The Cosmology of the Weird: An Interview with Robert Price

Robert M. Price is Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute as well as the editor of The Journal of Higher Criticism. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts: A Feminist-Critical Scrutiny, Deconstructing Jesus, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. The Crisis of Biblical Authority, Jesus Christ Superstar: A Redactional Study of a Modern GospelThe Amazing Colossal Apostle, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of Historical Jesus of Nazareth and The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. As editor of the journal (published by Necronomicon Press) and of a series of Cthulhu Mythos anthologies. Price has been a major figure in H. P. Lovecraft scholarship and fandom for many years. He hosts the Human Bible, The Bible Geek, and The Lovecraft Geek podcasts.

Steven A. Michalkow and C. Derick Varn: What initially drew your interest toward weird fiction?  Were you drawn to it aesthetically or did other academic/theoretical/religious themes draw you to it?

Robert Price: It goes way back to childhood. Like many others, I was a child of the 1960s Monster Boom. Something about the weird and strange just ignited a sense of wonder that I never lost. My childhood love of mythology, superhero comics, dinosaurs, and monsters has always enriched my imagination. The adolescent transition to fiction was natural and easily accomplished. First Poe, then Robert E. Howard, then Lovecraft, Burroughs, Tolkien, and the rest. I still love them all!

It seems as if weird fiction writers were working to develop a sort of new cosmological ordering principle to make sense of the world around them.  Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, for example, each developed a complex web of interconnected stories that established a shared mythos for much of their output.  Why is that?  What were they hoping to articulate or explain to themselves and their readers through this mythology?

Kant says that the notion of “the world” is an abstraction that we never see, since it is not a “thing,” but which we require as an overarching Gestalt or framework in which to construe and evaluate and understand objects and events. Bultmann says how all myths depict in fantastic terms the culture’s existential self-understanding. Accordingly, Dunsany’s Pegana mythology, cosmogony, and cosmology portray the universe as he saw it: beautiful and fascinating, but dangerous and ultimately futile. Either Chance or Necessity rules, but we can never know which, and if we think we can, we are being too clever for our own good—and will sooner or later pay for it. Lovecraft’s version, as Dirk W. Mosig demythologized it, is very similar, but with a bit more emphasis on the nullification of human self-importance in view of the vast scale of time and space, whose sheer magnitude gives the lie to our anthropocentric pride, if we would only realize it. These are post-religious mythologies.

How do you see “weird” cosmology as fundamentally different from religious cosmology?

The former posits a universe of meaninglessness where evil often or usually wins, while the latter, as Clifford Geertz says, tries to help a culture make (fictive) sense of the three great scourges of ignorance, adversity, and injustice by positing an unseen adjacent world in which we can assure ourselves that all these problems are resolved even though, at present, we cannot see how. Cold comfort, perhaps, but better than nothing.

What do you make of the claims that August Derleth made Lovecraft’s cosmology more religious in nature?

Greatly exaggerated. Derleth’s scenario of Elder Gods versus Great Old Ones is simply an extension of Lovecraft’s theme of warring races of space aliens and of one group of them being enslaved or imprisoned by another (e.g., the Blind Beings in “The Shadow out of Time” and the Shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness. I don’t see any sort of morality play being spelled out in Derleth. It’s just intergalactic politics.

Did this “weird” cosmology reflect any social/religious/political trends happening in the wider world at the time they were written? Did any form or religious revivalism or spiritualism have any influence on these texts?

Lovecraft’s tales of monstrous miscegenation reflect his horror of ethnic mixing and the encroachment of Southern Europeans and Asians into Yankee New England. He anticipated today’s revolt against Eurocentrism, Colonialism, Patriarchalism and Logocentrism, though he bemoaned it rather than celebrating it. He pokes fun at recent and contemporary religious movements including Theosophy and Adventism, yet also borrows important themes from them. He could take them seriously as imaginative fictions but mocked literal belief in them.

Do you view these weird writers “religious” writers even if only in an abstracted sense?

Lovecraft’s horrors, as Fritz Leiber rightly asserted, actually embodies what Rudolf Otto described as the very essence of religion: the non-rational, non-moral experience of the Numinous, a dipolar experience of the Mysterium Tremendum and the Mysterium Fascinans. We shudder in awe and terror at That which is vastly greater and Wholly Other compared to us. It’s “fight or flight” – we are both enticed and repelled at the same time. Thus HPL’s doomed protagonists who are finally willing to sacrifice peace of mind, even life itself, to join with hidden knowledge, aware that it will fulfill their pathetic finitude even as it consumes them as the dross they are.

How are the contemporary weird writers dealing with cosmology?  Is it currently a concern of any of the current weird writers or have they abandoned this exercise?

Cody Goodfellow combines the Lovecraftian cosmicism of humanity lost in a void outside us with David Cronenberg’s simultaneous wonder and disgust at the shocking fecundity of biological mutation and manipulation of the physical organism itself. Laird Barron writes of unknown shadow dimensions lurking in the wilderness or in or between the walls or inside hollow tree trunks. These are terrors that seduce and threaten at the same time since the opportunity they offer to transcend our dull humanity will make us sadistic devils, contemptuous of once-beloved humanity, in the process. Thomas Ligotti reveals the holiness of desolation, the grandeur of decay, the exaltation of nullity and entropy. The line is thin-to-vanishing between his fiction and his nonfiction. He is a real philosopher, the Phantom of Truth.

Do you think the skills of higher criticism can be applied to complicated fiction like that of Lovecraft’s co-authoring and re-writes of stories by other authors?

Definitely! For my forthcoming five-volume edition of Lovecraft’s fiction, I approached Andrew Q. Morton, one of the earliest to apply computer analysis to questions of authorship and textual integrity in the New Testament, and invited him to apply his Cumulative Sum Analysis (now used to determine authorship of wills and police confessions in the U.K.) to Lovecraft’s Revisions—with interesting results!

(originally published at Former People)

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