylum, Brachiopoda.  The major difference between the Brachiopods and Mollusks is that Brachiopod shells have upper and lower surfaces in contrast to the left and right arrangement of the mollusks.


A living Brachiopod of the genus Lingula.

From an evolutionary perspective, the mollusks are far more successful than the brachiopods; mollusks have approximately 7,600 living species while brachiopods only have approximately 350 living species.  In Darwin’s travels, he found the windswept cliffs of the Falkland Islands full of brachiopod fossils. In contrast to the total number of living species, over 35,000 species of brachiopods have been found in the fossil record.  At one point, they were the most abundant group of animals on Earth.  Given how specific species can be found in specific rocks, brachiopod fossils can be used to determine the age of the rock where a particular fossil was found.  This dating technique agrees well with more modern methods of dating rocks (https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/a-trip-around-the-world/fossils-and-living-species/ancient-shells/).

brachiopod_fossils                                Brachiopod fossils

I believe Lovecraft including the lingulae with the gasteropods as members of the Mollusca phylum is an error on his part.  I can find no evidence that brachiopods were once considered to be another class within the Mollusca phylum.  If this is not directly attributed to an error on Lovecraft’s part, then it may have been an error from his reference source, possibly the Encyclopedia Britannia.  This is one of those rare instances where Lovecraft’s research for a story was flatly incorrect.

Next time we will continue to move forward in At the Mountains of Madness to discover what other fossils the Miskatonic Expedition found.  Thank you – Fred.


Lovecraft’s Use of Dinosaurs

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).

kingkong 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.

yith2.jpg 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.

1280px-Cosmic_Calendar 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.

8SDM-Labyrinthodont 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?

B00003CXXS_JurassicParkIII_UXNB1__V142727186_RI_SX940_.jpg 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.

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.


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.


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 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.


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!


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.


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.


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!”


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.


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 – Introduction and Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Science is important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly his later tales. In fact, Lovecraft was one of the pioneers of weird fiction, integrating cutting edge science (at least for the time) into his stories. This is one of the reasons why Fritz Lieber called him the “Literary Copernicus” of horror fiction. He was known to revise / modify stories to account for new scientific information that was made available to the public. Probably his more famous instance of doing this is associated with identifying Yuggoth has being the dwarf-planet Pluto discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

andrei-kedrin-clyde-tombaugh-800 Clyde Tombaugh by Andrei Kedrin

For someone who is known for creating mood and atmosphere and generally ignores character development, Lovecraft utilized a variety of tropes in representing scientists in his stories. Thus, for the next set of articles, we will review the variety of scientists that appear in Lovecraft’s stories. The idea for such a review came to me after moderating a panel at the NecronomiCon in August of this year; the panel was called Miskatonic U. and the Mythos and included Sean Branney, Will Murray, Anne Pillsworth, Robert Waugh, Douglas Wynne. I really enjoyed the conversation about Miskatonic University and its staff and thought a more detailed assessment of Lovecraft’s scientist was in order.

Miskatonic logo

For now, this review will focus solely on scientists. Lovecraft character investigators frequently included academics, such as Albert N. Wilmarth who was a professor of literature at Miskatonic University in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or others such as Thornton the psychic investigator in “The Rats in the Walls.” Again, for this review we will focus solely on scientists and medical doctors. Our first review is for “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

The protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is some type of medical intern at a state psychopathic institution. The unnamed protagonist is fascinated with dreams and considers are dream life to be just as important as our waking life. He causally refers to Freud’s work in the statement “-Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism- “. As noted by Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, 2014), the statement on Freud did not appear in the first publication of the story; Lovecraft added it later and it was skeptical reference to Freud’s sexual interpretations of dreams.

freudntitled                                                              Dr. Sigmund Freud

In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Joe Slater is having strange spells where is acts like an entirely different person and during one of these spells he ends up killing someone. In turn, Joe is caught and taken to the nearest gaol (a place to hold people accused or convicted of a crime; I had to look that one up) where an alienist by the name of Dr. Barnard evaluates his condition. Again, as mentioned by Klinger, an alienist was a doctor who focused on treated mental diseases. Originally alienists were limited to treating those considered mad in asylums, essentially custodians of the insane. However, by 1919 alienists were focusing more on the healing of insanity and mental / nervous diseases (Klinger, 2014), which led to the science of psychology.

BTWOS_www.tobiastrautner.de The finding of Joe Slater after the murder in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by Tobias Trautner (www.tobiastrautner.de)

Joe Slater was eventually moved to the institution where the protagonist is an intern. While the protagonist did express concern and empathy for Joe, he also consistently expresses varying degrees of snide classism when describing Joe as slow, dim-witted, a degenerate and white trash (Tour De Lovecraft by Kenneth Hite, 2011). Joe is described as having blue eyes and blonde hair so this is clearly a case of classism and not classism / racism. As Lovecraft frequently does, here he is utilizing the idea what science was to some in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is, scientific research should be done only by those who could afford the time, which included the wealthy, white men of society. To Lovecraft, women, minorities and the poor were not capable of conducting science. However, this idea is clearly due to the fact that women, minorities and the poor were not typically exposed to or trained in the scientific disciplines. It was not a genetic predisposition that limited the masses to understand or utilize science, it was not allowing everyone to receive an education in scientific matters. However, in Lovecraft’s mind, well ingrained in the attitudes and philosophy of western thought in the 18th century, such notions were not even considered. This really comes through in the protagonist’s description of Joe Slater’s limited mental capacity in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”


Toward the end of the story the protagonist uses some type of strange transmitting / receiving device that can transfer brain waves from one individual to another. Again, much of the scientific explanation of the device is largely based on scientific concepts developed or discovered in the 18th of 19th century. At one point the protagonist suggests that “…human thought consists basically of atomic or molecular motion, convertible into ether waves of radiant energy like heat, light and electricity.” The concept of “luminiferous ether” was largely dispelled by 1887 by experiments conducted by Michelson and Morley, which was further confirmed in 1905 by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.

While the protagonist did express empathy for Joe Slater, he still behave in a cruel manner, forcing Joe to participate in an experiment while he is dying. However, the results of this experiment did unnerve the protagonist to the point where his supervisor at the institution, Dr. Fenton, prescribed nerve powder and gave him half a year’s vacation. Thus, the concluding thought on the unnamed protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is that while he expressed sympathy for Joe Slater, he certainly expressed a classist attitude in thinking of Joe as mentally limited white trash. The protagonist did experience what many investigators in Lovecraft’s tale experience; that is, having their view of the universe and reality substantially altered by uncovering some truth. Additionally, this resulted in the protagonist experiencing a near nervous breakdown, which to some degree seems justified since he was essentially using Joe Slater as a laboratory animal for his experiment on brain waves and dreams while he was dying.


Next time we will discuss the astronomers who were involved in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” – Part 2, what of the Piltdown Man?

In the early 20th century Gregor Mendel’s 19th century work on pea plants and subsequent development of the Principles of Inheritance were being re-discovered and integrated with Darwin’s evolution through natural selection. With Mendel’s work, R. Fisher, Jr. B.S. Haldane and S. Wright were developing the foundation for population genetics between the 1910s and 1930s. Additionally, it was not until the 1960s when Crick and Watson discovered that RNA and DNA were the keys to the transference of inherited traits from one generation to the next that a gene-based view of evolution was developed.

Gregor_Mendel_with_cross                                                                Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics

The rediscovery of Mendel’s work, uncovering additional fossil evidence, and the revelation that RNA and DNA were the keys to translating coded inherited information into the operating physiology of an organism (e.g. the production of proteins and associated enzymes), collectively lead to the modern synthesis of evolution. Now evolution can be studies and analyzed from the molecular level to populations to extremely long periods of time with the use of the fossil record. I always say the strength of the theory of evolution is the fact that whole new disciplines of sciences have been developed (e.g. genetics, biochemistry) that complete support and do not contradict evolution through natural selection. However, in Lovecraft’s time the concept of Mendelian inheritances from parent to offspring were just being re-discovered by the scientific community.  I can find not reference to Mendel’s work in any of Lovecraft’s fiction, which is not surprising.  Additionally, the discovery of RNA and DNA would not occur for another 30 to 40 years. As with any fiction, Lovecraft’s tales were written the early 20th century and are therefore a product of its time. Thus, within a scientific context some of Lovecraft’s ideas and tales sound to us as naïve or downright ignorant.

In 1907 a jaw bone of a hominid (family of primates that includes humans and at least some of the great apes) was discovered in a sand mine in Germany; the species was named Homo heidelbergensis, was estimated to be 200,000 to 600,000 years old and is generally recognized as probably being a common ancestor to both modern humans and Neandertals (Michael Price, 9th August 2016, “Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, one of science’s most famous hoaxes”; www.sciencemag.org). With tension between Germany and the United Kingdom high, which eventually led to World War I, U.K. naturalists were under pressure to find their “missing link.” To them it was obvious – the origins of humanity must have come from England not Germany! Thus, in 1912 a big-brained, ape-jawed fossil specimen was discovered in a gravel pit outside of a small U.K. village, placing England on the map as a special site for human evolution. Lovecraft obviously knew of the Piltdown man and its “importance” to the study of human evolution. Thus, as S.T. Joshi has stated, “Indeed, the mention of the Piltdown man – “discovered” as recently as 1912 – foreshadows what would become a hallmark of Lovecraft’s fiction: its scientific contemporaneous. We will find that he would on occasion revise a story at the last moment in order to be as up to date on the scientific veracity of his tale as he could be.” – from I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi (2013).

cc_Piltdown_gang_16x9 Examination of the Piltdown skull

It is interesting to note that Lovecraft does give a passing reference to the Piltdown man in “Dagon” (written in 1917) and “The Rats in the Walls (written in 1923), but not in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” (hereafter referred to as “Arthur Jermyn”) which was written in 1920. S.T. Joshi states in his essay “Topical References in Lovecraft” (Lovecraft and a World in Transition: Collected Essay on H.P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi; 2014) that Lovecraft mentions the Piltdown man in both “The Tomb” (written in 1917) and the “The Rats in the Wall.” However, I found no reference to the Piltdown man in “The Tomb” so this is probably just a slight error is Joshi’s article.

Ultimately, the Piltdown man turned out to be a hoax; probably one of the biggest scientific hoaxes of the 20th century. However, this hoax was not discovered and confirmed until the 1950s and in Lovecraft’s day, while controversial, the Piltdown man was generally accepted as fact and cutting-edge science. Thus, why did Lovecraft mention it in a number of his stories but not “Arthur Jermyn?” My guess is that since this tale focuses on Africa, Lovecraft wanted to keep the emphasis on that continent and not discuss proposed missing links from other parts of the world. Still, it is odd given Lovecraft’s love for everything English that the Piltdown man was not even referenced in passing in “Arthur Jermyn” as it is in “Dagon.”

cc_piltdown_crop                                 The gravel pit where the Piltdown man was “discovered”

While Lovecraft died before the Piltdown man was discredited as a fraud, he must have appreciated and supported the idea that an important missing link between humans and apes was found in the United Kingdom. As an atheist and mechanistic materialist, Lovecraft firmly embraced Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. As an anglophile, it must have pleased him that such an important component of the story of human evolution was found in England. The Piltdown man provided “scientific” support for Lovecraft’s misled justification for his racist views. As with several of Darwin’s contemporaries like Huxley and Haeckel, Lovecraft saw a “ranking” of human races, with white Anglo-Saxons at the pinnacle of this misleading tree of life. However, as molecular biology and genetics have revealed, the concept of race means very little relative to human evolution.

Today we know that genetics and fossil evidence confirm that Homo sapiens originated from Africa sometime between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. Yet in the early 20th century the Piltdown man led the scientific community down the wrong path, searching the English countryside for more evidence for the missing link. Thus, important fossil findings in South Africa were largely ignored for decades due to the Piltdown man. Indeed, a lot of time and effort was dedicated over the Piltdown man and its validity. It is estimated at more than 250 scientific papers have been written on the topic. However, scientific scrutiny and new technologies emerged that finally revealed the truth about the Piltdown man. Science is supposed to be a self-correcting process; however, the foundation of this process is the collection and use of valid, non-tampered data. In the case of the Piltdown man, it was ultimately discovered that skull was human but the jawbone was that of a female orangutan.

NGS Picture Id:2176229 An orangutan (National Geographic)

Next time we wrap up our review of “Arthur Jermyn” with a discussion of Lovecraft’s “white ape” civilization in Africa. Thank you – Fred.

How the Universe Expanded in H.P. Lovecraft’s Lifetime, Part 1

In the year 964, the Persian astronomer al-Sufi (Azophi) described a “little cloud” in the constellation of Andromeda. This is one of the first documented observations in human history of another galaxy (To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg, 2016).  However, it would not be until the early 20th century when this little cloud would be recognized as the Galaxy Andromeda, also known as Messier 31, M31 or NGC 224.

07_Abd_al-Rahman_al-Sufi Abd al Rahman al Sufi, Persian astronomer, illustrated by Felix Leon.

In the early 20th century the Universe was a lot smaller.  In 1915 the Universe was thought to consist of a single and static galaxy – the Milky Way (Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time by Michio Kaku, 2004).  However, through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the observations of the red shift by Edward Hubble, the Universe was found to be expanding at an accelerated speed. In addition, advances in telescope technology revealed that many of the celestial bodies identified as nebula or clusters, were actually galaxies. It was Hubble’s work in the 1920’s that finally squashed the theory of a one-galaxy universe. Within the span of a one year of Hubble’s research and observations, the Universe went from a single galaxy full of approximately hundred billion stars to billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars (Kaku, 2004).

This monumental shift and expansion of the Universe – from one galaxy surrounded by nebula and clusters to one containing of billions of galaxies – occurred during Lovecraft’s lifetime and it interesting to note that there are some interesting references to this expansion in his fiction. However, when Lovecraft’s writings were chiefly astronomical in nature, from 1906 to 1918 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005), the Galaxy was essentially thought of as our Universe is a starless, ether-filled void.


In H.P. Lovecraft’s early astronomical writings he frequently used to word galaxy to describe the Universe. This idea that the Universe was essentially the Milky Way was proposed by Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), composer and astronomer best known for discovering the planet Uranus.

Lovecraft actually discussed Herschel’s observations that led to his Milky Way Universe hypothesis in his article “August Skies” in Providence Evening News, 1917 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Based on Herschel’s observations most of the stars were found in a great circle or broad circular, roughly corresponding to the Galactic Plane.  Stars outside of this belt were said to be few and scattered (Joshi, 2005).  This let to Herschel to the hypothesis that “…the visible stellar universe to consist of an immense cluster of stars, the components disposed with moderate uniformity and the whole so shaped that it forms a thin flat disc of incredible magnitude, near whose centre lies our own solar system.” While his description of our home galaxy is fairly accurate, Hershel was incorrect in thinking our solar system in in the center.  In fact, as Carl Sagan has stated we are in the suburbs or countryside of the galaxy.  We are not in any important place in the Milky Way.

universetoday.com.sunmilkyway Our position in the Milky Way Galaxy (www.universetoday.com)

While the general thought in the early 20th century was that the Milky Way was essentially the Universe, Lovecraft did state in the same article cited above, “That most nebulae belong to our universe seems probable, thought it was once believed that they, as well as clusters, are other universe, or external Galaxies, as it were.” This paragraph in the 1917 article concludes with the following:

“Whether or not such things as other universes do exist, is a question of the highest interest, involving conceptions of the most awful grandeur. It is very likely that these colossal universes of suns are widely scattered through boundless space, though separated by such terrifying and abysmal distances that their light, sent on its way at the time of their creation, has not yet reached from one to the other. It were unless here to speak of the ultimate confines of space itself. If the monstrous distances dealt with in the ordinary study of astronomy be stupefying in their immensity, what may be said of infinity itself? The idea of a boundary to all space is even more repellent than the terrible conception of the illimitable.”

Frosty_Drew_Milky_Way_www.charlestowncitizens.org A view of the Milky Way in New England (www.charlestowncitizens.org)

Obviously as the quote above suggests, some of Lovecraft’s concepts on cosmic horror stem from his astronomical observations and investigations. In another article “Clusters and Nebulae” in the Ashville [N.C.] Gazette-New, 1915 (Joshi, 2005), Lovecraft states that about 1,000 nebulae have been recorded and a few are actually visible to the naked eye. One of these nebulae he mentions is Andromeda. Again, at the time Andromeda was identified as a nebula; however, we now know it’s a galaxy composed of approximately 1 trillion stars. Based on the latest observations made with the Hubble telescope there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in the universe, however, this number is more than likely to at least double with improvements in telescope technology.

m31_comolli_2193 The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31

In conclusion, when Lovecraft was writing his articles on astronomy, the Milky Way was considered to be an “island universe” surrounded by nebulae and clusters. However, on 30 December 1924 Edwin Hubble publicly announced the discovery of other galaxies, making our universe a much bigger place. This announcement must have had an incredible impact on Lovecraft; however, by the 1920’s he focused his writing on fiction instead of articles on astronomy. Next time we will discuss how Hubble’s radical change of our view of the universe permeated into Lovecraft’s later fiction. Thank you – Fred.

edwin_hubble_large_bbci.co.uk          Edwin Hubble (www.bbci.co.uk)