Cthulhu and Cosmic Terror

For many years now, I’ve been aware of the Cthulhu Mythos, since it infuses lots of popular culture. Indeed, Dread Cthulhu was recently blamed for the horizon oil spill, a theory that I rather enjoyed.

Despite this, I hadn’t actually read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s books directly. Last week and this, I decided to try out an ebook reader on my phone, specifically the rather excellent Aldiko for android. It’s a nice application. I downloaded two of Lovecraft’s books; “The Call of Cthulhu” and the “At the Mountains of Madness”.

Lovecraft has been, mostly after his death, immensely influential, with references to his work appearing in many modern authors’ work (e.g. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman). He is famous for the idea of “Cosmic Horror”. The idea that the world is not truly rational, and understandable, but nightmarish, chaotic and hostile or at best indifferent to human nature.

I found “The Call of Cthulhu” rather unpleasant to read in parts, not because of the supposed horror, but because of the unpleasant racism implicit and explicit within the book. It does need to be remembered that everyone is a product of their times however, and I find the implicit racism difficult to accept in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien too. But the book was interesting.

The second book, “At the Mountains of Madness” was more mature and less objectionable.

But I couldn’t entirely share the horror of the protagonists. Some of their discoveries were genuinely horrifying (usually acts committed by human beings) but much of the rest would be wondrous. They are horrified by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. Non Euclidean geometry does not frighten me, and indeed Lovecraft understood it wasn’t the true nature of the universe. But seeing clearly non Euclidean architecture in a “normal” setting is wondrous, terrifying perhaps briefly, but not horrific. Much of the horror just comes from the primitive frame of reference, either scientific, or religious or both, of the protagonists.

And this is the bit I really can’t understand, since Lovecraft was a failed astronomer, so he would have known that the universe is, to the best of our knowledge, indifferent to our existence, and that the laws of physics themselves could see our annihilation in so many ways. Indeed, apart from a (probably literal) Deus Ex Machina solution, every scientist knows that the ultimate future of humanity is doomed… Is that “Cosmic Horror”?

By the way, since the world is Sherlock Holmes mad at the moment, I recommend A Study In Emerald (PDF), a Hugo Award winning short story that is an interesting cross over of the Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu mythos written by Neil Gaiman.

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One thought on “Cthulhu and Cosmic Terror”

  1. I’ve read a few of Lovecraft’s books but have listened to more of his work via the wonder of audio-books. You are correct in that his early work (e.g. Call of Cthulhu, The Horror at Red Hook) were quite racist and this jarred with me initially until I did a light bit of research (wikipedia will be mentioned here, forgive me 🙂 ) and found that he was somewhat a victim of his own ignorance and racial stereotypes.

    Thankfully he seems to have removed those aspects of his personality with age and education.

    His later work is really quite excellent and I find the whole existential horror to be refreshing in an age of ‘boo’ pseudo-horror. The Mountains of Madness is a bit of an anomaly in that he writes from a science perspective rather than from the point of view of an expert of the ‘occult’. In MoM he de-constructs one of his more unimaginable monsters – the Shoggoth – which is a source of significant horror in his other stories into a tool of the elder race. I wonder was this a statement on how he sees science explaining those mysteries which have been a source of much strife for humans?

    Are you aware that there is a series of rather excellent pen and paper role-playing games based on the mythos? Very much worth looking in to.

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