Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Musings on the Lovecraftian Universe: Part 1

    What follows is not meant to be a scholarly exploration or dissertation. S.T. Joshi and others far, far more qualified and eloquent than myself covered any territory I might wish to navigate. Instead, it is simply my random thoughts about the Mythos (some call it the Cthulhu Mythos; Lovecraft called it Yogsothery; I’ll almost certainly use different names on different occasions). In part, this is to solidify or hash out some of my own interpretations that might appear within my fiction and in Lovecraftian roleplaying games I might run. And in part, as with all these blog posts, I hope (usually fruitlessly) to instigate some conversation on the topic. I called this “Part 1” because I assume I’ll want to revisit the subject at some point.

    You will no doubt notice that my ideas of the Mythos are heavily colored by the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game. Absolutely. And I also don’t worry too much about ‘canon.’ This is true. Like Lovecraft, I tend to pick and choose, lift what I like, drop what I don’t, and re-combine it into something more to my liking. Any writer, or artist, or musician does the same thing. They’re not always honest about that. I stand on the shoulders of giants (and dwarfs, and mortal men).

    First up, some thoughts on hierarchy, gods, monsters, and the nature of the Universe. Lovecraft postulated a specific type of universe in his fiction. He broke with a good deal of horror tradition by putting forth a universe where there was no Divine.  The God of the Bible is a myth, and nothing more.  He takes that one step further and puts Humanity in a universe where we are completely alone, just a biological infection clinging to life on the surface of a rock ball, hurtling through a soulless void.  For some, that idea would be bad enough (I actually find it exhilarating and liberating, but that’s another post).  Lovecraft then populates the universe with beings so alien, so powerful, so mind blasthingly outside of our understanding that they seem to be gods; are worshiped by some as gods.  But they are not gods.  The gods of our mythology are at best made up, and at worst, masks pulled over the more terrifying reality.

    There seem to be different strata of these things. Some are powerful on a multiverse level, others are galactic scourges, others dominate worlds, and yet others slink in the shadows, hunting for scraps. Cthulhu, the most famous of these things, is to my mind nothing more than a very ancient, very powerful, very strange being from another world. Likely part of or a last remnant of some ancient, ultra-alien civilization. Some say he is trapped, but I think it more likely that he simply sleeps, under the ocean (or in a pocket dimension) in a weird city, filled with alien architecture. And while he sleeps, psychic projections of his dreams have tainted Humanity, especially the more sensitive and artistically prone, leading to cults and myths and even some ‘revealed’ knowledge. But Cthulhu isn’t the chief of these aliens; he isn’t a god, he isn’t the ultimate evil. Whatever he has planned, no matter how unfathomable to humans it might be, it is still the plan of a thinking being. He/it may not conform to the physics we understand, but he conforms to some deeper, physical truth we haven’t grasped. Like all the ‘beings’ in the Mythos, he exists in the Universe and follows its rules. The rules only seem to be broken due to our lack of understanding. Once again, I cite Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  In the case of Cthulhu (and many of the other alien beings/species in the Mythos), there is some technology, some scientific understanding that is either beyond our current understanding, or more troubling, beyond our capability to understand (at least with our current physical brains).

    Now, where I’ll probably get controversial is with my take on a few of the others.  Hastur, Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth, and Azathoth, in particular. I think of these not as beings; not as consciousnesses, but as embodied concepts or forces. Azathoth is blind creation, the Big Bang.  When an atomic bomb is set off, it momentarily communes with Azathoth. Azathoth lives in every star, in the heart of every atom. The ‘Blind Idiot God’ is simply manifest creation, spewing forth into the void. Hastur, on the other hand, is manifest entropy; the chaos of ultimate dissipation; the winding down and crumbling of all things. Shub-Niggurath is the manifestation of biology, of organic life. She is the drive behind certain types of matter coming together and forming into basic life forms, evolving into more complex forms, and spreading throughout the Universe. She is the drive for survival inside all life to its cellular core. And Yog-Sothoth is, in a sense, the binding agent. He is physics; he is reality; he is spacetime. These manifest concepts occasionally coalesce into things more rightly thought of as beings. They become avatars of their associated ‘god.’ The King in Yellow is a shadow, a reflection of Hastur. He is a concept, become flesh. A bringer of chaos and madness; a Typhoid Mary of Entropy. The Black Goat in the Woods is a similar residue of Shub-Niggurath. And when a so called wizard tries to gain Outside knowledge from Yog-Sothoth, he or she taps into an avatar of the concept, perhaps seeing weird glowing spheres or monstrous tentacle things. If, at the core of all reality, there is a burning mass of something, with things dancing around it playing insane music, then that thing is but a bleed-off of the idea of Azathoth; something of flesh and blood (even if it isn’t flesh and blood as we understand it).

    Compared to those manifestations of concepts, beings like Cthulhu, Dagon, or Tsathoggua are almost (I stress almost) comprehensible. Though defying our common understandings of life, they still seem to be individual things, things that are the result of something similar to evolution some kind of environment somewhere else in the Multiverse.  And on a much more relatable level are species not too dissimilar to our own. I don’t just mean Ghouls and Deep Ones, which seem entwined with us in some way; offshoots of a close branch on the evolutionary tree, or something produced by genetic tampering. But things like the Flying Polyps, the Elder Things, the Mi-Go, or the Great Race of Yith are not so unlike us as to be incomprehensible.  They are alien, with alien thoughts and alien feelings.  They may be technologically and culturally very different, possibly much more advanced, but they are just other creatures, such as ourselves, clinging to the faces of planets, trying to survive in a universe that carelessly grinds us all into dust. Their plans, schemes, civilizations, and kingmaking is no less pointless than our own. Perhaps we will never share enough common reference points to be able to satisfactorily communicate or cooperate with them, but we could potentially operate on roughly the same level with a bit of time and development. I suppose the same could be said for Cthulhu and others more on his level, but the scale of time and development would likely be in the billions of years, as opposed to hundreds or thousands.

    Codifying the Mythos is tricky, and perhaps ultimately pointless. It is malleable and changes with each author who dabbles in it. I think that’s part of what makes it so wonderful and strange. The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, by the nature of its game mechanics, needed to do just that; to solidify and classify the unimaginable. There are times where that makes some sense in the game, but I feel that once you go beyond species like the Mi-Go or the Deep Ones, you’ve really entered the realm of Clarke’s ultra-tech, where rules of what is and could be break down. How does that play out in a story?  How does that work in a game?  That is up to the author, I guess.

-Matthew J. Constantine

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