As any who have dared to throw aside even a corner of that blanket of comfortable illusion that men call sanity might know, Lovecraft tells us that Azathoth is “nuclear chaos”. To the modern mind already laden with the dread echoes of science wrought scouring destroyer, this conjures—as some followers of Providence have stated—Azathoth as atomic force. Yet is that too comprehensible a horror?
Lovecraft only refers to Azathoth as nuclear once:
…the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth
—The Whisperer in Darkness
His other works that describe Azathoth (ironically, the short story “Azathoth” not among them) do not mention it:
[O]utside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space…
—The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath
…the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos….
—The Dreams in the Witch House
…the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth…
—The Haunter of the Dark
What they do share is mentions of the centre. Did Lovecraft therefore mean nuclear in the sense of “at the nucleus”?
Had Lovecraft mentioned both centrality and nuclear in the same description, then it would seem strongly probable he meant them in different senses. However, the converse is not true; not using them both in the same description does not mean they are equivalent.
Some have pointed out, rightly, that nuclear physics did not really enter public consciousness until after Lovecraft’s death, and certainly after the publication of “The Whisperer in Darkness”; thus suggesting that only the single meaning of “at the centre” would have occurred to Lovecraft.
However, Sir Arthur Eddington published his theory of nuclear fusion occurring at the heart of stars in 1920. In addition to his academic works, Eddington gave a series of highly popular public lectures and broadcasts during the 1920’s and 1930’s on physics and astronomy. Given Lovecraft’s interest in both astronomy and science in general, it is therefore entirely possible he had encountered the concept even if he hadn’t read Eddington’s papers. Unfortunately, as with the lack of combination, this only rules out one interpretation being correct rather than making either strongly probable.
Falling as it does between Dreams and Haunter, “The Whisperer in Darkness” cannot represent a shift in Lovecraft’s core conception of Azathoth. However, Lovecraft (as he himself stated) did not strive to make each story fit a single truth, preferring instead to portray the feeling suitable to his story so perhaps the variation in description is significant in context of the story in which it occurred.
“The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” involves travel to distant places and a sort of magic. “The Dreams in the Witch House” involves somnambulant travel to other places through a mixture of black magic and mathematics. “The Haunter in the Dark” involves a cult who seek visions of far places. All stories with a mystical feel and a concept of moving to another location in fact or perception.
In contrast, “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a tale of alien invaders who put people’s brains in jars, one of the closest stories to “pure” science fiction that Lovecraft created. While Mi-Go brain-jars are a form of travel, they are moved rather than needing the user to think of movement, making conception of location less important. Whereas, the story is full of hyper-science: and—as statements about its lack of popular place show—nuclear physics was something humanity was toying with the edges of when Lovecraft wrote the story. The implication of nuclear force could be a deliberate choice to show the technological Mi-Go conceive Azathoth more as a what than a where.
Of course, Lovecraft did incline toward archaic phrasing even in his more scientific stories, so it’s at least as likely he would have used the older sense of “at the centre of something” rather than the then-fresh sense of “atomic” even if he was aware of both. Therefore, in the absence of a clear description of Azathoth as “atomic”, we are again left with neither interpretation being provably wrong.
And ultimately, does it matter? Would an Azathoth that was or was not, in some wise, uncontrolled atomic interaction be any less of a threat? Or would it merely be the equivalent of ants knowing which brand of boot stamped on their nest?