There Was An Idea… Lovecraft and Strange: Embracing the Unknown

Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” – Howard Phillips Lovecraft

“Teach me.” – Doctor Stephen Strange

H.P. Lovecraft was terrified. An adamant atheist and anti-theist, his philosophy of cosmicism held that humanity is an insignificant speck of dust in a vast universe, potentially filled with forces beyond human comprehension that are actively hostile, or at best indifferent to us. No higher power is looking out for us. We simply don’t matter.

Lovecraft was also incredibly racist, even by the standards of his time,1 and that fact is woven throughout his particular brand of science fiction horror. It’s been rendered a bit toothless in our modern conception of what it means for something to be “Lovecraftian” thanks to the more innocuous works that he has inspired, such as Hellboy and Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels, not to mention the Etsy stores stuffed to the tentacles with Cthulhu lunchboxes, keychains and plushies. But I don’t think it’s possible to understand where Lovecraft was coming from without factoring in his xenophobia. Lovecraft wasn’t just about the crazy mythos or the “indescribable horrors” that he went on to describe in in the purplest of purple prose. His writing was rooted in a deep, deep fear of the unknown, whether that unknown be the furthest reaches of the cosmos or people of color.

As a fan of Lovecraft’s since my teenage years, this is one of the elements of his work that has always fascinated me and simultaneously rubbed me the wrong way. That his racism is anathema to me is, I hope, unsurprising, but that broader fear of the unknown runs entirely counter to my worldview. An atheist myself,2 the idea of recoiling from the unknown is alien to me. The lack of a belief in a higher power that lends us some cosmic credibility actually feels freeing to me. Maybe this reflects how fascinated I am by the sciences,3 but the idea of us living in an unending expanse of things we don’t yet understand sounds great! The alternative sounds incredibly boring. To me, the unknown is not something to be avoided, but is an opportunity.

In Marvel’s Doctor Strange, we find a protagonist who is more on my page. Instead of being terrified by an infinite multiverse of beautiful and horrifying things that he doesn’t understand, and resigning himself to having no agency in the face of that, he’s curious. He wants to broaden his understanding of a cosmos that has thus far been unknown to him. Yes, in his first interaction with The Ancient One Strange practically quotes Lovecraft: “You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” But for him that’s not a statement of fear. As a guy who is, like Strange, extremely skeptical about “fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief,” I’m sympathetic to his initial reaction. In fact, I think it’s accurate. Strange’s sin here is not in his characterization of the universe as massive and indifferent, but in his incomplete knowledge of that universe. In Marvel’s multiverse where magic and science are practically the same thing, Strange’s introduction to his broader cosmic context leaves him wanting, nay needing, to understand it. No irrational skepticism. No fear. Just wanting to know.

He digs into his occult studies with all the ferocity he brought to his groundbreaking medical work. Yes, part of this is due to Strange’s character flaws. He’s as egotistical as they come. If he’s going to be a sorcerer, he’s going to be the best sorcerer there is, the rules of the Ancient One, Wong, and the universe be damned. He approaches his studies with the same recklessness that cost him the use of his hands. His initial motivations are mostly self-centered, and a major part of his arc in the film is learning that, in the Ancient One’s words, “It’s not about you!” But I think it’s clear that Strange is also motivated by fascination from the very beginning. After the Ancient One gives him his first psychedelic, whirlwind tour of the multiverse, he drops to his knees and gasps, “Teach me!” and he is not thinking about his gnarled, useless hands in that moment.

“The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”  – Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Despite apparently being fairly knowledgeable about the sciences, Lovecraft’s work reflects a deep distrust of science, and for that reason I don’t think you could drop Stephen Strange into, say, “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Colour Out of Space” and expect him to figure things out and come out on top. In Lovecraft’s mythos, the universe is not only unknown but unknowable, and science is either useless or an invitation for trouble. So the difference here isn’t simply between the character of Doctor Strange and Lovecraft, but the movie Doctor Strange and Lovecraft. Scott Derrickson’s film provides Strange with not just the initial knowledge that the multiverse exists, but an intellectual, pedagogical and, yes, scientific framework for learning about it and how to interact with it. He can come to have knowledge of it through hard work and study and can, as Isaac Newton might put it, see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. Those giants take the form of the Ancient One, of course, but also the library of Kamar-Taj, filled as it is with centuries and centuries of research compiled by generations of Strange’s predecessors. The musty, chained tomes under Wong’s watchful eye are, while dangerous in the wrong hands, a far cry from a cursed and taboo book like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. They are open to all to study. Open access magic. With his scientific background, Strange takes to all this like a shoggoth to water.

As fascinated as I am with Lovecraft’s writing, Doctor Strange’s skewed version of cosmicism is much more appealing to me, and I say that from a position that is as emotional as it is philosophical. Far too many genre works fall into the trap of being anti-science, sometimes outright saying, “There are some things man was not meant to know,” or “You can’t play God like this!” and I find that boring, not to mention cynical. I believe that in some respects Doctor Strange has more in common with the excellent found footage science fiction film Europa Report. It may sound counter-intuitive to describe a film that is explicitly about the mystic arts as pro-science, but both films depict the process of discovery as something that is difficult, dangerous and worth it. Doctor Strange is optimistic about the human search for knowledge, and I love it for that.

Go to H.P. Lovecraft for cosmic horror. He’s real, real good at it. Go to Doctor Stephen Strange for something like… cosmic hope?

  1. “Howie. We’re all racist, obviously, but you’re taking it way too far.”
  2. Don’t worry, I’m not one of those New Atheist turdwaffles. I don’t have that new atheist smell anymore. Also check out this wonderful piece about Doctor Strange from a Christian perspective.
  3. I particularly love paleontology, but I have broad tastes.