I liked Lovecraft countless primaeval aeons before it was cool

A couple days ago, some friends of mine who name-drop Cthulhu all the time admitted they had never actually read any Lovecraft. Further investigation revealed this was actually a common thread among loads of people who play Call of Cthulhu RPG, or describe various buildings or institutions as Lovecraftian, or use “Oh my Cthulhu!” as an atheist substitute for “Oh my God”.

I know it sounds like the height of pretention, but I’m going to come out and say it anyway: I am kind of unsatisfied with what geek culture has done to Lovecraft.

Hello Cthulhu was funny for a few minutes. The Campus Crusade for Cthulhu might be amusing if you’ve had too many dealings with their more wholesome counterpart. Shoggoth on the Roof continues to be one of the most hilarious musicals I have never quite managed to make it to a real showing of (my two favorite songs are Tentacles and To Life.)

And yet.

Lovecraft himself did have a sense of humor, and his biography of Ibid continues to be one of our most important resources on the subject. But I have never seen any signs that he ever decided to mix any trace of humor into his dealing with the Elder Gods or the fantasy worlds he created. I don’t think that was just a lack of sufficient creativity. I think that was a deliberate part of his artistic impulse, at the heart of what he was trying to say.

Here is a passage from The Silver Key. It is long, but I have shortened it as much as I dared, and indeed you would do far better to read the much longer original. Nevertheless, here is the passage. All emphasis is my own:

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon […]

So Carter had tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies of rare and delicate souls. He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony, which he dimly remembered from his dreams; and under their guidance he cultivated a painstaking sense of pity and tragedy.

Once in a while, though, he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle, and meaningless all human aspirations are, and how emptily our real impulses contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold. Then he would have recourse to the polite laughter they had taught him to use against the extravagance and artificiality of dreams; for he saw that the daily life of our world is every inch as extravagant and artificial, and far less worthy of respect because of its poverty in beauty and its silly reluctance to admit its own lack of reason and purpose. In this way he became a kind of humorist, for he did not see that even humour is empty in a mindless universe devoid of any true standard of consistency or inconsistency […] Having lost [their] artificial settings, [people’s] lives grow void of direction and dramatic interest; till at length they strive to drown their ennui in bustle and pretended usefulness, noise and excitement, barbaric display and animal sensation. When these things pall, disappoint, or grew nauseous through revulsion, they cultivate irony and bitterness, and find fault with the social order […]

Then he began once more the writing of books, which he had left off when dreams first failed him. But here, too, was there no satisfaction or fulfillment; for the touch of earth was upon his mind, and he could not think of lovely things as he had done of yore. Ironic humor dragged down all the twilight minarets he reared, and the earthy fear of improbability blasted all the delicate and amazing flowers in his faery gardens. The convention of assumed pity spilt mawkishness on his characters, while the myth of an important reality and significant human events and emotions debased all his high fantasy into thin-veiled allegory and cheap social satire. His new novels were successful as his old ones had never been; and because he knew how empty they must be to please an empty herd, he burned them and ceased his writing. They were very graceful novels, in which he urbanely laughed at the dreams he lightly sketched; but he saw that their sophistication had sapped all their life away.

Lovecraft was not opposed to humor, but I think he was opposed to ironic humor, opposed to the kind of humor that takes something titanic and magnificent and then sticks it in the middle of the mundane world so we can all laugh at how it’s not really that much beyond us after all.

And I am pretty sure that putting Cthulhu into Hello Kitty cartoons qualifies.

I think Lovecraft’s artistic philosophy was to come up with something so far beyond normal human experience, so intensely appealing to our wilder and more celestial tendencies and so completely unrelated to our normal base emotions, that even people not quite as sensitive as he was could feel a glimpse of this transcendent otherness.

Although some people classify Lovecraft as a horror writer, I think this misses his essence – there is nothing horrible about The Silver Key, and Randolph Carter, the character most closely corresponding to Lovecraft himself, usually comes out of his encounters with the Beyond better than he went into them. Lovecraft is a writer of the strange, intense, and unearthly. Horror is one of the feelings that can be intense, but so is wonder.

Lovecraft’s aim in creating Cthulhu – and all the rest, because in Actual Lovecraft (as opposed to Pop Lovecraft) Cthulhu is a relatively minor character – was to give us something completely divorced from our normal world where the aesthetic senses could wander free from their usual pollution by the everyday world of politics, commercialism, and status-seeking.

And so of course we immediately turn Cthulhu into a presidential candidate, a clothing line, and a meme, respectively, just to spit in his face.

I should clarify that “just to spit in his face” thing. I don’t think people literally did this to anger Lovecraft’s ghost, since that sounds like the worst idea. But I do think that the more inappropriate a subject is for humor, the more distressing and contradictory to its nature it would be to turn it into a joke, the more humorous it is likely to be. The existence of an entire canon of dead baby jokes is a good example of this. The continuing popularity of racist jokes, which as far as I can tell greatly exceeds the continued popularity of actual non-joke racism, is another. Lovecraft is much like racism and dead babies in that it is something that obviously should never be joked about, and therefore incessantly is.

But the situation with Lovecraft is kind of worse than the other two. People who tell dead baby jokes are at least aware that real babies sometimes actually die and that this is very sad. People who tell racist jokes are usually entirely aware of and sometimes even believe in the anti-racism movement, and if not they at least know there exist real black people out there somewhere and that they’re not just this mysterious vague concept that serves as a useful butt for jokes.

Yet so many of the people who make fun of Cthulhu have never read the Dream-Quest, never climbed Ngranek in their imagination or visualized gorgeous minaret-studded Celephais with its sky-bound galleys, never shrank in terror from the High-Priest-Not-To-Be-Described.

And if that’s what people want, fine. I won’t deny that a lot of Lovecraftian humor is pretty funny.

But if you think Cthulhu’s interesting, and if you’re also the sort of person who longs for the fantastic and otherworldly, if there’s anything poetic or romantic in you, I urge you not to limit your Lovecraft knowledge to Call of Cthulhu RPG and to take a look at some of his more serious works. I most highly recommend The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which like all Lovecraft is freely available online should only take two or three hours if you’re a fast reader. But if that sounds like too much for you, there are excellent short stories in the Dream Cycle like The White Ship that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

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43 Responses to I liked Lovecraft countless primaeval aeons before it was cool

  1. Kenneth Sohl says:

    Funny that I was thinking pretty much along the same lines last week. Sad that many of the people who are into the pop aspect of all this as sheep follow the herd are probably incapable of appreciating Lovecraft’s prose, or the impact of his stories when taken into the context of his time. I wonder if the person who wrote this is aware that Lovecraft did not consider himself a writer of horror stories, but of tales of “wonder”.

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  3. Nomophilos says:

    The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is probably my favourite story from Lovecraft, I read it as a teen and liked it a lot – I like fantasy world building that isn’t in the shadow of Tolkien. I liked his other stories but they didn’t mark me as much.

  4. Joshua Fox says:

    Interesting fact: H.P. Lovecraft, who disliked immigrants and Jews even more than was acceptable in blue-blood New England circles of the time, married a Jewish immigrant woman, though they separated soon after.

  5. Joshua Fox says:

    My visions of Cthulhu were largely inspired, for the first ten years or so that I knew about it, by AD&D Deities and Demigods First Edition.

    Actually, I enjoyed Dreamquest but his other books and stories (and I have read quite a few) do not inspire the emotions they are intended to.

    Lemony Snicket says: “It’s impossible to read the work of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) without experiencing a familiar sensation. The throat constricts. The lips purse. A shudder goes through your body, and the hands rise involuntarily to the mouth. But all resistance is futile, and you must succumb — to a profound case of the giggles.”

    I don’t agree with Lemony, as I don’t find Lovecraft’s stories funny, though I do find Cthulhu funny and indeed, my cellphone ringtone for a while was my four children reciting “ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” by heart in perfect unison.

  6. Thomas Eliot says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, save that I would not include the Call of Cthulhu RPG in with the rest of the rubbish. I have found it to be largely in the same vein as the original stories, and games of it have been among the few times I’ve been genuinely scared during a roleplaying session. What makes you consider it a joke?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I will totally admit I’ve never played the Call of Cthulhu RPG and just heard people talking about it, usually about wacky things that happened in it. Mea culpa.

  7. naath says:

    I largely disagree. I think the main thrust of Lovecraft’s writing is his desperate, inescapable fear of “things that are not like me”; a fear that in his real life lead him to be a horrible racist (much more so than average even for his time).

    I love a lot of the stuff Lovecraft writes about; if only he (and his characters) were not perpetually terrified by it all; and I think the better class of Lovecraft-based humour does that reasonably well.

    • Deiseach says:

      I agree about the desperately over-wrought racism; I have a strong tolerance for purple prose and even rather a liking for it, so Lovecraft’s style appealed to me as a teenager/young adult and I can still re-read the stories with pleasure, but the attitudes that break out (sometimes in what can only be described in a hysterical manner) are appalling. There’s one minor story – can’t call the name of it to mind, it might even be one of the ones he ghost-wrote to make some cash – where one of the very, very few women we encounter in a Lovecraft story is revealed to be not only a type of voodoo priestess serving a cult of the Old Ones, not only the descendant of interbreeding between the line of priestesses and the things they worship, but the very worst of all (and I’m seriously not joking about it, this was the worst) is that she is revealed to have unmistakeable black African ancestry as well! This is the very worst because not alone was she passing for white, she was going to be married to a white man (either the narrator – I can’t call him the ‘hero’ – or his friend) whom she tricked about her Negro blood – oh yeah, and the alien demon ancestry, and devil-worship and black magic and the rest of it, but the miscegenation was presented as the worst thing.

      Though Lovecraft did have a sense of humour, as can be seen in the story exchange between him and Robert Bloch where the teenage Bloch wrote a story called “The Shambler from the Stars” where a Lovecraft-expy character dies horribly (of course); Lovecraft wrote a story in reply called “The Haunter of the Dark” dedicated to Bloch and where a ‘Robert Blake’ dies horribly (of course) and then Bloch finished up with “The Shadow from the Steeple” carrying on from the end of Lovecraft’s story (and everyone dies horribly, of course).

  8. Note: I’ve read a few books worth of Lovecraft’s fiction, but it was years ago.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that you admire Lovecraft as a writer of the “fantastic and otherworldly,” but most people think of him more as a horror writer and the horror element of his work depends to a large extend on a worldview that most geeks today don’t share. The typical geek view is that the piecing together of dissociated knowledge is opening up some really awesome vistas of reality.

    Also, having learned something of Lovecraft’s biography, I get the feeling his attitude towards the fish-folk of Innsmouth was pretty much a reflection of his attitude towards black people and maybe even people from the wrong parts of Europe.

    • im says:

      Yeah. I’ve always had a hard time alieving in infohazards. (Although I am still skeptical of how common they actually are. Some stuff that LW fears is more arguments that may be made by a charismatic person, the info alone is easily laughed off.)

      Some Lovecraft-inspired stuff focuses more on the shock of finding and alieving in humanity’s extremely small place in the cosmos (and vulnerability), rather than on infohazards and foreign-ness. Of course given the Fermi paradox, there is an alternative option which is just as beautifully dramatic: that we are the ruling masters of the universe, the wielders of forces at once incomprehensible and majestic, immense creatures that travel effortlessly between environs no animal has business surviving, crushing every foe before us. Indeed, it is said that death has merely attracted the attention of a vicious and disngenuous mind infinitely its greater.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think that Lovecraft is a genuine pioneer in his presentation of a scientific basis for the hopelessness and despair in the stories. If you compare how the Mythos was developed by August Derleth (and this is not to badmouth Derleth, who did so much to promote Lovecraft’s work and make it available to a mass audience), Derleth does tilt it more towards the supernatural and set it as ‘good versus bad’ entities, where the Old Ones and their spawn can be driven off by using spells and talismans like the star-stones and there is always the chance of the intervention of the benevolent Elder Gods.

        Lovecraft wrote horror/dark fantasy/fantasy (the labels blur and overlap) but what he did was to strip out the supernatural, even just as a scaffolding for these kinds of tales. And he also undercut the optimism of SF (although perhaps that was more representative of later SF in the 30s/40s Golden Age) that SCIENCE!!! would improve everything.

        The Old Ones are not demons or even evil gods; they are beyond good and evil in a fashion we can’t even comprehend. We think we are at the top of the food chain, but in reality (and science demonstrates with pitiless clarity the true reality of the universe) we are just cosmic accidents, specks of life crawling around on a dustball and certainly not the Lords of Creation, cherished offspring of a loving Creator.

        The then-new Theory of Relativity has smashed all our previous neat, Newtonian formulations to bits; the nature of space and time is stranger and more counterintuitive than our model of a tidy clockwork universe ticking along. Evolution and Natural Selection prove that we are not alone not divine creations, we are not even the culmination of the optimistic Victorian notion of Progress in a straight line from early life to us at the apex. Indeed, in “The Mountains of Madness”, there is a strong hint that humans evolved from the hominid/ape-like creatures genetically engineered by the star-headed Old Ones in the Antarctic – and not even by deliberate design, but rather as a kind of weed growth that they didn’t bother to extirpate as it wasn’t a sufficient nuisance:

        “These vertebrates, as well as an infinity of other life forms – animal and vegetable, marine, terrestrial, and aerial – were the products of unguided evolution acting on life cells made by the Old Ones, but escaping beyond their radius of attention. They had been suffered to develop unchecked because they had not come in conflict with the
        dominant beings. Bothersome forms, of course, were mechanically exterminated. It interested us to see in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling, primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable.”

        Religion, philosophy, morality, even art itself are all ultimately meaningless, merely human creations that have no value or substance beyond what we invest in them. The truth of the cosmos is that entities like the Great Old Ones, and many others, which are a form of life so alien as to be quite literally incomprehensible to us, are the ones who are the dominant life forms, and the sciences and energies they wield appear like ‘magic’ to us, which is why we can only think of them in terms of ‘gods’ or ‘demons’.

        But they are not at all supernatural; rather, the true horror is that they are very much natural; the reality and truth of the cosmos as it is, rather than what our models of it imagine it to be.

        • Damien says:

          “The Old Ones are not demons or even evil gods; they are beyond good and evil in a fashion we can’t even comprehend”

          Part of the problem with HPL is that asserting such things isn’t the same as convincing the reader. I’d say that “beyond good and evil” is bullshit; if you can comprehend the difference and aren’t good then you’re evil, and if you can’t then you’re *beneath* it, not beyond it.

          Speaking very simplistically, because blog comment, but that’s the gist of it: if someone says “I am beyond your primitive morality” the only answer is “no you’re not, you evil f-cker.” (This is different from “your morality is primitive because of X Y and Z, and should be upgraded to W”, which itself may or may not be convincing.)

          “Religion, philosophy, morality, even art itself are all ultimately meaningless, merely human creations that have no value or substance beyond what we invest in them”

          The other problem with HPL-as-horror is that a lot of moderns are essentially nihilists or existentialists whose response is “yeah, so what?” Vast gulfs of space and time, the random and contingent nature of evolution, the non-existence of morality as a “thing” rather than a human judgement, the fragility of the human mind and brain, are all things I grew up with, literally. I’m not even sure how much HPL himself was horrified by such things, vs. cultivating it for his stories; I’ve heard he was pretty pro-science.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Interesting: you might very well be correct. My “this guy is way overrated” reaction came pretty much from reading Lovecraft as primarily a horror writer.

      That said, his horror writing might make a bigger impact on me these days, given that I argued that he was basically right some time back.

  9. Kaj Sotala says:

    I’ve read the original Call of Cthulhu story, as well as Charles Dexter Ward. I think I found them moderately entertaining, and I loved CoC’s opening paragraph, but honestly they didn’t seem worth all the hype to me. Would you say the stories you recommend are considerably better than those two?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Not really. Charles Dexter Ward was another one of my favorites. I would definitely say “different”, as in not set on Earth and not intended as horror, but that definitely lowers my probability you’ll like them.

  10. Deiseach says:

    And how many of those who have read Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” have read Lord Dunsany, his inspiration? Has anyone read, for instance, Idle Days on the Yann?

    There can always be an even grumpier “I read this in the original way back when” reference 😉

  11. Oligopsony says:

    I wonder if it’s similar with more conventional deities. Even growing up religiously, all of my initial exposures to the Christian cosmology – though neither presented by mocking atheists nor loony Protestants – had the whiff of the ridiculous. It wasn’t until much later on, exposed to mysticism and theology, that I got a good look – well perhaps not even a good look, but a little glimpse – at the squamous face of Cthulhu himself. I still don’t think God exists, but I have at least a little sense of the holy terror and dignity of the concept lying beneath the mocking and maudlin.

  12. Blake R says:

    The Hound is a possible counterexample to Lovecraft being against ironic humor. The story comes off as overwrought self-parody.

    Also, transcendent otherness doesn’t need to be walled off from the mundane to retain its majesty. Mixing the two can make the contrast starker when done well. On non-Lovecraftian lines, the seriousness of the Lich in Adventure Time is all the more meaningful because the rest of the show is cute and silly. The problem is more gratuity than irony. I don’t see any purpose to Hello Cthulhu or plush eldritch horrors, but the presidential campaign for Cthulhu (why vote for the lesser evil?) points out our narrow perspective on what’s important. The Campus Crusade for Cthulhu seems borderline.

    • Deiseach says:

      If you think “The Hound” is overwrought, try the Prince Zaleski stories of M.P. Shiel.

      It’s as though he thought Poe had a good idea in Dupin, but his prose style was too restrained and Spartan 🙂

      A taste of what I mean:

      “As I entered, the vaporous atmosphere was palpitating to the low, liquid tinkling of an invisible musical box. The prince reclined on a couch from which a draping of cloth-of-silver rolled torrent over the floor. Beside him, stretched in its open sarcophagus which rested on three brazen trestles, lay the mummy of an ancient Memphian, from the upper part of which the brown cerements had rotted or been rent, leaving the hideousness of the naked, grinning countenance exposed to view.”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      That’s actually a really good point. I think I remember reading that he admitted Nathicana was a deliberate parody too.

      …which is too bad, as I really liked Nathicana on an object-level and felt bad about this for a long time afterwards.

  13. Lucidian says:

    I agree with this post wholeheartedly, and it made me very happy to read. I always hear complaints about people who “take things too seriously”, but I frequently complain the opposite – that people don’t take things seriously enough.

    I read somewhere that people disdain taking anything seriously because they consider it naive. They have been disillusioned by a lifetime in this marketing culture, where everything is advertised as the Best Thing EvAr, and nothing lives up to its reputation. If every supposedly-awe-inspiring experience turns out to be a letdown, then people who still believe in such things seem like hopelessly naive pocketfuls of cash to be manipulated by the system.

    There’s also the zen kind of “don’t take life too seriously” people, who realize that the events of our human lives are tiny and inconsequential in the grand scheme of the cosmos. And I can respect that perspective, perhaps because it still comes with a sense of awe.

    But you have to take some things seriously. (At the very least, you have to take “not taking things seriously” seriously, or else you run into problems.) But seriously, some things in life are so important that even zen detachment must be put aside – things like making sure your children have food. And it’s not just human love/friendships/relationships that I think should be taken seriously, but our place in the world and the universe.

    And lately I’ve been advocating direct, intense experience of life: feeling the full emotional impact of every moment, without hiding behind a veil of ironic detachment or fire-quenching analysis. These are the tools we grown-ups use to protect ourselves against the intensity of life we knew as children, when everything was vast and mysterious and magical. But in protecting ourselves from this kind of experience, we lose our access to the awe and the mystery.

    Thus I am very grateful for Lovecraft and for this post. =)

    • Mary says:

      The problem is that the irony is self-feeding. Once you get into the circle of jeering at seriousness, it’s hard to get out because you can always jeer at whatever comes to your aid.

      I wish it could be otherwise. That David Foster Wallace could be proved right:

      The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

      But I’m not holding my breath.

      • im says:

        Yeah… I’ve been thinking. And have a sort-of theory of reconstruction in society, rather than deconstruction (post-cynicism is going to be central here.)

        The thing that annoys me is that when people get serious about this sort of thing, the majority of them turn into despicable reactionaries. The remainder are awesome, but annoyingly rare.

  14. im says:

    I agree, and see this as a kind of example of how annoying it is that the modern world cannot for the life of it get over meta.

  15. BeoShaffer says:

    At one level I strongly agree with you, particularly about the thematic elements of Lovecraft. On the other hand, I kinda find his writing style at the nitty-gritty wordsmithing level ( and his constant racism and sexual hang ups) off-putting. I try to find authors who address similar themes in a style I like better, but haven’t had much luck, particularly with the non-horror elements. That said I have found that some pre-golden age science fiction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Goes_There%3F as well as many of the stories in Isaac Asimov’s before the Golden Age) capture much of the appeal and that some modern fantasy (some of Neil Gaimain’s stuff, the world of darkness esp. Changeling the Lost) is vaguely in the same ballpark. If anyone has better suggestions I’d like to hear them. Finally, I try to avoid linking to tv tropes but since it is directly relevant http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LovecraftLite.

    • Doug S. says:

      Try Contact by Carl Sagan.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      For some reason the racism and sexual hangups improve Lovecraft for me. If he had actively argued in favor of racism, even allegorically, that would break some kind of fragile barrier and then it would annoy me. But the casual racism sort of adds to the sense of remove, the sense of “product of a strange and twisted mind”, even the sense of “turn off your rational faculties and political opinions and go into dream mode”.

      If I had to explain it better, I would say it activates whatever deep primaeval part of me is glad that Gondor is a monarchy rather than a democracy, or that Orcs as far as anyone can tell are just all evil and don’t have an Orcs Rights movement going on, or that Morgoth was cast into the outer darkness forever instead of given ten years with time off for good behavior. I’m not sure why these illiberal and irrational opinions are so useful in fantasy, but they do empirically seem to increase the fairy-taleness of such books at least for me.

      • Lucidian says:

        Heh, I once wrote an essay for school on how the Orcs are a literal version of the caricatures people paint of their war-enemies. People describe their enemies as monsters, as greedy pigs, as lacking any human sense of empathy. This dehumanization of the enemy makes it easier to take sides in the conflict, easier to be sure that our side is right. But then, in real life, it always turns out that the caricature is false, and the enemies are quite human, and we were just blinded by cultural differences. After that, it’s harder to view the war as an epic struggle between good and evil.

        But the Orcs really are evil and inhuman. They are not sympathetic characters. This lets us retain the idea of a battle between Good and Evil; it elevates the story from the messy human level of complicated cultural details, to the archetypal level of shining Absolutes.

        (Some might call this an oversimplification; by reducing the story to a struggle between Good and Evil, we take away all the complications that make the story realistic and interesting. But from the point of view of platonic forms, any other story is an over…complification… because it passes these beautiful absolutes through a noisy channel which degrades their signal into something impure. (…I wonder how much I’m undermining my point by trying to argue from the perspective of Platonic forms….))

        • im says:

          Also note the popularity of pretending to plan for the Zombie Apocalypse, which unlike the Orcs of Middle Earth is absolutely free of real-world racial overtones.

          • im says:

            Well, it *was* futile, of course, but I’d say that says more about people’s ability to find racial overtones in everything compared to the Lord of the Rings.

      • im says:

        I’d add that one of the great frustrations of my life is the inability to give modern culture a sense of ancientness, of permanence. I can stand in a cathedral in Old Europe and cry for the sins and the incorrectness of the ancient and modern Catholics, for the failure of science, but I can’t let it go. The far kinder words of seculars are hollow. Kennedy was a gentle angel before the brutishness of the Khan, and yet I can scarcely bring myself to judge the Khan by Kennedy’s standards, by my standards.

      • Damien says:

        “Morgoth was cast into the outer darkness forever instead of given ten years with time off for good behavior”

        Well, they tried the latter already. Okay, he was called “Melkor” at the time, but still.

    • rsaarelm says:

      Try Thomas Ligotti for some Lovecraftian cosmic nihilism but with possibly a somewhat better stylistical sense.

  16. jimrandomh says:

    On a shelf in my apartment, there is a black-bound book labelled “Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of HP Lovecraft”. I have never opened this book. In fact, I have sworn never to read a word of it.

    You see, “Necronomicon” is a common shorthand in fiction; it is a book which damages sanity and morality, and it is understood that reading it will cause disaster. Most people believe they live in a world where such things are impossible – even in the most general case. They believe, in spite of evidence, that information is intrinsically harmless; they believe that reading can do no worse than waste their time. And so when they are told that a thing is not to be read, they presume the opposite.

    The first time I encountered an information hazard, I suspected it was such; in fact, I recorded in my notes that I suspected it was such. But I did not act correctly. I resolved never to be so foolish again; and so to remind myself that information hazards are real, I acquired a book, labelled Do Not Read in the strongest way possible, and left it where I would see.

    I do not quite know what Lovecraft’s Cthulhu was; I’ve been exposed to the twisted, neutered versions that permeate our culture, of course, but not to the source material. But I suspect that the analogy between elder gods and dead babies is stronger than you think; for just as some have seen infants die, some have, in fact, glimpsed the elder gods’ domain. and found it more than deathly serious.

    • Typhon says:

      Yet you were tempted into thinking, speaking about the eldritch Horror which you claim not to know about. In spite of your carefulness, you may just find out that man is a mere puppet of his destiny to which he always gives in.

    • Octexal says:

      Lovecraft’s treatment of information hazards isn’t really so great, despite the memetic Necronomicron. You’d be better off venerating Snow Crash.

      • Damien says:

        The dangers of reading the Necronomicon is overrated. Pretty much any professor of Miskatonic University seemed to have read it. The mind-ripping part was finding out that what it said was *true*.

    • im says:

      Wait, a real life infohazard???

  17. Andrew Hunter says:

    I would like “Tentacles” more if the word bloody scanned. It doesn’t, no matter how hard they try.