The Use and Abuse of Cthulhu
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
H.P. Lovecraft was a pioneer of the speculative fiction genre and comisc horror, making him just our cup of tea around here. And recently, it seems his work has made a reappearance in popular culture. From the recent video game The Call of Cthulhu, to theorists pointing to Cthulhu as the most likely culprit for the monster in Birdbox, and now the announcement that Nicholas Cage is going to star in an adaptation of Lovecraft's short story The Color Out of Space.
There's even a children's bedtime story called Sweet Dreams Cthulhu. I kid you not. Go check it out, it's hilarious. Definitely a book adults get to induct their toddlers into eldritch worship early in life.
And if you've heard of Lovecraft, you'll have heard of Cthulhu.
If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. The Call of Cthulhu
The Call of Cthulhu was first published in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales in February 1928. It, like most of Lovecraft's stories, centres on the weakness of the human mind and the resulting insanity that comes from attempting to comprehend reality.
In H.P. Lovecraft's world, this idea often took on monstrous forms. But actually, Lovecraft is talking about is cosmic horror - a very different aspect of sci-fi which usually shows humanity as conquering the unknown (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc). Lovecraft shows humanity pales to insignificance in the face of what's out there. It's a fear of the vast unknown and the idea that if we could grasp this knowledge, we would be driven mad by it.
Where does Cthulhu come from?
The idea of there being horrors we can't comprehend but have ridiculous power over is familiar to anyone who's ever had a monster under their bed. Or, if you were a seventeenth-century sailor aware that you were in the vast ocean where you could never hope to be saved if anything went wrong.
There were lots of oceanic horrors. And while I could easily launch into a mythology rant, I'll refrain. Instead, I'll keep to the monster you'll know if you've ever seen Pirates of the Caribbean. The Kraken.
An obvious influence on the Cthulhu myth, the Kraken is a Scandinavian folkloric cephalopod which prayed on ships off the coast of Norway and Greenland.
Though I've been on several boats in and around Norway and I've never spotted it myself, this problem was apparently so widespread that the natural historian, Erik Pontoppidan detailed several Kraken attacks in his work Det første Forsøg paa Norges naturlige Historie (The First Attempt at Natural History of Norway) in 1752.
Robert M. Price, a Cthulhu Mythos scholar (yes, there are actually Cthulhu scholars - real party guys they must be) even points to Alfred Tennyson's irregular sonnet The Kraken as Lovecraft's inspiration.
The terror something lingering in the deep is nothing new.
Cthulhu versus Sherlock Holmes
Drawn by Lovecraft
Now, no one would blame you if you haven't heard of this tentacled bundle of joy. But if you've read a lot of fantasy, or have a steampunk bent, you'll probably have stumbled across him. Back in 2007, there was even a video game called Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, where Holmes and Watson investigate a series of disappearances linked with the Cthulhu mythos.
The connection between Cthulhu and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is an interesting one and is one of the reasons you find octopuses tangled up in the steampunk genre. In his book Tales of Terror and Mystery, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tries his hand at sci-fi which, when you read it. The style is very similar to HG Wells and Edgar Allen Poe, with a more languid approach to the science.
One of the stories in this book is called The Horror of the Heights. Here, an aviator, Joyce-Armstrong, in his monoplane is trying to discover what happened to his fellow pilots who was trying to break the height record of 30,000 feet. Amongst the clouds, he discovers large, flying purple squids which live in the sky and kill any and all aviators who manage to climb so high. The squids attack him and eventually, Joyce-Armstrong is killed.
As with most things that have crept into popular culture, the Cthulhu of today is pretty tame. He's on t-shirts, political posters and keyrings. Regrettably. Given that Cthulhu represents the ultimate indestructible evil, an existential terror, a representation of comic horror.
He's not a pet.
But I think our adoption of Cthulhu on such a board level tells us a lot about how we are at the moment. Why this story and this idea has fresh relevance for the 2000s and 2010s.
H.P. Lovecraft wrote The Call of Cthulhu in the years between WW1 and WW2. A period of time which gave rise to what was known as the lost generation. A generation of people who were considered directionless, disoriented and without purpose. This generation would give way to the Baby Boomers and Generation X, both of whom had far more understanding of their place in the world.
The Caption reads: "Choose the greater evil. Vote Cthulhu." A poster from the 2010 Polish presidential election.
Bring on the current new generations and, again, we are some of the most confused and disorientated for a long time. Our world has process rapidly in the last fifty years and it's also back-peddled in some spectacularly horrific ways. We're all racing to catch up and none of us really know what tomorrow's going to bring, let alone the next ten years.
Is it really a stretch to say for the first time in a long while, the idea of a nameless horror which cares little for us but could wipe out everything in a heartbeat seems somehow fitting for our current world? Almost darkly reassuring? Or is that just me?