Michaeline: Cosmic Horror and Dread Cthulhu

Polish political poster featuring a Cthulhu in a suit carrying mystical paperwork.

Cthulhu is here. Artists in a lot of different countries have begun to think, “Why choose the Lesser Evil?” (Image via Wikimedia Commons; Wikipedia credits the drawing to Wieksze Zlo, and says it was photographed by Jakub Halun)

Cthulhu is here.

*Warning: here be spoilers. Do yourself a favor and take an hour or two to read the original short story, “Call of Cthulhu”. You may not enjoy it, but at the very least, you’ll be familiar with an important piece of pop currency. NB: I’ve only read the story this week myself, and haven’t read anything in associated universes. So, any opinions I have may be under-funded in the Cthulhu Canonical Knowledge department. Feel free to correct me, argue with me, or spoil me.

Last week, Jennifer Crusie posted a piece about the importance of Cthulhu to her current work-in-progress, and something tapped into my own deep anxiety and sense of cosmic horror.

Cthulhu is here.

Or at least, it’s an active force in popular culture, and it probably always has been. H.P. Lovecraft just identified it and shaped it into a story to wrestle with his own personal problems, and wrote that story in such a way that many people can use the idea to wrestle with their own unreasonable dread.

At the heart of Cthulhu is a conspiracy about something that can’t be knowable to ordinary people, and extraordinary people only know about it through religious rites or through elaborate detection. Or they stumble across a stash of papers that never should have been written and kept, but somehow, time after time, the Discoverer of Cthulhu has this pathological need to write it down and keep it safe. And the chain continues when someone else digs through a pile of private papers from the recently deceased.

I’m not sure what I make of Cthulhu. It is a big, ugly, powerful monster that triggers intense emotions in humans. It seems to me, though, that the worst deeds are never perpetuated by the monster, but by the humans who are acting under various fears. The big thing that Cthulhu seems to do is that every year, when “the stars align”, Cthulhu starts to wake, and creative people across the planet start to have really bad dreams and experiences, and it often shows up in their art. In “Call”, Cthulhu starts to chase sailors – who have invaded the equivalent of its bedroom, for goodness sake. The sailors, like nasty burglars, ram their ship into the monster, then manage to escape. There are deaths, but all of the deaths are caused by the escapers’ own actions, or by the human worshippers of Cthulhu. It’s not clear at all that Cthulhu directly causes any of this chaos. In fact, it seems to me that Cthulhu doesn’t give two pieces of eight for humans. They are like ants at Cthulhu’s picnic, and mostly below notice unless they are being particularly annoying.

The worshippers of Cthulhu, on the other hand, can be awful. Sure, they have a fun side where they go dancing in swamps. But they also are awfully invested in keeping Cthulhu a secret – they go around killing non-worshippers who get too close to “the truth”. It’s a quick, painless, untraceable death.

A chubby little Cthulhu line drawing. It's sitting on a pedestal, hugging its knees, while the long wings droop down its back, and the tentacles give it a kind of grandfatherly feel.

A sketch of Cthulhu by Lovecraft. It does seem a bit depressed and forlorn, this poor little fellow. Maybe the modern takes of “Even Cthulhu Needs Love” aren’t so far off the mark. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The majority of incidents, though, seem to be traceable to the reactions people have to Cthulhu. In our day and age, one bromide goes, “You can’t change other people. You can only change your reactions to those people.” I’m not sure what to do with the mythos paraphrase of that: “You can’t change Cthulhu. And you can’t change all of your reactions to Cthulhu, because as a human, you get a visceral sense of wrongness.” Perhaps a better equivalent would be, “Cthulhu happens.” I will point out that the worshippers of Cthulhu seem to do all right; it’s only sensitive architects who go insane (and it might have to do with the insane architecture of Cthulhu’s home, R’lyeh). Maybe that sailor who died of insanity also was a closet architect. Hmmm. But at any rate, my point is that Cthulhu does its thing. It’s only certain people who lose their fucking minds over it.

I’m not sure what to make of conspiracy theories in our pop culture, either. In my younger years, I found it fun to muse upon “facts” such as President Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and President Kennedy has a secretary named Lincoln, and that “fact” in combination with about twelve other “strange coincidences” meant that something dark and mysterious had doomed both presidents to a sad end. Or maybe the presidents’ deaths were both simply more “facts” that something dark and mysterious was coordinating the universe.

I love the way pop culture artists like “Weird Al” Yankovic play with a lot of these conspiracy theories – his video, “Foil”, is an amazing conglomeration of urban legend, and give us the feeling that something bigger and darker and sinister is playing with all of our lives. But “Weird Al” makes it pretty clear that this is just a story. We can close the book, and go to sleep, and not really have to worry about our co-workers being Lizard People under their human masks.

On the other hand, it seems to me that a lot of people believe in dark conspiracies. “Rich people are evil money-grubbers who actively keep us all poor (even if the speaker is not particularly poor).” I think this could be true in some cases, but I think it much more likely that rich people are people who make human mistakes and don’t always see the consequences of their actions (like most people). Rich people may have the tools to influence a large number of other people (heck, they may have gotten rich making those tools!), but the other side of the equation is the people who give them money and encourage their schemes. Getting people to face the same direction and do stuff can be surprisingly hard – the common expression, “it’s like herding cats”, is not applied to cats. It’s applied to people.

In many cases, it’s much easier to say, “Rich people are too rich! They should be made to share!” than to say, “You know what? I’m not going to buy X, because I don’t like the philosophy of the entrepreneur.” If it’s easy to give up X, then X probably wasn’t that much of a money-maker to begin with.

Well, people can believe what they want to believe. But things get a bit more problematic when a cult starts to grow up around a belief, and that cult actively “fights for the right to be right.” And it is actually willing to “kill for the good of the fight for the right to be right” (both lyrics from David Bowie’s “The Cygnet Committee”).

Cthulhu is here.

People tell the story. People start to believe the story. People start to act like other humans don’t matter because they don’t fit into the story.

I think this is what “The Call of Cthulhu” is really telling us. Things get really messed up when we believe in The Story too hard.

Luckily for us writers, telling a story about The Story Gone Wrong can make for a very good story. Maybe it’s hard to write a Story about anti-fa or the alt right, but it’s a bit easier (and sometimes safer) to write a Story about a monster that seeps into all of our dreams and hopes. Aliens. Pigs who take over the barnyard.

Or maybe make it more personal, with a Story about That Boss who somehow attracts toxic people who create a miserable workspace where our Heroine and Hero must fight to establish their love, and love for their co-workers. Or the neighborhood gossip who poisons all interactions with his/her manipulations.

Dread and anxiety: probably the basis for stories ever since we started stringing words together as a species. Not a bad foundation. Just remember, it’s just a story. Reality is something else.

Here is Cthulhu. Let’s use it for the power of good.

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