Wednesday 26 August 2009

West of Arkham the Hills Rise Wild

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

There have been three constant loves in my love – three things that, no matter what else was happening, I always held dear, cherished and had time for. These three are zombie movies, Star Wars, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Of these three, the last is the one that raises the most eyebrows. At best, it confuses most people as they’ve never heard of it; and at worst it makes them avoid me because it sounds like I’m into Diabolism. So here’s my Beginner’s Guide to The Cthulhu Mythos.

Lovecraft's major inspiration and invention was “cosmic horror”, the idea that the universe is incomprehensible to human minds and fundamentally alien. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, and see the truth for themselves, frequently lose their marbles as their brain shatters at the incomprehensibility of it all. Lovecraft has developed a cult following for his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of loosely interconnected fiction featuring many diverse entities and deities, as well as the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore. His works challenged the values of the enlightenment, Romanticism, and Christianity.

I have been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos since the age of fourteen, when I was recommended a compilation of his short stories by the terrible old man who ran the second-hand bookshop in my home town. And so, for the past twelve or so years, I have played Mythos games, collected Mythos comics and artwork, own a cuddly Cthulhu and (naturally) spent years tracking down and reading the works related to the Cthulhu Cycle of myth.

At length, feeling a fatigue which had nothing of drowsiness in it, I bolted the newly outfitted hall door, turned off the light, and threw myself down on the hard, uneven bed - coat, collar, shoes, and all. In the darkness every faint noise of the night seemed magnified, and a flood of doubly unpleasant thoughts swept over me. I was sorry I had put out the light, yet was too tired to rise and turn it on again. Then, after a long, dreary interval, and prefaced by a fresh creaking of stairs and corridor, there came that soft, damnably unmistakable sound which seemed like a malign fulfillment of all my apprehensions. Without the least shadow of a doubt, the lock of my door was being tried - cautiously, furtively, tentatively - with a key.

The Cthulhu Mythos is a cycle of stories centring on various gods, entities, and deities that exist outside of our dimension, and their attempts to break through. The Cthulhu Cycle was begun by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930s, and his circle of friends contributed by using his creations in their stories, or by adding to them. Lovecraft, in turn, would do the same with their creations, and the Cthulhu Mythos was born. The whole thing was spawned almost like a role-playing game. Lovecraft would write a story, Robert E. Howard would write a story containing a piece of that (such as a deity, location or book), and then Robert Bloch would do the same, and so on.

Over time, this “literary parlour game” has continued, and even big-name modern horror writers such as Stephen King, Brian Lumley, Neil Gaiman and Robert M. Price have made massive contributions to the on-going story.

One of the things I have always loved about being into the Cthulhu Mythos, is the way that the interest (hobby, obsession, whatever you want to call it) becomes almost a full-time LARP. The best Mythos stories (especially the ones from Lovecraft’s own hand) are written like factual accounts, which makes them much more realistic than most form of narration. Then, the next thing you know is that you’re perusing dusty old tomes in second-hand book shops and flea-markets – looking for stories about strange people perusing dusty old tomes...

So how do you start?

Well, I would always argue that the best book to start with first, would be The Call of Cthulhu. It’s not his best one, by any stretch, but it is central to the entire Cthulhu Mythos. For all its faults, it does serve as a pretty good introduction to the rest of the mileu. It’s written in a documentary style (three independent investigations are pieced together by the reader to reveal the whole truth). The meaning of the story comes full circle with its opening line: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity; and it was not meant that we should voyage far.".

It is a fact that the wind had brought dreadful havoc. Whether all could have lived through it, even without the other thing, is gravely open to doubt. The storm, with its fury of madly driven ice particles, must have been beyond anything our expedition had encountered before. One aeroplane shelter-wall, it seems, had been left in a far too flimsy and inadequate state—was nearly pulverized—and the derrick at the distant boring was entirely shaken to pieces. The exposed metal of the grounded planes and drilling machinery was bruised into a high polish, and two of the small tents were flattened despite their snow banking. Wooden surfaces left out in the blast were pitted and denuded of paint, and all signs of tracks in the snow were completely obliterated. It is also true that we found none of the Archaean biological objects in a condition to take outside as a whole. We did gather some minerals from a vast, tumbled pile, including several of the greenish soapstone fragments whose odd five-pointed rounding and faint patterns of grouped dots caused so many doubtful comparisons; and some fossil bones, among which were the most typical of the curiously injured specimens.

The Call of Cthulhu is followed by its spiritual successor, The Dunwich Horror. This builds on all that The Call of Cthulhu established and transfers the cosmic, philosophical horror it began, and turns it into a more tangible, yet still mind-bogglingly inconceivable monster. The full-length novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward presents a similar adventure.

To tell you where to go from there proves a little harder. If you’re into sci-fi, I’d tell you The Colour Out of Space...but that deviates a little from the “Mythos Proper”, if you will. At The Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and the aforementioned The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are certainly favourites of mine, although their length may put off some readers.

You know what? I’m going to go with The Whisperer In Darkness next. At the age of fourteen, this was the first story I ever read that properly shat me up. It centres around strange alien visitations in the hills around Arkham, and has a twist ending that I don’t know that anyone ever sees coming.

By now, you should have a basic grasp of the Mythos. Part of the fun, though, comes from digging in and finding stuff out off of your own back.

Like I say, it’s a little enthusiasm of mine that has given me much fun over the years. I hope it does you, too.

Let's end with the most Lovecraftian music video ever made:

Something terrible came to the hills and valleys on that meteor, and something terrible — though I know not in what proportion — still remains.

1 comment:

  1. 'Their length may put off some readers'

    -- I would say that anybody who is put off by the length of a story is probably not going to do that well with Lovecraft in general. Even his shorter tales aren't exactly what you would call 'light reading'.