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.
Expect sporadic posting for a little while as I travel for the rest of the week. However, while this blog slows down I want to point your attention to something I’ve been working on elsewhere!
Over on Bad Movie Marathon, pal Luke and I are trying to review as many film adaptations of the work of HP Lovecraft as we can between now and his birthday, August 20th. We call it … Summer of Lovecraft.
So if you enjoy Movie Monday on this blog, or any of the previous stuff I’ve written about HPL, why not head over there and see what happens when I stop reading about sights humankind wasn’t meant to see and start actually watching them? I’ll be back next week with a new trip report, some TV Tuesday and maybe a return appearance from that loveable scamp Smith.
Yesterday evening I was down in London for a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books, the esoteric bookshop in Store Street known for its fascinating and varied lecture series. This shop is definitely in my top 5 things that occasionally make me wish I lived in London before I remember that within a year I would be a helpless, pitiful nervous wreck.
Anyway, the topic of the talk was “Cthulhu, Fiction and Real Magic,” and if you’re familiar with my own Treadwell’s talk you’ll know that kind of thing is right up my street. Or, you know, if you’ve met me, which statistically speaking if you’re reading this blog you have. This is going to be less a trip report and more me just sort of working through the talk and seeing what I make of it.
I was having dinner with much-more-spiritual-person Abi prior to the talk, and generally talking about the premise. It’s something that I find hard to relate to, but also very interesting: not how can people have magical or spiritual beliefs about a made-up entity — obviously, from my skeptical perspective, there’s no way to have magical or spiritual beliefs about a non-made-up entity, although I respect the views of those who differ — but how people can have magical or spiritual beliefs about an entity they are perfectly aware is made up. Abi seems to differ in her view of how many practicing theists actually regard the veracity or otherwise of their religion’s claims as unimportant (I think it’s a lot; she thinks it isn’t), and she should know.
I suppose the model that suggested itself to me was doublethink — that you have to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time, on the one hand well aware that it says “fiction” on the spine of the book, but on the other hand not handling it with the level of critical detachment that would normally imply. Little do I know of magick, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to approach it in a spirit of critical detachment, which is why I would make a terrible occultist.
So, the talk! I think I was probably not in the target audience for the first half — as I commented to another attendee, this was more “Lovecraft for magicians” whereas what I need is “magick for Lovecraftians.” But that’s not anything wrong with the talk — if it hadn’t included this bit, the second part wouldn’t have made sense for many people. The second part, which was about how fictional symbols became an important part of a lot of modern magical or esoteric practices was a lot more interesting. I had never really thought of the importance of Robert Anton Wilson in this context, if only because I am kind of contrary and the people who like Illuminatus! in high school are so fucking irritating about it that I conceived an irrational prejudice against the man and his works. I may be being unfair to them as well: I was a surly, critical youth.
In fact, there’s a lot of connection between theatre and magic in general, isn’t there? I need some Modern Esotericism 101, and in fact I think I actually have the relevant book on my shelf waiting to be read. I am going to be catching up on things over the holiday, so I’ll make that a priority.
Anyway, we were into the interesting bit, and Vincent talked about the idea of treating mythical or religious figures “as real” for magical purposes, which I think I had encountered elsewhere but forgotten about — that is, for the purposes of what you’re doing you treat things as if they exist, whether they verifiably do exist, are the result of ancient tradition, were made up by someone in the 1920s or were made up just now by you. In fact, as I understand it, you treat even things that are honest-to-god real (yourself, the world around you) with the same sliiiiiiiiight distance that you treat other ‘as real’ things with, which allows you to monkey with them in ways you otherwise might not be able to.
I think I had sort of grasped the basics of this, but he put it in a very clear way, I thought, and I certainly came away feeling like I understood that aspect of it better. Before I go on to the big question that this all left me with, let me bullet point some other things I jotted down during the talk:
- As an optimist, he doesn’t see True Detective’s ending as a lazy cop-out.
- Does this kind of pop-culture esotericism represent a form of cultural appropriation? Some traditionalist groups believe so. He was very strongly against cultural appropriation in the question-and-answer section, but it’s hard to see why given the radical individualism of the belief system he sketched out during the talk. In fact, he quoted at length a bit from Doktor Sleepless that blasted the whole notion of “authenticity.” Not sure how that marries up with liberal scruples about cultural appropriation.
- He thinks the Call of Cthulhu RPG (about which I have written at my gaming blog) is important in this story, and I couldn’t agree more. Quote: “there’s no small similarity between a good roleplay session and a guided pathworking.”
- “Parts of the Mythos started to leak into the occult counterculture.” I think Lovecraft started to spread into the counterculture generally in the post-war period, and that’s what’s fascinating about the whole thing to me, because he is not an obvious fit at all.
- I cannot agree with the idea that Stuart Gordon’s Dagon has a more interesting take on the sexual aspects of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” In “Shadow,” the people of Innsmouth have voluntarily agreed to mate with monsters in exchange for power and wealth — relative power and wealth, since mating with monsters means they still live in a filthy craphole. In Dagon, nubile young women get raped by monsters. One of these is a legitimately creepy idea, and one of them is the same goddamn thing that’s in every horror story ever. (I’m torn which of these is more sexist: 2/3 of the female characters in Dagon are raped or symbolically raped by monsters, and the remaining one is a monster. But there are basically no female characters in “Shadow” at all.)
Which leads me to the question I asked at the end. I felt like the second half of this talk did a good job of explaining the role that fictional beings play in “hyperreal religion,” but the big question I had come in with was still unanswered: why Lovecraft? Like, why Lovecraft in particular? Is it just because the Cthulhu Mythos is cool? Is it just because magick enthusiasts are a bunch of geeks? Because the whole authenticity-is-meaningless idea is something Lovecraft definitely believed, and yet at the same time authenticity was incredibly important to him — he called it a “comforting illusion” without which nothing would mean anything.
Now I think that what people who put an optimistic spin on Lovecraft in their religious or magical beliefs have done is to add an extra thought onto Lovecraft’s way of thinking about identity, and almost certainly a much healthier one, at least for modern Westerners. In my talk, I summarised Lovecraft’s view of history as “if your past isn’t what you thought it was, then you aren’t who you thought you were, and if you aren’t who you thought you were, you’re a monster at best and nothing at worst.” I then suggested that the chaos-magick take on this would be something to the tune of “if you aren’t who you thought you were, then maybe you can be whoever you want to be.” Lovecraft experienced the identity assigned to him by society as protective, but for some (maybe many, many) people, the identity assigned by society is not protective but restrictive.
Now I know that so far this has mostly been me rambling about my own thinking on Lovecraft rather than properly reporting on the talk, but I think you can take that as an indicator of the quality of the talk! It suggested connections that I hadn’t thought of and showed me a question I’d been perplexed by from another perspective.
I do have some nitpicks, though. In particular, the history of Lovecraft and the Mythos that opened the talk is not quite done yet; some of it seems to have been done from memory and it could use a spot of fact-checking. That’s a minor point, though.
So yeah. Good talk, good questions afterward, Treadwell’s always a lovely place. It was nice to meet Justin Woodman afterward, as well.
If you cast your eyes to the sidebar of this blog, you will see that there is now a page labelled “Buy My Book.” Technically, it is an ebook. It is a short work of sorta-kinda Lovecraftian horror set in the 9th century, and it is only $3. It is not uplifting reading. Still, if you like the kind of thing I like, you might enjoy it. You can click on that link or this one.
OK, we’re back for the third in what will probably be a four-part series on my time at the Monstrous Antiquities conference at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL last weekend. As you have probably gathered by now, I had a grand old time. Today we’ll be covering the papers that closed out Saturday, the film night that evening and, if there’s time, the first couple of papers from Sunday. That said, onward!
The first paper after lunch was by Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory: “‘The Accursed Galaxy’: Astronomy, archaeology and the appeal of cosmic horror.” And it was the business. You know, here’s the public face of British astronomy talking about Jack Vance in a way that indicates that he actually knows what he’s talking about. He opened up with a Pascal quote: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me …”.
So, key points: astronomy is, in many respects, looking directly in the past. When you look up at stars, you are of course seeing light that took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach you. And the scale of astronomical antiquities is vast. Prehistorians can have ten-thousand-year margins for error in their work, longer than the entirety of history. Geologists think prehistorians are fooling themselves about their work being old. And astronomers think geologists are on some bullshit.*
(*If you are an angry geologist, that was me, not him. I mean, it was me, not him whether you are an angry geologist or not, but you know what I mean.)
“Alternative” theories came up again, and we were introduced to the technical term used in astronomy, which is the same as the one we use in archaeology:
waaaaaaaaait for it ….
And then it’s a bewildering tour of the history of ideas in proper Fortean style, best represented by a lunatic with some coloured string, but here represented for technical reasons by bullet points:
- The Curiosity rover is doing digs on Mars. Dont’ look in the hole!
- The eruption of Tambora in April 1815 coloured Turner’s sunsets, caused the Year Without a Summer, which in turned caused Mary Shelley et al. to be stuck inside in bad weather, which in turn caused Frankenstein, which in turn basically caused science fiction.
- Lovecraft was scared witless by the implications of astronomical deep time. (And interestingly, unlike most people, astronomy rather than geology was where HPL got his deep time fear — he loved astronomy. Even the name Necromonicon may be derived from a poem called the Astronomicon.)
- Plus also Jack Vance, whose deep-time-ness extends into the future rather than the past.
- And M. John Harrison, come to that.
- And a whole lot of other stuff I haven’t put in my notes, like the face on Mars, astronomical alignment of the Pyramids (which caused the above comment), archaeoastronomy in general, all that kind of thing. In twenty minutes!
Anyhow, this actually did me a big favour, since I was up next and my talk had been haphazardly cut down from its hour-long version. I rushed through a bunch of stuff about Lovecraft and the post-Lovecraftian Mythos, especially focusing on the use of archaeology in “The Rats in the Walls,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Long story short: Lovecraft feared being cut off from his heritage, which he regarded as an actually meaningless but symbolically very important source of strength. (And if you want to say that this is how Pillars of Sanity work in Trail of Cthulhu, I think that makes sense.) But naturally, since it was something that Lovecraft relied on to keep himself happy and healthy, he spent his fiction smashing it to bits, and archaeology here serves as the wrecking ball. Post-Lovecraft Mythos authors have not pursued this theme, possibly because they don’t share HPL’s concern with heritage.
Last up was Egyptologist W. J. Tait, whose talk was about monsters — and specifically why Egyptian legend doesn’t seem to have a lot of the kinds of monsters that other types of folklore have, such as giants or ogres. Even in the story of Sinuhe, which has been described as the Egyptian David and Goliath story the antagonist isn’t a giant. This is another presentation where I wish I had been taking photographs, because I know less than nothing about Egypt, so my main concern is monsters, and ancient Egyptian monsters look either very cool or completely fucked up. (Interestingly, Lovecraft wrote a story that ends with this as the dramatic reveal.) They’re often a combination of (to paraphrase the talk) “dangerous beasts, fire and knives,” which not coincidentally is the new title of my forthcoming album.
I don’t think I caught the answer to why there are no giants, as I was frantically scribbling scary monster descriptions in my notebook, which shows you where my priorities are. So apologies for that.
So then it was movie time. Well, more accurately it was dinner time. I ran off and ate, taking the opportunity to finish This Book Is Full of Spiders. Then back to the Petrie Museum for Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.
Now, as it happens, I like a good bad movie, so I was well-served by the movie evening. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because if you are the kind of person who is reading my blog, then there is a better-than-average likelihood that you are the kind of person who wants to see this film. But let me make a brief digression.
When I was young (judging by the date of the film, about 10 or 11), there was a poster for this film in the Horror section of my local video store, Midtown Video. And this was in the glory days of the local video store, of course, before the big chains dominated but after VHS had been around long enough for places to have a good selection. I was in there pretty frequently, and I always looked at that poster with a mixture of weird chills and incipient adolescent perviness.
Now, here is a small spoiler: this poster represents an actual scene from the film, in which Hugh Grant puts speakers on the top of his house and plays snake-charmer music in order to lure evil snake-woman Amanda Donohoe out of her house so that Peter Capaldi and, erm, thingy, his love interest, can break into the place and rescue her sister. The love interest’s, that is, not Amanda Donohoe. And when the music plays, she rises up out of a basket and does a little sashay-y snake dance to the door and leaves.
I just want to see what was going on five minutes before that. What could she possibly have been doing in a basket? Like, it’s Thursday night, nothing on, so I’ll put on my vinyl villain outfit and four-inch heels and sit in a wicker basket. With the lid on! How did she even get it closed? And what did she do once she had closed it? Did she have her library book in there?
But what you’re asking yourself is “yes, James, the plots of horror movies don’t make much sense, but does this have the necessary level of anarchic goofiness and over-the-top shock?” And the answer is, well, yes, kind of. It is full of suspect acting, and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are just a carnival of absurdity that I wish I could tell you about but can’t without spoilers.
Anyway, see for yourself. Note: not even remotely safe for work and also probably copyright violation, so you should, you know, buy it if you can. It’s less than a tenner on DVD.
I have also just downloaded the book by Bram Stoker for the ol’ Kindle. I’ll be interested to see how much of the original survives into the film. I’m going to go ahead right now and say I bet the attempted dildo murder is not in the original. But I could be wrong.
I love this idea. I love the fact that the Petrie Museum has a film club. If the Whipple Museum of the History of Science had sci-fi film nights I’d die of dehydration in there. I love all that arts-engagement stuff, as who doesn’t, but naturally I’m particularly fond of it when it’s trashy, geeky and disreputable. I am sad I didn’t have any popcorn, but you can’t have everything.
OK, I know I said I would try to do Sunday morning next, but this is pretty long already and I need to be getting back to work. Stay tuned on Friday for Sunday, I guess.