Category Archives: H. P. Lovecraft

As a horror and science fiction nerd, I am, of course, obliged to be a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft.

Ia! Ftaghn! Cosmic Nihilism and the Cuteification of Cthulhu


Time was, Cthulhu, the monstrous entity pictured to the left, was the most frightening thing imaginable. Not only was he a giant creature at least a mile in height, who lay dead yet somehow still dreaming in his sunken city of R’yleh, somewhere in the Atlantic… Not only could his dreams affect people in the waking world and control cults and sects throughout millennia… Not only could he rise up at any time and scour the Earth and lay it to waste… No, he’s just a harbinger of even worse things to come! He’s a priest of the old gods, entities that make Cthulhu himself look like a child’s plaything.

Yes, Cthulhu was, at one time, the most frightening thing imaginable for certain groups of people.

On Sunday at WesterCon I attended a panel entitled “Cosmic Horror in the Mainstream Media”. It was an interesting panel which, as is pretty much always the case when the term “cosmic horror” comes up, focused primarily H. P. Lovecraft and his influence not just on the horror genre but on culture at large. There was some debate about what the term “cosmic horror” means, and the panel agreed that it had to do with giant monsters, sanity-blasting, ancient magics, hidden knowledge, and so on.

I disagree.

To me, “cosmic horror” means a genre of horror entertainment which emphasizes the fact that nothing benevolent exists out there. It’s about nihilism, about the nothingness in the universe that doesn’t care a single whit about human beings. Sure, Cthulhu might incite a few cultists with his dead/not-dead dream state, but, really, Cthulhu probably doesn’t give a damn about human beings at all, aside from how tasty we might be.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Cosmic horror, to me, also implies “deepness”: Lovecraft’s horrors (and Lovecraft is still, for all his flaws, the undisputed master of cosmic horror) exist in deep space, in deep time, and in deep consciousness. It’s the intentional seeking out of these entities and cosmic nothingness and universal indifference that drives the poor Lovecraftian characters mad. What happens when you see Hastur and Azathoth palling around with each other at the chaotic miasma which is at the center of the cosmos? You lose all your sanity, that’s what.

But I think this sort of horror goes beyond just the Lovecraftian. While one might be hard-pressed to find examples in popular, mainstream culture, it’s definitely out there. I offered up AMC’s The Walking Dead as an example of this sort of nihilistic horror; and while even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch, the cosmic nothingness, the idea that nothing benevolent exists, is still part of that show’s milieu.

This cosmic nihilism, I think, has always been with us. Some of the Greek philosophers expounded on it, but I think the ball really got rolling with Nietzsche in the 19th century. It began to pick up speed during the First World War, picked up some more momentum with the Second, and, during the Cold War, it ran rampant all over everything. I grew up in the 80s, and I remember the existential horror of knowing that Reagan or Khruschev could at any moment decide that they’d had enough and would press that red button.

So what do you do when you’re faced with this kind of horror? You can embrace it and write more Lovecraftian-style horror, or even apply some of that nihilism to your own horror or science fiction (Alien is cosmic horror whether you like it or not). You can also ignore it.

But you can also “cuteify” it. Indeed, a whole industry has grown up around making plush Cthulhu toys, silly songs about the Mythos, and so on. This is aplushcthulhu way of coping with Cthulhu and the empty, uncaring cosmos that he represents.

I personally have nothing against a cute Cthulhu. Heck, we have a plush Cthluhu that we put atop our Christmas tree every year. Plush Cthulhu is fun, goofy, and a neat way of coming to terms with the nihilism existential horror that is our daily existence.

I do know, though, that the cuteification of Cthulhu causes some problems for some people. That’s fine and understandable. They don’t like their cosmic, nihilistic, existential horror messed with.

So, the takeaway here is that cuteifying a horror is one way of coping with it. In my own fiction, I often take a comedic approach to Hastur, Cthulhu, Azathoth, and others. Does this mean that I’m also participating in the cuteification of Cthulhu?

I’ll leave the answer to that as an exercise for the reader.

… And then the blasphemous entity laboriously slid its way across the barren landscape

H. P. Lovecraft was never really appreciated in his own time, you know. For some reason, his stories about ancient, uh, blasphemous creatures — Elder Gods, Fungi from Yuggoth, the Great Race of Yith, Cthulhu, Shub Niggurath, and the foul Nyarlathotep — just didn’t really strike a chord with the general reading audience of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Sure, he probably had at least as much influence on modern genre fiction as Edgar Allen Poe; remember when the Joker got stuck in Arkham Asylum? Lovecraft made up that name, Arkham. These days, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Lovecraft or something that he created will be cited in some horror story somewhere. Ever hear of a book called the Necronomicon? Sure you have. If you’ve ever seen a cheesy horror movie, you’ve probably heard of this book. In Evil Dead, some kids find it in the basement of this cabin in the woods, and it’s one of those things you know the characters in a movie shouldn’t do, and no matter how much you scream at them to NOT OPEN THAT CURSED TOME! they still do.

These things happen. They open the book, they all turn into zombies, and life goes to hell.

Yep. Lovecraft invented it. Lovecraft’s use of the fictional Necronomicon was so clever that even today there are people all around the world who believe that it’s real. There’s a cheap paperback you can get in the tacky occult section of your local Waldenbooks, called The Necronomicon, but that one was invented by a couple of college students in the 70’s.

Why didn’t Lovecraft become popular during his own day? Here’s a sample of his writing style, taken from one of his more action-packed stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth":

…Nothing that I could have imagined — nothing, even, that I could have gathered had I credited old Zadok’s crazy tale in the most literal way — would be in any way comparable to the demoniac, blasphemous reality that I saw — or believe I saw…. Can it be possible that this planet has actually spawned such things; that human eyes have truly seen, as objective flesh, what man has hitherto known only in febrile phantasy and tenuous legend?

And yet I saw them in a limitless stream — flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating — surging inhumanly trough the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of nameless whitish-gold metal…. and some were strangely robed…. and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black cload and striped trousers, and had a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head…. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaley…. Their croaking, baying voices, clearly used for articulate speech, held all the dark shades of expression which their staring faces lacked.

That’s pretty much the most action packed section in this fifty-page novella in Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. No, it’s not an easy read.

So what makes Lovecraft stick to us, like a bit of blasphemous cake inhumanly stuck to our ribs, causing us to gain one or two loathesome pounds? It’s hard to say; but I think it really is the cosmos that Lovecraft had painted for his readers. The universe that Lovecraft wrote about was not one ruled over by a kindly, benevolent god, or even one of order and sense. In Lovecraft’s universe, ancient entities wrangled with each other in eons-old struggles, and if they thought of human beings at all, they thought of them as a mere irritation at best, something like a flea. It was this vision of cosmic indifference that Lovecraft bequeathed to modern horror fiction.

Lovecraft didn’t even consider himself a horror writer; he was a "cosmic fantasist". And he really wasn’t called a horror writer at all, until after the second world war; and then a vision of a bleak and indifferent universe, where vast powers struggled indifferently to pitiable small humans seemed very realistic to a world of people who had seen nations slaughter millions for no good reason at all.

So, anyway, I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately, as a way of getting myself geared up for working on the project that Evilpheemy and I have been working on together for a couple of years now. Maybe it was all of that Lovecraft reading that explains the dream I had the other night.

In that dream, you see, I dreamt that Jennifer and I had, in addition to the seven cats that you probably already know about, another three. We had never seen these cats; their shyness put Zuchinni to shame. Somehow we knew that we had these three cats, but they never emerged to eat, drink, play, or even use the litter boxes, not whenever we were around. Even when we moved from the house in one town to the house we live in now, these three cats came with us, but we never saw them.

And then, suddenly, I saw one. Out from its hiding place to play with another cat. But this cat, which Jennifer had named Rosemary, for some reason, inviting confusion with the other cat by the same name, didn’t really look like a cat. It was a silvery-purple color, and glittery, sort of like Seven-of-Nine’s jumpsuit in Star Trek: Voyager, and there were sparks shooting out of it.

It was a very eerie dream. Trust me on this.

When I get sick — and I’ve been sick with a cold these past few days — I get very intense dreams. Some of them have less than holy inspirations. And some of them are just plain weird.

And that’s pretty much it, I guess. A vignette about one of my favorite writers, a recounting of a nonsensical dream.

If you’re hoping that this journal is going to be coherent all the time, you really ought to be rechecking your medication.