Mar 12 2012
Fans of this blog and some related sites may have noticed some quirky new ads for a new Cthulhu-themed book, The Detective vs. The Slime Monster from Outer Space. It’s my latest novel, picking up where H.P. Lovecraft left off and where good horror and science fiction storytelling begins.
(Hiss! Blasphemy! How dare you impugn the vast literary accomplishments of old H.P., whose pet Shoggoth you are not fit to feed with your own entrails! Ia! You second-rate hack! Off to the icy wastes of Leng with you, Narvey!)
Yeah, enough from the peanut gallery. Look, I’ll give the old man his due. He was a great “ideas” man. Every blockbuster Hollywood horror film involving tentacles, slimy squid-faced aliens and extra-dimensional demons owes him big time. He’s up there with Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany and… and, um… here we have the problem. His stuff hasn’t aged well. Modern horror writers like Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King and Clive Barker are to H.P. Lovecraft what homo sapiens are to primates: not merely modern writers, but evolved ones.
Nobody Writes Like H.P. Lovecraft Anymore. Thankfully
Very few people write (or wrote) like H.P. Lovecraft and anyone who does should be sent for therapy at Arkham Asylum. Let me give you an example, from a fairly critical section of The Call of Cthulhu, in which a sculpture of our big green horror is described in some detail:
The figure, which was finally passed slowly from man to man for close and careful study, was between seven and eight inches in height, and of exquisitely artistic workmanship. It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters. The tips of the wings touched the back edge of the block, the seat occupied the centre, whilst the long, curved claws of the doubled-up, crouching hind legs gripped the front edge and extended a quarter of the way clown toward the bottom of the pedestal. The cephalopod head was bent forward, so that the ends of the facial feelers brushed the backs of huge fore paws which clasped the croucher’s elevated knees. The aspect of the whole was abnormally life-like, and the more subtly fearful because its source was so totally unknown. Its vast, awesome, and incalculable age was unmistakable; yet not one link did it shew with any known type of art belonging to civilisation’s youth – or indeed to any other time. Totally separate and apart, its very material was a mystery; for the soapy, greenish-black stone with its golden or iridescent flecks and striations resembled nothing familiar to geology or mineralogy. The characters along the base were equally baffling; and no member present, despite a representation of half the world’s expert learning in this field, could form the least notion of even their remotest linguistic kinship. They, like the subject and material, belonged to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it. something frightfully suggestive of old and unhallowed cycles of life in which our world and our conceptions have no part.
Did you make it through all that? Fine. Do you think you could make it through an entire novella of that with barely a stitch of dialogue? I did, back when I was about 18 years old and thought, “well, maybe this is what great writing is really like and I just have to learn to like it…” — before I concluded it just was not a super-exciting style of writing.
I’m not going to get too deeply into that. Plenty of other critics have noted Lovecraft’s dense style – which, again, doesn’t take anything away from his ideas. Those ideas have inspired generations of writers to explore the creepy tentacled awfulness that lurks in the shadows beyond our realm of vision. But I did want to note it. Anyone who writes Lovecraft-inspired fiction these days damn well better not write like Lovecraft.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worst part of Lovecraft’s fiction, and The Call of Cthulhu in particular, was turning Cthulhu into a god.
Gods are Boring. Even Dark Elder Gods from Beyond the Moon
Ophelia Benson is my favorite atheist. She’s witty, funny and pulls no punches. She recently had this to say about the “big idea” of god figures:
I can’t think of anything that is about god that’s at all interesting – any book or description or analysis, I mean. That’s why movies like Oh God! and Dogma show god as a person, I should think – to make it interesting enough for people to watch.
God is almost never a character in literature, and when it is it’s boring. The only way to make it not boring is to make it like a human – which just shows how boring it is as itself. God is nowhere near as interesting as Hamlet or Dorothea Brooke or Abraham Lincoln or Emily Bronte.
Why not? Because it’s not a big idea, it’s a little idea – it’s simple. It’s just omni-everything…which is as boring as it gets.
This is one reason Jesus is such a big deal, by the way; ditto Mo. They’re there for the interest. Things happen to them. What can happen to god?
Cthulhu is the embodiment of omnipotent evil (once he wakes up. That guy takes a nap and you have to get all of the starts in the sky in perfect alignment before he’ll get his ass out of his sarcophagus). Sure, right after he wakes up, he’s still groggy enough that if you’re really lucky, you can maybe crash a big boat into him and live to tell about it; but if his island of R’lyeh doesn’t sink and he’s got time to get his stuff together, he’s basically unstoppable; like a shape-changing Godzilla combined with the spell powers of an epic 30th-Level Lawful Evil Wizard, plus all the personality of a Terminator robot.
You can run, but you can’t hide once he starts eating the souls of the living and establishing his dark one-hundred million year reign. You’re done. Game over.
It’s just no fun pitting protagonists against H.P. Lovecraft’s version of Cthulhu. Even if they don’t immediately wind up as lunch, they can’t really dig deeper to figure out some kind of mystery about this god. He’s big. He’s ugly. He eats people. He’s like an unstoppable force of nature, like a tornado or an earthquake.
Human monsters, or at least monsters that have some semblance of humanity, tend to be more interesting. The most obvious reason is that you can talk to them. You can get in their heads. Understand why they do what they do. Get more of their back story. It’s why the most interesting villains in zombie stories like The Walking Dead are the living jerks who sabotage everything, not the zombies. It’s why vampire movies have a reasonable shot at being awesome (Vampires talk). It’s why the original story of Mary Shelly’s thinking Frankenstein has always been more compelling than Boris Karloff’s mute Frankenstein. It’s why serial killers like Hannibal Lecter are more interesting than Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (but perhaps less scary than Leatherface’s creepy family).
Making Cthulhu a god and creating a pantheon of all-powerful malevolent entities and setting the foundation for a horror/sci-fi mythos was perhaps H.P. Lovecraft’s greatest achievement – but ultimately, the centerpiece of the show, Cthulhu, just can’t be all that interesting for more than about five minutes. Once he’s eaten one group of sailors and then eats the second group, we kind of know what’s going to happen from here on in. It’s kind of boring after a while.
So I Decided To Write A Better Cthulhu Story
Like other Cthulhu fans before me, I decided there were enough awesome ideas in the Cthulhu mythos that could be exploited to create a cool story written in a modern style. It was going to have all the missing elements from the original story. Snappy dialogue! Lots of action! Character development! Cool characters that don’t swoon or faint before the story really gets interesting. And I, um, tweaked the godlike status of our slimy antagonists. The story would have to retain a Lovecraftian feel, and one way to do that was to set the thing in a retro-1940s alternative reality (I just couldn’t see the Elder Gods messing around in a contemporary Earth of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. My hats off to those writers who can pull it off).
Here’s what I came up with in the Detective vs. The Slime Monster from Outer Space:
1946. America is still waging war on the unbowed Japanese Empire. Stalin’s Russian troops menace Europe. The atomic age has not yet begun, held up by the machinations of a horror from beyond our world. Far away from the war front, in a rat-infested office in downtown Boston, private detective Sam Rockford has hit bottom. The former FBI agent is the victim of a conspiracy he only half-remembers through the amnesia of shock therapy and hard liquor. When a mysterious woman walks into Sam’s office, the investigator is thrust back into an ancient mystery. He teams up with the greatest minds of his era and they race against time, crossing continents to assemble a weapon to push back the supernatural threat. The heroes struggle to stay alive and retain their sanity, but a primordial evil lurks in the murky depths of the Pacific Ocean. When the stars are right, humanity will face its oldest fear.
Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But better.
Well, is it? Hell, I think so. But maybe I should let the reader decide. So buy my book.
What are you waiting for, Cthulhu fiction fans? Let’s do this.