The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
Lately, a surprising amount of people have been finding Pussy Goes Grrr by searching for the word “Cthulhu,” so I figured it was time to write about H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. (Even more hits have come from “lady gaga hot,” but that’s neither here nor there.) Although he picked up from where others like Poe and Lord Dunsany left off, Lovecraft blazed new trails in “cosmic horror,” and his impact has been felt in many corners of popular culture. Of course, he was also an unabashed racist who apparently didn’t believe that fictional characters should have sexual desires.
He’s such a divisive, mammoth figure in horror history, one who led respected authors to write glorified fanfiction, one whose complex legacy has reached its ungodly tentacles into the 21st century — and beyond?? Lovecraft’s influence, both good and gruesome, is spread like glowing ichor all across weird and scary stories. So here’s some musings on Lovecraft or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Old Ones.
As the quote above (the first line of “The Call of Cthulhu“) indicates, Lovecraft’s stories are implicitly opposed to any form of scientific rationalism. In his fictional universe, the scientific method or any other attempt to unearth the truth will inevitably lead to tragedy, and probably insanity too. Lovecraft’s narrators constantly blur the lines between truth and falsehood, sanity and madness, and “the real and the unreal,” as Jervas Dudley says at the beginning of “The Tomb.” Basically, when we try to discern the laws by which our universe functions, we’re asking the wrong questions, because things don’t necessarily make sense.
Lovecraft’s life span (1890-1937) puts him squarely in the midst of one of modern history’s greatest ruptures. He came of age just after the turn of the century, and really started publishing short stories during World War I. So it’s easy to read his grim work in the context of the early 20th century’s massive technological and political flux – like the deformed twin brother of literary modernism. Along with this symptomatic fear of the impending future is a tension between the old and the new: his stories are replete with mentions of antiquated tomes (most notably, the Necronomicon) and with stilted Victorian jargon and racial epithets. His characters often have long (sometimes cursed) bloodlines, and of course the evils that emerge are the oldest of all.
Yet his stories, by and large, take place in the present he knew, namely the 1920s-’30s. And although the evils may have been ancient and buried away, the stories are often about archaeology, exploration, and vanishing frontiers. The scientist or adventurer of the modern day will dig up the secrets of history, and it’s this desire for knowledge that unleashes the irrational destruction. This was a time when science was, more than ever, intent on mapping out and naming everything – all the world’s places, peoples, animals, and phenomena. In Lovecraft, a wrench gets thrown in the works. Knowledge is not purely good; in fact, exactly the opposite. In many ways, then, although he died 8 years before the invention of the atomic bomb, Lovecraft anticipated the course that science fiction and horror would take in the 1950s. (Now think about John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 Thing from Another World from this perspective. Maybe a little Lovecraft was present in the story all along? “Keep watching the skies…”)
2. The Mythos
Lovecraft was one of those rare artists who constructed vast, terrifying worlds from the sheer force of his imagination. In the disturbed universe of the Cthulhu Mythos, he implemented the ideas above (fear of knowledge, the past erupting into the present) as the concrete material of his fiction. To the human characters of the Mythos, these aren’t just abstract intellectual crises; they’re perceptible (if indescribable) and usually life-threatening realities. Their universe has its own elaborate cosmology, built up through tiny details scattered here and there across dozens of stories, through subjective glimpses into its remote corners. At its core is a basic premise, tying together the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aspects of Lovecraft’s work: mankind is not alone, and what’s out there doesn’t really care about us.
Going back to the connection between Lovecraft and modernism, the Mythos certainly engages in a very modernist project, namely displacing humanity from the center of consciousness and power. It’s a very cold, bleak project as well, since unlike most ancient myths or other sci-fi, Lovecraft’s alien gods are primarily nonanthropomorphic. They’re hard to communicate or fight with, and they’re totally unsympathetic to any of our desires or dislikes. Their physical natures inspire terror in human beings unlucky enough to perceive them. They’re also incredibly powerful, and when you add that to a lack of common ground with humans, that makes for horror. They preceded us and they will outlast us, so human pride and the importance of human affairs are suddenly reduced to the smallest of footnotes on the universe’s history.
So: Cthulhu. The most iconic, well-remembered character in all of Lovecraft. Somehow he (she? it?) was seized upon as a representative of everything Lovecraftian, but Cthulhu is an effective envoy of cosmic terror. (And easier to spell/pronounce than Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep.) Introduced in “The Call of Cthulhu,” s/he’s relatively approachable as Great Old Ones go. Dwells in the sunken city of R’Lyeh, has cults spread across the world, and awaits the moment the stars are right so s/he can burst forth and start a new era of life on earth. Cthulhu is also a great demonstration of how Lovecraft is so effective: s/he is revealed through fragments, never seen for long, and never speaks. Yet through hints and suggestions, the reader receives a giant, terrifying impression. Despite being so distant and inscrutable, we still somehow feel like we know Cthulhu.
And now Lovecraft and Cthulhu are part of pop culture. And naturally, they’ve become subject to endless appropriation and parody. His stories are so delightfully morbid and well-realized, brimming with imaginative realms and creatures, yet also so unrelenting and self-serious. It makes perfect sense for an artist who admires Lovecraft to imitate him while deflating the grandiosity of his writing. So we have examples like the filk love song “Hey There Cthulhu” by Eben Brooks, or the musical “A Shoggoth on the Roof.” Or the 1980s resurgence of Cormanesque horror-comedies, where Lovecraftian tropes were used in over-the-top, gory classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.
And in literature? Suffice it to say that Lovecraft doesn’t just have a legacy; he has a subgenre. As a sample of the endless homages, I’d point you toward the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street, which introduces Sherlock Holmes to the eerie world of the Cthulhu Mythos. (I especially recommend Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” and Paul Finch’s “The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle.”) With his huge collection of stories, Lovecraft provided a potential framework for the writers who followed him, between the fictional world he created, the dark angle from which he confronted his themes, and his mastery of ornate diction and tense pacing. These fantastic tools can also be used by authors from different backgrounds, thereby producing Lovecraftian fiction that isn’t so aristocratic, racist, and sex-phobic.
This is a pretty broad view of Lovecraft’s career and effect on horror fiction. Since his legacy is so colossal, he’s pretty much a one-man field of study, so far more specific and in-depth analyses are available all over the Internet. For the curious, I’d recommend the AV Club’s Gateway to Geekery for Lovecraft, or just going over to Wikisource’s collection and diving in. But if you dare to delve into these untold horrors, do not be surprised when you find yourself thrust head-first into a ghastly, unspeakable fate worse than death. I mean, it’s always possible.