A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Four
NOTE: This is the final part of a four-part series in which Stu Young explores the works and influence of H. P. Lovecraft in an attempt to tease out themes of heroism and optimism among the more familiar themes of horror, gloom, and despair.
Although Robert Anton Wilson claims that Sir John Babcock, the hero of Masks of the Illuminati, is “the typical Lovecraft narrator” and has him muse that “Encounters with death and danger are only adventures to the survivors,” Babcock does on occasion find himself getting a thrill from his exploits. Admittedly, he compares this to the novels of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard rather than anything by Lovecraft, but then, in the year in which the story is set (1914) Lovecraft hadn’t had any tales published yet. (Not that this stops Cthulhu popping up for a quick cameo.) But despite Babcock’s vacillating feelings towards his adventures, Masks of the Illuminati ends happily.
Meanwhile, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, a visit to Miskatonic University turns up a John Dee translation of the Necronomicon, and shoggoths make several cameo appearances during the course of the story. Yog-Sothoth also turns up several times in Illuminatus! but is constantly trapped in various types of pentagons and eventually absorbs Hitler into itself, thus condemning old Adolf to eternal torment, which shifts Yog-Sothoth from villain to borderline hero, kind of like the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park.
(Does anyone else feel weird about Yog-Sothoth being a hero? Even viewing him as an anti-hero seems wrong; it’s so out of character. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis and wanted to try a new direction in life. He probably bought himself a shiny new sports car as well. Just so long as he doesn’t start shagging younger women again, because we know that never ends well.)
Wilson liked mixing historical figures into his novels, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Aleister Crowley, along with many other real people, all turn up at various points. For the purposes of this discussion, the most interesting cameo by a real-life figure come in Illuminatus! when one of the novel’s protagonists pays a visit to none other than Lovecraft himself, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters in his stories might be real. The protagonist then asks why, if Lovecraft doesn’t believe in monsters or magic, did he cut short a quote from Eliphas Levi’s History of Magic in his short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft replies, “One doesn’t have to believe in Yog-Sothoth, the eater of Souls, to realize how people will act who do hold that belief. It is not my intent, in any of my writings, to provide information that will lead even one unbalanced reader to try experiments that will result in the loss of human life.”
Such a response raises the question of how people really do fare when they allow the influence of Lovecraftian fiction to infiltrate real life. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the British ritual magician Kenneth Grant, who blended the Cthulhu Mythos into Typhonian magic. Read the rest of this entry
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Three
In Part One of this series I set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to find aspects of optimism and heroism in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. In Part Two I looked at how a number of other writers, and also filmmakers — including Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Joss Whedon — have themselves produced Lovecraftian fiction with some kind of optimistic or redemptive cast.
Lovecraftian influences have also made their way into superhero comics, and today I’ll be taking you with me on a whirlwind tour of the way Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-esque ideas and themes have been used to heroic effect in colorful alternate worlds of tights, capes, and tentacular interdimensional horror.
As early as the 1940s, Gardner Fox used Lovecraftian ideas when co-creating the mystical superhero Dr. Fate. Other comics featuring Lovecraftian elements include Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, both of which feature cults and cosmic beings and come across as “The Call of Cthulhu” with superheroes (which, let’s face it, is the one ingredient that’s really missing from that story).
Elsewhere, in Brave and the Bold #32 J. Michael Straczynski had Aquaman and the Demon Etrigan team up to tackle an unnamed monster that bears an uncanny resemblance to Cthulhu. When this Cthulhu-alike summons his fishmen minions to attack the two heroes, Aquaman responds by calling up all the marine life in the surrounding area: sharks, whales, swordfish, stingrays, giant squids — everything. The resulting armada looks tough enough to tackle any ancient god that’s senile enough to take it on. And that’s before you take into account the fact that they’re backed up by a hellfire-wielding demon and the King of the Seven Seas. There’s also a meme doing the rounds with a picture of Cthulhu rearing out of the ocean with Aquaman standing atop his head in a regal pose as he commands the Ancient One to do his bidding. “I’m useless, they said,” runs the caption. “I have stupid powers, they said.” Read the rest of this entry
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. Read the rest of this entry
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part One
Novelist Jonathan Ryan recently wrote an essay, “Meaning to the Madness,” that was largely devoted to exploring the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Teeming Brain head honcho Matt Cardin wrote a response. There was then a Teeming Brain podcast (the first ever) about the whole thing. And now I’m writing this column inspired by all of them. Hopefully someone will then write a piece inspired by my column, and so on, until we take over the entire Internet.
Now, while Jonathan and Matt* centered their discussion around the nature of Lovecraft’s philosophy, I’m personally fascinated by this particular comment from Jonathan’s original essay:
[T]here is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules.
(* I’m going for the informal approach here and fully expect any references to my own good self in any future pieces on this subject to be in the form of “Stuey baby.”)
It’s easy to see what he means. The protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories always wind up going mad. Or dying. Or going mad and then dying. But, being a contrary fellow, I’ve decided to try and prove that it is possible to write uplifting stories while still playing by Lovecraft’s rules. Not only that, but I’m going to prove that Howard Phillips Lovecraft — or Howie-poos, as I like to call him — did himself, on occasion, write stories full of sunny optimism. Yes, that’s the same H.P. Lovecraft who suffered night terrors as a child and witnessed the mental health problems of both his parents, whose father died of tertiary syphilis and who himself suffered a nervous breakdown and died of intestinal cancer.
I do like a challenge.