Dying for Love of Power
Essays Culture

Dying for Love of Power

Salvator R. Tarnmoor

The Horror Fiction of Zero HP Lovecraft

Zero HP Lovecraft, the most important fiction writer on Weird Right Twitter, is of course a pseudonym. Over the last few years he has posted several stories and three novellas to a Wordpress blog, and he released a hardcover compendium titled They Had No Deepness of Earth on November 10.[1] I believe this volume represents a major literary achievement. I admit, however, that I cannot claim to have compared it against the work of every other internet subsubculture’s favorite son. No one can: the digital Cambrian explosion has destroyed the possibility of such a comprehensive gaze. These and other consequences of digitized life are among Zero HP Lovecraft’s foremost preoccupations.

The second half of Zero HP Lovecraft’s pseudonym tells you the first thing you need to know about him. H.P. Lovecraft, early twentieth century American horror writer, incel, hyper-racist, author of often unbearably purple prose, inventor of the Cthulhu Mythos; also, and most importantly, progenitor of the genre of cosmic horror, in which the plot consists of little more than the protagonist’s gradual discovery of the abyss gaping open beneath his feet—this H.P. Lovecraft is the chosen model of ZHPL (so I shall call him to avoid confusion). The first half of the pseudonym tells you the second thing to know: Zero Hit Points, a bad pun situating ZHPL as a gamer and “very online” writer, a warning that the vital spirit of our civilization has been almost entirely exhausted. Lovecraft, but more cadaverous.

The core of ZHPL’s vision lies in the three novellas: “The Gig Economy” (2018), “God-Shaped Hole” (2019), and, most recently, “Don’t Make Me Think” (2021). These present three versions of the same three-part story. Its beginning is standard near-future science fiction: an intelligent, alienated young man moves through a world dominated by personal digital devices. Its middle and end will feel familiar to readers of H.P. Lovecraft (and the second novella draws explicitly from Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath). In the midst of this world, driven by curiosity, desire, and rebelliousness, the young man seeks to touch reality, to remove his blinders, to break his chains. In the end, he discovers hidden beneath the civilized veneer a horror so incomprehensible that it drives him mad—although we, ZHPL’s readers, are graced with a final record of the cause of his destruction.

If, like his avowed model, ZHPL has written the same story over and over, we can hypothesize that he has done so for the same reason. To the horrorist, details of plot and character are secondary to the mood of nightmare. He need not believe his nightmare to be the entire truth—compare the Kafkaesque bureaucratic deism of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare with his daytime Roman Catholicism. But he must believe his nightmare to be worth taking seriously. ZHPL has written that we must “find ways of maintaining our humanity within a technological society, and to some degree, that means embracing horror.” The question To what degree? is one I will return to at the end of this essay.


ZHPL finds horror in a different place than did the earlier Lovecraft. For H.P. Lovecraft, the nightmare lurks in the unknown—the distant past, outer space, the protean realm of dreams—and in the unknowable—unrecognizable colors, incalculable geometries, words that cannot be pronounced, bodies that cannot be anatomized, cults with unidentifiable membership and inscrutable intentions. The pervading theme is the limits of human reason. For ZHPL, the theme is rather the lack of such limitation: human reason creates the technological nightmare that destroys it.

Human reason in ZHPL’s writing has two distinct strains, which we can associate with two of his most visible literary influences, Neal Stephenson, whose early novel Snow Crash inspires the premise of “The Gig Economy,” and Jorge Luis Borges, whose story “The Dead Man” ZHPL’s “Don’t Make Me Think” follows beat for beat.[2] In short, ZHPL’s fiction is simultaneously scientific and metaphysical. ZHPL receives from Stephenson his license to perpetrate “infodumps,” which treat as the real “character” and “plot” the imagined world and the journey of discovery through it. From Borges, ZHPL learns the aesthetic power of paradox, and that the quickest route to paradox is to focus on the structure of the soul, and how the soul communicates with itself. Borges’s soul spoke to itself through the codex; ZHPL’s, through the computer, which (following Stephenson and other cyberpunk authors) he takes as a master metaphor for human cognition. For this reason, ZHPL’s literary style is not entirely literary—it is not purely a matter of letters. He makes inventive use of embedded images, hyperlinks, emojis, and other features of the digital medium.[3]

The pervading rationality of ZHPL literary style suggests a second reason for the parallels between his three stories: by depicting the same phenomenon from three different angles, he brings it more fully into view. The three stories differ both in the technology they depict—one takes its inspiration from TaskRabbit; another from Oculus; the third, from Neuralink—and in the nightmare they reveal—to a first approximation, the true nature of money, sex, and power. Placed in parallel, these suggest an overarching concern with a question dating back to Plato: the harmonic proportion between self and city. The original Lovecraft denied the possibility of such a harmony, and so of the possibility of thought itself. ZHPL shares his predecessor’s horror at the thought of the harmony, but does not write in order to deny it. Rather, he writes to explain how digital technology has shattered the harmony we once assumed to exist between self and city. This how I take to be the central theme of his fiction, the thread uniting his equal parts intriguing and horrifying predictions about near-future technological developments.


The first of ZHPL’s novellas, “The Gig Economy,” deals both with money as an abstraction from tangible objects of value, and with language as an abstraction from our disparate sensory experiences. The protagonist is an app freelancer taking random assignments to pick up and deliver unmarked packages, or to oversee someone else performing such a task, or whatever else the app sends his way. One day he takes an assignment to submit to neurological experiments in sensory refactorization: “Chaos had crystallized into intuition, as if my senses had been remade, and I had learned to use them all over again. It would not be wrong to say that I had all new senses, virtual senses, built ‘on top of’ my existing ones, but orthogonal to them.”

Simultaneously, the protagonist has become obsessed with rare books, which as relics of a pre-digital age are felt to possess an almost talismanic power. These threads converge when he discovers that the sensory refactorization assignment came from an entity not quite human, with its origin hidden within an ancient unscanned codex. The mystery involves the god Mammon, the Tower of Babel, and an infectious song that inspires infinite greed in its auditors and degenerates their language into a babbling stream: “The figularshis morror. Mareath ame whicand to ide.”[4] In some ways this babble of Mammon resembles the language of law, which underpins all our economic abstractions and is notoriously incomprehensible to all but Mammon’s lawyer-priests. Such a pseudo-language becomes necessary to integrate into our (formerly) common sense the nose for profit which has imposed itself, a “virtual sensation,” atop our natural five, for capitalism renders human language inadequate to fulfill its function of intrapsychic currency.

Perhaps half of “The Gig Economy” is straight narration, and two fifths text excerpted from various documents the protagonist comes across. The remainder are excerpts not reduced to text, but presented as screenshots—of smartphone app pages, of posts to 4chan or twitter or reddit or slack. Some relate directly to the plot, while others merely illustrate the world in which the protagonist moves. The latter variety reveals the embedded-screenshot technique’s significance. In a typical literary work the author characterizes the protagonist’s world through detailed description of a curated sampling of its background elements. In the internet novella, such description seems otiose because those background elements are already composed of text. Where virtual clipping and pasting are so easy, how can anything less suffice—how can any paraphrase lacking at least a hyperlink to the source faithfully represent it?

ZHPL’s authorial impulse to screenshot rather than summarize echoes his protagonist’s longing for the tangibility of his rare books. Both screenshot and codex have the aura of historical reality about them, and so are imagined as bulwarks against the flow of capital melting everything solid into air. But they cannot really provide such a bulwark. The screenshot has nothing real about it, being entirely mediated by the digital, and the codex is hardly better. Whatever nostalgic aura has now accumulated around it, it was in its day, as Marshall McLuhan (an important influence on ZHPL) would put it, the cutting edge of the technology of sensory abstraction. The babble of Mammon began with ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform, and flowed through medieval scriptoria and Gutenberg’s press before it burst onto the internet. The first mass-produced object was a coin. “The Gig Economy” leaves us with no reason to think that this historical trajectory from the inarticulate nonsense of beasts to the all-too-articulated nonsense of computer-gods could be reversed. The novella’s last line: “The only way out is through!”


So much for economics and common sense. The title of ZHPL’s second novella, “God-Shaped Hole,” identifies its theme in an obscene and blasphemous pun: how we crave sexual contact with each other, how we long to fill that contact with meaning, how that longing for meaning is itself sexual, how both contact and meaning are denied us. The sexual relationship almost inevitably becomes a figure for what was once pictured as the marriage of body and soul, but in ZHPL’s nightmare feels more like their mutual rape. The soul becomes an illusion of meaning imposed on the body, the body an ecstasy of meaning’s annihilation.

The story begins in a world of ubiquitous virtual reality goggles, and myriad inventive speculations about their probable uses. But the dominant use ZHPL imagines is hyperreal pornography, repulsively detailed descriptions of which the reader must suffer. The story ends with human nature gnawed through by gene editing technology, giving rise, half by accident, half by sinister design, to a “polymelial monster, growing tentacles and heads and mouths, sex organs sprouting anywhere, mouths and eyes becoming one organ that would leap forward to snap with transparent teeth, but no organ holding constant as regards either function or position.” In naming this creature “Azathoth,” ZHPL makes one of his most direct references to the Cthulhu Mythos—but ZHPL’s version of this demon, unlike that of his eponymous forbear, is explicitly libidinous, described in language reminiscent of the post-Freudian Gilles Deleuze’s “body without organs.” We are left with two irreconcilable accounts of sexuality: the shimmering digital image, and the putrescing biological flesh. In between, the protagonist embarks on a quest to escape the obscenely glittering surface of sexuality and locate something human. He finds no “there” there; he cannot get into view a desire for another person, as opposed to for that person’s desire, in an endless regression, with every act of love an act of betrayal.

His disillusionment finds its echo in the reader’s experience of the text. The sense of the internet as a series of disjointed fragments remains, but this time we do not experience it as a screenshot lifted in tweezers up to the light, but as an endless rabbit-hole of hyperlinks between short snippets fleshing out the story’s fictional world. With each opening of a new tab in the browser we anticipate an explanation that will reconcile image and flesh—but it never comes. “God-Shaped Hole” is ZHPL’s most successful novella, but it is also, and intentionally, fundamentally untrustworthy; it aims to seduce its reader and then discard him. Definitely him—while women too have surely read this story across twenty open browser tabs, both its pervasive obscenity and its central concern with male desire mark its paradigmatic reader as a man. It does include in its peripheries a portrait of female sexuality, and one which does not seem entirely false, though it sees women as entirely false. Like male desire, female desire looks to its partner for something which it is unwilling or unable itself to offer.

The account of sexual desire and meaning-making implicit in “God-Shaped Hole” is not original; it resembles that found in authors like Stendhal and Proust, and analyzed in books like René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. What this story adds is an understanding of how the internet multiplies beyond count the images that inflame desire, and how pharmaceuticals augment physical desire itself. Together, they tighten the circuit of desire recognized by the nineteenth century realists to an inhuman pitch.


After calling into question our common sense and our romantic desire, ZHPL embarks in “Don’t Make Me Think” to reveal the slavery implicit within our allegedly free decisions and allegiances. The story begins with Neuralink brain implants able not only to read minds, but also, to a certain extent, to control them. Enriched mealworm bricks, for example, can be made to taste like a different three-star meal with every bite; completed school work can be instantly rewarded, petty rule-breaking instantly punished. But these mind-forged manacles are imperfect, and so the protagonist, an initially anonymous youth Neuralinked at age eleven, finds himself increasingly tempted to rebel. Eventually he makes a violent break for freedom.

Widespread Neuralink adoption has, it seems, created a comprehensive surveillance state where every citizen is the perfect informer and enforcer. And so, it seems, the only hope for mental freedom lies in a band of outlaws supporting themselves through manufacture of smart-drugs—contraband Neuralink programs engineered to deliver maximal hedonic gratification. While many twists and turns follow, from both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos doing ayahuasca in the Amazon, to a demonic spirit leaping from Neuralink to Neuralink, the novella’s basic dilemma is already contained within this premise. How can a smart-drug black market exist within the Neuralink surveillance state? As the protagonist muses, most likely “they let it happen and someone is profiting.” Within the world of “Don’t Make Me Think,” no exercise of freedom is possible unless it ultimately strengthens the central authorities in a cybernetic feedback loop. The Neuralinked citizen and the outlaw smart-drug manufacturer have taken short and long roads to the same destination; the latter imagines himself free, but in reality is equally enslaved, unable to imagine any motive for action besides pleasure and pain.

Perhaps the most multilayered scene comes when the outlaws’ mountain fortress is attacked by a rival gang, and the protagonist, by now given the name of Branch, steps into command. With the help of his men’s jailbroken Neuralinks, he becomes like the human player in a real-time strategy game, with the “reckless authority👑💡” to make unilateral decisions regarding “lethality☠️⬆️🔁 or sacrifice🔪🐑🩸.” These outlaws, it seems, are absolutely loyal to Branch, willing to kill and die for him. But in fact they are not, as is later confirmed, and as we could have inferred anyway from their outlaw character. Far from authentically loyal, they have merely made a rationally selfish Hobbesian bargain: each grants his Neuralink permission to override his self-preservation instinct in exchange for an increase in the likelihood of victory, and so of long-term survival. Not only is there no such thing as freedom, also, and relatedly, there is no such thing as loyalty, authority, or self-sacrifice; the world is self-interest, power, and violence all the way down.

The illegitimacy of these concepts is reinforced by this novella’s stylistic experiment: its text is littered with emojis, meant to translate ordinary English into ideogram form. The result is sometimes insightful, as in the examples quoted above: “authority👑💡,” the light of reason; “lethality☠️⬆️🔁,” the cycle of violence; “sacrifice🔪🐑🩸,” the scapegoat. As often, it is wryly amusing: “conformity🏳️‍🌈⬇️.” But the cumulative effect is not to enrich the text, but almost the opposite. The reader can either attempt to ignore the emojis and read straight through, or pause to decipher them and lose the linguistic thread. Either route leads to a sense that the text does not offer itself to be read freely, but rather has imposed itself on the reader and can only be submitted to or struggled against. At least until the closing scene, when the emojis turn off, and we catch a glimpse of an authority higher than self-interest, one which could wield power (and indeed violence) for the sake of more than perpetuating its own rule. A heretofore minor character, Romero, asks himself if he is responsible for Branch’s demise. He concludes that “his conscience is clear. No, that’s not true, he let Branch believe it was fate. . . But we all have our vices. . . Surely Romero is no great sinner, here.” Is Romero’s “conscience” authentic, or mere self-flattery? The novella offers us no grounds on which to judge.


The relative optimism of “Don’t Make Me Think” compared to “The Gig Economy” and “God-Shaped Hole” comports with what we know of ZHPL from his Weird Right Twitter persona (he posts at @0x49fa98, the aRBG code for a particularly repulsive shade of green). Like adjacent anon personalities such as Bronze Age Pervert and Mencius Moldbug, ZHPL strikes the pose of a reactionary prophet, a Nietzsche updated with the latest and most politically incorrect findings in political economy, evolutionary psychology, and human biodiversity. His views about money and sex are essentially fatalistic and anti-rational: the market knows all, or at least more than any man, and so must not be interfered with, only streamlined; the phallus wants what it wants, and so must not be reasoned with, only placated. But his decision to engage in twitter polemics in the first place suggests some faith in the efficacy of political conflict, and some hope that we will recognize in him a legitimate authority. Or, at least, a decision to act as if he possesses this faith and hope.

ZHPL’s fiction—which I find far more persuasive than his twitter persona—offers little warrant for this faith and hope. The enslavement of the will in “Don’t Make Me Think” follows inevitably from the fragmentation of experience and inflammation of desire traced in the previous two novellas. So what grounds ZHPL’s decision to enunciate these claims? If I might hazard a guess—ZHPL is a computer programmer by profession, and a programmer, once he puts aside woke things and accepts the label of reactionary, cannot but be fascinated by the workings of natural selection and market competition. He sees in them algorithms of a sort, operating on biological and economic substrates to calculate the fittest species, the most efficient price. The struggle for political power, too, he sees as an algorithm, one tasked with calculating the optimal method of governance. But the economic and erotic algorithms seem immutable, while the political one seems more clearly contingent, and susceptible of alteration. ZHPL’s vatic twitter threads constitute, in essence, his attempts to debug our civilization. As he wrote in an essay at The American Mind, his ultimate goal is to found a new but ever-ancient religion that can avoid Christianity’s slow descent into wokeness and bioleninism: “Our church will not resemble the churches of old, but our men will resemble the men of old, because our God is very old, indeed.”

The first step in debugging a system is usually to turn it off and on again. But who can stand outside our civilization and throw the switch? And who has root access to edit our civilization’s source code? The reactionary cultural programmer cannot impose from outside or above an irresistibly efficacious word to propel those within into their proper trajectories, for there is no such outside. What he requires instead is a word that confronts its opponents with a choice, and achieves its end no matter which choice they make. Such is wokeness today; such was Christianity two thousand years ago, when opposition led the Church to be watered by the blood of martyrs, and so to grow and replace the pagan cults more congenial to the reactionary programmer’s vision. It is difficult to imagine being a martyr for the programmer’s new yet ever-old religion. Martyrdom requires understanding oneself to participate in a larger whole, for example, the Body of Christ, that merits allegiance to the point of self-sacrifice. But the faith of the reactionary programmer requires voluntarily dissolving the unity of one’s experiences and desires, and instead identifying with the cosmic designer who confined consciousness within the body’s cybernetic labyrinth. At most, one can imagine martyring one’s avatar for this faith, knowing that it will be easy enough the next day to create a brand new account.

I suspect that, unless something changes, the magnitude of ZHPL’s achievement has reached something like an upper bound. The bound is visible in the very pseudonym he has chosen: kraft is German for “power,” from the love of which Zero HP Lovecraft is dying. He has written from his awareness of the horrors of life on the internet, and of his horror at his own powerlessness to stop them; the effect of these stories is to transfix the reader, and then to leave him with a sense of relief at the story’s end when the basilisk turns its eye away. ZHPL’s further artistic development will require him to recognize how he has been paralyzed by his own libido dominandi. He must move on from horror to a positive vision of the human being, one that can make sense of digital realities while still commanding real (unhedged) loyalty and inspiring real (nonvirtual) self-sacrifice. In this regard, adopting an old yet ever-new religion—for example, Christianity—has one key advantage over inventing a religion new yet ever-old: only the former comes with proof-by-example that nonvirtual, unhedged faith in it is humanly possible.

  1. Forthcoming from Canonic.xyz, and apparently available for purchase only via cryptocurrency. ↩︎

  2. ZHPL has explicitly associated this approach with another Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” ↩︎

  3. I am somewhat apprehensive about how well these effects will translate to the printed page, though perhaps it does not matter, since the compendium seems likely to be a collector’s item, to be displayed rather than opened. ↩︎

  4. The reader can catch a glimpse here (it does not go on for long) of something like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, only following the track, not of Giambattista Vico’s ricorso, but of Nick Land’s hyperstitional accelerationism—a superintelligence reaches back from the future to bookstrap itself into existence through capitalism’s creative destruction. . . ↩︎

Featured image: Octopus in photo by Isabel Galvez via Unsplash.

Salvator R. Tarnmoor is a pseudonymous poet and essayist. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.