"World Without Man", #NOLIVESMATTER, Aquaman, “weirdly horrible tale”, Comics, Coon and Friends, Cthulhu, Edgar Allen Poe, Essay, graphic novel, H.P. Lovecraft, horror, humanity, Literature, Memes, Mighty Max, N., Novella, Quarren, Robot Chicken, Short Story, South Park, Stephen King, Supernatural Horror in Literature, tentacle, The Call of Cthulhu, The Old Gods, The Other, The Tell-Tale Heart
After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight. (58).
The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft
I will admit that while there are some Cthulhu memes that I find really funny, I’ve always been detached when reading them. I laugh at the recognition that Cthulhu is a figure in popular culture that is somehow gaining more and more traction, but without having read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s actual work it seems hard to appreciate the humor of it. There are some exceptions to this.
For example, when South Park did the Coon and Friends storyline it was hysterical when Mint-Berry Crunch defeated the Old God by firing Mint-Berries at him and thus saving humanity from Eric Cartman, who for the record seems far more evil that Cthulhu could ever dream of being. The other popular culture reference that I immediately hop to is the Robot Chicken appearance when the Old God has an appearance on Oprah Winfey as promotion for his Presidential campaign. He eventually kills Oprah by devouring her soul, but he makes up for it by wearing her face and giving away cars to everybody in the audience. Another example, and one of my favorites as the new Justice League movie approaches, is the one of Aquaman riding the Old God’s head and chanting out “I useless, they said! I have stupid powers, they said!” As a long-time apologist for Aquaman reading this was particularly validating.
I could go on and on with these reference, but only one more is necessary to explain my own connection to Cthulhu and it may be fascinating to observe that it came to me through my grandfather. Elbert Smith made sure of two things during his life. The first was making sure no grandchild of his would ever have to bear his own name, he was adamant about that fact, and the second was making sure that I had every Mighty Max that was ever manufactured. Whether it was Temple of Venom, Skull Dungeon, or that one with the Cyclops that I purposefully wouldn’t play with because it legitimately gave me nightmares (giant octopus eyeball creature…nuff said), there was one of them in particular that was shaped by a shark and lead by a villain known as the Man Eater. He wore an electric neon yellow robe that stopped around his waist and the top of his head was a sharp point that I would sometimes try and use as a toothpick. It helps to remember that I was six or seven at the time, but what really fascinated me about this character was his face. He was a squid and so four long tentacles formed his mouth making him look like a Quarren from STAR WARS, his legs were nothing but a lump of tentacles, in his right hand he held a black trident, and he has two pupiless purple eyes that seemed to stare into the depth of your soul.
I wouldn’t realize it until years later but the Man Eater was in fact a Lovecraftian anthropomorphic imagining.
Lovecraft himself remains a bit of an enigma, not because there is much of his life that scholars and readers don’t know about, but criticism of his work in general is really in its infancy. Born Howard Philips Lovecraft in 1890, the man would live most of his life in obscurity since he never published more than one or two short works of fiction during his lifetime. Lovecraft, much like the Dutch Painter Vermeer, would be appreciated long after he was actually dead and you could make the argument that the man has achieved a kind of rebirth as his works have inspired new generations of writers, artists, Table-Top Role Playing Game developers, and even just casual readers. One of these said writers would be Stephen King, the man who inspired me to start writing in the first place.
I’ll admit that I purposefully avoided Lovecraft, not because I didn’t want to know more about his work, but because after watching the film Hostel, and suffering from a two-year mental recovery, I largely dropped Horror from my reading and viewing habits. There was the added effect that most of my friends were Lovecraft fans and I will always avoid anything that is hyped too much. I finally decided however, with Halloween approaching, that I would at least sit down and finally read the story that helped establish his aesthetic as something culturally relevant.
The Call of Cthulhu is but one of the many Cthulhu narratives Lovecraft wrote during his lifetime, but it remains one of the most important for it clearly lays out the image of the creature and the mythology which surrounds it. The story is written in the first person perspective, a narrative structure Lovecraft often employed in his writings, and the protagonist appears to be a young writer or journalist hoping at first to find some bubble reputation by writing the story about a series of supernatural occurrences centered around some being called Cthulhu. The man in question has inherited the collected papers of his Great-uncle, and during his sorting of the paperwork he discovers a locked box which, once opened, reveals his uncles notes which describe a series of persons and events. Contained within it is a bas relief containing hieroglyphics and an image of a monstrous creature which he describes:
It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacle head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background. (35-6).
And thus the arresting image begins, and millions of t-shirt manufacturer careers were born.
It’s not unrealistic to suggest that this is an arresting image, for it’s important to remember that, despite his lack of success while living, Lovecraft was working largely as a foundational writer. Later authors like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Ray Bradbury would all be influenced in some form or fashion by the man’s aesthetic, and the defining image of Lovecraft is the tentacle-faced monster. Much like Edgar Allen Poe and his ravens, the octopus/squid creature embodies the impression of Lovecraft and that’s largely because tentacles tend to unnerve human beings. It’s not just the anatomical differences, the tentacles suggest something more. Much like the eyeball creature in that Mighty-Max that gave me nightmares, the intense Other quality of the anatomy suggests something known only in dreams, or nightmares. Tentacles hint at the unknown.
This is especially important for Lovecraft, because in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he begins with an important observation:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuiness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. (1).
This last idea, that the “weirdly horrible tale” is a valid literary form, wasn’t novel when Lovecraft wrote it and in fact this argument still exists to this day. I noticed when I was going through college, both as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, that the writing of Stephen King was largely looked upon either with curiosity or suspicion. Some professors would hold out on the man, wondering if he possessed any merit or warrant of academic inspection, while others admitted that they would be interested in the man but they had never read any of his material. For the record I read a total of one book by Stephen King: the first of the Dark Tower series for a course over the American Gothic. Horror as a genre is similar in many ways to Heavy Metal in that both groups tend to have a devoted (some might suggest obsessional) following by fans, both deal freely and unapologetically in grotesqueness, and both are largely spurned by the society which entertains it. I do believe this is largely because many critics observe the darkness expressed, and mistake that fascination for fondness or sympathy.
Before this essay turns into an apology for Heavy Metal and Horror at large, I want to briefly return to Lovecraft’s Old Gods before I turn my attention to Stephen King. In The Call of Cthulhu Lovecraft establishes his aesthetic of ancient beings threatening humanity when a French police officer and his men discover a gathering of black voodoos performing a pagan ceremony around a statue of the Old God and the narrator explains these creatures:
They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young would out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets to dreams to the first men, who formed the cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.
[…] Mankind was not absolutely alone among the conscious things of earth, for shapes came out of the dark to visit the faithful few. But these were not the Great Old Ones. No man had ever seen the Old Ones. The carven idol was great Cthulhu, but none might say whether or not the others were precisely like him. No-one could read the old writing now, but things were told by word of mouth. (46-7).
Later on it’s further explained why these beings no longer live alongside mankind:
They all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. (47).
And finally, because it is a “weird horrible tale,” there has to be some foreboding:
But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious surrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them. (47).
Of course by the end of the story Cthulhu escapes from his stone prison but is repelled back into his slumber, but I want to explore this notion of “Old Gods” because this is an important idea that, as I wrote before, became an important influence on Stephen King, an author who inspired me to start writing. My friend Kyle Bellis helped me with this article, long before I ever had any intention of writing about H.P. Lovecraft, by explaining the Old Gods are not malevolently evil in the way human beings can be. His metaphor was concise and illuminating. The Old Gods are like human beings walking through a field stepping on ants. When we walk we’re not aware that we’re crushing the ants, we just don’t see them, recognize them, or largely care about them.
This is a horrifying thought, for as I explored this idea in the essay about The Tell-Tale Heart only recently, the “World Without Men” bothers us as a species because we’ve become used to the idea that we are the center of creation. The notion of the Old Gods is horrific, not just because they’re grotesque creatures in physiology, but because they are of a time when human beings did not exist and so they possess knowledge of reality that surpasses us.
But I wanted to discuss Stephen King before the end. About a month ago I checked out from the Tyler Public Library a graphic novelization of one of King’s novellas simply titled N. I thought it would be a nice little read between the heavy tomes in my large stack (I’m reading Infinite Jest and The Bully Pulpit so this isn’t just flowery diction on my part) and so it was. The story is of a wife who mails her cousin a box of papers belonging to her husband, a psychiatrist who has recently killed himself. The reason for his demise was a patient, named simply N., who discovers a cluster of stone in a field in rural Maine. He saw the stones and immediately became aware that he felt he was standing over a doorway into a different dimension and one of the stones bore a name; Cthun. The patient describes how counting numbers has become a compulsion and how specific numbers are good while others are bad. N. eventually commits suicide and Dr. John Bonsaint, curious and compelled by forces outside his control, visits the sight, and becomes yet another victim of the ancient place. Johnney’s wife sends the box to her cousin Charlie, a newspaper reporter, before she also commits suicide, and like the previous victims Charlie is compelled to visit the place, feel it’s power, and write an article about it before returning to the stones where he finds a group of curious readers and kills them all before killing himself.
The graphic novel N. is incredible, though I note that, had I not taken any initiative to do any reading about Stephen King’s influences this book might have seemed his usual stuff. There is always an old, hungry creature or creatures in King’s novels and short stories and novellas which pose a threat to the protagonist or their family, and while the sheer bulk of the man’s work makes it easy to dismiss this consistency as unoriginality, I’ll argue that King’s working and exploring an idea which is seemingly endless.
Human beings fear the unknown, and the Old Gods embody the idea of knowledge that human beings will never possess. Ultimately that desire to know destroys the protagonists, for like the characters in N. the nameless narrator ends his short story foreseeing his own doom:
That was the document I read, and now I placed it in the tin box beside the bas-relief and the papers of Professor Angell. With it shall go this record of mine—this test of my own sanity, wherin in pieced together that which I hope may never be pieced together again. I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me. But I do not think my life will be long. As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so shall I go. I know too much, and the cult still lives.
What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive the manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye. (60).
Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft have become cartoons to the society that has read their work, and while on some level laughter is always dismissive, this parody of the aesthetic reveals a real fear. The old metaphor is “whistling past the graveyard” and I believe this is apt. The reader knows and wills into being the idea that the passages and images their seeing cannot possibly be real because it’s just fiction and fiction is just made-up stuff, pure imagination. The only problem here is philosophy. The reason I stopped watching horror films after watching Hostel was because the film was based on an actual supposed business based in Thailand where, for $10,000, you could shoot somebody in the head. I felt sick with humanity after watching the movie because art imitates life and vice versa. While the images were just a made-up story, there was still an element of truth and fact behind them. While the torture-porn brand of horror might leave a more recognizable terror, the fear of the unknown will surpass fear of other human beings because it is rooted in biology. Human beings fear the Old Gods because the originators of the species feared the beasts that would hunt at night and so as they evolved humans naturally selected those that kept that fear alive because it maintained survival.
This is not a suggestion that giant tentacle faced monsters actually exist, for it is fiction, but Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has lasted and captured the imaginations of readers and writers for its unique horror. Rather than simply show horrible people performing horrible atrocities on other human beings, and rather than simply show giant insects or other arthropod monsters destroying cities, the image of Cthulhu leaves the reader with a much deeper impression because it’s impossible to easily shake off.
When Inspector Lafitte’s men interrupt the “Voodoo orgy” there is a brief estimation of the statue of Cthulhu they worshipped:
They said it had been there before D’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods. It was nightmare itself, and to see it was to die. But it made men dream, and so they knew enough to keep away. (44).
Lovecraft uses the word “Before” four times and there is finally the most chilling reality of the horror Cthulhu is supposed to inspire. It’s not enough that his escape will bring about the end of humanity, it’s the fact that this nightmare preceded man, who is supposed to be the center of creation. If there were beings before time and history and reality, what does that say about humanity? Perhaps it means that human beings aren’t important after all, and all of humanity’s efforts and creations are for naught. It could mean humans aren’t even necessary for creation at all, and at any moment we might just stop existing period.
Cthulhu won’t stop appearing on t-shirts anytime soon, but neither will he stop appearing in the dreams of men, anxious of the hungry noises he, and the rest of the resting deities, might unearth in the infancy of time and reality.
All Quotes from The Call of Cthulhu was taken from The Whiperer in Darkness a collection published by Wordsworth Editions. All quotes from Supernatural Horror in Literature came from H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horrors published by Barnes & Noble Books.
If the reader is at all interested in more information on Lovecraft himself they would be remiss if they didn’t follow the link below which provides biography, lists of books and documentaries, tracks Lovecraft’s impact on popular culture, pages explaining his creations, and contact information for anyone interested in Lovecraft studies. It helped me tremendously while writing this article.
I’d also recommend this article about Lovecraft’s lasting impact on culture, as well as his influence on the writing of Stephen King:
I’ve also decided to go ahead and post the Robot Chicken video of Cthulhu because, despite my moaning, it is legitimately funny:
This doesn’t really have any point or reason behind it, I just thought it was fucking hysterical because, I would totally watch the shit out of this movie: