If you’ve hung out with me, read my posts, or been around me for any amount of time, you know that eventually I’m going to say something about Cthulhu. I can’t even remember at what point I even discovered H.P. Lovecraft – I think I heard references to Call of Cthulhu or something and was thoroughly confused enough to look it up…and my mind was blown ever since.
Now, I have to say that I actually prefer a lot of the modern re-interpretations to some of H.P. Lovecraft’s actual work. There are times I find his stories a little clunky and a little well…if you look at it with the standpoint that when he was writing was a much different time, then I guess it’s easier to not see it as offensive, but there are some parts that rile me, not gonna lie. There are definitely stories/parts that I tend to skip over, because the antiquated racism just irritate me. His views of that nature aren’t something I agree with, and even though that was also part of the time he lived and wrote in, I find it hard to deal with in some cases.
However, his forward-momentum style, use of correspondence as narrative, and his ideas in general are pretty incredible. The fact that he structured a mythos of his own that had one foot in horror, one foot in sci-fi, and several tentacles in world mythos and suspense/noir…it’s pretty amazing. In a lot of ways Lovecraft developed (or at least brought massive attention to) an amalgam of genres that continue to revolutionize horror, dark fiction, science fiction, and other genres.
Granted, the elements of these stories aren’t particularly plausible…or are they? What fascinates me is at their core, Eldergod stories (or ‘other world’ stories) play on the idea that there may be things we haven’t discovered yet, things that are just waiting for us to stumble upon them, for good or ill. This line of thought is what made our ancestors believe in fairies, what makes some of us believe in aliens, and on and on. The plain fact is, we just don’t know what else is out there besides us. It seems like it’s humanity’s lot to over-think and let our imaginations run away with us – and the Cthulhu mythos and the Eldergod concept are part and parcel of that.
So my choices range in two groups: the stories by Lovecraft that I particularly like, and the modern stories that I’m particularly fond of.
– The Shadow Over Innsmouth – this was the first story of Lovecraft’s I read, and it draws you in. It’s longer than some of his others and takes its time outlining the plight of its protagonist. From the arrival of a narrator into a dilapidated town with strange residents, sundry, forbidden secrets, and how the narrator plays into all of this…it’s pretty awesome. This is a defining story of the “innocent comes to town and gets drawn into a dark network of secrets by weird townspeople” story, and it’s done fairly well.
– Dagon – I don’t know why I favor the fish person/monster stories, but they tend to be a lot of what I read. In this story an unnamed narrator is drifting at sea after escaping capture and wanders into an unknown part of the ocean, a festering, oozing mire. He gets out and explores and finds hints of what looks to be a past civilization of creatures that worships something horrible…and then he realizes that the civilization isn’t exactly past.
– Call of Cthulhu – the discovery of a mysterious artifact leads to an obsession with what it represents and the cult behind it…one of those stories where good intentions and curiosity suddenly means you know too much and are the next target. This is the story to start with in the Cthulhu mythos – this gives the definitive look at the creature, those who worship it, and some of the mythos behind it.
– The Color Out of Space – meteorite crashes into a farmer’s field, cannot be determined by scientists, and eventually shrinks down until only the ‘color’ of it remains. It infects the farmland and drains the life force of everything it touches, and slowly drives the people on it mad. It borders on Sci-Fi horror and is truly creepy.
– Nyarlathotep – another member of the Lovecraft pantheon. This story deals with the “creeping chaos” who comes to the narrator’s city to hold demonstrations of what’s to come. The narrator dares to defy his claims and is forced to wander with groups of attendees to witness the doom and destruction that has suddenly been brought to the world.
Now, keep in mind a lot of this will read as simplistic or maybe a little contrived – but you have to remember that these were some of the first instances of these kinds of plots. They are a little over the top and the language is somewhat archaic, but there are a lot of archetypes that found their footing in Lovecraft stories.
With that in mind, here are some of my favorite modern versions using the Cthulhu mythos/Eldergod/sense of “other” concepts
– Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar by Neil Gaiman – While this is a humorous take on Cthulhu mythos, it’s well worth the read. I believe this one is in ‘Smoke and Mirrors,’ and it tells the story of England’s version of Innsmouth and what happens when a backpacker stumbles upon two harmless-looking barflies there.
– Shadows over Baker St. – a whole anthology of Cthulhu mixed with Sherlock Holmes. The whole book is fantastic and really does a lot for both fandoms. The authors who write in it are well-versed and both, and it’s interesting to think of the world’s greatest detective fighting the ultimate threat to the human race, especially in a time where he was far more limited in his resources than we might be today. My personal favorite is another tale of Gaiman’s – A Study in Emerald.
– N by Stephen King – What happens when a psychiatrist has an OCD patient who is tormented by what he claims to see in a field and insists that his compulsions are the only thing that are keeping the creature from destroying the whole world? What happens when the psychiatrist finds out that he might be right? This is truly a terrifying short story – it stands out from many of the other King stories it appears with. The pace is perfect, the story is presented via letters, case notes, and other correspondence which keeps it as a nice tribute to Lovecraft, and the psychological aspects are used to perfection. You really begin to think and wonder if maybe there isn’t some credibility to the plot…it sure made me re-think my feelings on all the abandoned fields that I know of. There’s also a phenomenal graphic novel version that really takes the story and runs with it – even adds to it in a way that just makes it that much more freaky.
There’s also a story that I don’t have a title for, but was in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror sometime between 2003-2009 if I remember right. (I’m thinking it may actually be 05 or 09, but I just don’t know). It featured a kid taking bland food to a friend of his mother, and his mother was the only person allowed to cook for this woman. The woman in question was either a psychic or something like that, who gave advice to the neighborhood, but had the condition/curse of being able to see into things. She lived exclusively in a plain white room and could only look at bland things, because if she stared too long at a print or tile, she could see the creatures that lurked on the other side of the world. The story ends with a disgruntled customer or neighbor pulling her out of the room/opening the door fully so she could see the wallpaper, and it’s hinted that something crawls out and sucks her in. It. Is. Terrifying. The fact that you don’t actually see what happens, the fact that we all let our eyes go fuzzy when we stare into wood grain, prints, or textures…the fact that something may be using them to stare back, is genius. I wish I remembered the title and the author to this, because it’s one of the better interpretations I’ve seen in a long time.
So it’s true that this may be one of the lesser-plausible terrifying archetypes, but I love Eldergods. Love Cthulhu. It’s such a huge playground to play in, that you just can’t help but wonder…what if there’s something else just beyond the edge of the world, something that’s waiting to rule again…and what if you accidentally find it?