The Improbable, Inevitable Domestication of the Great Old Ones: HP Lovecraft’s Iconic Influence on 21st-Century Fantastic Literature and Culture

by on Sep 6, 2011 in Nonfiction | 1 comment

by John H. Stevens

“Monsters are fabulous at getting our attention.” — Pamela Coles

“Why are games about Cthulhu so much fun?” — Steve Jackson Games’ Cthulhu product website.

Cthulhu_and_R'lyehIn his introduction to The Strange Sound of Cthulhu: Music Inspired by the Writings of H. P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi proclaimed that “[i]t is a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft’s universal appeal that he can elicit praise” and attention from a wide range of sources. “Clearly, different readers draw different types of nourishment from Lovecraft, and this diversity appeal [sic] augurs well for his survival….” The proliferation of the image of Cthulhu and the use of Lovecraftian ideas and tropes in all sorts of popular culture-expressions seem to substantiate Joshi’s contention that Lovecraft’s creations possess a catholic appeal. The question is: what is the nature of that appeal? What is it about Lovecraft’s work, and particularly the figure of Cthulhu, that makes it so popular for all sorts of widespread appropriation decades after the death of this eccentric, self-described “pulphound?”

As Joshi notes, the mytho-apocalyptic creations of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have infiltrated many areas of popular culture, sometimes as aesthetic sensibility, sometimes as quasi-totemic, commoditized symbols. Lovecraft’s creations have been fertile ground for germinating a profusion of productions, from comic horror novels to cuddly plush doll Cthulhus, from games of all sorts to lollipops. To catalog and discuss every iteration of Lovecraft across numerous popular and literary forms and cultures is a book-length project (which has been attempted at least once, in Don Smith’s uneven H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture: The Works and Their Adaptations in Film, Television, Comics, Music and Games) and may not be possible (or even fruitful) to fully describe. But the Mythos, codified and kept alive after his demise, has an undeniable cultural presence that cannot be completely grasped, only pursued and pieced together like the unearthly influence of creatures gathered beyond the veil of our reality, obliquely and incompletely.

Lovecraft’s storyworld seems like a counterintuitive choice for such a range of cultural influence; it is nihilistic, esoteric, and often hyperbolically grotesque and sublime. Layers of ontological unknowability, hordes of bizarre abominations, and a cast of deranged, obsessed, and unlikable characters abound in his stories. Lovecraft sometimes projected disconcerting biases, from a peculiar brand of elitism to outright racism, into his work. And, most obviously, the stories are about vast, alien entities that will one day storm into our world and annihilate life as we know it, and prepare the way for that invasion by haunting our consciousness. Such a milieu of cosmic horror, looming and inexorable, seems like poor fodder for toys and cartoons, novels and video games, yet qualities both external to and intrinsic in the tales open up the corpus to reproduction and create conditions for play and pleasure to be generated.

In general, the gradual decoupling of the creator from his ideas, and the odd history of his works’ copyright status, create opportunities for co-optation. Cthulhu and his fellow Great Old Ones can be incorporated into new stories and products in ways that exceed the original works’ parameters, a practice that Lovecraft himself encouraged. Many authors did, and still do, borrow from Lovecraft, and it is this precedent for reinterpretation that sets the stage for the broadening of Lovecraft’s “appeal.” It is a confluence of opportunity and the simulation of specific characteristics rather than some inherent universalism that encourages and renders meaningful Lovecraftian themes, symbols and metaphors for broader cultural adaptation.

Lovecraft’s work was kept alive not just in the stories he told, but in the growing shared universe that was created in his wake. August Derleth, Lin Carter, Donald Wandrei, and many others promoted and reprinted Lovecraft even as they contributed to a flourishing corpus of tales inspired by his writings. Lovecraft’s coalescing legend was foundational in the creation of the publishing company Arkham House, and grew beyond that as more writers discovered his work, its variegated offspring, and the laudatory missives of the Lovecraft Circle. In those early years, not only was Lovecraft’s work being gathered and codified, it was explicitly put forth as a storyworld that could be reworked and imitated, one with greater depths and literary potential than its pulp beginnings could contain.

It is this conceit, this intertwined shift in both reading protocols and in textual refashioning, that elevates the Lovecraftian corpus to a more significant and interpretable level. His stories are no longer “mere” pulp or obscure, tortured prose; they are rich in fantastical possibility and contain themes that are construed as uncomplicated, powerful, and reproducible, simplified in the Mythos by Derleth and able to be reused as individual creators saw fit. “Cthulhu Mythos” became a shorthand not just for such borrowings but for a discrete subgenre of horror/fantasy fusion literature that expanded over time.

With that development came more critical attention to Lovecraft; talking about his work as significant became as important as reprinting his stories and penning new works based on them. The continuous process of both promoting and codifying Lovecraft’s body of work began in the fanzines, and was built upon by authors like Fritz Lieber “focusing on genre position and structural matters, the symbolism of Lovecraft’s self-styled pantheon…” as noted in The Reader’s Guide to Literature in English Criticism became an arena of contention, with some academics dismissing Lovecraft while writers and fans were elaborating the import and abundance of meanings in his work. The goal was simple, according to John W. Anderson: “The original aim of Lovecraftian studies was to promote an appreciation of Lovecraft’s art to a wider audience.” This trend accelerated with the attentions of S. T. Joshi and the creation (often by Joshi) of a more scholarly critical community and forums such as Lovecraft-focused periodicals and later websites, which further opened up Lovecraft’s storyworld to exegesis.

Fans, critics, publishers, and authors found large amounts of fiction and criticism to engage, not only creating more status for Lovecraft’s work, but more complexity and diversity of perspective, and more moments of identification for readers of all persuasions. This led to the proliferation not just of positive standpoints, but of critical contestations, divergences, rejections, and other subjective imaginings. Lovecraft’s work not only got more attention, it also got more types of attention, and as more people were exposed to these perspectives it became socially and discursively contextualized in the larger field of literary cultural production, and became transposable to other media (such as music).

People found that the material could be played with, and rendered pleasurable when assimilated into different media and cultural forms. These two characteristics were explicitly combined in the 1981 role-playing game The Call of Cthulhu. Players took on the role of Investigators trying to discover more about the Mythos and the threat (or in some cases promise of awful power) it presented. The game bucked a trend toward maintaining characters for long-term usage with the innovation of “Sanity checks,” a mechanism that tracked the descent of characters into madness and, eventually, rendered them useless. Given that most RPGs in the early era were designed to maximize the longevity of characters and provide broad opportunities for character action, this design aspect points to the symbolic power of the Mythos to reshape ideas concerning what is pleasurable. Play was bounded by the specific limitations of the Mythos, and players accepted that as a challenge.

The play was not just some leisurely applications of ideas; it was increasingly ludic, incorporating tropes and terms into usages that exceeded the frame of casual play. The experience of Lovecraft in music, role-playing, fan fiction, discussions, brought echoes and shadows of his ideas into wider discourse and provided new ways to have conversations, ways to think about the world, to make fun of it, to misperceive it, to re-envision it. Lovecraft’s work did not become universal so much as it became destabilized and modular, its textuality opened up, the criteria for its consideration more dissonant and flexible. Yet, even when kitschy or casual, the challenge of Lovecraft’s perspective had to be addressed, and only by playing with it could it be apprehended and assimilated.

Assimilation through play, however, has come to overpower challenge in the uses of Lovecraft, and particularly Cthulhu, in other popular culture expressions. I think that the ever-growing series of plush doll Cthulhus (and other Lovecraftian creatures) makes this point sharply, and fills in more of the iconic picture. Cuddly cosmic nightmares can be simultaneously a sort of “deep play” and an ironic or satirical dismissal of the implications of Lovecraft’s work. The fabricated embodiment of the monstrous into a toy inverts the implications of Cthulhu as a figure and the storyworld he comes from, resisting the idea of cosmic horror and human insignificance by transforming a well-known literary symbol of unstoppable doom and unfathomable power into an object of child’s play. It also replicates and actively stimulates a response that diminishes the philosophical implications of Lovecraft’s ideas, a rejection of the monstrous and the unfathomable by mass-producing a symbol of those qualities as a harmless toy that can be laughed at, worn on a keychain, and used as an identity marker by genre fans, gamers, and geeks.

What this activity also points to is an ambivalence about Lovecraft and his work, and about the essential points his work makes. What Michael Dirda called “a spiritual vertigo” inherent in Lovecraft’s writings becomes ameliorated the farther away one gets from the literature itself. His themes of alienation, of powerlessness in the grand scheme of the universe, and even of obsessive tenacity in the face of those things (and their subliminal, grotesque embodiment into things) are diluted when turned into objects of temporary leisure or into jejune commodities. In the passage of time, the promiscuous appropriation of his creations and now Lovecraft’s canonization into the American literary firmament, some of the weirdness and danger is culturally softened. Becoming an icon, a representation that can be used to create not just likeness but signify qualities beyond the image, has taken some of the horror out of Lovecraft.

When Daniel Handler reviewed the Library of America volume of Lovecraft’s Tales for the New York Times in 2005, for example, he talked about the ridiculousness of Lovecraft’s attempts at the sublime: “…it’s tough to venture into a Lovecraft story with a straight face, let alone with chattering teeth.” The deeper he read into the Tales, however, the more effective they became for him. It appears that the more he allowed himself to be subsumed by the stories, to put aside preconceptions and experience the narratives in a concentrated dose, the stronger Lovecraft’s original messages affected him. The less mediated the engagement, the more immersion he had into the original texts, the clearer the specific power of the stories was to him. This is not to say that there aren’t ridiculous aspects to Lovecraft, but what cultural objective is achieved by foregrounding that aspect of his work, rather than the philosophical conundrums he posits, cloaked as they are in archaic, repetitive, pulpy language?

There is a strange comfort in many of Lovecraft’s uses in popular culture produced by this combination of ambivalence and foregrounding. While sometimes his inspiration is put to serious ends, such as in the new philosophical discourse of speculative realism and in the fiction of writers such as Laird Barron (to name one of many), more often than not it is a flavoring added to a recipe of diversion. The ludic aspects of the cultural embrace of Lovecraft lose some of their power in the commoditized popularization of the Lovecraft-as-icon, of Cthulhu as just a scary monster whose implications can be neutralized by reproduction as a stuffed animal or creature.

There is a point at which we can dismiss his overblown, unknowable horrors, dismiss them as we do so many other things out of our control, make fun of it without cost, reproduce the image of Cthulhu and mimic the reverberations of Lovecraft’s cosmic craziness in our imaginations, where all sorts of things creep that we cannot fully control, that insinuate thoughts not unlike those aliens just outside our “real world.” There is a point at which we might desire that dismissal to be not just possible, but inevitable. The frequent attempts to satirize–and take some of the edge off of–the implications of his writing and its ideas can condition us to accept those as the cultural standard for understanding Lovecraft. The cavalcade of appropriations, the distancing from his original message, the distorted echoes of his symbols, filter our absorption of his ideas and can render them into harmless entertainments.

This is a very human thing to do, and partly emerges from the way our minds work. Lovecraft was quite aware of this: as he wrote in the opening of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” We certainly don’t want to spend our days dwelling on all of the things we cannot control, all of the forces that exist outside of our skin that we sometimes have no ability to resist. By so broadly making a commodity of Lovecraft and his creations, however, I wonder if we are trying a bit too hard not to “correlate all its contents.” As David McWilliams put it in his review of Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum at Strange Horizons: “Like an appalling, oozing, scheming, malevolent, amorphous entity of ancient origins and nameless powers it [the Mythos] continues to howl under a gibbous moon, summoning new legions of devotees.” But is this because of Lovecraft’s domestication, or because there are understandings in his work that we have yet to uncover and ponder?

John H. Stevens is a writer, bookseller, reviewer/critic and anthropologist. He has a weekly column at SF Signal and contributes to the Apex blog. He also has his own blog at jhstevens.wordpress.com. When he is not selling books or being outwitted by his precocious daughter he is working on a novel, a non-fiction collection, and sundry other writing projects, or he’s reading.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for finally talking about >The Improbable, Inevitable Domestication of the Great Old Ones: HP Lovecrafts Iconic Influence on 21st-Century Fantastic Literature and Culture – Apex Magazine <Liked it!

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