Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

First Look

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.

Godnapped

“Has anybody seen my god?” So we might imagine an ancient victim of godnapping wailing after a hostile takeover raid. We might smirk to ourselves, knowing that gods only really come in paper or plastic. The only godnapping that goes on these days is when someone hacks our credit card number. These were my thoughts when a friend sent me a link from ASOR’s website, “‘Godnapping’ in the Ancient Near East” by Shana Zaia. Stories of godnapping are known from the Bible, like where the Philistines defeat the Israelites and take the ark of the covenant to the temple of Dagon. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves in this post-theistic age that we’ve developed more spiritualized versions of deities to disbelieve. At least we didn’t believe some hunk of wood was an actual god. We at least had a person nailed to it.

I used to ask my students what the difference between an “idol” (not the American variety) and a “god” was. The usual understanding is that an idol was made out of something like wood or metal. The ancients weren’t so naive, however, as we suppose them to have been. Before any carven or graven image could be considered a “god” it would have to undergo a ritual to make it one. Elaborate ceremonies attended the process in which even ancient sophisticates realized that this piece of rock or wood wasn’t actually the fullness of the deity it represented. It was a symbol. A symbol invested with power, to be sure, but a symbol nevertheless. What was an “idol” then? Merely a modern way of degrading another religion. “Idol” can never be a neutral term.

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Imagine the ark of the covenant in the temple of Dagon. It was a box overlaid with gold, on top of which sat cherubim. Two of them. Images, but not “idols.” Inside, depending on what passage you read, you might find the original ten commandments, a jar or manna, or Aaron’s rod. Or all three. You might find nothing inside. The point was in the power of the symbol. Godnapping was a real fear in ancient times. A deity captured left its people vulnerable to the whims of others. Today we may rely on the high priests of encryption to keep our divine numbers safe from those who hack at the new idols. Gideon, after all, was the original hacker, and we all know how he ended up. Those who destroy others gods often fall into worshipping them once the hewing is done. The only question left is if one prefers paper or plastic.

Cthulhu’s Tea Party

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.

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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.

Philistines in Midtown

It’s an old story. In fact, it’s in the Bible. The enemies of Yahweh perish. Since Israel’s god could not be represented iconically, the story goes, an iconic ark stood in for the divine presence. After a certain unpleasantness with the Philistines, the ark was captured and taken to the temple of Dagon. There, the statue of Dagon fell down in worship before the ark. Philistine priests, embarrassed for their deity, set the statue upright again only to come back the next morning to find their god not only toppled, but decapitated. I’ve always found this story intriguing. I wrote an academic article about it some years ago, which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored by subsequent scholars of Dagon. Of course, the Philistine god eventually went on to fame at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft. Today most scholars are far too parsimonious to care about that, so I’m left to follow my imagination when it comes to the old gods.

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This past week, on my way to work, I spied a mannequin fallen in the Garment District. There used to be hundreds of fabric stores around here. I’m always interested in those that remain. Cloth is so basic to human needs. The mannequin was behind glass, behind a chain fence. She’d clearly fallen in the night. She was decapitated. Of course, Dagon came to mind. I’m sure that others walking by the store had the same thought. Fallen before the invisible almighty, an idol meets its end.

Once upon a time, I’m told, biblical literacy was common. I don’t mourn its passing because I believe society has become sinful, but I do mourn it because the stories are timeless and important. There is something very poignant about the idea of a foreign deity falling, headless, before an even more powerful, invisible foe. That foe these days is the equally omnipresent and omnipotent dollar. After all, I am standing in Midtown Manhattan where the only language that everyone can speak is that of Mammon. Writers of fiction and erudite scholars beyond the reach of mere mortals ponder the great mysteries of ancient gods. The rest of us walk the streets to our assigned places so that we may participate in its endless worship.

Dagon Cthulhu

Cthulhu has taken over the world, thanks to the internet. I wonder what H. P. Lovecraft thinks as he lies dead, but dreaming under the loam of Providence. A lifetime of struggle to gain recognition as a writer left him without much of a following, relegated to pulp magazines for low brow and Innsmouth-dwelling mentalities. Now everywhere from Davy Jones’ face in Pirates of the Caribbean to car bumpers in any parking lot, Cthulhu has awakened. My wife sent me a photo of a couple of such bumper-stickers recently: “Arkham’s Razor,” reads one, “The Simplest Explanation Tends to Be Cthulhu.” “Nyarlathotep is my co-pilot” reads another. I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through bumper-stickers.

Lovecraft

Back in my post-graduate days in Edinburgh, I had decided to write my dissertation on Dagon. This seemed a reasonable topic as no serious, book-length treatments of this elusive, Mesopotamian deity existed. My advisors talked me out of it, however, noting that material on Dagon was so scarce that it would be extremely difficult to scrape enough together to call it a dissertation. A few years later, it turns out, an academic book on Dagon finally appeared, but the fact remains that he was, and is, a major deity who somehow mostly disappeared from the ancient records—the victim of chance finds and perhaps more aggressive gods. For my birthday one year my wife bought me a bumper-sticker with a “Jesus fish” that had the word “Dagon” inside. I posted it on my office door in Oshkosh and the department chair asked me what the tentacles were meant to represent. An web search indicated that the Dagon was not the biblical “fish god” but the Lovecraft reincarnation. I had experienced an epiphany.

Lovecraft, although an atheist, knew his Bible. I once wrote a scholarly article on the Dagon story in 1 Samuel 5 where the Philistine statue of Dagon falls down, decapitated, before the captured ark of Yahweh. This is the sole narrative involving Dagon in the Bible, and it concludes by saying only Dagon’s “fishy part” was left intact. Lovecraft took this obscure Bible story and built an entire mythos from one of its characters. Cthulhu, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and their companions have risen from the deep, and encircled the world in an electronic web. The fact that kids who’ve never read Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu at a glance, attests to his power. Even Batman fans who cite Arkham without knowing that it was originally Lovecraft’s creation keep the master alive beyond the grave. Isn’t that what resurrection is really all about? Even if a writer has to be discovered through bumper-stickers.

Wrongful Resurrection

Re-Animator

H. P. Lovecraft was a tortured man. An atheist, he saw the inevitable dilemma of human life. We want to live forever, but even the short time we have is full of suffering. Almost Buddhist in his sensibilities, Lovecraft also knew the hubris of trying to reach too far. I was reminded of that when I recently watched Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. Like most of Lovecraft’s stories, the translation to film is difficult. The angst and haunting lie far too deeply embedded in the original stories to show, even with the finest acting, with any degree of verisimilitude. And the tales have to be padded out to get to that magic 85-minute mark. Nevertheless, there is something of their master still in them.

Re-Animator is based on Lovecraft’s short story, “Herbert West—Reanimator.” West discovers the secret to bringing the dead back to life. In the movie version, the result is unremitting chaos. The dead are somewhat zombie-like until Dr. Carl Hill, very freshly dead, retains his consciousness and begins his insidious plan to create a cohort of more proper zombies to do his will. Like Gordon’s other interpretation of Lovecraft, the eerily moody Dagon, there is a little too much blood-lust for my liking, but a point is being made, so I watch on. The point is very much at the heart of Lovecraft’s personal dilemma. We want to live forever, despite the pain and disappointments of the life we know. Life is optimistically resilient that way.

Lovecraft died a painful, natural death at the age of 46. His writings never demanded much attention during his life—thus seems to be the fate of many of the truly original. In the 76 years since his death he’s gained an enviable following. He might almost be said to have achieved a kind of immortality. A safe immortality. As he knew in life, resurrection is a double-edged sword. We may be reluctant to give up the only life that we (most of us, anyway) have consciously known, but have we really considered the implications of going beyond the line that nature has drawn for every living thing ever animated? Our technology keeps us alive in bodies that only continue their inexorable march toward the grave.

Am I sounding a bit bleak? Blame it on the rain. Immortality, in any belief system, only comes at a great cost. H. P. Lovecraft knew that and took the risk in spite of it.