I was into Lovecraft before he got popular.
Ugh, sorry, that's a really bitchy way to start an article. And, you know, it wasn't really that no one knew about Lovecraft. His stories have been around since the early 20th century, for goodness sake, and he's a major source of inspiration for all sorts of important--nay, even scriptural--fantasy properties such as Dungeons and Dragons and horror properties such as Evil Dead or Reanimator. So, it's not really true, strictly speaking.
I was into Lovecraft's works before the current craze for all things Cthulhu. I was into Cthulhu Madness back when it meant the mind-wrenching touch of the impossibly cosmic and humanly inconceivable... not an internet passion for plushies and the compulsory namedropping of Leng and R'lyeh into every horror fantasy tale. Nearly a decade ago, when I first discovered his work, there wasn't really a huge, overt celebration of the man's icons. I simply happened to read a very old article on a book that miraculously--or diabolically?--happened to turn up at a local library.
It was called The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.
And boy, was that a strange book.
Everything, from the overwrought page-long sentences, to the ritualistically intoned lists of impossible, inconceivable places, to the strange inhabitants of the dream world intruded upon by Randolph Carter, to that description, that maddeningly vague yet tantalizingly detailed description, of the void where Azathoth knaws hungrily amidst chaos and the stomping and piping of the mindless Outer Gods whose soul and messenger is Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos--all of it ripped open the simple material confines of my world and exposed me to the gaping maw that was Lovecraft's horribly empty yet terrifyingly occupied heavenly dome.
And although his prose was often a slog the ideas within were enough to keep me intrigued for the next few years... until the Cthulsplosion, when suddenly Lovecraft's skulking creatures that were better suited to dancing and piping beneath alien stars were thrust into the bright light of the Internet, and the vast, neon party that is Media Capitalism. The stars were right for the dead dreaming god to emerge from the sea, and suddenly all I wanted to do was ram a big honking yacht into the squidfaced fuck.
So, while I recognize how obnoxious the first sentence of this article was, I think it's worth laying exactly where I'm coming from on the line here: I kind of resent how suddenly the dark knowledge that I had to work to track down, and the weird writing style I had to get used to, is suddenly just being Wikipedia'd to the general public, with the result, as far as I can tell, that a lot of people know all sorts of things about Lovecraft but haven't bothered to read any of his books.
And you know, it's nothing really about Lovecraft in particular that makes the popularity so loathsome. His works are still great, don't get me wrong--I still get chills when I think of some of the more disturbing images and suggestions, especially in his lesser known works largely outside the main Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft absolutely deserves attention (I mean, if the attention actually consisted of people bothering to read his books). But the thing is, Lovecraft's horror is not an inexhaustible resource when the creators tapping into it are using it without being conscious of the underlying power of the work. In short, if you just throw a bunch of freaky fish guys into your story, it's not going to make your work "Lovecraftian," no matter how much they shout "Ia! Ia! Cthulhu f'tagn!" And fish rape is just... ugh, way to miss the point completely, guys.
Actually, that's a good place to start. No, not with fish rape (uuugh) but with the problem of appearance vs core power--in other words, the problem of tangible details again. See, what makes Lovecraft so fundamentally compelling is the cosmic scope of his horror. There's a kind of earthy gutsyness to a lot of modern interpretations of Lovecraft that simply don't jive with what make his work so fascinating. And while I'm always in favor of reinterpretation, here it strikes me as fundamentally missing the point.
Like, consider The Whisperer in Darkness, where human beings have their brains scooped out and put in cases to allow their transport by the strange Mi-Go back across the aether to their home planets far distant. There's a definite horror from the thought of being separated from the physical so completely, able to interact with the world only through the meanest of mechanical apparatuses, and there is a deep loathing that comes from the image of the fungal, alien Mi-Go wearing their de-brained human minions as suits while attempting to convert further followers.
And yet, the deepest horror in the story comes from the idea that these powerful, technologically advanced beings come to earth with their utterly alien moralities and have the power to essentially use us like playthings and curiosities.
Or consider the great sleeping god himself, mighty Cthulhu, rising from the deep! The horror there is not that he's a giant thing with a squid for a head, it's the fact that humanity is on some unknown, unknowable deadline, given a brief reprieve before we are wiped clean from the earth in the rise of forces that suffer us to live only while they dream beneath the sea.
The emphasis here, and I think it's a subtle but important one, is not upon the physical trauma endured but the philosophical and existential trauma, if that makes sense.
Basically, it's less, "Oh god, we're all going to be eaten!" and more, "Oh god, we are fundamentally powerless in the face of a vast, inconceivable, and psychotically hostile universe! The very underpinnings of reality are madness!"
And that fundamentally existential terror is lost when we focus on fish rape.
...Alright, fine, you want an explanation for the fish rape thing?
Well, don't say I didn't trigger warn you. (Er, oh, uh, trigger warning.)
So, nearly an entire issue of Alan Moore's recent comic Neonomicon depicts the repeated brutal rape of the female protagonist by one of the fish/human hybrids that feature in Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth. Which, alright, I can see some argument, perhaps, for the reinterpretation of Lovecraft in light of modern sensibilities, except... the protagonist then just sort of turns around after several days of that same treatment and escapes with the fish thing as her at least temporary ally. Because, fuck, why not, right?
It almost seems unfair to hold it up as emblematic of the problems I'm seeing, as the major flaw that I take issue with, as is probably evident from my summary, is the shitty characterization. I mean, remember when Alan Moore was one of the most respected writers in comics?
But I really do think it sums up my problem with the modern treatment from one perspective, at least, which is to reduce Lovecraft's horror to that level of "The fish monsters are going to eat and/or rape us!" And once you're at that level, why make them Lovecraftian monsters at all, when you can swipe at the even lower hanging fruit and just make them zombies, like everyone else and their grandmother is doing nowadays? There's just nothing interesting to say there that can't just as easily be said with any other randomly selected property, which makes the Lovecraftian horror window dressing.
Basically, even if you're consciously reinterpreting the material, if you're discarding core elements of the premise to do so, you've undermined your own purpose.
And, when it comes down to it, any kind of reduction of Lovecraft down to a few simple themes really does a disservice to the breadth and power of his works. Although Lovecraft is constantly captivated by the motif of incomprehensible forces on the edge of our awareness, that ultimately are outside our control, a motif is not a theme on its own, it's only a suggestion. You can't have a theme of "Justice," for example--that's too broad and simplified. But if you expand that into a theme of the struggle between the craving for justice and the need for certainty that paralyzes a man into inaction... well, you get Hamlet, don't you?
And that's true of Lovecraft's work as well:
The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath pits an obsession so indomitable that it demands bargains with the darkest of forces in order to go toe to toe with entities that would destroy other mortals.
Pickman's Model (a personal favorite of mine) examines the seductive and perverse power that hides within the simple act of painting.
And even The Call of Cthulhu explores its theme of madness from beyond space and time in terms of its caustic influence upon civilizations, and suggests, horrifyingly, that perhaps the only true celestial power in the universe is the dead god at the bottom of the sea.
There's a lot of variance in those themes, and there's quite a bit of variance in the scale of the stories, as well. Notice how they can talk about everything from the kind of End of Humanity stories that have become so common in recent years, to stories of a struggle within a single town (The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Haunter of the Dark), a single family (The Colour Out Of Space, The Rats in the Walls), or even the struggle or corruption of a single individual (Pickman's Model, The Music of Erich Zahn, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath).
And you know, a lot of those more localized stories are Lovecraft's best, hands down! I've already mentioned that Pickman's Model is a favorite of mine, and it's not just because the titular character is an artist. No, it's also the closeness, the simplicity, the attentive detail used to convey a sense of the familiar contrasted with the alien, the debased.
It reminds me, actually, of the recent Internet phenomenon known simply as Slenderman. He's a character that draws his fundamental power from the intrusion of the horribly alien into the mundane. And in works such as Marble Hornets we are captivated primarily because the horror could be lurking anywhere. You start jumping at shadows when you watch those videos, because there's just no telling when something awful will materialize in the background. And some of Lovecraft's best material uses those sorts of closed sets to put the reader on edge as the world falls apart and disintegrates into incomprehensible hostility. That's something I think the big world-spanning conflicts, the visions of Cthulhu destroying Manhattan or whatever, lack.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of Cthulhu destroying cities...
A giant dude with a squid for a head actually isn't that scary. In fact, it's downright cuddly, apparently, as the proliferation of Cthulhu plushies and the like suggests. It's not that surprising that people should think so, though--after all, Lovecraft is scary. But the problem is, people look at Cthulhu and think Lovecraft is scary because Cthulhu is scary.
And it's actually the other way around.
Lovecraft makes Innsmouth, Cthulhu, Dagon, &c. scary because Lovecraft is terrified of the Sea, and he conveys that terror and revulsion constantly in his stories. But they only work because Lovecraft is capable of convincing us that the sea itself, the benthic deep from whence Cthulhu rises, is truly something to fear. Without that conviction that the deep level metaphors are, themselves, entities of horror, the whole project falls flat.
So, here's my final recommendation.
Stop designing Lovecraftian monsters.
Design monsters that fit what YOU think is fundamentally scary.
I mean, that fish monster you're sticking in your film/comic/poem/whatever? It's meaningless to your audience, because they've seen a thousand fish monsters before, they've seen a thousand squid monsters before, they know how this stuff works, and worst of all they know that your monster doesn't convey anything meaningful about the story you're trying to tell.
Contrast that with something like Neon Genesis Evangelion, which emphasizes the idea that the Angels that the main characters are fighting are utterly alien in nature:
Yeah, they make them what we aren't--partly geometric, partly abstract.
But, the Angels, for all that they are alien, can be disturbingly close to humanity, which leads to some deeply disturbing, nightmare-inducing scenes later on in the series. But even Ramiel, the angel shown here, already gives a preview of that disturbing humanity when he screams like he's auditioning for an industrial metal band. And that scream in the clip above isn't the worst of it--if you think that's bad, you should hear the sound it makes when it actually gets hurt.
That's a very, very human sounding scream.
See, the monster design is integrated into the story's themes, and what is ostensibly a giant fighting robot anime becomes a horror show simply due to the way those designs resonate with the audience.
And the worst part is, it's lazy, and it shows that you have disgustingly small reference pools if you just crib from Lovecraft's notes rather than exploring the staggering number of other potential sources of inspiration out there.
Like, look at this stuff:
|My sister thinks this one is cute, actually...|
|My head is a cactus. Your argument is invalid.|
And there's a whole lot more where that came from, too. Like, how about Fuseli's famous painting Nightmare:
|AAAAAaaaaoh, hey Luna.|
Er, wait, no, that's wrong...
Oh, here we go:
There's a reason that picture has been parodied from here to next Tuesday: it's frightening. It's a disturbing painting. And when confronted with terror, we giggle at the ghosties--we try to find ways to bring it back down to something manageable.
Which brings us back to Cthulhu one last time, I think. That's the state we're at with our tentacled friend--we've parodied him into something manageable. To some extent, I accept that more than I do the unironic use of the Mythos, because parody that shows that we're still afraid enough of the dead god to need to counteract our fears, whereas the mindless inclusion of Lovecraft into everything just shows a disrespect for the source material, and a cynical desire to cash in on a fad.
But we've reached the point now where enough is enough. I hate to think that for some kids their first exposure to the Lovecraftian mythos is just through the countless rehashings. That would be a shame; after all, Lovecraft's world is a dark and terrifying one, and there's something to be said for the discovery of that world in obscurity.
That's what I fear we've lost most of all--that sense of suddenly discovering the awful truth beneath the sea, the awful truth of a dark and hostile universe. It's the hushed conversations with friends as you describe in excited, faintly fearful tones the story you just read about the being that is dead but dreams all the same, the being that will return when the stars are finally right.
So, for now, let's start exploring other avenues. Let's explore where Evangelion, or Fuseli, or Redon--or the countless other myths and stories and paintings that now lay untouched by culture--can take us. Let's taste a different kind of terror for a while (preferably one that tastes a bit less like fish).
And soon, after a time, we will forget again. R'lyeh will sink beneath the waves once more and we will become complacent and content with the knowledge that we are masters of our world.
And on that day, the stars shall align.
On that day, he shall return.
For that is not dead which can eternal lie...
And with strange aeons even death may die.
You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.
EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that I repeatedly misspelled "Kadath." I sure feel like a chump now. I did, however, correctly spell "R'lyeh" from memory, so I can at least take some solace in that. It has also been pointed out to me that I am insufferable and pretentious. That one's going to take a bit longer to fix, but we're working on it, folks, we're working on it.