Lovecraft Legacy

CarterLovecraftHistory 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.

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.

One Flew Over Cthulhu’s Nest

Pluto is a metaphor for the ultimate of outer limits. Just one of many largish objects in the Kuiper Belt, Pluto for a while held the status of the final planet in the solar system. With the photos from New Horizons coming in, we’re discovering a world more complex than most have imagined. It’s not just a snowball after all. With discovery, of course, comes naming. The planets are all named after Roman gods, just as our weekdays are named after Germanic deities. The features on our celestial neighbors often bear more prosaic names, such as those of astronomers or decidedly non-mythological human beings. As the rules of nomenclature go, the first to find claims the privilege to christen. What shall the new features of Pluto be called?

I was gratified when the New York Times photos displayed the informal names by the New Horizons’ team. There is a large area called “the Heart,” but lurking to the lower left there’s a feature being called “the Whale,” or, more appropriately, “Cthulhu.” The internet breathed new life into H. P. Lovecraft’s literary fame. Like most writers, he remained obscure for his entire life, finding really only one publisher who favored his work. Genre fiction has always been considered the bargain basement of literary artists, and Lovecraft wrote in the lowest part of that basement, horror. (Okay, well, romance might be further down, on purely literary grounds.) Only within the last few years has horror literature begun to be recognized by academics as worthy of serious exploration. Nevertheless, it was as the Monster Boomers grew up—or failed to—that Lovecraft reemerged. The world-wide web has become the lair of Cthulhu and of his minions.

Far out in the most remote reaches of our solar system, Cthulhu awaits. Lovecraft fans know Cthulhu is one of the Old Gods, but that he is also a being from the stars. His murky, dark presence has thrived on the underworld of the internet, and now has fired imagination on the darkest planet of an obscure solar system. What more could a writer dream? A fictional creation being suggested as the name of a planetary feature. H. P. Lovecraft lies decomposing under the loam of Providence, Rhode Island. His imagination, however, has reached as far as, at least to date, humanity can possibly go and find some kind of land beneath our feet. And that land, appropriately enough, is peopled with monsters. The Old Gods lie dead but dreaming, and they will rise again.

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Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim is a movie that once again brings monsters and religion together in the cinema. Since I’m generally late seeing movies, I won’t worry too much about spoilers here, but in case you’re even later than me here’s the gist of it: giant monsters from outer space (properly an interplanetary portal) are emerging from the Pacific Ocean to take over the earth. These radioactive, dinosaur-like aliens are called Kaiju. Although they can be taken down with conventional weapons, the most effective fighting tool is the Jaeger, a colossal robot piloted by two humans acting as the two hemispheres of the brain. These humans must “drift”—share their brains—in order to control these massive machines in unison. Lots of action and destruction, of course, ensue. We later find out that dinosaurs were an earlier invasion of these same aliens, but that our environmental degradation has made the atmosphere much better for them, and this time they’re back for good.

The resistance is led by a mysterious marshal named Stacker Pentecost. Pentecost, of course, is the festival celebrating either the giving of the Torah (Jewish) or the giving of the Holy Spirit (Christian). In either case, it is a holiday celebrating God’s plan for humanity. As Pentecost leads his beleaguered and shrinking army of jaegers against the Kaiju, scientists Geiszler and Gottlieb disagree about how to conquer the beasts. Gottlieb swears, “Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God,” while advocating the predictive elements based on the statistics of the attacks. Science and religion have come to an uneasy truce here. As Geiszler seeks a Kaiju brain to drift, he observes some of the masses in Tokyo praying to the fallen beasts. A blackmarket dealer in Kaiju remains explains that they believe the Kaiju have been sent by God. Pentecost unwittingly concurs when he declares it is time to end the apocalypse.

Pacific Rim, like most Guillermo del Toro films, is a complex movie. There is also more than a sprinkling of H. P. Lovecraft here. The worship of the Kaiju keyed me in to the fact that these were the old gods, come to earth, under the sea, from space. As the first category 5 Kaiju swims past the camera, I couldn’t help but think of Cthulhu. Although Kaiju is Japanese for “monster,” it even sounds like his sacred name. We fear that which is larger, stronger, and unknown to us. When that fear becomes reverence we are on the brink of worship, and our monsters have become our deities.

Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.

Rites and Wrongs

One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.

The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.

First World Religion

H. P. Lovecraft’s contemporary, and sometimes inspiration, Algernon Blackwood has recently come to my attention. Like Lovecraft, Blackwood was an early twentieth-century writer of supernatural tales. Raised with a father of “appallingly narrow religious ideas” Blackwood came to write stories involving strange religious characters and occult themes. I recently read his famous story, “The Willows,” for the first time. The entire premise is built around a sacrifice required by strange gods on an isolated island in the Danube River. Much of Lovecraft’s literature, as is readily apparent, builds on the Old Gods. Lovecraft was an unflinching atheist, but he knew that the divine had the ability to frighten in a way that the purely material often does not.

The early twentieth century exerted an enormous influence on the religious landscape of the modern world. Although my historical specialization is much earlier, it is clear that the events of the First World War forever changed the way that religion was viewed. Historically, those not involved in the fighting of wars had often been insulated from them. With the advent of technology that allowed military devastations to be photographed and swiftly disseminated, people around the world realized what an atrocity war actually is. Not glorious. Not triumphant. And despite the abundance of piety in foxholes, no deities evident anywhere. It is well known that horror of war at least partly led William Jennings Bryan to advocate a more fundamental brand of Christianity to counterbalance the “evils” of evolution that led to such nasty ideas as eugenics and social Darwinism. It is no accident that the Fundamentalist movement began to take hold with the revelations of the First World War.

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Ironically, today many use creationism as the excuse to challenge all religion as a misguided set of antiquated principles that have no place in an enlightened world. The sad truth is that those who immediately dismiss religion out of hand don’t realize that the creationist concern arose precisely for the same reason: the horrors that science was unleashing upon regular, simple religious believers. The two viewpoints, however, can live together. Although many of the writers of the early twentieth century had no room for faith in their accounting of reality, they did believe in its effectiveness in creating fiction that had to be taken seriously. Atheists, perhaps, but not angry ones. Perhaps the angry ought to spend some time amid the willows to evaluate more fairly the ambiguous role that religion play has played and continues to play in an uncertain world.

Which Lethbridge Witch?

witcheslethbridge Thomas Charles Lethbridge was a twentieth-century explorer. I knew his name only from book covers, and since books published before the cynical 1980s have a feel of the parsimoniousness to them, I tend to be trusting. As a former academic, my choice of reading is, in an odd way, sequential. You see, academic research is often a matter of following leads, rather like Sherlock Holmes with his clues. One thing leads to another. I’ve been learning about paganism at work, and so when I noticed T. C. Lethbridge’s book, Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion, I figured that I might learn something about belief in witches in the Middle Ages. The book was published by the Routledge Kegan Paul phase of my employer in 1962. I quickly learned that Lethbridge was far from conventional, even in the twenty-first century.

Lethbridge’s book on witches turned out to be a romp through mostly Celtic mythology, with a bit of Norse and ancient Near Eastern myth thrown in for good measure. It turns out that Lethbridge literally did believe in the power of magic and was no slouch when it came to dowsing. In the great Frazerian tradition, Lethbridge brings together some elements that are probably best left separate, but the result is undeniably interesting and entertaining. I’m not sure he would be considered a balanced source for research purposes today, yet his book does contain unexpected insights. But no witches. Witches, according to Lethbridge, were adherents of the old gods. Their worldview collapsed with geocentrism and there was little left for magic to do in an empirical world.

Lethbridge’s constellation has dimmed from the scholarly zodiac. In recent days he has found a new set of disciples, however, who see his work as profoundly prophetic, in a manner of speaking. Lethbridge was an occult investigator before such pursuits became big business. Among mainstream academics these ideas still fall into the category of bogus, naive, or superstitious, but that is beginning to change in some quarters. Lethbridge, as it quickly becomes apparent, reserved a kind of scorn for establishment academics. It is true that stepping out of line has its consequences even in the rarified halls of higher education, but the results of the research are often of high quality. Even witches can be studied with an academic eye. The difference seems to be that T. C. Lethbridge believed what the witches said. That makes him a real explorer.