Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lovecraft 101 - The White Ship

Lovecraft 101 - The White Ship
Let’s face it, Lovecraft is weird. We know that. But The White Ship is strange even by Lovecraft’s standards. Though it can be seen as the early seeds of what would become the Dreamland Cycle stories much later, this is a weird trippy sort of tale. The White Ship, like Juan Romero, is a morality tale. Well, a morality tale of sorts. HPL is certainly addressing some philosophical ideas here. To really understand this philosophy we have to dive further into the ideological thinking that drove Lovecraft’s stories. As I have written previously, HPL’s work is known as cosmic horror, and that ultimately we are tiny insignificant things in the greater scheme of the universe’s workings. But what does that really mean?
Lovecraft once wrote, “All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form – and the local human passions and conditions and standards – are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
August Derleth, who published most of HPL’s work and tried to contribute to it, ultimately did not understand this, as he tried to categorize and sort the “gods” and creatures of Lovecraft’s tales as if they fit into some neat Greek-inspired pantheon. HPL did not think that way at all. What he is saying here is that if we are going to truly contemplate the vastness of space and perhaps even its other inhabitants, we have to be careful not to immediately give them human emotions or intentions. The gods of Lovecraft’s stories are not truly gods, but actually creatures so far removed from our own understanding that we cannot possibly attempt to conceive their manner of thought or their intentions. What we cannot possible understand becomes like magic. And what higher form of magic is there than the divine? So these beings become like “gods”.
I will eventually bring this around to meet with this week’s story, but really we first have to grasp how this affects a central philosophy that can be seen throughout HPL’s writing. Alien gods really apply to specific tales. But a sense of the uncontrollable nature of the universe applies to them all. At its core, and perhaps what makes his work terrifying, is the idea that not only is there no control, but there is no sense of hope. Not a philosophy I personally share, but a frightening one to imagine, which is possibly why I love these works so much. Derleth didn’t see this when he tried to write his own mythos stories, opting more for the easily understood plight of human good against the antagonizing evil of an external menace. That good can ultimately come to the aid of mankind. But Lovecraft’s world is far more frightening, for there is no moral order in the chaos, ideas of good and evil are relative (which direction does Cthulhu’s moral compass point?). And so it brings us to the simple nihilistic philosophy central to the allegory of the White Ship. Where is the hope?
Illustration by Jeff Powers © 2012

In the story, Basil Elton, a lighthouse attendant, finds himself whisked away on a white ship to lands unknown. Boarding the ship on a moonbeam (which for some reason to me screams of imagery from an 80s cartoon), Basil takes a trip not unlike the trek of Dante. Lead by the bearded captain, he sees many wonderful lands. Here is where Lovecraft is really flexing his imaginative muscles, he manages to paint images of fantastic cities. And it isn’t hard to see how he was influenced by a similar story by Lord Dunsany (whom Lovecraft was a noted fan). But each land comes at a cost. A choice to be lost in worlds of pleasures, and strange sights. But always beyond those lands lies something else.
What I talk about next is the ending of the story, which to really properly address this tale it has to be done. So go and read the short if you haven’t already, unless you don’t mind the spoiler.
Beyond the lands Basil passes over, and even beyond the one he stays at for a eon or so, lies the lands of Cathuria, an unseen land that embodies the hope of all mankind. There it is in its fullest. Hope. But how can we really have the element of hope in a Lovecraft story? Even if it isn’t one of his horror tales, hope is there. Or is it? In reality this is not a pipe. Err, this is not really hope, but the sensation of hope. Beyond the seas, through the basalt pillars, lead by an enigmatic bird lies the sense of all man’s hope. And when Basil gets there, what does he find? Nothing. So much nothing in fact that the very world ends and he falls right off it. Again we see, in Lovecraft’s world. There is no hope.
Okay, I will admit. This is far from a good story. Its cheesy and a bit silly. And while I don’t really like it, it is still important in our grand scheme of Lovecraft 101 because it really gives us a very straight forward example of the one central theme that runs throughout all of HPL’s work. In fact if I had to say it, it is the one theme that defines Lovecraftian fiction. Nihilistic horror is what Lovecraft is all about.
You can read the full text here: HPL’s The White Ship

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