Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent

As you’ve no doubt been informed by the rest of the internet, August 20th is the birthday — the 125th — of none other than H. P. Lovecraft, creator of the “Cthulhu Mythos” (not a term he used) and pioneer of modern horror. I have spoken about Lovecraft’s use of history and archaeology in the past, but I thought I’d give a bullet-point version of the story today.

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Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent

The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, Mass.

While I was back in the US last spring, I got a wonderful gift: a copy of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society‘s The Curious Sea Shanty Variants of Innsmouth, Mass. This is a book-and-CD package, but it’s the book I really want to talk about. (Actually, I guess the CD is called The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, Mass.)

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So, first the CD: longtime friend and collaborator-on-an-upcoming project Jesse Merlin performed on some of the songs on here; between this, Dreams in the Witch House and Re-Animator: The Musical he seems to be establishing a pattern of disturbing outline. Anyway, according to the liner, these are reconstructions of traditional Innsmouth shanties, sea songs and hymns rendered by the Miskatonic University Men’s Chorus. This song isn’t actually on the album:

They are fun, and they sound lovely, but it’s actually the book I want to talk about, because it’s the book that I found really impressive. It’s presented as a humanities monograph published by Miskatonic University Press in 1927, and it’s got a lot of lovely period detail, from the slightly blurry colour maps to the typeface.

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The book (well, pamphlet, really — 46 pages) starts with an overview of both the history of Innsmouth from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and of sea shanties and sea songs in general, as well as the story of how the author became acquainted with them. We then get the lyrics and explanatory notes for 14 songs, most of them variants on well-known sea songs like “Old Maui,” “Leave Her Johnny,” “Blow the Man Down” or “New York Girls.” You have to be careful with this kind of thing — you’re always on the verge of filk with any sort of reinterpretation here, but it helps that there are so many different variants of these songs to start with, that the rewrites are restrained enough not to cover the lyrics in tentacles, and that the original lyrics are often a little weird to start with — there are a lot of damned peculiar things you can do with a drunken sailor, it turns out.

On a personal note, Jesse and I went to school together, and at a young age we went on one of those living-history things where we had to learn sailor-y type skills aboard the C. A. Thayer at the Hyde Street Pier Maritime Museum in San Francisco. I still remember ensnaring a passing student with a thrown monkey’s fist while practicing at school, a feat that would have been even more impressive if I hadn’t been trying to wrap my line around a basketball hoop some distance from the kid. But my point is that the bo’sun, Roy, did in fact lead the class in singing sea shanties, including several of the ones that appear in this book. At the time, he seemed like a salty old sea dog to me, although it was the 1980s so there’s also the possibility he was just a big Stan Rogers fan.

From the songs we then move on to some analysis, followed by a brief piece on the Esoteric Order of Dagon itself (in the words of Albert Wilmarth, who is of course the protagonist of “The Whisperer in Darkness.” After that, some speculation about where the “Kanaky” referred to in the shanties actually is. (This is why I was surprised that there wasn’t a variant of “John Kanaka” in this collection! I mean, look at the lyrics.)

What’s interesting to me is not only the fake-history aspect of this — as we have previously established, I love fake history — but the way in which it ties in to other bits of fake history. Obviously, there’s Lovecraft’s whole New England setting, but there’s also the list of other monographs which includes one written by Peter Dannseys (an anagram of Call of Cthulhu creator Sandy Petersen) together with Eliphas Fallworth (which makes no sense unless you know, as I do, that Eliphas’s middle name is “Cordvip,” making his name an anagram of “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”). Chaosium products referring to Miskatonic University from the 80s and maybe 90s often included these faculty members. There were loads of them: Eric K. Larkhan (Charlie Krank), Herbert Hike (Keith Herber), L. N. Isinwyll (Lynn Willis), F. Ford Ratsegg (Greg Stafford), Ivan Mustoll (Tom Sullivan), etc., etc. I can’t believe I remember them, actually. But there are probably not a lot of people who do, unless they’ve come back into use in the decade or so in which I’ve not been paying a lot of attention to Call of Cthulhu. But it’s that level of detailed nerdery you want and get from the HPLHS. I haven’t got the patience for that kind of thing, but boy do I respect it in others.

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In fact, this might be one of those things that it does my heart good to know exists. I may hate on all the collectible-Cthulhu stuff there is out there now — just old-guy stuff, you know, grumbling about everything being a marketplace — but the HPLHS have paid their dues; hell, I first heard of them back in the 90s in that Unspeakable Oath article, which I must have read 100 times. And they do it with such labor-of-love attention to detail.

So, yeah. Another oddball pamphlet for my oddball pamphlets shelf. If you like this kind of thing, you will like this thing. Get you one.

Also: in “Old Maui,” the singer says: “it’s a damn tough life, full of toil and strife, we whalermen undergo.” But the first version I heard sounded a lot like “we whalemen,” and even though it’s still clear that means the crew of a whaling ship, I can’t help but think of it as “whale-men.”

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From http://blog.wolfire.com/ . Who knows.
The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, Mass.

Harriet asks:

What are all your scholarly interests?

Now, OK, part of the purpose of this blog is to talk about the things that aren’t/weren’t my scholarly interests. And probably most of my interests are not scholarly anymore. I hit the second-finest mesh in academia and didn’t go through. But here they are, from scholarliest to least scholarly.

Burial practice in late Anglo-Saxon and early post-Conquest England, with a side of burial practice in like Scandinavia and Ireland and so on: man, we tend to think that Christian burial is a relatively well-understood thing in the middle ages but we are kidding ourselves. All kinds of crazy stuff goes on and we have only really begun to look seriously at it over the last few decades.

The archaeology of late Anglo-Saxon England generally: setting for above.

The Vikings: boy howdy I love me some Vikings. Not just for the metaaaal aspects but for the weirdness. As a rule, the reality of any historical culture is just plain stranger than its stereotype, and this one is no exception.

The First Crusade: and the career of Bohemond of Taranto in particular. One of those times in history when awful things happen to mostly awful people and I just can’t take my eyes off the resulting train wreck.

Life and Works of H.P. Lovecraft: not a humorous Cthulhu t-shirt. You can wear a humorous Cthulhu t-shirt, it’s cool. I just don’t want to be misunderstood.

Fringe everything — fringe history, fringe archaeology: it’s bullshit and its practitioners are dumbheads, lunatics, charlatans or very nice people who are just a little misguided and yet I can’t look away. It’s fascinating and a lot of their stuff makes for a better story.

Rituals, death and burial, all that kind of thing: what do people do with their dead and why? That last part, that’s the tough part.

How people in the past thought about the past: nothing but a medieval portrait of Julius Caesar wearing a set of medieval armour over and over again.

Everything else ever: I am not an expert on, but have a reasonably good grip on swarms of other subjects, from the conquest of Mexico (train wreck) to the eastern front in WWII (train wreck) to the development of a centralised state in Tudor England (not, like, a conquest-of-Mexico-scale train wreck anyway) to the life and career of Woodrow Wilson (train wreck). I am not good at devoting my life to one thing.

Pop culture, especially comic books: I once thought about getting a tattoo of something Anglo-Saxon-y and related to my work, but I think that if you have a tattoo of Anglo-Saxon art people will probably think you are a racist. My second choice was some Kirby krackle.

Harriet asks:

Convincing unconvincing archaeology

An upcoming conference in London, about which more in a bit, has got me thinking about earlier talks I gave which relate to H.P. Lovecraft, history and archaeology. The link I posted below to the Treadwell’s one is expired, but I will see if I can find it again. However, I also appeared on an episode of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast (“H.P. Podcraft” to its friends) talking about The History of the Necronomicon and Ibid. The interesting thing to me about these minor works of Lovecraft’s is the way he manages to adopt the style and jargon of historians (different in those days, of course) to give his work an air of being authenticity. In fact, Lovecraft famously said that in a story with fantastic elements the other elements have to be totally realistic — have to be handled as if they were a hoax.

I wondered if this were not tangentially related to the work of former Cambridge colleague Tera Pruitt, whose web presence I am not able to find with lazy searching but whose work should be required reading for anyone interested in pseudoarchaeology. You can check out her Master’s thesis here, but there’s probably more out there, and if I find it I shall promote it. Basically, one of the things she noticed about pseudoarchaeology was its tendency to appropriate aspects of actual archaeology, in terms of its language, its organisations, its structures … everything but the actual archaeology, of course. Frustrating for archaeologists but fun for Forteans.

Now, maybe Cornelius Holtorf, in one of his bomb-lobbing archaeology/pop-culture treatises, would say that this isn’t a perversion of the system — this is the system. Me personally, I would not agree, but I can sort of see where he’s coming from. Sometimes what’s really important — and this is certainly the case when we’re talking about Lovecraft and history — isn’t what you say but how you say it.

I never explain this stuff clearly, and I’m not sure I have now.

Convincing unconvincing archaeology