Thinking about Lovecraft

First, I want you to go look at this video: Fishmen.

Did you get it? You did if you’ve read H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” It’s all about the fishmen who inhabit that city, and the narrator does, at the end of the story, discover that his ancestry is Innsmouthian, and fishmenian as well. He feels himself start to transform.

If you go to YouTube, you will find many videos based on Lovecraftian themes, some of them set to Christmas music. I’ve seen a number of them around. People start posting them to Facebook, and the like.

So my question of the day is, why Lovecraft? There’s something about him, about the whole Cthulhu mythos or non-mythos, that seems to have captured our imagination. People crochet Cthulhu dolls. People cut Chulhu-shaped paper snowflakes. People make Cthulhu gingerbread cookies. (At least, they did tonight at my house.) And the time for Lovecraft seems now. There are Lovecraft-themed anthologies. It’s even been said that Guillermo Del Toro is bringing At the Mountains of Madness to the movie screen.

I don’t think anyone paid much attention to Dracula when it first came out. But something about it started to capture the popular imagination. It was the Count himself, the Eastern European aristocrat who was also a blood-sucking vampire. The potential romantic partner who also wanted to suck your blood. (Although the Count wasn’t exactly Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in the novel.)

But there was something about Count Dracula that resonated, as there is something about Lovecraft’s universe that resonates with us. I think it’s that as we’ve gone through the twentieth century, Lovecraft’s universe has, more and more, turned out to be the place we actually inhabit. It’s common for critics to say that Lovecraft belongs in the nineteenth century, that he is in a sense a late nineteenth-century writer. That may be true stylistically. But in terms of his ideas about how the world we live in operates, he belongs right where he was born, around the same time as Franz Kafka. He tells us that our world operates by laws we do not understand. That the universe is larger than we know, and older, and that it does not care about us. He tells us that we can lose our humanity more easily than we imagine. Here I think he really is like Franz Kafka.

But there is also something in Lovecraft that belongs to a later time, and this is why I think he resonates with us. There is something fundamentally postmodern about what he’s doing, because whereas most of the late nineteenth-century writers were deeply disturbed by the transformation of something human into something not human, by the abhuman, Lovecraft glories in it. Oh, his narrators tell us how terrible it is, how frightening. But I think Lovecraft is having fun.

And every once in while he tells us that the abhuman, the monster that was once human but is no longer, is having fun as well. At the end of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the narrator glories in his connection with the fishmen, wants to break out of his mental asylum and go down into the waters off Innsmouth, down to the city of his ancestors. At the end of “The Outsider,” the narrator who discovers that he has been dead, probably for centuries, when he looks into a mirror realizes that he is a monster and goes to live with the other monsters. He tells us,

Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gayety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.

What the narrator implies is that it’s painful to be a monster, it involves loss. But it’s also way cooler. It involves riding with ghouls and playing among the catacombs, attending those unnamed feasts of Nitokris, all things to which we as ordinary people have no access.  Monsters are cooler than we are.

I think that’s why I love Lovecraft, despite all his faults (and he has many). Almost despite himself, he’s on the side of the monsters.

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6 Responses to Thinking about Lovecraft

  1. John Stevens says:

    I like this idea. It needs more exploration, but now I want to go back to some of his stories and ponder them in this light.

    As for the cultural cache that Cthulhu and his gang have is the next step from zombies; a terrifying future of annihilation that we can do little to prevent. It’s not dystopia, and it is not our to control, or even understand. Forces we can barely comprehend and apparently not control are propelling us to, not an uncertain future, but a doomed one. And people play with this by making all the horror cute, or satirical, or escapist. I think it can have a subversive aspect as well.

    Huh. I have to write more about this. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

  2. Jo Walton says:

    I think he’s created an indigenous American mythology, one that doesn’t take European mythology and transplant it. There’s not a lot of that about.

  3. John Stevens says:

    I wonder if we can think as more of an anti-mythology, a counter to some of the more comfortable folklore and pantheons. It is a mythos that is dedicated to the inevitable and final destruction of humanity, at best turning humans into slaves or humans by removing their humanity. It corrupts and unhinges those who encounter it. In a morbid, sometimes stilted way, it has elements of critique in it as well, about easy faith in answers to cosmic questions and the problems of investing one’s spirits in vast power structures. At the same time it has elements of lunatic camp and hyperbolic grotesquery. I think that for all these reasons Cthulhu is satirized and often sanitized in geek cultural discourse, and warrants some closer examination.

  4. I love this discussion! And I think Jo is right about an American mythology or anti-mythology, whichever it is. Lovecraft created something genuinely original, genuinely non-European. I do think he’s doing something more interesting than zombie fiction generally does. For example, “The Outsider” is a sort of zombie story, about a character who discovers that he has been dead for what is probably hundreds of years. But Lovecraft doesn’t give us a zombie horde; he gives us an individual, and actually rather touching, story told from the perspective of the zombie itself.

  5. John Stevens says:

    I think that idea, of how Lovecraft engages with the anti-heroic and tragic through a fairly original mythic lens, really gets to the heart of what makes his work so fascinating. His mythology’s originality is heightened by its essential fatalism, and the fact that most of his stories deal with its inevitable corrupting influence on the characters. He does not shy away from an internal portrayal of evil’s influence, either, which for me also makes his work counter-epic, since epics are about heroism and the externality of evil (this point arises from another discussion we’re having over at Apex Book Company’s blog about epic fantasy).

    I also wonder if this is why there is so much pop-cultural satirization of Cthulhu, because of the unease embedded in the mythos itself.

  6. I wonder at the power of Cthulhu. I mean, if you read Lovecraft’s stories, he’s actually not all that central. He becomes central later when other people create the mythos. But he’s the most visual of Lovecraft’s monsters, and there’s a great rhyme about him that I’m not going to remember at the moment. (“In the city of R’lyeth, great Cthulhu waits dreaming”? Something like that.) He’s easy to crochet and turn into cakes and cookies. When I was going to college there was already a Campus Crusade for Cthulhu, which shows that he also had a certain subversive quality.

    But it’s interesting that he’s the one who should have become a geek icon (and I mean that in the best sense). I mean, if you get Cthulhu jokes and know where your towel is, and understand what it means when someone talks about a Tardis, you’re basically in the club, right?

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