A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Two
NOTE: This article is the second in a series. It follows directly on from Part One, which sets the stage.
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Having established that Lovecraft’s stories can be at least vaguely cheerful and optimistic, and that they can also feature feats of heroism — not always at the same time, mind you — let’s take a look at some other writers who have played by this particular set of Lovecraftian rules. As we do so, please bear in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive study, but is instead just a quick rundown of the stories I’ve read in this area. There’s whole reams of stuff I haven’t got round to looking at yet.
And to repeat my warning from the last installment, you should STOP READING if you spot any titles you’re planning to peruse at some point in the future: here be SPOILERS.
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard is best known for writing heroic fiction. But it is not always of an optimistic nature, and this links up with the fact that some of his stories show a distinct Lovecraftian influence and occasionally even take place within the Cthulhu Mythos.
Take, for example, his short story “The Worms of the Earth,” in which the king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn, enlists the help of monstrous creatures that have long been banished beneath the earth to aid in his fight against Roman invaders. Bran finds his revenge against the Roman who sparked his vendetta is soured when the man is driven insane by the sight of the creatures, so that when Bran slays him, it’s not an act of vengeance but one of mercy. Bran ends up deciding the creatures are too foul to be used even against his hated enemies. This isn’t exactly heroic fiction at its most cheerful — but it is indeed still heroic fiction.
In another Bran Mak Morn tale, “The Children of the Night,” the spirit of the 20th-century protagonist O’Donell is transported back to his former life as Aryara, an ancient Aryan tribesman. In this guise he engages in a bloodthirsty battle against the snake-people that his tribe call the “Children of the Night,” and he dies whilst fighting them. Awaking back in the 20th century, O’Donnell recognises one of his companions, Ketrick, as a descendant of the Children of the Night, and vows to murder him, which is either heroic or horrific depending on whether you side with O’Donell or Ketrick, who hasn’t actually done anything wrong, but just happens to have some unpleasant ancestors.
In Howard’s “The Thing on the Roof,” the protagonist hears how his friend Tussman stole a jewel from the neck of a mummy in a Central American tomb. The mummy sends a monster to retrieve the jewel and kill Tussman. You’d think it would be less trouble for the mummy just to install a decent security system or at least put a sign up saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” Still, this is pretty typical Lovecraftian pastiche with the protagonist gaping in horror as he discovers Tussman’s corpse.
Another Howard story, “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” uses a similar conceit, in that it deals with forbidden treasures being removed from a tomb with horrific consequences. But here the story focuses on the search for the jewel, and the protagonists, a pair of adventurers named Steve Clarney and Yar Ali, escape unscathed. It’s the villain of the piece, Nureddin el Mekru, who feels the wrath of the curse. And despite the Lovecraftian elements this is much more a romp with gun battles and fistfights and macho camaraderie.
Fritz Leiber is another writer who explores some of this same crossover territory. His “The Dreams of Albert Moreland,” for example, features a man who dreams of playing a macabre and complex variation of chess against an unseen opponent for unnamed but probably high stakes. (Incidentally, this is why I personally never play any games more advanced than noughts and crosses. Just in case.) At the end of the story Moreland’s friend finds an arcane chess piece in Moreland’s abandoned room, and the reader is left unsure whether Moreland has finally been defeated or if he still plays against his opponent, an unsung hero battling for the survival of humanity. (Well, I was unsure, anyway; you may disagree.)
Then there’s Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tale “The Sunken Land,” which is basically “The Call of Cthulhu” retold through a sword-and-sorcery lens. After our two heroes have escaped from the hideous Lovecraftian monsters, Fafhrd is rather shaken by the events, while the Gray Mouser remains relatively unruffled. Of course this could be because the latter is not present for most of the story, and even when he witnesses the creatures it is from a distance, so he cannot get a clear view of them; it’s possible that if he’d been closer the mere sight of them would have driven him insane. Lovecraft corresponded with Leiber after reading an early draft of “The Sunken Land” and suggested he remove the elements specifically linking it to the Cthulhu Mythos, as they weren’t really necessary. He also remarked that the story bore some resemblance to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which had not been published at that time. In any case, “The Sunken Land” represents a mixture of the high heroic with the Lovecraftian horrific.
From Kadath to Barsoom to Oz
There’s another story, by the way, that bears some resemblance to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and it spins the theme of Lovecraftian optimism-and-heroism out into entirely new dimensions. Robert M. Price suggests that A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs may have been an inspiration for Lovecraft’s tale. Observing this, one can’t help thinking that instead of adapting A Princess of Mars into John Carter, Disney should have done a full-on Lovecraft adaptation and had Mickey Mouse battling Nyarlathotep in Mickey’s Dream-Quest. Although that may still not have been as freaky as Fantasia.
Furthermore, Price also suggests that L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz may have been an influence on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Specifically, Price compares Lovecraft’s “sunset city” to Baum’s “Emerald City,” zoogs to Munchkins, and even Nyarlathotep to Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. I have no idea if there’s any real basis for these comparisons, but I would love to see a film version based around this conceit:
Follow the Eldritch Road. Follow the Eldritch Road.
Follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow the Eldritch Road.
I’m off to see the Outer God, The Wonderful Outer God of Kadath.
You’ll find he is a bit of a git; I’d submit that he’s a psychopath.
But if I outwit this king of Kadath and escape his wrath with a gambit so naff,
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Perhaps I can have the very last laugh.
I’m off to see the Outer God. The Wonderful Outer God of Kadath.
If that hasn’t completely put you off, then you might be interested in A Shoggoth on the Roof, a musical written by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. I’ve not actually seen a performance of it, but it’s got to be better than my own effort.
The three-lobed burning private eye
Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish” features a 1940s private eye who, while investigating a missing persons case, stumbles across a Cthulhu cult. Although never actually identified as Philip Marlowe, this protagonist definitely gives off a Chanderlesque vibe. In his notes on the story, Newman observes that Chandler and Lovecraft share several biographical similarities: “Born in 1888 and 1890. . . . Awkward outsiders. . . . Married strangely to older wives. . . . Some of their greatest work is set in seaside towns whose physical corruption has an almost philosophical dimension, and they used despised genres to make a genuine contribution to English and American letters.” But for all that, Newman says he found it difficult to reconcile the pessimism of Lovecraft’s tales with the chivalry and romanticism of Chandler’s work. Ultimately, Newman’s tale sides with Chandler, and the hero thwarts the villains’ evil plans. Maybe Newman would have had better luck reconciling Lovecraft with Dashiell Hammett’s more pragmatic form of heroism: “I won’t play the shoggoth for you.” Besides, Brigid O’Shaugnessy is nearly as hard to spell as the names Lovecraft came up with.
Sticking for a moment with detective protagonists, Neil Gaiman’s “Only the End of the World Again” features lycanthropic private eye Larry Talbot successfully battling the Elder Gods in Innsmouth, while Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” allows Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to continue operating as heroes despite the fact that the world has been taken over by the Great Old Ones. Judging from Newman and Gaiman’s efforts, it seems that Lovecraftian horrors are powerless when it comes to dealing with private detectives.
There just might be some mileage to this idea. Jim Rockford might get a message on his answerphone from Harley Warren. Charlie’s Angels could jiggle Yog-Sothoth into submission. At a stretch you could even have Tony Hancock trying to find the last page of the lost Johnny Oxford adventure, Cthulhu Don’t Fall Backwards. It’s also tempting to wonder how Lovecraftian monsters would fare against detectives who already have connections with the supernatural, such as John Silence, Thomas Carnacki, Simon Iff, Charlie Parker, or even Randall and Hopkirk. (I really shouldn’t encourage this sort of thing, by the way. There are already way too many writers and editors out there who think they can justify any old piece of claptrap so long at they link it to Lovecraft.)
I’ll stop the world and melt with you
Moving on, much has been made of the Lovecraftian elements in The Cabin in the Woods. What seems a standard-issue slasher movie ends up containing a post-modern take on horror genre tropes, including the standard one that involves people worshiping evil gods.
But more than that, beneath its jokey tone the film shares Lovecraft’s misanthropy. Although screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard may not be genuinely misanthropic in their own personal views — part of Cabin‘s genesis lay in their desire to counter the dehumanising effects of the torture-porn trend of horror films — they take their grim premise to its logical conclusion. In order to save the world, the heroes would have to allow the villains to sacrifice them in a ritual that would prevent evil gods from escaping their bonds. It even gets to the point where the heroes will have to perform the ritual themselves, and one of them can even be allowed to survive — so long as they are willing to betray each other. After some initial doubts, they decide to retain their bonds of friendship and die on their own terms, even if it means unleashing the evil gods, which they see as not being such a bad thing anyway, since they have come to feel that humanity has had its day.
This bleak yet touching resolution simultaneously humanises Lovecraft’s tropes while outdoing him in the misanthropy stakes.
Images: “Bran Mak Morn” by Bob Covington, used with his permission. “Princess of mars by Frank E. Schoonover, photographed by “Mars book covers: Science Fiction & Fantasy” on Flickr [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Posted on February 21, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Sparking Neurones and tagged A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Books, fantasy, Fritz Leiber, h. p. lovecraft, heroism, horror, Robert E. Howard. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.