Review: Datlow (ed.) Lovecraft’s Monsters (San Francisco: Tachyon, 2014)

Posted by Chloe Buckley on August 23, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , ,

The Weird Monster and Popular Culture

From the vaults of cult fiction and role-playing manuals, the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird fiction are becoming increasingly visible in popular culture, often recognized through the metonym of the tentacle. The rise of the tentacle, and of Lovecraft’s fiction more generally, has been facilitated by Cthulhu, the most (in)famous of Lovecraft’s monsters and the one whose name has come to be associated with the “mythos” Lovecraft inaugurated through his fiction.

Artist’s rendering of Cthulhu from comicvine.com

Before I move on to think about the volume of short stories – Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow – I want to briefly consider the place of Lovecraft’s monsters in contemporary popular and literary culture. In doing so, I consider how this edited collection intervenes in a context in which the monsters of Lovecraft’s fiction are reaching wider audiences than that originally sought by their creator, and performing a number of very different cultural functions.

In 2008, contemporary Weird writer and critic, China Miéville declared that the tentacle had spread so prodigiously through literature and culture that it could be deemed “the default monstrous appendage of today” (2008, 105). The spread of the tentacle into films, into the fiction of New Weird, into popular culture, and even into the emergent ‘tentacular pedagogy’ of higher education, suggests that Mieville’s assessment of contemporary culture is increasingly apt. Miéville’s insistence that we live in a Weird world emphasizes the Weird monster’s symbolic power as an avatar of radical alterity, inspiring ontological terror in the viewer / reader (2008, 128). However, Miéville’s suggestion that Weird fiction precipitates this ontological terror  does not account for many of the pop cultural manifestations of Lovecraft’s monsters seen in recent years. Pop cultural Weird is manifest in plush Cthulhu toys, web comics and youtube channels, knitting patterns, humorous memes on social networking websites, appearances on Comedy Central’s Southpark, and on Cartoon Network’s children’s television series, Scooby Doo Mystery Incorporated. Examples such as these include artefacts from geek culture, which is becoming itself increasingly mainstream, as well as highly commodified cultural products. Motivated by fan culture’s love of mash-up and the re-appropriation of tropes and icons, pop cultural Weird monsters evoke humour as often as they inspire terror. As such, they offer a counter to the radical alterity and utter ‘outsideness’ so often sought by literary critics and philosophers in Lovecraft’s works, suggesting that the function of the Weird monster is shifting in the contemporary moment.

 

Cthulhu making an appearance in Comedy Central’s Southpark (Mysterion Rises, 2010)

 

“Char Gar Gothakon” from Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated (The Shrieking Madness, 2010) … Turns out it’s just a man in a mask…

 

Fan produced mash-ups involving Cthulhu and pop-cultural artefacts proliferate throughout the web. This Dr Seuss inspired book jacket is one example.

Lovecraft’s Monsters – Radical Alterity or Rampant Commodification?

To Lovecraft literature scholars, the very idea of a cuddly Cthulhu might suggest the pernicious effects of late consumer capitalism on what was once a truly subversive modernist literature. S. T. Joshi, for example, decries the decline of Weird fiction, stating that ‘the amount of meritorious weird fiction being written today is in exactly inverse proportion to its quantity’ (2001, 1). Alternatively, to die-hard Lovecraft fans, the appearance of Cthulhu in children’s cartoons is an example of the inevitable “gushing up” to the mainstream of subcultural production. However, this polemic of radical art vs. conservative commodity, or, differently configured, transgressive subcultural form versus mainstream pop cultural work has always been to some extent resisted by the Weird tale and the Weird monster. Lovecraft’s work is neither properly modernist, nor properly post-modern; it is originally a pulp fiction that has accrued a (sub)cultural status, equated by some critics with outsider art; it is also deeply embedded in the highly commodified ‘geek culture’ that continues to become more and more mainstream. Part of the reason for the proliferation of Cthulhu and the Weird monster in both subcultural and pop-cultural genres is the mash-up culture and tradition of appropriation/ reinvention that the monsters have inspired since their first appearance. Lovecraft’s peers borrowed from one another to develop the mythos, appropriating one another’s inventions to produce a loosely linked Weird universe. Subsequently, writers and fans have consistently added to the body of fiction since the 1930s, in the form of literary works, but also through fan fiction, role-playing game scenarios, online content and amateur art. Weird monsters have always been both terrifyingly other and remarkably adaptable. Furthermore, it is their adaptability that makes them seemingly always familiar, even as their bizarre teratology might subvert generic expectations or frustrate a narrator’s attempts to describe the monster in mere words.

Lovecraft’s Monsters edited by Ellen Datlow (2014)

Ellen Datlow’s collection of short stories and poems – Lovecraft’s Monsters – intervenes in a cultural context, then, in which the ability of the now ubiquitous tentacle of the Weird monster to inspire terror might come into question. However, the collection insists that the Weird monster remains able to communicate what Lovecraft called “Yog Sothothery”, what Miéville suggests as ontological horror, what speculative materialists have called the ‘great outdoors’, and what object oriented metaphysics denotes the weirdness of things-in-themselves. In his foreword to Lovecraft’s Monsters, Stefan Dziemianowicz emphasizes the ‘wonder and oppression’ Lovecraft hoped to invoke through his monsters, and praises those stories in the mythos that produce monsters ‘more subtle and insidious’ than visually horrifying. Like Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, Dziemianowicz prefers Lovecraft’s a-typical ‘The Colour out of Space’, a short story in which monstrosity is barely glimpsed, but rather takes the form of a vague force that ultimately dispossesses a person of their body. Dziemianowicz’s introduction values the subtle and the half-seen over the more obvious visually shocking monstrosity often depicted in pop-cultural manifestations of Cthulhu’s tentacles, This suggests that the collection of stories to follow fits into a tradition of literary Lovecraftian writing that aims to preserve a modernist, outsider art aesthetic for the genre. However, both Dziemianowicz in his foreword, and Ellen Datlow in her brief introduction, also praise the eclectic nature of the stories contained within, arguing that the ‘outsideness’ crucial to Lovecraft’s fiction is achieved by writers using the mythos ‘in ways that its creator never dreamed of (and might indeed have him spinning in his grave)’ (Datlow, 2014, 13). Thus, the collection foregrounds its commitment to exploring the radical alterity of Lovecraft’s monsters, but shows no desire to police the borders of the genre. Familiarity has not lessened the horror inherent in the material universe as imagined by Lovecraft in the original tales. At the same time, the Weird monster can manifest as playful hybridity, offering an adaptability to writers wishing to explore horror’s affectivity beyond the madness inducing terror experienced by the typical Lovecraftian protagonist.

 

Lovecraft’s Monsters as Artefact

As a physical object, Lovecraft’s Monsters cannily deploys a “Victoriana” aesthetic, which evokes the image of the authentic literary work, complete with delicate line drawing illustrations for each story. Conversely, the Victoriana aesthetic, here given a “Weird” twist denoted by tentacles and ragged wings adorning a sepia toned cameo of a be-suited deep-one, also suggests that the book wishes to borrow some of the subcultural currency of the increasingly popular steampunk genre. This once subcultural mode of fashion, literature and art is ever more visible in popular cultural commodities. Hybridising Lovecraft with the steampunk aesthetic is not new, but its use in the cover design of this volume suggests that the book is being marketed in such a way as to further blur the boundaries of literary forms, periods and genres. The design of the volume thus embraces a commingling of high art with popular commodity, as well blurring the subcultural and the mainstream. The illustrations within the novel are appropriately different for each story, but all are black and white line drawings with the appearance of delicate pen and ink illustrations that we now associate with expensive late-Victorian print publications.

Victoriana Cthulhu as Popcultural Commodity: Steampunk Cthulhu Wedding Cake Toppers on DeviantArt.net / Etsy.com

 

Victoriana meets Cthulhu in literary form: The 2003 short story collection, Shadows Over Baker Street, edited by Michael Reeves and John Pelan.

Illustration from Lovecraft’s Monsters

Though a vaguely “Victoriana” aesthetic links the illustrations to the book’s cover art, each illustration within the volume differs in genre, mode and mood, and engage in a playful hybridity that is reflected in the stories themselves. Often the illustrations fully detail the monster in question, rendering it hyper-visible (as on the front cover jacket), rather than the half-glimpsed or imperfectly described creatures that critics associate with the most successful of Lovecraft’s work. Here, then, we see Datlow’s volume embrace the possibilities of placing the Weird monster fully on show, a spectacle of contemporary popular culture.

 

Hybridity and Mash-up: Notable Stories

Overall, the stories in this volume employ the technique of the mash-up to hybridise Lovecraft’s monsters with another literary genre, or bring them face to face with monsters from elsewhere in the popular and literary imagination. There are literary mash-ups that interweave a typical Lovecraftian narrative with other literary works, such as Frankenstein, Moby Dick, traditional fairy tales and the novels of Raymond Chandler. Most popular are those monsters who crawl out of the ocean, and we are seemingly never far from Lovecraft’s notorious New England backwater, Innsmouth, in many of these stories.

 

Neil Gaiman’s story, set in Innsmouth, opens the volume with its weary sounding title, ‘Only the End of the World Again’. Here, Gaiman hints at a weariness with the genre, and with a crisis blasted modernity that characterizes much Weird fiction. Gaiman also considers – as a thematic problem – the structure of the Weird tale, and wonders how the contemporary writer can deal with the inevitability of the monster’s awesome power and man’s concomitant insignificance. This theme of the structure of crisis is explored elsewhere by writers of the ‘New Weird’, notably in China Miéville’s Kraken (2010).  Here, however, Gaiman’s musing on the theme tends to the nihilistic, suggesting a never-ending cycle of a crisis narrative through which grotesque monsters parade endlessly. Gaiman’s story also inaugurates the genre hybridity that characterizes the volume, pairing the Weird with the Noir thriller, a mix that appears again in the more light-hearted and parodic ‘A Quarter to Three’, by fellow British horror writer, Kim Newman.

 

Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Red Goat Black Goat’ is a more unusual hybrid, mixing Lovecraftian tropes with folk horror and Javanese mythology. Nadia Bulkin’s treatment of Shub Niggurath – a monster that is often all too easily co-opted into an iconography of the monstrous feminine – is presented here in a complex relationship with two unusual and sinister children. Bulkin’s portrayal of the children’s loyalty to their Goat mother recollects Henry James’ Miles and Flora from The Turn of the Screw, adding the trope of the gothic child to the layers of intertextuality.

 

‘Inelastic Collisions’ by Elizabeth Bear is another unusual rendering of a Lovecraftian monster, though one less often featured in modern rewritings: the Hound of Tindalos. The Hound is popular in role-playing scenarios, but its angular inter-dimensionality lends itself less readily to the abject and grotesque aesthetics preferred in pulp horror writing. In this story, Bear successfully employs the language of the abject to explore the hound’s monstrous condition, whilst retaining the unworldly aspect of the creature. A reversal of perspective, from the human protagonist’s point of view to that of the monstrous antagonist, also offers new ways of considering this more elusive of Lovecraft’s monsters.

 

Howard Waldrop and Steven Ultey’s ‘Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole’ is one of the longer and more ambitious stories in the collection, attempting to weave a Lovecraftian narrative into the literary traditions of the American and English Gothic, meditating at length on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in particular. Oftentimes disorientationg, the story uses dates and names from literary fiction as well as historical record, in a manner akin to Lovecraft’s own invented history. Here the effect is not simply to rewrite human history so as to reveal the Weird universe beyond human comprehension (as in many of Lovecraft’s stories), but also to rewrite a particular literary history, imbuing classic works from the canons of American and English gothic with the taint of the Weird.

 

I found many of these stories interesting as meditations on the act of rewriting; I read them as experimentations with genre that employ the self-reflexivity and referentiality associated with post-modern metafiction. In some cases, the monsters were chillingly depicted, but none of the writers managed, at least for me, to recreate the sense of dread, of absolute alterity, that some of Lovecraft’s still evoke. In terms of affectivity, the success of these stories lies in the relative willingness of individual readers to be terrified. Since this volume is clearly aimed at fans of the particularly Lovecraftian Weird, it will doubtless find a receptive audience. Most of the stories in this collection continue to work with the settings and monsters created by Lovecraft in the 1920s and 1930s, though they do play around with the genre, with narrative structure and literary histories. Typical Lovecraftian tropes remain: Arkham, Innsmouth, Cthulhu and the Deep Ones recur throughout the volume. There is an ambivalence here, though, about the appropriation of this material, and the collection overall seems indecisive about whether it wants to preserve the subcultural capital and modernist art aesthetic conferred upon Lovecraft’s original tales, or whether it wants to embrace the possibilities that pop-cultural mash-ups and spectacular proliferations of Weird monsters might offer. Ultimately, I think this indecision and ambivalence is rather productive; each story offers a very different view of and function for the Weird monster. This alone attests to the imaginative power that Lovecraft’s monsters continue to wield.

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