Sunday, March 24, 2013


Of all the feats of geek culture, the one which most consistently surprises and intrigues me is its ability to twist the writings of HP Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) into novelty shapes. And sometimes even make money from it.

That's Lovecraft, the writer of horror and weird fantasy whose protagonists generally mutate, go mad, die or some noxious combination of the three; Lovecraft, the misanthrope and holder of some unsavory views about non-white races which ought to severely test the Wagner Defence for any fan; Lovecraft, man of a thousand hysterical adjectives, usually loathsome, hideous and blasphemous.

The Lovecraft, who in spite of all of the above wrote a small number - I stress the word small - of truly great short stories in which he dialed down his nervous tics and channelled his talents into saying just this: that what humanity laughably terms normality, knowledge, civilisation are candles in a universe far larger and darker than we can ever know.

The Lovecraft, whose for-want-of-a-better-term brand ambassador is a titanic giant with an octopoid head sleeping beneath the waves awaiting a time in which he will (consults notes) ah yes, lead humanity in a Nietzschean power-trip culminating in species-death. Or something to that effect.

Sketch of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft

Yet fans, geeks and gamers go mad for cutesy extrapolations of the Lovecraft mythos. And Cthulhu seems to have become the focus for this attention. Not bad for a slimy, squamous  bringer of armageddon.

At the commerical end of the spectrum, take this plush example, courtesy of the Geekest Link

Or, from tabletop gaming, Munchkin Cthulhu, from where this free downloadable card originates.

Not to mention the wackier end of the Call of Cthulhu RPG - Cthulhu for President indeed... 

And then, reluctantly joining the 21st century, there's Cthulhu Saves The World for your android phone.

But let's not forget what the fans do purely for the love, like this Adventures of L'il Cthulhu animation

Or pushing the boat out still further, Lovecraftian webcomics, Lolthulu, and Cthulhu Mythos Christmas jingles (clip below).

You can find more examples of Cthulhukitsch in a Guardian article I swear I haven't read.

But my question is not: should I join in by attempting to rewrite the theme tune to the Mickey Mouse Club among Lovecraftian lines (and I assure you, you can fit C-T-H-U-L-H-U F-T-H-A-G-N in there). Rather, it's why? Why has Cthulhu become the cosmic threat beyond space and time it's ok to like? 

I've got two possible answers to run up the flagpole here. One, while Lovecraft wouldn't have known how to promote his work if it was carved in prehistoric runes on a mysterious monolith thirty foot high, he did have extraordinarily savvy (culturally if not commercially) posthumous champions. Right from his death in the 1930's, supporters like August Derleth founded Arkham House to ensure his work, never properly published outside of pulp magazines in his lifetime, was properly and respectfully released. 

Authors since then have written further works in the Lovecraftian universe, or at least in his idiom, further extending its tentacular reach through fandom. Further amplified by the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game and works in other media (see examples above, but also Metallica songs, Re-animator movies etc) HP has grown to the point where - beyond the grave - he is an undisputed big deal.

Yet the Lovecraft legacy has been distorted over the years such that he has become to wierd fiction what Elvis is to rock and roll. You don't need to listen to Elvis to go to Graceland, talk about jelly bean sandwiches or invoke the rhinestone jump suit. Similarly, you don't need to read Lovecraft in geek culture to roll off - and crucially parody - the list of tropes he's associated with: madness; cultists; forbidden knowledge; tentacles; indescribable horror; the Necronomicon, the word 'squamous'. 

I didn't read much of his work until my thirties and I still could have told you all about him, after having put both hands to my chin and waved my fingers in a tentacular fashion.  

In other words, pop culture Lovecraft (as opposed to Lovecraft the writer) is ripe for commodification, homage and satire.

And yet there's a second possibility here - that at his best (say, The Whisperer in Darkness or The Shadow Over Innsmouth), there is something sufficiently disturbing and original still in Lovecraft that the urge to camp him up, to ironically enjoy him, to consume plush offshoots of his work, is a defence mechanism

We laugh at his obsessions - and boy is it easy to laugh at him - because if we go back to the books and allow him to draw us in then he still, as an outsider artist with a singular vision, has the power to unnerve, to ask what lies beyond the reach of our candle in the darkness.
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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Lovecraft, the Call of Cthulhu


  1. Someone definitely plugged H.P. Lovecraft into a fairy cake...

    I agree with what you say about the best of Lovecraft's work. Cthulhu is the most famous aspect but to me, Lovecraft was about the insignificance of humanity against the backdrop of life, the universe and everything.

  2. That fairy cake was certainly a squamous one - I like the metaphor alright.