Lovecraft’s long shadow: K Narayanan on the eternal pull of cosmic horror

From the Alien films to gaming worlds, HP Lovecraft’s idea of fear that springs from the unexplained has left fingerprints all over pop culture.
In writer Lovecraft’s imagination, there are no clean resolutions. There is only madness. And all our knowledge, reason and rationality cannot protect us from the gibberings in the dark corners of our minds. (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
In writer Lovecraft’s imagination, there are no clean resolutions. There is only madness. And all our knowledge, reason and rationality cannot protect us from the gibberings in the dark corners of our minds. (Wikimedia Commons)
Updated on Jan 21, 2022 09:04 PM IST
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ByK Narayanan

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” It’s an arresting opening, and it is how HP Lovecraft begins his 1927 essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature.

In it, Lovecraft examines the nature and evolution of the stories that we tell ourselves, stories that spring from fear, from things that cannot be explained or understood, about beings beyond human comprehension.

Lovecraft’s fingerprints are all over popular culture today. Dan O’Bannon, the writer of the first Alien film (1979), patterned the film’s script after the 1936 Lovecraft story, At the Mountains of Madness, a tale of monstrous entities, dormant in a once-inhabited, long-forgotten part of Antarctica.

When O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott were trying to find an artist who could bring the titular alien to life, they settled on HR Giger, who had named his collection of art the Necronomicon, after a book from Lovecraft’s universe that makes its appearance in several of his stories.

According to Lovecraft, there are five copies of the original Necronomicon extant. Four of them are supposed to be in real-life locations. The fifth is in a university in a fictional town in Massachusetts called Arkham, which gave its name to an asylum for the criminally insane in the DC Comics universe.

In gaming, the Reapers in the Mass Effect games (2007 –) are Lovecraft-inspired ancient and immensely powerful entities from beyond the stars; and there’s a reference to the Lovecraft quote: “Even a dead god can dream” in the log of a character who encounters one of them.

A still from the 2015 game Bloodborne, an homage to Lovecraft by game developer Hidetaka Miyazaki.
A still from the 2015 game Bloodborne, an homage to Lovecraft by game developer Hidetaka Miyazaki.

Bloodborne (2015) is game developer Hidetaka Miyazaki’s homage to the author, complete with the insight and frenzy mechanics. You can get frenzied if you are in the line of sight of some of the monsters that you encounter as you progress through the game. The greater your insight (an attribute that represents your knowledge of this world and your sensitivity to it), the more vulnerable you become. And as the protagonist’s frenzy level grows, their health declines, ultimately resulting in death — a translation into videogame mechanics of the sanity-breaking nature of the creatures that populate Lovecraft’s universe.

There’s the music. Black Sabbath’s Behind the Wall of Sleep, from their 1970 album Black Sabbath takes its name from a Lovecraft short story, a name that was also used by American extreme metal band Macabre for their 1994 EP. The Call of Cthulhu (1928), possibly Lovecraft’s most famous short story, has had a number of songs written around it, from Metallica’s 1984 Ride The Lightning album closer The Call of Ktulu to Cradle of Filth’s Cthulhu Dawn (2000), through many others. Not surprisingly, metal and Lovecraft go together well.

And there are the books. From August Derleth, a friend and associate of Lovecraft, who continued writing stories set in his fictional universe after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, to bestselling writers such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Alan Moore, Jim Butcher, many have written Lovecraft-themed fiction — as pastiche, parody or straightforward works of terror set in the Lovecraftian universe of insane, idiot gods with the power to destroy the universe on a whim.

Cosmic horror, at its core, is about agency — or, more precisely, humanity’s complete lack of agency in a universe that is at best uncaring, and at worst indifferent. We are ants in a world of giants, going about our errands when, at any minute, a boot could step on and obliterate our anthill. It’s a world where all knowledge is superficial, where things lurk under the surface or in the dark reaches of space, things beyond our reason, beyond our comprehension.

There are horrors aplenty in the world today, horrors that are entirely human: violence and hate and war, our own willing participation in the destruction of our world. And after all, why do we need great old ones or blind idiot gods when a virus no bigger than a millionth of a metre but no less unfathomable, is capable of so much suffering and death?

As for cosmic horror, we’ve tamed it. We have made up stories about it, stories that give a pleasurable thrill. We’ve created comics and films and games that exchange terror for jump scares and clean resolutions, where the monster is killed, or the door remains closed, and humanity continues.

In Lovecraft’s imagination, there are no clean resolutions. There is only madness. And all our knowledge and reason and rationality can’t protect us from the gibberings in the dark corners of our minds. What if he was right?

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Friday, May 27, 2022