Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lovecraft and the Mass Rock

In searching the past for clues to the present, I have been reading a little about Ireland. My family is from western Ireland, historically a poverty-stricken and now a vastly depopulated place. Sad to say, much of that was because of the British. The Penal Laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were among the chief instruments of British oppression. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), an Anglo-Irishman and a man to whom we as Americans owe so much, called the Penal Laws: 
[A] machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.
I leafed through a book the other day and my eyes landed on a page, specifically a quote on that page. The book is Ireland for Beginners by Phil Evans and Eileen Pollock (1983). Here's the quote:
Illicit Catholic worship survive[d] [in the early 1700s] using round flat-top rocks as altars hidden in the woods. (p. 26)
When I read those words, I thought immediately of the altar stones in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and his associates. Altar stones appear in "The Dunwich Horror," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Colour Out of Space," all by Lovecraft, and "Notebook Found in a Deserted House," by Robert Bloch. In every one of those stories, they are associated with forbidden rites, including human sacrifice and of bringing into our world beings from other places. (1) They are found on hilltops and in backwoods. If you replace the word Catholic with the word Cthulhu in the second quote above, you have a pretty precise description of them. The stone used in Catholic Ireland, by the way, is called a mass rock, or Carraig an Aifrinn.

That brings up two issues. First, the words Cthulhu and Catholic. If you remove the vowels and the last consonant (if h is a consonant) from those words, you get:

Cthl

and

Cthl

Coincidence? Yeah, I think so.

Second and more to the point, H.P. Lovecraft was a pretty WASPy guy, an old New England Protestant Tory. Did that make him anti-Catholic? I have never read anything to suggest that he was anti-Catholic, although as a nativist, he might have been disposed against Catholics and people from Catholic countries, for example, Italians, Spaniards, and Latin Americans. Castro, the old man who knows the story of Cthulhu in "The Call of Cthulhu," leaps to mind as one of that type. He's only one, but I would hazard a guess that there were others.

So was Lovecraft exposed to anti-Catholic feelings remaining from Colonial America, especially from New England, which was first settled by Puritans? And did those feelings find their way into his stories? Rhode Island was founded as a colony of religious freedom. Did that include freedom for Catholics? I would like to think so. I have read that 44% of the people in Rhode Island are Catholic, making the state the most Catholic by percentage of any state in the Union. But how far back does that Catholicism go? To colonial times? I can't say.

In addition to being a WASPish and old-fashioned New Englander, Lovecraft was a fan of the writers and thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Penal Laws were enacted and enforced in Ireland around that time. That was also a time for the casting out of religion in favor of the supremacy of reason in western Europe. Our revolution grew, in part, out of the Age of Reason and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Unfortunately the French Revolution did, too, and it is still bearing poisoned fruits in the forms of materialism, atheism, leftism, socialism, etc. Lovecraft himself was a materialist or an atheist, a fact S.T. Joshi, an atheist himself, never fails to mention. All that may be beside the point. The point is this: Did the image of the Catholic mass rock, hidden in the woods in a place where forbidden rites were held, survive into the twentieth century? And did it find its way into weird fiction? If so, was it still moored to anti-Catholicism, or had it been cut loose, only to survive as a kind of atavism?

Note
(1) You could say that, in a way, the Catholic Mass is symbolic of human sacrifice and a bringing into the world of a being from another place. Beyond that, we shouldn't forget that the story of the resurrection of Cthulhu is similar to the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that similarity to have been unintentional, but you never know.

H.P. Lovecraft in eighteenth century dress, by Virgil Finlay.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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