The Time Machine and the Myth of Progress

The Myth of Progress

“Progress” is a word filled to bursting with meaning. It conjures up the idea of forward motion in time, but not just idle motion. Progress means improvement; it means striving towards a goal. While this may mean inching along towards the completion of a task, or towards victory in a video game, it can also refer to entire societies. Cultures progress from an undesirable past towards a desirable future, from barbarism to civilization. Attached to that shade of meaning are ideas of movement from authoritarianism to freedom, from inequality to egalitarianism, from injustice to justice, and from want to plenty. Progress is good, in a way that has moral connotations.

In an odd historical quirk, this progressive social and political outlook was coming into vogue at about the same time as Darwin’s theory of evolution was becoming well entrenched in the scientific establishment, and taking the popular imagination by storm. Just as technology, democracy, and scientific exploration seemed to urge us forward into a brighter future, we were greeted with a mental picture of life evolving from slime, to primitive creatures, to reptiles, to rodent-like mammals, then to primates, and finally into man. Not only did society seem to progress, so did biological life itself. And, holding these two parallel narratives at the same time, progress took on an aura of inevitability.

While it is not the purpose of this project to investigate how these things came to be, it is worth pointing out just how startlingly new this perspective was. Classical philosophy as well as most Christian theology up to that point were based on the assumption of an unchanging natural order. The Creator had designed all things in particular ways, for particular purposes. For things to alter their innate natures was not progress in any sense, but a twisting, a perversion—unnatural. Certainly a great deal of freedom existed for things acting in accordance with their nature, but to actually deviate from one’s nature was not freedom, but self-destruction.

It seems odd to call this classical view “conservative.” It may often demand that things change when the unnatural has become the norm. However, in contrast to the progressive narrative of continuous change, of constant movement, it certainly merits that label. In a very real sense, it is the philosophy which believes there are things worth conserving—that sitting still does not always mean stagnation. Of course, this only makes sense in contrast to progressivism. In other contexts, such philosophical views might call for another name entirely.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these twin notions of social progress and biological evolution were very much on the public’s midn. As this new philosophy arose, H. G. Wells was quick to take threads from it and weave them into a haunting little myth called The Time Machine. As it frequently does, the plot devices of science fiction allowed an able author to explore deep philosophical issues. In particular, Wells illuminated the gulf between the world that biological evolution implied, and the world progressivism hoped for.

The Time Machine

As in The Island of Doctor Moreau, our protagonist is a scientist. When the story begins, we observe him at a dinner party, explaining to fellow-scientists and other interested parties that time is merely another dimension, and sufficiently advanced technology should enable us to move through that dimension as easily as we control our movements through the other three. He declares that he has built a machine capable of doing this, and in a week’s time appears at a second dinner party, where he recounts his journey.

The Time Traveler’s first journey takes him some eight hundred thousand years into the future, to a world that would be perfectly at home in an episode of Star Trek’s original series. The paradisiacal landscape, drastically changed by the passage of time and changing climate from the land the Traveler called home, is inhabited by a race of small people. The two sexes of this miniature race are hardly distinguishable, and neither is imbued with a great deal of strength or cunning. Though clearly adults, they possess a childlike quality, and enjoy a carefree existence. Over the course of the book, the Time Traveler forms a series of theories about how mankind has evolved into these gentle creatures, who call themselves “Eloi.”

At first, he is quite surprised by them. They seem rather foolish, and though they live in magnificent, advanced buildings, they seem incapable of maintaining them, and entirely devoid of general curiosity. These are hardly the advanced, highly evolved humans he expected to meet.

‘It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!’

The Time Traveler had expected humanity to progress into a communist utopia wherein complete mastery over creation would enable mankind to live a life of ease and comfort. But a life of ease and comfort does not call for strength or wit. All those great survival instincts of man, unused in a world of total security, had atrophied. In its old age, the human race had become feeble.

Already this reasonable and seemingly obvious deduction has disabused our protagonist of traditional notions of progress. Successful progress is not necessarily permanent, and evolution need not always follow a forward path. This theory is itself put to the test not long after, however, when the Time Machine goes missing. The Traveler is now stranded in that distant era, with no clear way of escape. He had hoped to find a society of people more advanced than himself, and now he is trapped in a world of particularly uninspired, unintelligent children.

It soon becomes clear that the thieves are a second race descended from what was once humanity. These creatures are monstrous and apelike, dwelling deep in the underground darkness. Pursing them into their labyrinthine tunnels, he discovers all the machinery which must have once enabled them to build the advanced structures on the planet’s surface. Confronted with these facts, he forms a new theory.

Rather than class distinctions passing away with the dawn of a new communist utopia, what if they only deepened? The upper classes led a progressively easier existence on the surface, while the working classes labored deep underground. This radical difference in lifestyles, which he notes already exists to some extent in his own industrial age, split the species in two over the passing eons, the master race becoming weak and pampered as the slave race become bestial.

Again, the idea of perpetual forward progress is undermined. Though technology may have advanced for some unknown length of time, it eventually failed as neither the manual labor nor the pampered beneficiaries of their work remembered quite how to maintain or operate the machinery. Furthermore, society itself had never really improved, clinging always to the same old injustices that had plagued humanity throughout its existence.

Finally, not long after, the Time Traveler discovers the true relationship of the subterranean Morlocks to the terrestrial Eloi. At some point in the distant past, these apelike children of the underclasses had run out of food, and had begun to feast on the flesh of the Eloi. The surface-dwelling species does not exist independently of the troglodytes below. Having used fellow man as a resource, they have themselves become a resource.

Instinctively horrified by this revelation, he tries to rationalize it away. After all, there is more distance between the two species, and between himself and either of them, than there is between as civilized Briton of the nineteenth century and the cannibals of the same era. It is not true man-eating, merely one species raising another as livestock.

His attempt at rationalization fails. He cannot help but see this far end of humanity’s history as a descent back into barbarism. This is primarily because of his close friendship with one of the still humanlike Eloi—a female named Weena. She has been his constant companion for some time, and he has begun to think of the place in which he lives with her as home. As he contemplates the dark secrets lying beneath the earth, she dances innocently nearby. His sympathies are decidedly with the Eloi.

But this is no fairy tale, either for humanity or for Weena. On a journey back from his explorations of the Morlock’s dwellings, they are surrounded in the woods by the cave-men. The Time Traveler starts a fire to ward them off, which quickly grows out of control. In that conflagration, many of the Morlocks are lost, but so is Weena. He rushes back “home” alone.

Once there, he sees one of the strange buildings which were formerly locked lying open. Inside is his time machine. Clearly the Morlocks are using it as bait for him, but he doesn’t care. He rushes in, activates the machine, and leaps forward through time, barely escaping the grasp of the predatory Morlocks, and the horror and disappointment of the era in which he had so long been trapped.

As he moves forward, thirty million years into the future and beyond, no great race arises to replace fallen man. All the varied vegetation of that age degenerates into simple lichens, and enormous crabs chase giant butterflies across the earth—some of the last living species. Slowly the planet achieves tidal lock with the sun, one side eternally facing it, and one side facing the darkness of space. Life grows stranger, more primitive, and begins to die out. Not only has sentience faded away, not only is life passing from the earth, but in the swelling of the sun he foresees the death of the planet itself. Forward motion does not mean progress. It often means death.

Distressed, he rushes back, past the giant crustaceans, past the Eloi and Morlocks, back to his own era. There he stumbles into the dinner party, tells his story, and presents as evidence a few flowers Weena put in his pocket. Those two flowers, the narrator suggests, represent a single simple fact. This narrator contemplates that fact later, after the restless Time Traveler disappears once more, his destination unknown, never to return.

“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of men.”

Debunking the Myth of Progress

Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the best, whether the strongest and smartest, or the kindest. As convenient as that narrative might be for progressives, it simply does not arise from the theory of evolution.

Survival of the fittest means the survival of those best equipped to pass on their genes in a given environment. This may certainly mean the strongest and the smartest, the most able to master their environment. A rabbit, however, passes on his genes just as effectively as any predator or intelligent omnivore in the same ecosystem. Simply breeding quickly is favored as much by evolution as anything we might call progress.

In fact, if a situation changes rapidly, the attributes which gave one species strength in the previous era might mean nothing in the era that follows it. A polar bear might be the apex predator of the Arctic, but would be hard-pressed to survive in the heat of the tropics. A frog is better equipped to survive in that environment. A giant squid survives well enough in the salty depths of the ocean, but in a freshwater inland lake, a minnow has a better chance of surviving. Or, to draw from another pop culture trope, it’s the cockroaches that would survive a nuclear war, not us.

If evolutionary theory is right, then the only thing that keeps us intelligent as a race is the fact that we have to be to survive. The same could be said of most any other attribute: our tendency to stick together, our drive to explore, our ability to train and push ourselves to the breaking point. The human species is tough, but take away the need to be tough, and we don’t need any of those attributes to live long enough to pass on our genes. The weak, the unintelligent, the lazy, all have just as much of a chance to pass on their genes as anyone else. Most progressives today would not, of course, have it any other way. But the long-term consequences of this are more or less what Wells predicts—the Eloi. Threats keep us sharp, whether the threat of predators, starvation, rivals, or bad weather. Remove those, and we turn into children.

Confronted with this fact, there is more than one way to react. Robert E. Howard sees this, and praises barbarism. If it takes living on the edge, under constant threat to be the best that we can be, then hang civilization. Let’s go back to the woods. There are times when Star Trek’s Captain Kirk seems to follow this same line. Better adventure, exploration, and risk with the virtues those things keep alive in us, than an easy life and slow decay.

Many progressives hope there is an alternative. Perhaps it is true that an easy life leads to the withering of the species, but what if we push beyond the limits of every other species? What if we grow advanced enough to control the course of our own evolution? Or what if we transcend organic life itself? These are the dreams of transhumanist, looking to a future when natural law no longer applies to us. If we choose that course, we must hope that such things are possible, that they are more than the pipe dream of a race unable to come to terms with its own mortality.

Then again, one could just ignore the facts, or at least regard our eventual demise as something unavoidable and so not worth avoiding. The values of progressivism become more important than the survival of the human species. Better we achieve a just, secure, and prosperous society and die of it, than ensure the survival of the species at the price of suffering for its weaker members. That certainly seems a noble path, but it can’t be said to derive its values from evolutionary theory. Then again, why should it? Progressives are under no obligation to buy evolutionary theory wholesale, much less derive their values from a biological theory.

And that is the point. The progressive narrative and evolutionary theory have little or nothing to do with one another. It is an accident of history that they arose at the same time, and an accident of history that they became allies against creationism and conservatism. One is concerned with the good of society and political theory, and the other is concerned with the structure and workings of the natural world. They originate from different sources, are concerned with different realms and different issues, and their implications for those who believe in them are quite separate. If one were to examine the mythologies that support and explain those two worldviews, the works included in such canons would differ widely, despite the occasional overlap.

Conservative, creationist Christians have a bad habit of lumping all our opponents in the public square into one category: you are either Christian or non-Christian. In practice, this categorization simply makes no sense. A Muslim and a militant atheist who subscribes to evolutionary theory may be much closer in spirit than either of them and the liberal progressive. Darwinism can be used to justify capitalism and racism as easily as it can socialism and multiculturalism. The world is far more complex than us vs. them.

It is true that on a deeper level, the blood of Christ makes us more separate from the world than any two groups in the world are from each other. But that does not mean that the differences between non-Christians are not real, and do not have consequences. If we want to be a light in a dark world, if we want to take an evangelical attitude towards the lost, we will not be successful by paying no attention to who they are, what they believe, and what they value. The distinctions there are important, and worth noting.

This is just one reason why it’s important to get outside the distinctly Christian ghettoes in pop culture. There are important things to learn about our neighbors, about the world we claim to want to bring the Gospel to. That’s the point of this project, and that’s why reading guys like H. G. Wells is valuable.

Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?

A Monstrous Vision

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.

Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.

But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.

Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.

While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.

First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.

As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.

At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

Plasticity

H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.

Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.

This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.

If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.

This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.

Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.

Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.

Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.

It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.

The Future of Humanity

While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?

In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.

While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.

Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.

For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.

 

 

 

 Post Script

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world 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 in dreams to the first men, who formed a 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 of 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.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.

X-Men and the Master Race

We have spent some time with H. P. Lovecraft, his dark view of the cosmos, and his undermining of a man-centered view of the world. While this is one way of telling stories inspired by an evolutionary naturalist cosmology, it’s far from the only one. Bryan Singer’s X-Men has a much more positive take on such a world, and decidedly more human-friendly.

Before we get started, however, we should take a moment to note the vast difference between what Lovecraft was doing and what Singer, screenwriter David Hayter, and earlier X-Men creators were doing. For Lovecraft, the issues of naturalism and the eons-long march of evolution were central. His horror was cosmic in scope, and cosmic in emphasis. X-Men, on the other hand, is first and foremost a superhero story. Mutation and evolution serve more as an origin story and a clever device for exploring other themes than central ideas in themselves. Therefore, we should be careful not to make more of its presence in the story than the occasion warrants.

That said, let’s dive in.

 Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.

This quote, appearing before even the title sequence, brings us directly into deep waters. It is a generally acknowledged fact that the fossil record has less “transitional species” than many Darwinists might like, with supposedly distant evolutionary ancestors occurring in layers just below their descendants. While the situation is not so difficult as to make most scientists reconsider the theory of evolution itself, it has caused some to ask what might explain the apparent lack of evidence for the gradual transformation of species. Two of these proposed solutions are “punctuated equilibrium” and “saltationism.” It is the latter that concerns us.

Saltationism is the fairly straightforward belief that while species usually changes only subtly from one generation to the next, on occasion massive changes between a single parent and its child, creating an entirely new species in a single great leap. The details of this theory or its history in the scientific community are not important. What is important is the opportunity this provides for a storyteller.

Superheroes are a fun sort of character to play with. Their immense power when compared to the average human, and responsibility that comes with it, provide material for plenty of storylines and grand battles. Their strange powers, however, usually require an explanation. Here in salatationism, the writer of a superhero story has a ready-made explanation, complete with its own complex themes worth exploring. The X-Men are not merely freaks, they are the next stage in the history of the human race and life on the planet.

And “next stage” is right. Right off the bat, we are given a picture of humanity evolving “from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.” Not only is this picture man-centered, it also a picture of human progress. Evolution is a ladder, climbing up from inferior slime to superior man. When the mutants of the X-Men world appear, they are not just different. Their appearance is a “leap forward.” We are going somewhere, a better somewhere, and evolution is taking us there.

This is wildly different than Lovecraft’s picture, or, as we will see later, that of H. G. Wells. Many who adopt a naturalist and evolutionary view of the cosmos hold nothing like this idea that evolution means progress, that it is somehow a forward movement or an upward climb. Evolution is merely the survival of those creatures which are best adapted to their environment, and that may have nothing to do with what any civilized man may recognize as “good.” But for the X-Men, that is not the case. In this world, evolution means progress.

The very next scene sets up another interesting backdrop. It is 1944, in a concentration camp in Poland. A crowd of prisoners is being herded into the camp, among them a young boy. He sees that the people working across the fence from him have already been branded like cattle, numbers tattooed into their arms. As they reach the gates, he is separated from his parents. Crying out, he tries to follow them. He is held back by soldiers, but he extends his hand, and the metal gates begin to bend. The soldiers can’t fight the power he is wielding, and begin sliding in the mud. As he begins to crush the gate, another soldier hits him hard in the head, knocking him out.

The fact that the first mutant we see appears in a concentration camp is no accident. Here is a place where people who are different are rounded up, registered, enslaved, and eventually killed. Here are the monsters of the twentieth century, those who experiment on fellow human beings, who exploit scientific methods to eradicate masses of people. This is important for mutants as type of the persecuted minority, but fascism at work here also represents what the Brotherhood of Mutants is reacting against—and what they become.

Not long after, we are standing before the Senate, hearing a debate over the Mutant Registration Act. Americans are afraid of mutants, afraid that their powers will allow them to exploit the relative weakness of their ordinary neighbors. They want every mutant registered, so the government can keep tabs on them. Later we learn that if it were up to Senator Kelly, the chief proponent of the act, then all mutants would be locked up in prison.

Looking on are the two leaders of the mutants, two friends with two very different responses. We have a choice between their perspectives, and it is clear which we are supposed to choose. On the one hand is Charles Xavier, who takes in outcast mutant children and raises them as if they were his own. He advocates tolerance for the foibles on the human race, patience as they come to grips with the existence of mutants. On the other hand, we have Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto. This was the boy from the concentration camp, his arm still bearing the marks from the last time a fearful populace decided to “register” him. His reaction to this threat is far from tolerant.

Outside, Professor X confronts Magneto, telling him not to give up on mankind. They have evolved since the forties. That’s a bold statement, again equating evolutionary change with moral and civilizational progress. Magneto replies that it’s true, mankind has evolved. Into mutants.

“We are the future, Charles, not them! They no longer matter!”

In this statement, we see where life has taken Erik Lehnsherr. When he was young, he saw the Germans, afraid of the Jews, round them up and register them. Registration was only the prelude to something far worse. Seeing that possibility looming on the horizon again, he will not let it happen. He will stand and fight. Of course, despite the fact that the mutants are numerically fewer, they are much stronger. It is now Erik who is afraid, and it now Erik who reacts in violence, dismissing an entire race as a relic of the past.

That issue of race adds an additional layer of depth to the story. While The X-Men undoubtedly wants you to notice the responding-to-fear-with-violence theme as it plays out in the Nazis, Senator Kelly, and Magneto, it doesn’t dwell on the themes of racial superiority.

It is important to remember that the Nazis were racist in a distinctly evolutionary context. They believed that they were more highly evolved, a superior kind of human. The Jews, on the other hand, and many others, were inferior. They held back the human race, weakening it, and diluting pure Aryan blood. Nazism was involved in genocide and eugenics not merely out of fear, but out of a desire to progress along the evolutionary ladder. Germany was expanding and eliminating “inferior” races to make Lebensraum for itself—room for the master race to grow. Breeding programs were started in an attempt to produce more and better Aryans. Evolutionary progress was a very important idea to the Third Reich.

Taking that into account, the entire movie takes on an uneasy atmosphere. In the world of The X-Men, there is no doubt that the mutants are the next step in evolutionary progress, that they are, in some sense, superior. Ordinary humanity is genuinely backwards, and does pose a genuine threat to the progress of the human race. The mere facts of the situation line up exactly with Nazi ideology. They are not what is in dispute in this film, only what the proper course of action is, given such a world.

This weird fascist undercurrent expresses itself in other ways, and not just among the bad guys. Granted incalculable power over others, Professor X is perfectly willing to use it. He pries into Wolverine’s deepest secrets and readily speaks of them without the slightest hint of reluctance, without thinking to even ask permission. Of course, such violations of a man’s personal life are acceptable when they come from a more highly advanced creature, a person higher up both the evolutionary and moral ladder than those around him. With great power comes a lack of accountability.

This particular incident is startling next to the earlier discussion of the Mutant Registration Act. Senator Kelly asks what mutants have to hide, which entirely misses the point in the eyes of the X-Men. But not long after, Professor X seems to operate off the same principle. What does Wolverine have to hide? The professor is the protector of mutants; doesn’t he have the right to know what’s going on in this man’s head? It’s for the greater good.

Nevertheless, Charles Xavier is decidedly opposed to Magneto’s course of action. He sends his people to interfere in his enemy’s plans, hoping to forestall what both Erik and Wolverine assure will be a war between mankind and mutants. He still has hope.

Meanwhile, Magneto has captured Senator Kelly. Up until this point, everything we know about him has made us hate him more and more. When Mystique slaps him around with her feet, the scene is written to make us cheer. This guy really deserves what’s coming to him. And what is coming to him? He will be experimented on, transformed via radiation into a mutant. This scene is intercut with the horrified reactions of Xavier’s people as they learn that Wolverine was once experimented on. Both these events echo Nazi experimentation on Jews during the holocaust. With that in mind, it is more than little off-putting to see Senator Kelly’s transformation played out as an almost-justified comeuppance.

It turns out that Magneto’s plan is to use this same radiation on a gathering of UN delegates at Ellis Island. This is incredibly significant on multiple levels.

First, we are reminded again of minorities coming to America, of our country as a melting pot that welcomes the downtrodden. In a world where mutants struggle for equality against overwhelming racism, this theme points once more to the progressive narrative of the minds behind the project.

Second, the UN gathering plays into the same theme. It has loomed behind the whole movie, and along the way we were given the chance to see Senator Kelly snidely dismiss it, telling us that America will do whatever it pleases and the outside world can fend for itself. With this coming from the bad guy, and keeping in mind the whole tenor of the movie, and the fact that the action takes place on Ellis Island, it’s not a leap to infer that the UN is viewed here in a positive light. This is the voice of human progress and unity.

Finally, this plan is significant because it reveals something about Magneto. He wants to transform all of these powerful people into mutants, believing that if they saw with mutant eyes, they would sympathize and work to protect them instead of treating them like a threat. He just wants people to sympathize, and he’s willing to use force to get them to do so. Of course, we know that his plan will not work. The radiation that turns them into mutants will also kill them in a few days’ time. Instead of creating new allies, he’s committing a mass assassination that will backfire on him and his plans for mutant acceptance.

Of course, our heroes save the day, and Magneto is incarcerated in a plastic prison where Xavier can come to visit him and play chess. He hopes that Erik’s heart will change, that he will come to accept humanity, to be patient with them. But if not, he assures his old friend, the X-Men will be there to stop any future maniacal plans.

The movie is a fun watch. The close friends battling things out, the strange new world, the whole atmosphere grabs you and holds your attention. The friendship between Wolverine and Rogue in particular is fantastic, and worthy of attention in its own right. But underlying the whole thing is that strange fascist echo. The X-Men are the future. They are the next step in evolution, in human progress. Not only are they superior in their abilities, the majority of them appear to be presented as morally superior.

Both sides use their powers on other people without a second thought, and humanity is asked to accept this as normal, and not to seek to control them. And yet, this is decidedly a melting-pot world, one that asks humans of all backgrounds to unite. The powerful must tolerate the weak, and the weak the powerful. It’s a strangely contradictory world, one of values held in tension.

In Lovecraft, that tension did not exist. The universe was amoral, and man’s petty feelings about the behavior of other entities meant nothing. There might be the strong and the weak, but neither had any obligation to the other, and any desire to see the improvement of the species was mere self-interest writ large. But here, in a world of evolutionary progress, in an anthropocentric, humanistic world that accepts that view of the cosmos, there is that tension. In that world, the Nazis are not far wrong on the facts, but we must, of course, reject their methods.

Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—I’m more at ease with Lovecraft’s take on the cosmos.

Lovecraft’s Ancient Aliens

I

            Imagine a humanity alone in the universe. Imagine millions, even billions of years of evolution, struggling up from the slime that served as the cradle of some long-forgotten microbe, through countless eons of birth, reproduction, and death. Seas rise and fall. Continents shift. Meteors strike. Climate changes. Over the drifting generations we have ventured from sea to land, from land, perhaps, to the trees, and from the trees to the African savannah. We learned to hunt and gather. We learned to sow and reap. Cities were built, gods were worshipped, empires rose and fell. Through the long climb of progress, up through shifts in culture and technological innovations, we at last arrive at modern man. Our satellites sway in orbit, our telescopes look out at the stars. All our struggles, our pains and sorrows, the countless lost memories and forgotten lifetimes, and the end of every life, has all come to this.

And we are—utterly—alone.

All that we strove for, every empire and every nation, has ended in the dust. All of our great men have died, and though we know their works, they now know nothing. We have come as close to utopia as technology can take us, but still we fight, still we war, still we find reasons to suffer. All our gods, all the long history of great temples, enormous idols of stone, of gold, wreathed in diamonds and fine garments, of bloody sacrifice, all that has come to nothing. Even our gods were temporary, just another delusion on the road through history.

So stood the evolutionary naturalist in 1959. So stand many today. But in 1960, that all began to change. Before we go there, however, let us return for a moment to Lovecraft.

At the Mountains of Madness brought us a strange vision of the ages that lie behind us. Somewhere in the geologically distant past, a race of aliens came out of the stars. They landed here, and found this planet to their liking. So they began to seed it. They created every kind of life: animal, vegetable, and things in between. Among these countless experiments were our ape ancestors. It was their act of creation that brought us to life, their purposes that animated us. In a very real sense, they gave us meaning. And for Lovecraft, of course, that whole meaning was a cruel joke.

In another of Lovecraft’s stories, which will receive more attention later, he adds to this picture. The Call of Cthulhu tells of an alien being made of a material we are to primitive to understand. Its powers lie beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our abilities as the Elder Things were above our simian ancestors. This thing, by its power, by the long memories of our race, and by the traces of the civilization it once ruled, reaches out and leaves an indelible mark on our consciousness. Those who know him, worship him as a god. For, in comparison to us, what else could he be?

Lovecraft returns to this theme of gods and creators from beyond the stars time and again. His fiction constantly drives at the point that mankind is not at the center of universe, that far stranger things may be far greater than us. But when he wrote those stories, he could not have foreseen the effects his fiction would have. This idea, the idea of a race of godlike aliens that came to the Earth in ancient times and created either our species, or much of our culture, gripped the minds of generations.

II

            By 1959, Lovecraft’s writings, never mainstream, had fallen from what brief popularity they had enjoyed. Few had heard of that master of horror, and his stories held no great place in the public consciousness. There were two, however, who had heard of him.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier were two Frenchmen with a penchant for the occult. Both had lived through the Second World War. Bergier had actually participated in the French Resistance, and his work there may be an interesting tale in itself. They met in Paris, in 1954. In 1960, they published a collaboration that would change the world.

The Morning of the Magicians, as it is known in English, was a broad survey of a variety of conspiracy theories and occult topics. It was structured in an unconventional manner, and written in a personal tone. Louis and Jacques led their readers through a tour of issues as broad as ancient alchemists’ knowledge of the atom, the influence of German occultism on the Nazi party, and the Nazca lines. Most important of all, they made the suggestion that the Earth had hosted ancient civilizations founded by an alien race, and their influence had enormous effects on the development of humanity.

In the following year, they began to publish a magazine responsible for, among other things, bringing Lovecraft back into the cultural awareness of French audiences.

III

            The Morning of the Magicians cast forth a wide sphere of influence in the early sixties, reaching the UK in 1963, and the United States in 1964. The burgeoning counterculture took hold of many of the ideas it suggested, bringing an air of the esoteric into the movement. It was not the English translations which were most important, however, but the German edition of 1962. This found its way into the library of Swiss man by the name of Erich von Daniken.

In 1968, von Daniken published a book titled, “Chariots of the Gods?” His work drew heavily on that of Pauwels and Bergier, but had a tighter focus. It called the reader’s attention to artifacts throughout the world whose creation was far beyond the powers one might easily ascribe to primitive man. He pointed to the pyramids, to Stonehenge, to the Piri Reis map and the Nazca lines. He wrote of ancient myths, of legends handed down over centuries. He reminded his audience of the cargo cults of the South Pacific, how stone age tribes had mistaken modern sailors and airmen for gods. It all pointed towards one conclusion.

At some point in the past, beings from the stars had visited the Earth. They bestowed gifts on us: technology, information, and ideas that could have been gotten nowhere else. And we had remembered them as gods.

At first, the book had little impact outside of circles already interested in the paranormal. Even there it produced few notable shockwaves. But in 1973, von Daniken had a stroke of luck. His book was picked up by Alan Landsburg, who called on his friend, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, and got him to narrate a new documentary. In Search of Ancient Astronauts was broadcast to millions of American homes in 1973, introducing the ancient aliens hypothesis to mainstream pop culture. The documentary became a series, hosted Leonard Nimoy, which would help sustain a growing subculture of people interested in the paranormal.

IV

            This hypothesis, rooted, it would seem, in the fiction of Lovecraft, would go on to have a long life. The Stargate universe owes its existence to the idea, as do various Doctor Who plotlines, much of the X-Files mytharc, the attempted revival of Indiana Jones, Alien vs. Predator, and Prometheus. It also forms the plot of the often overlooked Hanger 18, a little gem my grandparents have in their movie library as a result of it being filmed in a town they spent a lot of years in. It’s worth watching, and rumor has it there’s a MST3K episode of it out there.

The idea not only impacted the world of fiction, but also found a home in many new religious movements. New Age beliefs have always looked to the stars, hoping for enlightenment, or interstellar saviors. While not every UFO religion can be credited to von Daniken’s influence, his work certainly helped create the culture in which such ideas were thinkable.

Return again to that lonely evolutionary naturalist. Now he looks out at the stars and can see more than empty space. He sees the houses of his neighbors, perhaps even the long-forgotten home of our race. Looking back at the gods of our past, he is no longer disillusioned. Instead, he is inspired, for in those gods he sees friendly visitors, or distant relations from a far nobler stock than the ape-men he once called his ancestors.

In a strange twist of fate, Lovecraft’s horror literature, meant to dethrone mankind from the center of the cosmos, has given them a new place in it. Instead of terror at the vastness of the black unknown, he has given them something new. He has given them new connections, transcending the short memory of our petty nations and the thin heavens of our fragile earth. He has given them a past. He has given them friends. He has given them hope.

It is strange what may grow from the well-placed seeds of a myth.

 

Jason Colavito first made the connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the ancient aliens hypothesis in popular culture. The majority of the preceding story can be found in his article here, originally published in Skeptic, or in far more detail in the book which he wrote afterwards.

At the Mountains of Madness

There are few modern myths so exciting as the journey of discovery. The thrill of blazing trails into some unknown land, a land from which no rumors have come, of which no stories are told—such a thrill is only matched by that wild moment when one discovers the ruins of some ancient and vast civilization, so glorious past that has lain undiscovered for eons.

H. P. Lovecraft lived on the tail end of this era. Few truly unknown civilizations were being uncovered in the 1930’s, but the British empire had reached its zenith at that point, carrying back rumors of the distant east, of Tibetan lamas, and the highest mountains in the world. Rumors drifted back of yetis, and of Shambhala. The first successful expeditions to the north and south poles had already taken place as well, and with the advent of both submarines and airplanes, man began to push himself to greater heights, and more profound depths.

But Lovecraft, being Lovecraft, took this theme of discovery and made it terrifying. Though many of his stories deal with curious scientists and scholars, At the Mountains of Madness is perhaps the closest he comes to Indiana Jones. It begins with a man named Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts informing us that he is publishing this account of his expedition to Antarctica only to dissuade another expedition, the Starkweather-Moore expedition, from daring to enter that frightful region. With great reluctance, he begins to recount what proves to be a uniquely disastrous and horrible journey of discovery.

The Miskatonic University expedition consists of twenty-five men and fifty-five dogs, four airplanes, and some modified former whaling ships. Their voyage is already a long one before they reach Antarctica, and they are not long there before their drilling into the bedrock of the icy continent yields intriguing results. One of their number, Professor Lake, decides to lead an advance group of the expedition farther into the mountains, with Dyer and the others to follow after. We have already seen these mountains in exploratory flights, and there is something strange and foreboding about them. They jutted higher into the atmosphere than the fabled Himalayas—at the time of Lovecraft’s writing, Mt. Everest had not yet been summited—and their slopes bore oddly regular geometric shapes, artificial in appearance.

Lake sends back reports of the things they find there, including strange creatures deep in the rock, at a depth that defies contemporary understanding of the geologic timescale. They are simply too old. And what is more, they are a strange blend of animal and plant, perhaps even fungus. Their barrel shape and starfish heads are unlike anything ever seen, and their bat-like wings prevent the scientists from categorizing them as some form of sea life. At any rate, while six of these strange creatures are wrecked, the bodies of the other eight are in pristine condition, having endured countless eons without decay.

Already Lovecraft is playing with the limits of human knowledge, taking the best of our science at a time when we are most proud of it, and punching holes in it. All it takes is a few strange specimens and our whole account of the history of life on earth is wrecked. For now, though, Lake is excited. To him, this is not a setback, but the beginning of a scientific revolution for which he will get credit.

Things soon take a turn for the worse. Dyer loses contact with Lake’s party, and goes forward to investigate. He finds the camp destroyed, the bodies of men and dogs horribly mangled. One man in particular, and his canine companion, bare unmistakable signs of having been dissected. Books, largely picture books, are found lying open around the camps, and various articles have been fiddled with. Outside, there are six mounds, under each of which are buried one of the six damaged specimens. The other eight are nowhere to be found. The explorers try to pass this off on a man named Gedney, who is missing, and they assume has gone mad.

Disturbed, but not quite deterred, Dyer and his companions fly deep into the titular mountains, into a vast city of odd, yet strangely familiar architecture. They set out into the city, exploring its fabulous ruins. The whole thing appears to have been hastily abandoned, emptied of everything mobile, and most of the shutters closed. On the walls they find remarkably clear pictures which tell a startling story about the inhabitants of the city, creatures which resemble the Elder Things of the dreadful Necronomicon.

It seems the Elder Things were a highly evolved species, capable of flying on their bat-like wings through space and sustaining themselves on distant starlight. Through the vast reaches of the black abyss they came to an empty planet, the Earth as it existed not long after the Moon separated from it. It was empty, barren of all life. The Elder Things settled there, but they were in need of servants, of slaves to do their hard work for them. And so they experimented, creating a variety of lifeforms, animal and vegetable. Some proved to be good for food, others for other purposes. Last of all, they created their slave race, the Shoggoths. These fulfilled their needs, and other beings were allowed to escape their notice, where unchecked evolution worked on them, and they began to grow more recognizable. Among these was a vaguely simian creature, unmistakably human in certain ways, which served as an entertaining joke to its careless creators.

This radical relativization of humanity is truly startling. Man is not the descendent of gods, or even of some noble lineage of creatures struggling its way up through eons of Darwinian combat to achieve dominance. Man is a buffoon, a byproduct of the leftovers of experiments of a race that is foreign to this planet, and whose concerns are alien. Indeed, it is terrifyingly clear that these Elder Things are far more highly evolved than mankind, both biologically and technologically far more advanced than the scientists could ever fathom.

If this does not seem so startling in a culture that, for the most part, eagerly accepts unguided evolution and countless millions of years of bloody struggle for survival, think how it must have felt to a society still largely in the grip of an explicitly Christian worldview. Merely being told scientific facts means little. One can still imagine man having some sort of special place in the universe. One can still believe our apparent dominance over the other known lifeforms is somehow natural, the way things have always been, and should always be. Lovecraft denies us this. Man is not special. Indeed, as we will see elsewhere, not even the Elder Things have some sacred or unique place in the cosmos. Even our accidental creators are not the most powerful entities on the scale of being.

The next step deeper into this world where man is no longer at the center comes with a subtle but profound reimagining of Lovecraft’s mythos. Out of the stars descends Cthulhu and his octopus-like spawn, to challenge the dominance of the Elder Things on the planet. These new creatures drove the Elder Things down into the sea, and took the land for themselves. After eons, peace was made. Then, suddenly, the lands in the Pacific, included the fabled city of R’lyeh, sank into the sea. The Elder Things alone ruled the Earth once more, except for a nameless fear of which they did not speak.

At first glance, this may not seem so radical. In earlier stories, however, Cthulhu appeared to be a dark god, perhaps from another dimension, some plane of reality humans could not fathom. His influence was psychic, and the whole story had occult overtones. The terror it inspired came from the fact that despite being so alien, he was so near, and had so profound and subtle an influence on the humanity he threatened. Now, however, he is truly alien. Any mystical or semi-divine properties he had are placed back in a decidedly naturalist, evolutionary context. Cthulhu and his spawn are merely another species struggling for survival, and not invulnerable, though certainly strong beyond the reckoning of men. We may perceive him as a god, but he is on the same scale of being we are, though unutterably high above us.

But when Cthulhu goes to sleep beneath the waves, this does not mean the dominance of the Elder Things is assured. Over generations they forget their old methods of creating and manipulating life, and become dependent on the Shoggoths that already exist. And, as all things wish to survive, to control their own destiny, the Shoggoths grow restless under the iron tentacle of their masters and revolt. This rebellion is swiftly put put down with atomic weaponry, and from that time forward they are tightly controlled.

Still, the struggle of the Elder Things is not over. Out of space descends another race, the half-fungus, half-crustacean Mi-Go, first mentioned in The Whisperer in the Darkness. As part of their campaign, the Elder Things attempted to launch themselves into space as they had done countless times in the past. Something, however, had changed, and in the millions of intervening years, they had forgotten the secret, The Mi-Go were victorious, driving the Elder Things back into the sea, from which they retreated to the last remaining free continent—Antarctica.

In this account of repeated assaults on the alien civilization, always from their point of view, Lovecraft seems to be evoking a certain measure of sympathy for the terrible creatures. Despite their wildly inhuman aspect, and despite the terrible implications of their existence for the human race, they have a will, they have a personality. They fight, they struggle for survival, they explore, they experiment, they build great civilizations. And they are, after all, our ancestors in some sense of the word. Lovecraft even compares the matter which composes them to the exotic, almost phantasmal stuff of which the Cthulhu spawn and Mi-Go are made. The Elder Things are, in a grander cosmic sense, very like us.

This impression is confirmed in dramatic fashion not long after. The explorers realize that the Elder Thing civilization, undergoing a slow decline into decadence, found itself unable to withstand the increasing cold of the Antarctic region. They descended into a deep abyss, where they built a new city. The carvings on the wall showed the explorers how to get there.

They set off at once, deep into the bowels of the city. They uncover the unmistakable signs of travelers having recently gone before them. Eventually they find a camp in which are items taking from Lake’s advance party. Here, covered by a tarp, they at last find Gedney and the missing dog, both remarkably well preserved, in the manner of specimens kept for scientific study. Suddenly, they are interrupted by a loud noise. They realize quickly it is the squawking of penguins, but of a variety which are pale, eyeless, six-foot monstrosities, adapted over eons to life underground. What, they wonder, could have disturbed them? What could have driven these chthonic creatures up to these shallow regions?

They descend once more, through vaster, stranger subterranean regions, until at last they come to a part of the tunnels where the art has a new, alien quality, like some barbaric imitation of what went before. Forms appear in the darkness, on the floor of the tunnel, and they explorers recognize them. They are Elder Things, crushed and warped, and each missing its starfish head. The ichor oozing in pools around them indicates that the kill was recent. After a moment’s recollection of the carvings seen higher up, Dyer realizes that the creatures have been killed by Shoggoths. He is caught up in a sudden rush of sympathy.

            Poor devils! Alter all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them – as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste – and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch – perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia … poor Lake, poor Gedney… and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!

This horrified response reveals in a startling way Lovecraft’s own values. What matters is not how the creatures look, how monstrous they seem. No, these were scientists, creatures of intelligence and persistence, bravely facing the incredible. They were explorers, creatures of curiosity and rational thought. And in Lovecraft’s mind, that’s what counts. That’s what makes them men.

But the horror that consumed them is not far behind. An insidious piping issues from the depths, and up rushes a wounded Elder Thing, the shambling, protoplasmic bulk of a Shoggoth hot on its trail. Dyer and company turn and run, fleeing from the same peril that now threatens what not long before had seemed to them a monster. Now they have a common enemy, a mass of viscous, bubbling, sentient slime, barreling down the narrow tunnel like a freight train, eager to run them over. They move as fast as their legs can carry them, and the Elder Thing is unable to keep up. It is consumed. Soon they find themselves running alongside panicking penguins, and then bursting forth into the outside air. Some dumb luck, some fortuitous chance, has left their pursuer far behind them, perhaps having taken a wrong turn. They rush back to the plane and ascend into the thin air of those high mountains, free from the horrors of the deep.

Yet the nightmare is not quite over. Thought those Antarctic mountains were higher than the Himalayas, they were not Earth’s highest. The carvings of the Elder Things told of a range far higher, one just beyond that great polar range, shrouded in perpetual mists. Until now that translucent covering had shielded them from view, but now one of Dyer’s companions looked back, and saw beyond the thinning mists to those highest peaks, and what lay beyond them. What he saw drove him mad.

Lovecraft does not tell us what was seen. He gives us hints, speaks of Kaddath, the colour out of space, the original, the eternal, the undying. Whatever it is, the man who saw it will not say, though we know he is the only member of the expedition that has read entirely through the Necronomicon. There are good guesses to be made, but all we know for certain is that it was mystery deeper and more terrible than anything they had yet seen in those mountains of madness.

This is significant. Dyer’s expedition has plumbed the depths and uncovered things which shattered our preconceived notions of reality, yet not even this is the end. There remain darker, vaster, more maddening mysteries still, so far beyond the comprehension of mankind as to be unutterable. Our scientific inquiries, our journeys of explanations, all our great victories of rational thought come to nothing in the end. The universe was not made for man; it is not interpretable by him. We are a grim joke, an accident of experimentation irrelevant to our makers, themselves now doomed. Why should we expect to be able to understand what is out there?

From first to last, At the Mountains of Madness is dedicated to dispelling the illusions humanity has about its own place in the universe. In a naturalist world, there is no god or pantheon or primal force to give our existence meaning. We are no more unique or special than the monstrous spawn of distant stars—and they themselves are not privileged. Calamity may descend on them as on any other creature.

Note Dyer’s reaction, however. It is one common to other protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories. He warns us away. He does not ask us to seek to alter our precarious position in the cosmos—that is impossible. He does not point us to outside help, either. In an ultimate sense, there can be none. All lifeforms are independent of each other, are bound together by no purposeful cosmic order. They are all engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival, and all—so it seems—subject to eventual destruction. Nor does he ask us to come to terms with this knowledge. It cannot help us. He simply asks us to accept our position. Humanity must embrace its ignorance, for it is the only thing capable of keeping us from going mad.

There are, of course, other takes on evolutionary naturalism. Some are far more optimistic. This, however, is inspired by the same facts, the same set of beliefs. Here is a world without any supernatural reality. Here is a world where life develops primarily via natural selection. For Lovecraft, the implications of such a world are unspeakably horrific.

At the Mountains of Madness is a stunning Lovecraftian tale, and it has had an immeasurable—if not widely acknowledged—effect on the popular consciousness. In the near future I want to explore those effects, tracing the influences of this and similar stories, such as The Shadow Out of Time, on fringe science and Hollywood. Lovecraft’s legacy there is an enormous one, and he is to be credited for determining the shape of much of popular evolutionary naturalism. Stay tuned for the next step on our journey.

Explorations in Modern Mythology

Reality inspires fantasy. Love poetry exists because lovers exist. Adventures are recounted because people encounter and overcome peril. Real horror exists in the world, twisted men and monsters. So we tell stories about them.

But when we delve into deeper beliefs, into ideas more profound and more fundamental to how we see the world, our stories take on themes more powerful and more resonant than those of the average daydream. When we speak of life and death, of the purpose of existence, of the laws of nature and of human nature, the stories we tell become something else. They become mythology.

Belief inspires this kind of story, whether that belief is true or false, rational or irrational. Every community wants to pass on its deepest wisdom, wants to contemplate the grandest mysteries of its creed. Christians have the canon of Scripture, but we also reach out and spin other stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the best of medieval romance, Shakespeare, Spenser, even the ribaldry of Chaucer, and countless others all tell stories inspired by their authors’ convictions as members of a Christian society.

Since the invention of the printing press, and of the silver screen, man’s love of telling stories has been given free rein. We have become a culture that is telling stories constantly, film after film, book after book. Never have we seen such a vast number of stories being told and retold at such a fast pace.

The technological advances that led to this boom in storytelling came of age at the same time as another cultural phenomenon. Charles Darwin gave voice to a movement of skepticism that had been growing since the Enlightenment. He provided an explanation for the diversity of life and the astounding suitedness of most species to their environment which involved no divine intervention. Early evolutionary theory swept away the need for what many considered primitive superstitions and replaced them with rational science.

This view of the world which rejected miracles and the divine—a position referred to as philosophical naturalism—and which embraced the principles of natural selection and common descent soon took hold of the scientific community. As it spread among the learned, it emerged into the popular consciousness as a striking picture of the universe, a world of vast distances in time and space, of unimaginable transformations across eons, and a bloody struggle for survival and progress up out of the slime. It struck artists, it inspired storytellers, and a mythology began to grow.

The story of evolutionary naturalism’s place in the popular consciousness is a fascinating one. The ideas of that worldview have captured the minds of such men as H. G. Wells, Joss Whedon, H. P. Lovecraft, Bryan Singer, and Robert E. Howard. It permeates the worlds of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The X-Files, much of the comic universes of Marvel and DC, and the first season of True Detective. 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a meditation on such a universe. Everywhere we look in popular culture, we see philosophical naturalism, accompanied by the fundamental insights of Darwin’s theory (the details have long since evolved in other directions).

Over the past year or so, I have studied these works and others. This has often yielded profound insights into our cultural consciousness, and into human nature in general. It has also revealed many great artists worth revisiting, and stories worth telling. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians might be to avoid such investigations, but God is the creator of all mankind, and of the world we live in, not just of the church. There is much to be learned in every corner of creation.

At some point after beginning this journey, I decided to post my thoughts publicly, offering something of a guide to evolutionary naturalism in pop culture. It is my goal to draw attention to the ways in which that worldview has inspired stories, the ways in which people have responded to their own beliefs. Human nature has certain laws, certain desires and antipathies, that carry across time and space, that transcend both cultural and national boundaries, and lend their character in striking ways to the most insignificant of objects. In pursuing this line of inquiry, we can learn much, not only about evolutionary naturalism, but about mankind in general.

The first glimmer of this project can already be seen in my posts on Conan and the Marvel Universe in general. In the coming weeks and months, I want to delve into Wells, Lovecraft, The Planet of the Apes, and the works of Joss Whedon. I also hope to revisit Conan in more detail, and other narrative universes as opportunities arise. I hope your interest is peaked enough to join me on this voyage of discovery. It’s been an exciting one so far, and I expect it will lead to many more strange and wonderful places.