Friday, May 8, 2015
Cosmic Horror and Cthulhu
Note: This is a rant, not an essay. I ramble, tangent, diverge and meander. Be warned.
There is a common assumption that Cthulhu and company are cosmic horror. That they have to be cosmic horror and any use of them that is not cosmic horror is an improper use. They are taken to be a part of the genre rather than characters that most frequently appear within a genre. It is expected that if Cthulhu appears in a story that he must be an unbeatable foe that causes insanity merely observing him. To do otherwise is to not be using Cthulhu appropriately. However, while Cthulhu, Hastur, Azazoth and the like are characters primarily known for cosmic horror storylines they are not, in and of themselves, cosmic horror.
Less commonly, you also find some people who think that cosmic horror can’t be cosmic horror without some element of the things Lovecraft wrote about. The Necronomican and various Cthulhu Mythos entities are very frequently integrated into other pieces of fiction on the lingering assumption that cosmic horror must be linked to these things. There are cosmic horror storylines without Lovecraftian references, but they are somewhat less common.
This overall attitude has been seen in creating the trope referred to on TV Tropes as “Angels, Devils and Squid” where you have the traditional good spiritual entities, the traditional bad entities and then you have this third group that is so terrible and unknowable that both the previous groups want to work together to prevent them from winning. Lovecraftian entities are very often assumed to be something so horrible and powerful that facing against them is almost a doomed prospect.
This attitude is not the only one demonstrated, however. For example, the Ghostbusters cartoon quite famously had Cthulhu in one episode and he was defeated in the same 30 minute episode. Arturia Pendragon, summoned as Saber during the Fate/Zero novels and anime, was likewise shown to use Excalibur to destroy Cthulhu in one attack once she was healed of an inhibiting injury. The instances where eldritch abominations are defeated somehow has resulted in another trope noted as “Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?” There are also numerous Cthulhu parodies ranging from the video game “Cthulhu saves the World” to a setting known as “The Laundry” where humanity has a sort of truce with the Deep Ones. But all that is another ranting conversation. I merely wished to acknowledge that I knew such fiction existed.
That said, I will also admit that my frustration with the idea that Lovecraft’s pantheon should be treated as cosmic horror and only as cosmic horror is mostly fueled by frustration with fans of Lovecraft’s works intruding on conversations completely unrelated to Lovecraft or the like with statements along the lines of “Cthulhu eats them all”. This is rather unfair of me and I know there are a number of more reasonable fans of Lovecraft who would never do such thing. I also enjoy discussing the Lovecraft universe and have been known to raise my eyebrows at things like the Steam-available game “Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land” which presented itself as a CRPG based on the Chaosium TRPG but made laughably poor attempts to present the Lovecraft pantheon as a united front of alien entities out to overrun humanity rather than being at each other’s throats and humanity caught in the crossfire as in Lovecraft’s canon.
What it comes down to for me is that a lot of Lovecraft fans consider Cthulhu and the like to be these uniquely powerful entities with characteristics unlike that of any other creature from fiction or myth when the reality is that Lovecraft used a lot of real world myth for inspiration but didn’t want to be limited in his interpretation by using names that had pre-existing expectations attached to them. None of the actual characteristics presented by Lovecraft’s entities are unique to them nor are they demonstratively more powerful than any other supernatural entities.
I have discussed this in other rants, but the insanity causing appearances, unkillable natures, effect on the natural evolution of living creatures, and their effect on the operation of the surrounding natural world are all traits common to creatures of myth and legend for centuries. If there is really a unique aspect to the Lovecraftian entities it is in the fact that humanity is not of real importance to them which can be seen as challenging to our humanocentric view of reality. Even that, however, has its mirror in the stories of the Fae that have been going on for thousands of years. Plus there are numerous modes of belief throughout history which reason that the gods mostly don’t care about humanity and we simply have to survive their whims.
Cthulhu isn’t really any more powerful than the Orcus portrayed by the Dungeons and Dragons game and Nyarlahotep isn’t much different from entities like Bane, Cyric or Mask from Faerun. Bringing the Cthulhu Mythos into D&D isn’t going to present much of a change to that genre in and of itself. In fact, D&D already makes frequent use of Lovecraftian elements including the sahaugin (Deep Ones), gibbering mouthers (shoggoths), and illithids (mini-cthulhus) without the game becoming cosmic horror. More recently, drawing power from the Old Ones, with Cthulhu mentioned by name, is a possible pact for a warlock character.
Horror is a sensation that arises when something you are facing challenges your deeply held understanding of the world. It doesn’t require a supernatural element. Everyday there’s someone in the world who experiences horror first hand due to entirely mundane but terrible circumstances. Cosmic horror focuses on our beliefs on the fundamental nature of reality. Humanocentrism is a common belief, so cosmic horror often targets that by presenting enemies which simply don’t care about humans for any reason other than momentary use. Where as many stories with a supernatural element present humanity as unique in some regard with our souls as the goal of some cosmic battle between good and evil, cosmic horror often makes us out to be the rare nematode that only lives in this one pond which will be driven to extinction by the incoming mini-mall.
In fact, cosmic horror could be invoked in the reverse. Imagine if the standard belief was that humanity was an unimportant anomaly in the world. That there these great and powerful entities out and about which could flatten us like a bug but largely didn’t care about us. They’d have no real daily impact on our existence. It’d be like living with earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. It’s just something that happens occasionally, nothing that you could control. The only supernatural entities that really care about people are ones that are relatively small and for which there are ways to ward them off or destroy them. Except for the presumed intellects of many of Lovecraft’s entities, that’s really no different than living in a vast universe with comets, black holes and other things that could out and out obliterate Earth without any difficulty.
Now imagine growing up with that understanding and then one day discovering that there was an all-powerful force that had created everything, including those massive supernatural forces that don’t care about you. Or maybe that those separate massive supernatural forces are just things this creator does. And imagine that this creator cares about what you do and will send punishments against you when you do something wrong but you have no idea what “wrong” really is. Imagine going from “there’s awesome cosmic powers out there but they don’t care about me” to “there’s an unimaginably cosmic power out there that cares about even the very smallest decision I make and is quite willing to condemn me for eternity even if I didn’t know there were any rules much less what they are.”
However, a lot of the English speaking world comes from a society wherein using cosmic horror was considered a good tool to use towards performing religious conversion (despite how it conflicted with core doctrine of the religion…but that’s another rant for another time). As such, most of us don’t really consider that cosmic horror, but rather consider it to be something else entirely.
Cthulhu is just a character, as are Hastur, Nyarlahotep and Azazoth. Adding a character does not make something cosmic horror. Nor is someone obligated to make a story into cosmic horror just because one of these characters is included. Nor are you obligated to include these characters when you write a cosmic horror story. Lovecraft could just as easily have written stories about Poseidon, Zeus, Hel, Izanami, Houyi, and any of a large number of other figures from real world mythology and religion. He decided not to because he didn’t want to be constrained by the expectations associated with said entities. That said, he still drew a lot from real world myth. As an example, Dagon was a Semitic Mesopotamian fertility god associated with grain and fishing and was part of the pantheon worshipped by the Philistines. He also made use of Bast and Hypnos as being among the sort of protective Elder Gods (though even they were dangerous in his stories). And yes, Lovecraft did write stories where there were supernatural entities that helped humanity, always for their own purposes, but the idea of good(ish) entities was not entirely due to Derleth.
The Cthulhu Mythos also suffers as cosmic horror because Lovecraft went through the trouble to define the unimaginable and mind-bending secrets the very thought of which would drive men mad. Many of the horrible revelations within Lovecraft’s stories are commonly considered in modern times. There are millions of people who don’t believe humanity is the center of the universe or even at all important, being just one species on a small planet on the edge of only one galaxy. The idea that all life evolved from some proto-biotic protein goop is accepted as scientific fact. There has even been recent consideration that life may have been carried to Earth on debris from space, though I don’t know how much support that has. The concept that we are a byproduct of alien experimentation is a common fictional trope and an actual belief of many people in real life. There is a lot of science regarding non-Euclidean geometries and Euclidean geometry itself is considered more or less a useful approximation of space on a planet but not actually accurate. These are all included amongst the ideas that Lovecraft implied humanity was inherently incapable of bearing without our mind breaking and yet they are common concepts in the modern world. Almost every instance of “things man was not meant to know” is commonplace in fiction today and many even appear in basic science.
Lovecraft built a lot of his horror on his own phobias and prejudices. Fears of congenital insanity, mixed bloodlines and even seafood were among many of his quirks. He was writing in a time period when the diseases of the mind were a matter of horror of their own and while his brand of racism was extreme even for the time, there were many people that were likewise terrified of the results if people from different ethnicities produced a child. He did succeed, and still does, in evoking horror. I can remember shivering while reading the “Colour Out of Space” in broad daylight, and “The Vault” is one of the more terrifying things I have ever read. That said, I found “Call of Cthulhu” much less terrifying. It pretty much read exactly as I expected it to.
This is the problem. Cosmic horror hinges around suggesting that the things we know to be true are, in fact, not true. Any concept can become a facet of cosmic horror when that concept contradicts deeply held beliefs. We consider things like bacteria and viruses to be common knowledge, even if some people know less about them than they should, but imagine trying to explain the matter to anyone of the 12th Century. How would they take the idea that there are billions of billions of entities too small to see which can get into your body and start causing you to be ill. If you were to actually convince them the result would likely be something of a germ phobia as we see today. They’d go insane trying to think of ways to seal themselves away from these invisible, tiny creatures seeking to murder them. Forget what would happen if you told them that we need some of those tiny invisible creatures to even live.
Once the concepts become known and successfully assimilated into the whole of what is real it ceases to be horrible. Horror fiction relies on audience expectations in order to be successful. There is a narrow line between fulfilling those expectations exactly such that the story is too predictable and breaking those expectations entirely so that story feels “wrong”. To some degree this is true of any sort of fiction, but evoking a sensation of horror depends so much on twisting these expectations that it is a special case. More specifically it is the sort of expectations that are twisted. Horror movies twist the assumptions we make about the rules that the world operates under specifically while all good movies tend to twist the expectations of plot development.
To illustrate this, take “John Carpenter’s Vampires”. It is a movie about vampires so it very clearly is a horror movie, right? Well, it would certainly be shelved as such, but if you consider it closely, the movie is more of an action movie with vampires. There are a few plot twists that are interestingly handled, but overall the nature and capabilities of vampires are clearly delineated in the first part of the story and never stray far from it. All the character actions stay within a clear framework of world rules that allow the audience some solid ground to watch the proceedings from.
Compare this to something like King’s Salem’s Lot where the general, well-known rules of vampirism are followed along with including some obscure bits of lore. However, the framework he works with here is in the reactions of the village. As the reader, we know more or less what is going on, but we keep expecting some small band of heroes to turn back the tide of darkness eventually. It is frighteningly realistic just blind all the characters seem to be over the course of the developing infestation. The horror is not in the vampires themselves but in how passive the people are and how easily they’re willing to accept the growing death toll as natural until there are far too many vampires for any one group to deal with. That same passivity does not need vampires to be a problem. A tainted water supply, for example, with the village going on without noticing it or questioning it, could likewise result in killing the entire town. In fact real world incidents very close to that have actually happened.
To take it one step further, I would suggest looking into the anime “Shiki” but will avoid saying anything more than that in this rant to spare the spoilers for this lesser known piece of horror. Watch or read Salem’s Lot then find “Shiki” and marathon the episodes, preferably somewhere dark.
It is easier to evoke horror when the reader has less of an idea of what to expect. Once you say “vampire” or “werewolf” the audience starts connecting the well-known rules of each creature. Stepping past those rules in some form or fashion is necessary to unsettle audience expectations and evoke horror, but stepping too far past risks have the audience dismiss the entire thing as wrong. For example, many people get annoyed when you have vampires that can walk around in the daylight, despite the fact that all four of the classic gothic vampire novels have vampires that have little to no problem with daylight.
Cosmic horror and the Cthulhu Mythos have the issue that they are a very specific genre of horror. People picking up a book dealing with Lovecraftian entities expect tentacles, insanity, depraved cults, rituals to summon apocalyptic end times and other such trappings. They expect anything supernatural to be at least dangerous to toy with and most likely an out and out threat. This very specific set of expectations is the reason that there are so many parodies of Cthulhu in existence and so many storylines involving the Cthulhu Mythos become somewhat more action, mystery and pulp than actually reaching the point of evoking horror. The purist audiences have very strict expectations and can often lose their immersion in the story by playing watchdog to make sure all the necessary points are clicked and no mistake is made.
The Lovecraft purists, for example would hate the fact that Cthulhu is a one-off event that is eliminated over the course of one or two episodes in the Fate/Zero storyline. The fact that the Servant who summoned Cthulhu and the Servants fighting it are humanoid abominations in their own right would be overlooked, because most would not equate the souls of past and future Heroes and Villains as being eldritch abominations. However, while Cthulhu is a minor element in it, the Type-Moon universe that the Fate storylines take place in is rife with cosmic horror where even the collective will of humanity’s survival can manifest in such disasters as Pompeii (and no, that’s not a mis-statement. The collective will of humanity’s continued survival dispatched an entity to manifest as a volcanic eruption and eradicate Pompeii entirely). Looking into the novels, visual novels and assorted other materials that the various anime are based on presents a host of horrifying elements that show the story protagonists to be points of light in dark world.
Some of the most horrifying stories of Cthulhu Mythos don’t particularly need any real supernatural element at all. All they require is human cultists and witnessing the depths to which a person is willing to go in order to achieve some end, especially when the end goal seems to be something no sane person would ever want. The Whateleys are imminently more terrifying than the Dunwich Horror. The Horror itself is a supernatural monster that we can safely expect to never encounter in real life, but a handful of lunatics killing people in order to fulfill some religious fervor is something we see in the news daily. Likewise, the real terror of the “Shadow Over Innsmouth” isn’t in the fact that the villagers are predominantly inhuman, but in how easily we can conceive that an isolated village in New England could produce similarly murderous behaviors. The supernatural elements candy coat it, but somewhere in us is the realization that even if Cthulhu itself is fiction, there might be someone out there willing to kill for it. It’s that bridge of reality and fiction where our footing is unsure and we develop niggling little doubts about just how much of what we’re reading is pure fiction and how much is actual possibility.
Ultimately, while cosmic horror deals with elements such as the structure and operation of the universe, the horror of cosmic horror stories is created in the places where our fiction overlaps with reality. There might not be a shoggoth in the shadows below us, but a swarm of rats will kill us just as well. Slenderman might not be a real thing, but a couple of kids can still try to kill a friend to garner favor with it. There might be no evidence of any truly Satanic, devil worshipping cult having ever existed, but that doesn’t stop people from being hung or lynched on suspicion of such. The scary parts of horror are always those that speak to real possibilities that we’d rather not think about.
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