Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.
Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.
The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.
Posted in Deities, Higher Education, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged AAR/SBL, Amtrak, Boston, Brown University, Cthulhu, H P Lovecraft, Miskatonic University, Providence, Rhode Island
Youth might be described in a number of ways. One, of course, is in biological years. Another may be in exposure to experiences which change your life. There was a time, for example, when you can’t believe you were ever so naive. No matter how youth might be defined, a patina of fond memories tends to cling to images from that time with the passage of years. For me, unsurprisingly, those images are frequently books. I still recall the cover images of books from my tweenage years, and often think that if I found such books in a second-hand store, I would buy them for their ability to conjure past times. One such book comes not from my physical youth, but from my days teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. It was at that time, when the internet was also still young, that I began to try online research into H. P. Lovecraft. I found an edition of his stories titled The Shadow over Innsmouth for sale on a used book website. I was under-employed, but it was cheap and my curiosity inflamed.
Mainly I was interested in what I would now call the reception history of Dagon. Dagon is an ancient Mesopotamian deity mentioned briefly by name in the Hebrew Bible. He is also part of the pantheon of gods borrowed and invented by Lovecraft to populate his eldrich, watery world. I purchased this book for the titular story, where Dagon doesn’t actually appear, but his worshippers do. It is often claimed to be Lovecraft’s best story. As I sat down to read the whole book, however, I was struck by the strangeness of the collection. This edition, from 1971, included such unusual choices as “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “In the Walls of Eryx,” and “The Festival.” Also bundled here was the Houdini ghostwritten “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” When I first purchased the book I’d only read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Colour out of Space.”
As my interest in Lovecraft grew, I acquired other, more representative editions of his work and have consequently read most of his oeuvre. It was that sense of yesteryear, however, that led me back to this browning, aged collection. It was, in truth, the cover. Looking at it brings back that very office in Oshkosh where I sat as I found the edition online for less than five dollars. No doubt, I was younger then. The call of Cthulhu has echoed across the web since then. For me, however, the first exposure will always be a beat-up paperback that I ordered secondhand.
Posted in Bible, Books, Deities, Literature, Memoirs, Mesopotamia, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Cthulhu, Dagon, H P Lovecraft, Harry Houdini, Mesopotamian religion, Oshkosh, reception history, The Shadow over Innsmouth, University of Wisconsin
It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.
What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.
Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.
Posted in American Religion, Current Events, Deities, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Cthulhu, Dagon, H P Lovecraft, Jediism, L. Ron Hubbard, materialistic reductionism, Necronomicon, Scientology
History can be a funny thing. Take the way it treats some people. H. P. Lovecraft wasn’t famous in his lifetime. In fact, his isn’t exactly a household name even now. His creation Cthulhu lurks grandly in the internet, and even Lovecraft himself is finding mention in some literature courses, despite his lack of literary finesse. Yet, fiction is being written about him. I just finished Jonathan L. Howard’s new novel, Carter and Lovecraft. While H. P. doesn’t appear as an acting character in the novel, he is related to one of the protagonists in a way that is essential to the story’s plot. I won’t give away any spoilers here, but the novel takes over where Lovecraft, the non-fictional character, left off.
Lovecraft, famously, was an atheist. Nevertheless he spun a mythic world of Old Gods that has become canonical in its own right. His stories veritably teem with religious themes as well as monsters. In fact, in Howard’s treatment of the mythos, the religious elements still show up. As I’ve noted before, one need not be a theist to be a capable theologian. Fiction like that of Lovecraft, or that of Howard, inherently holds a kind of numinous quality. In fact, fiction frequently does. In reading, we allow ourselves to be drawn into another world. What could be more religious than that? The beliefs of the writer, it seems, may not ultimately matter.
At one point, at least, in Carter and Lovecraft the sentiment becomes explicit. One of the characters contemplates starting his own religion, only to realize that he’d have to write a holy book. That, he decides, would be a lot of work. As one who dabbles in various forms of literary art, I can take his point. There is something wondrously exhausting about giving birth to words. And those words make worlds. When you stop to think about it, that’s kind of a religious thing to do. I’d recommend Carter and Lovecraft to H. P. L. fans. It’s not a Cthulhu-fest, but it is an enjoyable, compelling tale that raises questions which, if not handled carefully, will quickly turn theological.
Posted in Books, Just for Fun, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Carter and Lovecraft, Cthulhu, H P Lovecraft, Jonathan L. Howard, Monsters, old gods
Technology has been kind to civilization. At least in some aspects. I often think how easy communication has become. When I was just starting out in the professional world, email was new and not trusted by some academics, and now if you can’t be reached by email you’re not a real professor. Professors are the ones, at least in some sectors, who write books. They share ideas—sometimes quite intricate and entangled—using the delimiters of language that has developed to serve communication. Technology, however, has reached a point where it limits what can be said. I have heard experts say that authors must learn to write in XML, a mark-up language that doesn’t recognize things like pages, or even such simple prepositions as “above” or “below.” We must get away, they say, from outmoded ways of thinking. Or think about this blog. When I list tags, they are “comma separated values” (CSV, but not the pharmaceutical kind). If a book title has commas, it is broken up into separate units, some of them nonsensical as tags. They are, however, what the brave new language demands.
Language is how we express what we mean. Since meaning is often of our own making, it seems that language should allow us to formulate our thoughts, commas and all. We take this incredible tool of language and degrade it in our constant drive to find bigger and better superlatives. Lately I’ve noticed the trend toward calling recognized experts in a field “gods.” I wonder what we will do when that gets old and threadbare. What trumps a god? A Titan, perhaps? Do those who call other human beings “gods” ever stop to think through the implications? The comma represents a pause. I recommend a comma or two before using up the highest superlative the language can support.
As someone who spends a great deal of time writing, as well as reading what others write, I think it is time to push back at those who would limit language. H. P. Lovecraft often utilized intentionally unpronounceable names for his “gods.” Cthulhu has become the best recognized among them in popular culture, but here is a case of a writer having the last laugh from beyond the grave. While those who declare “there is no such thing as a page number” insist that writers hyperlink themselves, those who make their very cosmos what it is do so by breaking the rules. And they did so without having had to become gods.
Posted in Deities, Higher Education, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged CSV, Cthulhu, H P Lovecraft, language, meaning, superlatives, technology, XML