Friday, February 12, 2016

Cthulhu in My Mind

by Jean Roberta

Calls for submissions for themed spec-fic/erotic anthologies have sent me back to reread books I first read many years ago, and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the “classics.” In the last few years, I’ve been amazed at the number of editors who have asked for stories in the imaginary worlds of Lewis Carroll, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, and traditional ballads by Anonymous -- not to mention Tolkienesque calls for stories about elves in forests.

When I went looking for Jules Verne’s mid-nineteenth-century French novels in English translation, I found a drastic discrepancy between adventure stories aimed at a Young Adult market, and more-or-less contemporary translations that not only foreshadow modern technology in a way that now looks uncanny, but which include droll humour and social satire. When I have a spare moment, I intend to keep looking for the most accurate translations I can find.



I am now deep in the misty grey New England of H.P. Lovecraft as the deadlines for several (not just one) calls-for-submissions are swiftly approaching. (The calls are listed at the end of this post.) I bought an excellent used paperback, The Best of H.P. Lovecraft, on Amazon, but now I would like to have the Complete Works, even if I can’t read them all by the end of this month. I found a Complete Works for a very reasonable price on Amazon, but I was told that none of the used copies could be sent to me from the U.S. I’m wondering if some eldritch supernatural force is preventing this book from crossing the Canadian border.

Lovecraft was born in 1890 and died in 1937 (too young, as you can see), but he wrote a substantial number of horror stories, plus several short novels, in the 1920s and 30s. His stories incorporate several gothic tropes, including the evil power of rare, outlawed books on “blasphemous” topics. Probably the best-known of these old, leather-bound volumes (which never existed in the real world) is the Necronomicon, written by a “mad Arab,” and presumably preserved to the present day in various private collections.

Here, in the opening passage of a long story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is a characteristic warning about dangerous knowledge:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

So far, I haven’t found any explicitly Christian messages in Lovecraft’s stories, but every story implies the existence of forbidden knowledge that the too-curious seek out at their peril. Mind-control (very close to demonic possession) by alien beings happens a lot in these stories, along with hints of an ancient religion involving cannibalism which has survived in the form of a secret cult.

Apparently Lovecraft had all the prejudices of his time, and his sympathetic characters are all white men with English-sounding names who are horrified to discover monsters beyond “civilization” as they know it. All this should seem more dated and cheesy than it does.

How does Lovecraft, barely emerged from the Victorian Age, and a forerunner of the script-writers of the 1950s horror movies that now make us laugh, still manage to cast a spell? The narration is part of the trick. Most of the stories involve articles and letters sent from eye-witnesses to skeptical narrators who are inclined to disbelieve what they read until they have proof, which arrives in some tangible form.

Part of the trick is Lovecraft’s way of implying that some of the looming horror is so far beyond the human ability to perceive that it is simply indescribable. In “The Colour Out of Space,” a meteorite lands on an isolated farm, and affects the land so much that all the flowers, fruit and vegetables that grow in it have colours that no one has ever seen before, and of course they are poisonous to eat. The concept of an indescribable colour is not unbelievable. Actual birds of prey (eagles, hawks, falcons) are said to have better eyesight than humans, with an ability to see a wider range of the light spectrum which we perceive as the colours we know.

Lovecraft’s aliens are much more alien than the various humanoid races in any of the Star Trek series, and they all come from unexplored depths in the ocean or from underground caves, where they have lived for millennia after arriving from a distant planet. Even if these strange beings in inhuman bodies are really stand-ins for the “aliens” in Lovecraft’s actual world (women, “people of colour,” non-Christians), how do we know what might be living in unexplored spaces?

I don’t know whether I can ever write something set in that milieu, but it’s an interesting challenge.

Here is a link for Inclusive Cthulhu: https://duotrope.com/listing/18388

Here is a link for stories based on the Lovecraft story "The Cats of Ulthar" (available on-line): https://horrortree.com/taking-submissions-kill-those-damn-cats-2/

6 comments:

  1. We actually own a copy of "the dreaded Necronomicon". My DH won it as a door prize at a Walpurgis party in San Francisco many years ago.

    I recently reread some of my Lovecraft (he was a guilty pleasure shared between my dad and me). Surprising how well it holds up.

    Meanwhile, if anyone wants to read a pretty faithful parody, check out my tale The Shadow over Des Moines. Written in response to an ERWA theme prompt, many years ago!

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  2. I would love to read "the dreaded Necronomicon!" (I'd be willing to take my chances of being driven mad.) Was it written by a fan, or as a version of some old grimoire?

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  3. It's common knowledge that the Catholic Church kept wisdom from the people. They claim that they 'preserved' that knowledge for mankind during the 'dark ages'. The more likely scenario is that hoarding the knowledge is what caused the dark ages in the first place. Imagine? Dangerous theories around, suggesting we live in a heliocentric solar system? We live on a round earth? Why, that would sure shoot the shit out of the heaven-up, hell-down theory. ;>)

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  4. When I still owned a pair of college town stores, we carried both The Necromonicon" (I forget the author and publisher) and a tarot deck based on it. I kind of regret now that I never got around to actually reading it, although one of my sons may have a copy around somewhere. My older son and his wife are fans of Lovecraft, with 'MIskatonic U" car stickers and Cthulu Christmas tree ornaments, and one year I gave him Cthulu slippers complete with tentacles for Christmas. My granddaughter has been growing up taking Cthulu toys as much for granted as her mother's collection of Godzillas. She's ten now, and reading voraciously, but I expect she'll turn up her nose at Lovecraft as being for old fogies.

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  5. Awesome post, Jean! I am always here for some Lovecraft! And thanks so much for the pointer to Inclusive Cthulhu. It makes me so happy that this project exists.

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