The Shape of Water and Del Toro’s Cosmic Fairy Stories

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most well-known fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s work, his influence on Del Toro is fairly obvious. I’ve even seen one internet commenter refer to Del Toro’s Hellboy as the closest we’re ever going to get to a big tent Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft is famous for a brand of fiction known as cosmic horror. The basic idea is that the universe is vast and uncaring. Humanity has no special place within it, and in its dark reaches there may be things so far beyond our understanding that we could only classify them as gods or monsters—and those monsters would be indifferent to us. Whatever threat they pose to humanity comes not from their desire to destroy us, not from some special, directed enmity towards mankind, but simply from the fact that we may get in the way of whatever their true goals are.

Like Lovrecraft, Del Toro’s stories do not tend to explain the overall cosmic structure of the universe, but rather to unsettle it, to disorient the viewer and make them realize how little they know about how the universe truly is. Like Lovecraft, he calls down to earth creatures that are profoundly Other, whose purposes we cannot understand, whose very forms and way of existing are strange to us. He explodes the notion that human life as we know it is all there is, or is even particularly significant in the grand scheme of things.

But unlike Lovecraft’s readers, Del Toro’s viewers rarely come away with a sense of despair, disgust, or disturbance. Rather than take cosmic strangeness and use it to put an arrogant humanity back in its proper place, Del Toro takes it and does something else: he tells a fairy story.

The way many of Del Toro’s films feel like “fairy tales for adults” has been remarked on often enough, but it doesn’t usually get placed in the context of his Lovecraftian influences. Anyone familiar enough with the folklore can tell you, though, that traditional fairy tales have a lot in common with Lovecraft—the Fair Folk, the Good People, whatever you call them, are first and foremost strange. They are unutterably inhuman in their motives and their way of life. To encounter them is profoundly dangerous and unsettling, not because they hate mankind, but simply because they care little for us one way or the other. Simply by being who they are, they might upend our very existence.

Of course, one key difference between fairy tales and Lovecraft is that fairy tales may often have a happy ending. The fairy’s magic, rather than destroying you and all you love, not to mention everything that exists, may instead rescue you from some tragedy, or grant you a gift you never thought you could have. For Lovecraft, this was inconceivable, and stories like this were nothing more than lies delusion. For Del Toro, this is par for the course.

In this breakdown of The Shape of Water, I want to examine exactly how this works.

 

The Allure of the Other

 

If Del Toro is good at anything, it’s design. The guy is meticulous in how he crafts his sets, his props, and his costumes. He creates notebooks for his movies, with sketches for every element of the design, and background notes on characters. He chooses his color palettes carefully, distinguishing one realm from another, for example, by whether it is blue-green or orange-red in overall tone.

But it’s his creatures in particular that are most alluring. Many of them start from a human base, but are over-muscled, or have a strange bone structure to the face. They are taller than mankind, and sometimes lack eyes, or have intricate designs traced into their skin. They are rarely colored in any of the usual shades of brown, but are often red, pale white, green, gold, blue, or some other strange shade.

The more monstrous are often tentacled, but rarely slimy or fungous, and often bear features that are less squiddish or octopoid than the average Lovecraft knockoff. They are frightening, but not disgusting.

Whatever form they take, Del Toro’s creatures are rarely repulsive, and often attractive.

The Shape of Water is about the romance between a human being and a Del Toro creature. The creature in this case, referred to only as “the Asset,” is an aquatic humanoid from somewhere in the Amazon. He is built like a male model, but covered in scales and fins, and is oddly segmented, with large, strange eyes. Like every other Del Toro creation, it’s a work of art.

For Elisa, the mute cleaning lady who works in the government lab where the Asset is kept, it is even more than that. Over the course of the movie, she shares eggs with it, plays music for it, and teaches it sign language. She dances for it from the other side of the glass. The bond is clearly mutual, and she is devastated when she discovers how cruelly it is being treated, and the fate that is in store for it. She rescues him, lets him live in her apartment bathtub, and their friendship blossoms into a romance—one that is eventually consummated in what ought to be a few very off-putting scenes.

Setting aside for the moment the idea of having sex with an Amazonian fish-person, the fact that Del Toro really did manage to pull off this inhuman romance is significant. This was love between a human being and something that was incredibly other.

A number of Lovecraft commentators have, along with Lovecraft himself, said that the most primal fear mankind has is the fear of the unknown. That which we don’t know is somehow supposed to be frightening, to be unsettling, to be something we would destroy rather than face. Del Toro calls bull on this, and he’s right to do so.

Humanity frequently loves the strange, the other, the unknown. We are attracted to the exotic, the new, the different. We love travelers’ tales and fantasy stories, tales of the distant future or the distant past, or of some far-off kingdom in a land not quite like our own.

The moment capitalism gave us the opportunity, we ditched homestyle fare in favor of a dozen different foreign cuisines—and now pizza, tacos, General Tso’s, and all the rest are a central part of the American diet.

One complaint about the portrayal of certain ethnicities in film is the way they are made exotic and sexualized in that context—that is, we look for the ways they are different rather than the same, because difference attracts us. And of course, most of humanity is attracted to a particular kind of strange and exotic anyways—the opposite sex.

There is something to be said here about religion, too. While it is true that we have generally portrayed gods in anthropomorphic ways, this is always qualified by their unearthly attributes—whether that is merely size, strength, and beauty, or the unsettling powers they have over aspects of reality. As often as not, we portray the gods as animal or half-animal. The very notion of worship is based around the fundamental strangeness of the divine—here is a thing different from myself, strange and other, and far more powerful than I. I must adore it.

Lovecraft, a homebody, a racist, and a bachelor for most of his life, did not often get this love of the other, but certain fantasy writers do. One of the first real fantasy books I read, the one that got me into this lifelong obsession, was Song in the Silence by Elizabeth Kerner. In it, the protagonist travels over a vast sea to a dangerous island in search of a legend—dragons. She wants to see something and befriend something that is sentient, but that is not human. The driving force of the story is that she has a powerful desire to see and know the Other.

The Shape of Water understands this, as do many other of Del Toro’s stories. Rather than recoil in fright or disgust when we encounter the other, Del Toro’s design asks us to marvel at it, to enjoy it. His characters will learn to love such creatures, to trust them, to befriend them. He takes the unsettling cosmic horror, and turns it into an appearance of the Fair Folk—strange, but also beautiful.

 

True Violence

 

There is, however, a dark side to Del Toro.

Del Toro movies aren’t shoot-‘em-ups. They’re not violent in that sense. The more free rein he’s given, the less a gun is fired. But when a gun is fired, it’s sickening.

Hollywood has given modern people the ability to see violence over and over, but not to feel it. We know it’s acting, and we know the “movie magic” will be undone when the scene is cut and the dead extras rise again and walk offstage to visit craft services. Often, we barely see what happens to bad guys that are killed onscreen—a motion is made in their direction, and they fall. It is less important to know what exactly happened to them than whether the good guy neutralized them. This is not violence, it’s playing a game where you can tag out members of the other team.

But Del Toro portrays movie violence as violence. The first violent scene in the movie comes when a man’s fingers are bit off. We see the stumps and the blood spurting from them, see his pale, shocked face, watch him collapse. This is our antagonist—he’s supposed to be intimidating. But the non-fatal and non-crippling wound is shown as profoundly painful, and his lifeblood spills out everywhere. Soon after, we find his fingers, and they are placed in a brown paper lunch bag for transportation. He later comments on this, as a condiment got on them. They are reattached, and we watch for the rest of the movie as the character waits for them either to get better or to rot and have to be removed.

Other scenes of violence are equally torturous. We get a disturbingly humorous introduction to a cattle prod, and then we see it pressed into the Asset’s flesh repeatedly a few scenes later. I say “pressed” because you can see his skin actually pushed in, not merely contacted, and you have to wonder if he is being cut by the prod as much as he is being electrocuted by it. Where another movie might show us a few zaps and leave it at that, having communicated the fact that the Asset is in pain, Del Toro lets it go on, again and again, driving home the cruelty and the degree of suffering. “You will not enjoy this or shrug this off,” he seems to say, “You will understand what it does to the creature.”

Guns in his universe are not point-and-click instruments that remove an inconvenient opposition. They leave entry and exit wounds. If these wounds are punched in a cheek, a finger can go through them, and you can drag the bleeding person along in excruciating pain. If placed elsewhere, there will be plenty of blood, and it will spread rather than merely streaming down a single channel. It will get everywhere and it will stain. And still the victim will not be dead. Guns are cruel, and Del Toro will make you aware of the fact.

Though violence is hardly supernatural, I do think this is one of the most Lovecraftian elements in Del Toro’s work. The way he uses it tells us that the universe is not a kind place. Cruel, bad things happen, and they happen suddenly and irrevocably. Once they happen, there will be time to contemplate them, to experience the pain. It will not be easy. The universe does not care for your feelings. Violence happens, and it is not good.

But violence does not get the last word in a Del Toro film, and that’s another thing that makes it a strikingly distinct than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.

 

The Misfits of the World

 

“All us freaks have is each other.”

The quote comes from Hellboy, but it’s applicable here, too. The protagonists are a who’s-who of marginalized groups—a “differently abled” Hispanic woman, a black woman, a gay man, and, depending on how sympathetically you read him, a communist. They stand in contrast to a white, heterosexual, American male antagonist with a wife and two kids who lives in the suburbs, wears a suit, and is trying desperately to be “upwardly mobile.” The most ridiculously stereotypical “normal” American against the most ridiculously stereotypical collection of “not normal” Americans.

A certain sector of Twitter has done a lot of eye-rolling at this, and with good reason. On the face of it, it’s ham-handed and clichéd, and is definitely trying to score political points. It also requires zero sacrifice on the part of the filmmakers, challenging absolutely nothing about the world they live in. Since when is Hollywood a bastion of middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, family-centered, anti-blaspheming, straight-laced, suburban, patriotic conservatism? The Oscars have been described as a series of lectures on sexual ethics from the people who protected Weinstein. The Shape of Water does nothing to undermine that image.

But set aside the politics for a moment. The idea of the marginalized winning instead of the mainstream is a classic trope of fairytales and folk stories, and even of the Biblical narrative. Whether it’s cobblers or seventh sons or scullery maids, fairy tales are full of the most unexpected people being the ones who save the kingdom, and often who end up ruling it, alongside whatever prince or princess that met along the way.

The kind of misfits Del Toro chooses for his heroines and heroes may often tell you exactly what decades of Hollywood the guy has been working in, but the particular kinds of misfits are less important than the fact that they are misfits. Del Toro portrays a world where horrible violence happens, where humanity’s place in the universe is not as central as we thought it was, and yet in the end the little guy is the one who wins. The underdog comes out on top. His world is the world of fairy tales.

 

God or Monster?

 

The Shape of Water revolves around the Asset.

The Asset is vulnerable. He can be captured, chained, and beaten. He bleeds. He needs food to survive, and if the chemical properties of the water he lives in are not properly maintained, he suffocates and begins to die.

The Asset is not all-wise or all-knowing. He does not know Elisa’s intentions to begin with, and he is slow in learning sign language. Music is a novelty to him, and cats are strange and frightening. At one point, Elisa tries to tell him how she feels, and he doesn’t even notice. He is busy eating his eggs, as indifferent as a housecat.

The Asset, it seems, is not a god.

But the Asset is a god. He was worshiped by the natives of the Amazon. Brought back to Elisa’s apartment, he his capable of healing wounds and restoring youth, in a limited form. He shines with a strange and otherworldly light, and it is uncertain whether this is an emotional reaction or a sign that power is flowing out of him. And finally, when killed, he is revived. When others are killed, he can revive them. He can even change the very nature of a being into something new.

Part of Lovecraft’s project is to destroy our notion of the distinction between gods and aliens, gods and monsters. Religion, science, magic—they are all the same in Lovecraft’s world. They are simply different names for our interaction with the unknown, and what we call that unknown, whether we think it is divine or demonic, is irrelevant. It is simply Other.

In the same way, Del Toro breaks down the distinction between god and monster with the Asset, and with many of his other creatures. He is not concerned with a simple binary of good-by-nature or evil-by-nature, nor is he concerned with the ultimate structure of the universe and anything that is truly, transcendently Divine. He is concerned only with the wide and wild variety of beings that may live in a universe as strange and vast as ours, each with its own limitations, but whose limitations are far different from our own.

 

A Fairy Tale Ending

 

Del Toro’s stories are, from start to finish, a fairy tale spin on Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. We encounter the Other, and learn that our place in this cold, uncaring, indifferent universe is far from secure. But instead of destroying us or driving us insane, the Other offers us a chance at redemption, at escape from tragedy or at achieving some dream we never thought was truly possible. The universe these two authors live in is metaphysically the same, but their outlook on it is not. For Del Toro, there is a chance of a happy ending.

I find this strange and interesting and human. Lovecraft insists that a world where we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things must be horrible. He yearned for order, and when he did not find it, he was disturbed. But Del Toro is an anarchist, and a liberal. He believes in individual freedom, in the ability of individuals to create their own meaning, their own dreams, and to pursue them to the end of the line.

A world that is cosmically indifferent is, by definition, not hostile to humanity. Lovecraft was so caught up in the horror, that his stories reflected a world where, in practice, the Other is hostile. Del Toro recognizes that while the Other may indeed be hostile, it is just as possible that it might find a reason to help us, or at least refrain from hurting us. And so Del Toro can have a fairy tale ending.

Ultimately I can’t agree with either perspective. I don’t believe the cosmos is essentially disordered and meaningless, or that we have no special place within it, although I would agree that we’re definitely not at the center of things. But if the cosmos really were indifferent, I think Del Toro’s take is probably the healthier and more accurate one. In a world that does not care one way or the other, why not take a chance and see if it will side with us? If anything, that desire is certainly more human.

Regardless, Del Toro’s cosmic fairy stories a great deal more fun to watch than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is to read.

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Lewis, Lovecraft, and Reading Fantasy

 

            I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.

            When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.

            I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.

            I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.

The Tools of Fantasy

 

            The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.

            For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.

            For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.

            This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.

            Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.

 

The Readers of Fantasy

 

            This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.

            This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.

            But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.

            But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.

            There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.

            But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.

            Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.

            Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.

            Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.

            I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.

            That’s not the fantasy I want to read.

            That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.

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.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”