Cthulhu and You, Perfect Together

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In the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante gives a (somewhat belated) salute to H.P. Lovecraft to mark the Prince of Providence's induction into the Library of America and the English-language publication of a decade-old appreciation by Michel Houellebecq, the French literary curmudgeon and maker of craptacular spoken-word mood music.

Lovecraft retrospectives follow a pretty standard pattern by this point. There's the to-be-sure opener about how his prose style was unspeakable, blasphemous, unhallowed, noisome, hideous, nauseating, repulsive, unmentionable, appalling, and too full of adjectives. The best summation of this critique, I think, was by Jorge Luis Borges, who said the difference between Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft was that Poe would depict something horrible, while Lovecraft would depict something horrible and then tell you that it was horrible. Next, there's the consideration of his disgust for sex, other races, and human flesh in general. Sante improves on this with a list of bad-trip items that includes "invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, [and] whispering."

The value of the Sante piece (I haven't read Houellebecq's book) is that it turns the great neuresthenic's vices into virtues:

Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm, just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a "scaly, rugose, iridescent bulk…ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base"; the sight may cause Lovecraft's narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home. Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light, exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible elements in his work. The stories "He" and "The Horror at Red Hook" make it sound as though he had never set foot in New York City, while "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" suggests that he never visited the New England coast and "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Whisperer in Darkness" that he never so much as glanced out a train window at a rural landscape. It is not that his settings are unreal—it is that they are made entirely of words. They do not provide any suggestions to the inner eye, only adjectives, mostly hyperbolic.

It is of course unfair to expect a thistle to bring forth figs. Lovecraft only barely managed to exist on the material plane himself, and it certainly was not his subject. His strengths, meanwhile, were unusual and idiosyncratic. He had a flair for names, for instance. The monikers he hangs on his otherworldly manifestations—Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Tsathoggua—are evocatively miscegenated constructions in which can be seen bits of ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Hebrew, Old Norse. The terror of Cthulhu is most vivid on the purely linguistic level: "Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!" The New England he fashions is so tangibly haunted in its nomenclature— Arkham, the Miskatonic River, Devil's Hop Yard, Nooseneck Hill—that he would have been wise to stop there and not attempt further description. He savors the dark texture of seventeenth-century Puritan names: Obed, Peleg, Deliverance, Elkanah, Dutee. He frequently engaged his schoolboy correspondents to send him lists of regional names from their local phone books. Names, real and imagined, accomplish nearly everything his strangled fustian tries and fails to do: suggesting vast stretches of time, experience far outside the modern frame of reference, the subterranean course of genetic inheritance, the repression of dismal ancestral proclivities.

There's something missing in this version of Lovecraft as a descriptively non-descriptive writer, however. If Lovecraft is so bad at describing concrete things, how is it that Cthulhu, a being so ugly it's literally impossible to look at him, is instantly recognizable in visual form? Wherever he shows up, on the campaign trail, in Bizarro Chick Tracts, as Ron Perlman's nemesis at the end of Hellboy, the leader of the Great Old Ones is instantly recognizable by his vaguely anthropoid outline, octopus-like head whose face is a mass of feelers, scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. Give him a one-tentacled salute:

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  1. Cthulhu gave an interesting performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I wonder if he’ll appear in a musical? He could sing Asleep in the Deep.

  2. In my naivete, I didn’t realize that they were still cranking out Chick Tracts. There’s a classy recent old school smackdown of Islam called “Who is Allah?”

    http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/1104/1104_01.asp?wpc=1104_01.asp&wpp=a

  3. Chick threatened to sue the Cthulhu tract guy, and his host caved because they’re fucking pussies who don’t get that parody is fair use. That said, the whole thing is here.

  4. Whoa, whoa – there are Cthulhu plush toys? I have got to get one of those…

  5. Coincidentally, just today I ran across this Cthulhu story by Charles Stross — he gives it a hard-science twist in an alternate history. Read it online:

    http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/colderwar.htm

    I liked it.

  6. anyone know where I can purchase a Miskatonic University Fighting Cephalopods t-shirt or sweatshirt?

    thanks

    GO PODS!

  7. biologist,

    Try Arkham Press or just go to CafePress.com and search for “Miskatonic.”

    Good luck.

  8. It is good to see that the literary is starting to recognise Lovecraft for the influential writer he was. I wonder if there is a writer that has spawned such a large school of fellow writers to adopt his world and continue with it.

    I am one such writer who has enjoyed putting my own characters into the world where Cthulhu is a constant threat. What a debt modern sci-fi/dark fantasy and horror writers owe to this great man.

  9. I lived and worked in North Central Massachusetts for years, and if Sante thinks the description of the countryside at the beginning of “The Dunwich Horror” is poorly done, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    “The Thing on the Doorstep” is the only work of literature that has ever made me throw down a book and shout out in fear, so Lovecraft must have been doing something right.

  10. biologist:

    In addition to the suggestion made above, I’d also recommend Pegasus Publishing:

    http://www.pegasuspublishing.com/xcart/home.php?cat=256

    for all your Lovecraftian needs (including plushes and musicals).

    I’ve dealt with the company before, and think they’re a great bunch of folks to buy stuff from. Other than that, I have no connection with them.

  11. “I lived and worked in North Central Massachusetts for years, and if Sante thinks the description of the countryside at the beginning of “The Dunwich Horror” is poorly done, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    THANK YOU! I read this review over the weekend and when I saw his comments on Lovecraft’s descriptive abilities, I rolled my eyes so far I could see my own frontal lobe. ‘Innsmouth’ and ‘Pickman’s Model’ give excellent descriptions of, respectively, a rotting North Shore town and Boston’s North End. It’s just that those places no longer fit Lovecraft’s descriptions because they have been almost completely rebuilt since his time.

    Overall, I thought Sante’s article was less insulting than it could have been, which is about all you can hope for when literary types deign to consider HPL. As with most articles of this genre, it dwelt more on his failings than his successes.

    -D*

  12. “…mists, gases, whistling, [and] whispering.”

    Mona Lisa’s mustache! How dare you spoil a perfectly grand asyndeton by reinserting the conjunction?

  13. For those who care, the Lovecraft in Vermont festival is going on this weekend.

    http://www.lovecraftinvermont.com/

    Also, check out the christmas albums and Miskatonic props at HPL Historical Sociey

    http://www.cthulhulives.org/toc.html

  14. Mona Lisa’s mustache! How dare you spoil a perfectly grand asyndeton by reinserting the conjunction?

    It’s ok: the gods, who resent all mortals with the hubris to correct another’s style to conform with their own grammar ideas, sent ate upon him in retaliation, and caused him to mispell “neurasthenia”.

  15. er…I mean, “neurasthenic,” thus perpetuating the cycle (mispell was intentional, I should now add)…

  16. er…I mean, “neurasthenic,” thus perpetuating the cycle (mispell was intentional, I should now add)…

  17. The great thing about Lovecraft, which this writer completely misses, is that no matter how detailed his descriptions of extradimensional beings, he always left something in reserve which was “only hinted at”. The ending of “Mountains of Madness” is a perfect example, as we are left with one final “vision” that we have to imagine. The detailed description of the Old Ones and their shoggoths is fascinating (albeit a bit funny, given that the narrator manages to decipher from a few bas reliefs that they had a “fascistic” political organization). Any writer can horrify with suggestiveness; Lovecraft manages to horrify with both suggestiveness AND detailed descriptions, mixing the two in just the right proportions.

    It’s also untrue that his creatures are like something from a low budget horror movie. Most movie monsters, esp. these days, are based on fairly recognizable animal forms (lizards, mostly). Lovecraft’s monsters, in large part, are so far removed from us in appearance that they really do appear convincingly alien.

    Oh, yeah, and ditto on his descriptions of New England. I also grew up in Mass. and went to school in Providence (Lovecraft’s old house was visible from my dorm window). The descriptions are right on the money, just like Chandler’s L.A.

  18. “I wonder if he’ll appear in a musical? ”

    No need to wonder. There was a Lovecraft musical here in Seattle last fall…”The colour out of space.”

  19. As a big Lovecraft fan, I’m partial to Neil Gaiman’s take on the mythos, in his story, “I Cthulhu, or What?s A Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing In A Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47 ? 9? S, Longitude 126 ? 43? W)?” The Hollis Cthulhu Chick tract is one of the finest Chick parodies ever.

  20. For the Great Plush Cthulhu, goto the Toy Vault
    http://tinyurl.com/6hf7

    and since it is the season…of Pumpkins…
    http://tinyurl.com/5x5p7

  21. Piffle. “The Whisperer in Darkness” drips with a sense of rural menace and isolation – and most particularly place.

  22. Any writer can horrify with suggestiveness

    With trembling hands, I clicked “Post.”

    To my horror, before my very eyes my comment vanished into that other-dimensional black, blind nothingness from which nothing could ever emerge.

    Nothing. Except … the shambling form of …

    Tikkelele! Tikkelele! Tikkelele!

  23. The iconic image of Cthulhu is more memorable as a product of some of Lovecraft’s disciples and a lot of old-school gamers.

    Also, I don’t know where you could get one, but I have a Cthulhu hand puppet that I picked up at a store in Canton Township. It’s pretty awesome.

  24. I’ve always wanted to open a Lovecraft-themed restaurant with dishes like Yog Succotash, Muffins of Madness and The Manwich Horror.

  25. No More Years! No More Years!

  26. What party is he running with and whats he going to do about illegal aleins? and i mean the ones from mexico i hope he decides to put some MARTIAN TRIPODS on the border with their heat rays

  27. Have you noticed that you never see Cthulhu and the Flying Spaghetti Monster together in the same room at the same time?

    Coincidence? I think not!

  28. If you’re interested in Lovecraftian musicals, there’s also the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s musical A Shoggoth on the Roof

    Tagline: There are some things man was not meant to adapt to musical theatre…

  29. I had occasion to visit Salem, MA once, and the moment I saw the gabled roofs of downtown, and was struck by the “wrongness” of how they looked, I felt I’d shared a flash of Lovecraft’s vision.

    And as we close in on Halloween, I feel I must repost this classic Lovecraft pastiche:

    http://www.strangehorizons.com/2004/20041025/pumpkin-f.shtml

  30. I’ve always wanted to open a Lovecraft-themed restaurant with dishes like Yog Succotash, Muffins of Madness and The Manwich Horror.

    The Curry of Cthulhu
    Herbert West Refritos
    Nyarlhotep, the Salad with Thousand Island Dressing
    The Chowder out of Space

  31. Houellebecq’s book is totally worth reading. He has some interesting insights into what makes Lovecraft unique, and has a much better understanding of Lovecraft’s storytelling craft. Houellebecq actually sees some virtue in Lovecraft’s descriptive style. Lovecraft has his limitations, such as his racism. He’s also quite formulaic with many of his stories, but it’s a formula that is completely unique to him. Houellebecq highlights some of the features that Lovecraft’s imitators have totally failed to capture. In the end, he’s one of the writers, like Poe, that academia has sort of being forced to begrudgingly accept as a major figure.

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