Saturday, November 28, 2015

First Contacts with Things from Other Worlds

I have watched several movies in the past few days, most old, one new. The first and the last are of special interest here.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)--I never cared much for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I liked Star Trek: First Contact, the second movie with the new crew. I don't remember much about the Borg episodes from the TV show, so I wasn't sure about the setup. After a while, the movie began to hold up on its own. One of the themes of First Contact is a theme I have gone back to again and again. It involves totalitarianism, utopianism, and the loss of individual identity and autonomy. It also involves the meaning and significance in our culture of zombies. Interestingly, Alfre Woodard's character in Star Trek: First Contact refers to the Borg as zombies. I take that as evidence that these two ideas--zombies and totalitarianism or utopianism--are connected.

The Borg are a mass who have become mechanized and dehumanized. They are undifferentiated and totally conformist units of a hive-like society. The Borg queen is an exception, one that might not be satisfactorily explained in the movie, but then the totalitarian ruler always exempts himself from his own system. Anyway, she says more than once that the goal of the Borg is perfection, thus identifying herself and them with all the statist, socialist, and leftist causes that have created so much misery for us in the real world since 1789, and especially since 1917. The irony is that members of the Federation are in pursuit of their own brand of perfection, as Captain Picard makes clear in the movie. So what exactly separates them from the Borg? Is it a separation only by degree and not by kind? I'm not sure, but I am reminded of a realization that came to me a few years ago. When I was in high school, I read and liked Randall Jarrell's poem, "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner":

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The first line always bothered me, though, specifically that part about falling into the State. I think of the Western Allies as being the good guys in World War II. The State was the enemy and would continue to be the enemy after the war in the form of communism. Only later did I realize that the war was one fought between statist regimes. On all sides, there were planned and centrally-controlled economies, total war of State against State and all the concomitant death and destruction that entails, total mobilization, total commitment of national resources against the enemy, curtailment of rights and freedoms, and so on. We even had in this country concentration camps to which American citizens were sent against their will. Yes, we were the good guys, but the United States was also a statist power. The statist tide has never really receded. So in getting back to Star Trek, I guess the question is one that others before me and besides me have asked: Is Star Trek statist? The more common accusation--not entirely accurate--is that Star Trek is fascist. It's not entirely accurate because it tells only part of the story, as fascists reside under the overarching ideas of socialism and statism.

The Thing (1982)--The Thing is a combination remake/sequel of the original movie from 1951. It looks like science fiction, but it's really a horror movie designed for maximum gross-out effect. Still, it's mysterious, suspenseful, scary, and engrossing (no pun intended). I can see influences of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and even And Then There Were None. I can also see the influence of At the Mountains of Madness, a novella by H.P. Lovecraft published in Astounding Stories in February, March, and April 1936. John W. Campbell, Jr., later editor of Astounding, famously disliked the Weird Tales-style story. However, it seems extremely unlikely to me that he was unaware of At the Mountains of Madness, or that he was unaffected by it when he wrote his own novella of Antarctica, Who Goes There?, upon which The Thing was based. Incidentally, Who Goes There? was published in Astounding in August 1938, a little more than two years after Lovecraft's story had appeared in the magazine's pages.

Finally, my two friends are nervous about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I don't understand why exactly. I'm not at all nervous, and the reason is simple: The worst Star Wars movie has already been made. Let your minds be at ease.

Nineteen days to go.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, General Relativity!

The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.
--from Modern Times by Paul Johnson (Harper, 1983)

One hundred years ago today, on November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein presented a paper to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, a paper that set forth a theory that radically remade the world. The theory was General Relativity, and it was confirmed, as Paul Johnson wrote, four years after its presentation, when the light of a distant star was shown to have bent around the sun. People would go on talking about the interstellar ether and other outmoded concepts for years afterwards, but to those who were paying attention to such things, relativity presented new possibilities.

Paul Johnson's thesis is that relativity passed from science into other fields of thought:
At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism. (p. 4)
Coupled to Freudianism, Darwinism, Marxism, and other nineteenth-century isms, relativism helped make the horrors of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century possible. None of that can be laid at Einstein's feet, of course, but the confusion of relativism with relativity is an example of how "[t]he scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more than any statesman or warlord." (p. 5) I might add that the words "scientific moron" or "pseudoscientific genius" might easily be substituted for "scientific genius" in Paul Johnson's formulation.

Relativity opened doors of imagination for writers and artists as well as for scientists and dictators. In January 1919, before the British expedition to the southern hemisphere to take pictures of the solar eclipse, the first magazine devoted to fantasy fiction, Der Orchideengarten, went to press in Einstein's home country of Germany. The Thrill Book, an American magazine, followed in March of that year. Four years later, in March 1923, Weird Tales began. That magazine, "The Unique Magazine," was the first American magazine of its kind. By the time it went into publication, writers, just like the general public, were at least aware of Einstein and his theories, even if they didn't quite understand them. H.P. Lovecraft, an amateur astronomer and a man of great learning, famously mentioned Einstein in his work. So did his followers. "The Whisperer in Darkness" by Lovecraft (Weird Tales, Aug. 1931) and "The Hounds of Tindalos" by Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (Weird Tales, Mar. 1929) were among the stories touching upon Einstein and relativity. Both stories invoke the possibilities of time travel by relativistic physics.

I don't know who was first among Weird Tales writers to mention Einstein and relativity, but future editor Farnsworth Wright is a candidate, for in October 1923, Weird Tales published his story "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension." It's a humorous story and not one likely to appeal to Lovecraft fans. I won't spoil the ending any more than it's already spoiled. "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension" was reprinted in The Moon Terror (1927) and The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997).

Since it was first propounded, relativity has made more than horrors possible. It has also helped us make things of elegance and beauty, including works of art. Without it, science fiction would still live in the age of the ether, which was fine in its time, but limited. Now the only limit is c, and even that is no great obstacle to the science fiction imagination. So Happy Birthday to General Relativity!

Further Reading
"H.P. Lovecraft and Albert Einstein," a four-part article on the blog Lovecraftian Science: Scientific Investigations into the Cthulhu Mythos, beginning February 23, 2014, here.

Intellectuals--scientists, writers, college professor types--like to believe that their ideas are important and influential. Too often, they try to make their ideas important by forcing them on to others. Few things enrage them more than being ignored. Einstein was different: people paid attention. But maybe not as much as what he and others thought. Leave it to the cartoonist to puncture intellectual self-importance. That's what Rea Irvin did with this drawing for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Second New Yorker Album (1929).

The first Weird Tales anthology was The Moon Terror by A.G. Birch and Stories by Anthony M. Rud, Vincent Starrett and Farnsworth Wright, published in 1927 by Popular Fiction Publishing of Indianapolis. Among the four stories in the book is "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension" by Wright, future editor of "The Unique Magazine." The cover artist is unknown. It could very well have been William F. Heitman. 

Wright's story was reprinted seventy years later in The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997). This is the only volume in what looked like it was going to be a series. Someone ought to continue it, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. The cover artist is Stephen Fabian.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Before Star Trek and Star Wars . . .

. . . there was Weird Tales.

Star Trek and Star Wars are in the news. Earlier this month, CBS Television Studios announced that a new Star Trek television show will begin in January 2017, missing the fiftieth-anniversary year by only a month. That's news enough for Star Trek fans. I'm not sure they care when the show is set or in what universe. (1) Having a new Star Trek television show is probably enough.

I say Star Wars is in the news, but that may not be entirely accurate. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more like the context in which all other news takes place. Everything on the Internet, on YouTube, on television, and in the stores is Star Wars. I even saw Star Wars Cover Girl makeup on display. I suspect that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have the biggest opening of any movie ever and that it may very well be the highest grossing movie ever. (We can hope for that if only to knock that excremental film Avatar out of first place.) I needn't remind anyone that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18, 2015, thirty-three days from now.

There is nothing new under the sun of course. That is as true of science fiction and fantasy as anything. And so, before there was Star Trek or Star Wars, there was Weird Tales. In April 1925, "The Unique Magazine" published an early entry in the sub-genre of interplanetary adventure, "When the Green Star Waned" by Nictzin Dyalhis. The story concerns a crew of spacefarers who go to the rescue of a planet that has been invaded by creatures from another world. That sounds like a plot from Star Trek, but in this case, the spacefarers are from Venus, the people they rescue are earthlings, and the creatures are from the far side of the moon.

Opinions differ on the quality of "When the Green Star Waned." Readers of Weird Tales loved it, voting it the most popular story of April 1925 and of the year 1925, and the fifth most popular published between 1923 and 1940.. Everett Bleiler, on the other hand, called it "[d]istasteful and negligible as fiction" while recognizing it as "a seminal work in the history of pulp [science fiction]." (2) The similarities between Dyalhis' story and other genre works are manifest. First, it's a variation on the theme of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1897), though instead of being saved by bacteria, the people of earth are saved by Venerians. Second, according to an always anonymous contributor to Wikipedia, "When the Green Star Waned" was an influence upon Jerry Siegel and his co-creation of Superman. There isn't any substantiation of or citation for that claim. Third, the similarity of the story to the whole concept of Star Trek is unmistakable. Whether Gene Roddenberry read "When the Green Star Waned" is another matter. I doubt that he did. It seems more likely that he worked in the context of 1950s and '60s science fiction in which Dyalhis' ideas had become subsumed and, consequently, anonymous. By the way, Nictzin Dyalhis is credited with coining the word blastor, in Star Trek parlance, phaser.

Or in Star Wars parlance, blaster. Han Solo carried one. He used it to shoot Greedo. And he shot first. (3) The reason Han Solo shot first and did so many other of the things he did is that he is a rogue and an outlaw, a cynical and morally ambiguous anti-hero. In the end, he saves himself and his friends by shucking off some of his cynicism and moral ambiguity. He becomes a straight hero, in the process winning glory, honor, and the heart of the beautiful princess. Star Wars (1977) might be his story as much as it is anyone's. Anyway, there is precedent in science fiction and fantasy for a character like Han Solo. If you're looking for origins, you should probably begin with a character who first appeared in Weird Tales, C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith.

Northwest Smith, like Han Solo, is a spaceship pilot and a smuggler. Also like Han Solo, he has an alien sidekick, in his case, the Venerian Yarol. He gets in and out of scrapes over the course of his career. In his debut appearance, in the short story "Shambleau" in Weird Tales for November 1933, he nearly perishes, wrapped in the tresses of the beautiful, irresistible, and addictive title character. What a way to go. In all, Northwest Smith was in thirteen stories, mostly in Weird Tales. He also got into the imaginations of other writers, including C.L. Moore's friend Leigh Brackett, who created her own interplanetary adventurer in Eric John Stark. Leigh Brackett is also credited as co-screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and so we come full circle, as any traveler of the universe eventually must do.

* * *

Speaking of Star Trek, Star Wars, and precedents: before the Death Star, there was the planet-destroying machine in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine." Science fiction author Norman Spinrad wrote the episode.

* * *

I like Star Trek. I also like Brazilian music, so I was happy to learn of a connection: the great Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida played guitar on the song "Beyond Antares," sung by Nichelle Nichols on the episode "The Conscience of the King." Almeida's performance was uncredited. The lyrics were by Gene L. Coon:

Beyond Antares
The skies are green and glowing

Where my heart is!

Where my heart is,

Where the scented lunar flower is blooming:

Somewhere, beyond the stars,

Beyond Antares.

I'll be back, though it takes forever:

Forever is just a day!

Forever is just another journey,

Tomorrow a stop along the way.

And let the years go fading

Where my heart is,

Where my heart is!

Where my love eternally is waiting:

Somewhere, beyond the stars,

Beyond Antares . . .

Those words were written of course when men and women still loved each other.

* * *

Here are partial lyrics to another science fiction song:

My heart turns home in longing
Across the voids between,
To know beyond the spaceways
The hills of Earth are green.

They come from the song "The Green Hills of Earth," hummed by Northwest Smith in "Shambleau." C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner put words to the song in the story "Quest of the Starstone" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1937). Robert A. Heinlein later used the title and composed his own lyrics for use in his own stories.

* * *

Finally, in an unrelated matter, mass man--alternatively, the member of a mass movement or the adherent to a mass belief--that potent monster of our times, struck again in Paris last night. Our thoughts are with the people of Paris and of France. In a larger sense, though, we should think of our entire civilization and the threats posed to it, perhaps less by those on the outside than by those on the inside. We should remember two figures from French history, Charles Martel and Marshal Pétain, and choose which we would prefer to emulate.

(1) Now that J.J. Abrams has spun off a new universe in which stories no longer have to be thoughtful, original, make sense, or cover up planet-sized holes in their plots.
(2) Science-Fiction, The Early Years: A Full Description of More Than 3,000 Science-Fiction Stories from Earliest Times to the Appearance of the Genre Magazines in 1930, with Author, Title, and Motif Indexes (1990), p. 214.
(3) At the Mothman Festival in September, I talked to a couple of men about Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster (1978). One had read the book, and though he enjoyed it, he said it wasn't "canon." Star Trek fans talk like that, too. I am of the opinion that people who use the word canon in reference to Star Trek or Star Wars ought to be slapped at the very least. Or maybe they ought to be shot out of--or by--a cannon. Jar Jar Binks and Lwaxana Troi, two of the worst characters in the history of literature, are part of the "canon" of their respective universes. According to the "canon" of Star Wars, Greedo shot first. Only George Lucas, who seems to have smoked too much weed in his life, believes that.
Weird Tales, April 1925, with a cover story, "When the Green Star Waned," by Nictzin Dyalhis and cover art by Andrew Brosnatch.
C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith, in a sanitized version on the cover of Northwest of Earth (1954). The cover art is by Ric Binkley.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, October 30, 2015

Edgar Allan Poe-America's Pocket Author

Edgar Allan Poe often began his stories with epigrams, often in other languages. He also liked to throw into his text foreign words, phrases, and sayings. So I'll begin today with a word from another language, carina. It's an Italian word and it means cute. The root of the word is cara--dear or beloved. The suffix -ina makes it diminutive, thus carina, literally, little dear or little beloved. Carina and Cara (or Kara, my niece's name) have passed into our language as girl's names. They are lovely names and carry lovely sentiments, but I would expect nothing less from Italy and its wonderful people.

So it occurs to me that Edgar Allan Poe is America's pocket author. What do I mean by that? Well, he wrote stories and poems that have been collected in pocket editions--you can see some examples below--but that's not exactly it. What I mean is that Poe is America's little beloved author. Maybe beloved isn't quite the right word. Treasured might be closer to the truth. He wrote little works--short stories and poems--that we have taken to our hearts in a way that seems to me unique. Charles Brockden Brown is too remote. His works are too large and perhaps too flawed. Washington Irving is a beloved author, too, but for only a couple of stories. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are admired by many, but they were writers of non-fiction. They don't quite capture the imagination. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville are too dark, dense, and weighty. Mark Twain is beloved but too big and expansive, and perhaps too cynical and biting. Louisa May Alcott and Willa Cather are also beloved. My Ántonia is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read I think. Both are known for their novels, however. Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, and Ambrose Bierce might be candidates for America's pocket author, but they don't quite make it. None is especially beloved. I can't even imagine saying "the beloved author Ambrose Bierce." That leaves Emily Dickinson, also a  little author and perhaps Poe's main rival for the title. By the time you get to the twentieth century, there aren't many authors from which to choose. Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger wrote some fine short works, but even they can't match Poe. I guess what I'm getting at, too, is that Poe is beloved or treasured by children. He might be the first serious American author whom children read and learn to recognize. He might be the first they search out. That counts for a lot. Maybe they see something in him with which they can identify, a childlike quality, an appeal to the young heart, mind, and imagination, or an author who wrote romantic expressions of love, fear, and tragedy. Maybe that's why there have been so many little books made of his stories and poems. Anyway, here are some covers of carina books from my collection. Happy Halloween to all readers of weird tales!

Eight Tales of Terror (Scholastic, 1961, 1972). This book and the book below are in the small mass-market paperback format, small enough to fit in your pocket.

Ten Great Mysteries (Scholastic, 1960, 1970).

The Raven and Other Selections (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1967), a small hardbound edition.

Visions of Darkness (Hallmark Editions, 1971), another small hardback.

Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (Whitman, 1972). This book isn't quite pocket-sized, but it is a book intended for children.

Three Tales of Horror (Penguin, 1995), which includes stories by Poe, Bierce, and Robert Louis Stevenson. This is a very small paperback and one of a series. The cover art is by Goya.

Note: Click on the authors in bold for links.
Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, October 26, 2015

Botanical Fiction Database

I don't ordinarily provide links to other sites, but recently I found one that probably every fan of fantasy and science fiction should know about. The site itself is called The Fish in Prison. The page to which I'd like to refer you is called "Botanical Fiction." The URL is as follows (click on it for the link):

The author of the site is Dr. Timothy S. Miller of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Dr. Miller received his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame. If he'll accept the honor, we'll call him a Hoosier.

The Botanical Fiction Database isn't quite a database yet. Dr. Miller calls it instead a "Timeline of Botanical Fictions." It begins with "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1844 and reprinted in Weird Tales in May 1928. There are many other stories from Weird Tales in Dr. Miller's list, including "The Blood Flower" by Seabury Quinn, which was reprinted in The Adventures of Jules de Grandin, a book from one of my recent postings. In fact, a lot of the stories on his list are from Weird Tales. The John Carstairs series by Frank Belknap Long is not. This is the first I have heard of the series. It's about a botanical detective. As a forester, part-time botanizer, reader of detective fiction, and (bewildered) explorer of the mysteries of life, I want to read the series exactly right now.

I have written a little about plants in two of my last three postings. They have led me first in an unintended way, then in an intended way, to today's posting. By the way, I wrote more on plants in "Trees and Other Plants on the Cover of Weird Tales" on February 11, 2014. Click on the title for a link.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, October 23, 2015

Thomas Lanier Williams (1911-1983)

Aka Tennessee Williams
Playwright, Author, Poet, Movie Scenarist
Born March 26, 1911, Columbus, Mississippi
Died February 25, 1993, New York, New York

Time was when American literature was dominated by authors you could place into about three categories: Jewish writers, Chicago-area writers, and Southern or Southern Gothic writers. That might be a little simplistic, but simplifying things sometimes helps you keep your thoughts in order. Gothicism in American literature goes way back. You might say American literature as a whole is essentially Gothic. That seems to have been Leslie Fiedler's point in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), a book I'm reading right now. Southern Gothic in particular is an old strain. If Edgar Allan Poe was a Southern writer, then maybe the strain goes back to him, as so many things do. Writers in the Southern Gothic tradition include William Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, and Carson McCullers. Lest you think the tradition has died out, more recent authors such as Walker Percy (deceased) and Cormac McCarthy (still living) are also considered part of it. We can't leave out Tennessee Williams of course. Although the others wrote stories of horror, science fiction, and the macabre, only Williams made it into the pages of Weird Tales. Here is an excerpt from his Memoirs (1975):
In my adolescence in St. Louis, at the age of sixteen, several important events in my life occurred. It was in the sixteenth year that I wrote "The Vengeance of Nitocris" and received my first publication in a magazine and the magazine was Weird Tales. The story wasn't published till June of 1928. [It was actually August 1928, when Williams was seventeen.] That same year my grandfather Dakin took me with him on a tour of Europe with a large party of Episcopalian ladies from the Mississippi Delta . . . . And, it was in my sixteenth year that my deep nervous problems approached what might well have been a crisis as shattering as that which broke my sister's mind, lastingly, when she was in her twenties.
I was at sixteen a student at University City High School in St. Louis and the family was living in a cramped apartment at 6254 Enright Avenue.
And a little more:
My younger brother, Dakin, always an indomitable enthusiast of whatever he got into, had turned our little patch of green behind the apartment on Enright into quite an astonishing little vegetable garden. If there were flowers in it, they were, alas, obscured by the profuse growth of squash, pumpkins, and other edible flora. (p. 16)
That's an aside and a segue into the next posting.

Williams went on to study at the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis. It was at the university that he began writing plays. His big break came with The Glass Menagerie (1944). His other plays include A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Orpheus Descending (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1961), all of which were made into movies. For his work, Williams won two Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards. And, as befitting a writer in the Southern Gothic tradition, he died alone in a hotel room either by choking to death on the lid of a medicine bottle or from the effects of drug use. But when he was seventeen, a story in Weird Tales opened a door for him.

Thomas Lanier Williams' Story in Weird Tales
"The Vengeance of Nitocris" (Aug. 1928)

Further Reading
You can read "The Vengeance of Nitocris," which is in the public domain, here.

I previously wrote that E. Phillips Oppenheim may have been the only author to have contributed to Weird Tales who also had his picture on the cover of Time magazine. Well, here's another, Tennessee Williams, from March 9, 1962, with art by Bernard Safran.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lovecraft and the Mass Rock

In searching the past for clues to the present, I have been reading a little about Ireland. My family is from western Ireland, historically a poverty-stricken and now a vastly depopulated place. Sad to say, much of that was because of the British. The Penal Laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were among the chief instruments of British oppression. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), an Anglo-Irishman and a man to whom we as Americans owe so much, called the Penal Laws: 
[A] machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.
I leafed through a book the other day and my eyes landed on a page, specifically a quote on that page. The book is Ireland for Beginners by Phil Evans and Eileen Pollock (1983). Here's the quote:
Illicit Catholic worship survive[d] [in the early 1700s] using round flat-top rocks as altars hidden in the woods. (p. 26)
When I read those words, I thought immediately of the altar stones in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and his associates. Altar stones appear in "The Dunwich Horror," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Colour Out of Space," all by Lovecraft, and "Notebook Found in a Deserted House," by Robert Bloch. In every one of those stories, they are associated with forbidden rites, including human sacrifice and of bringing into our world beings from other places. (1) They are found on hilltops and in backwoods. If you replace the word Catholic with the word Cthulhu in the second quote above, you have a pretty precise description of them. The stone used in Catholic Ireland, by the way, is called a mass rock, or Carraig an Aifrinn.

That brings up two issues. First, the words Cthulhu and Catholic. If you remove the vowels and the last consonant (if h is a consonant) from those words, you get:




Coincidence? Yeah, I think so.

Second and more to the point, H.P. Lovecraft was a pretty WASPy guy, an old New England Protestant Tory. Did that make him anti-Catholic? I have never read anything to suggest that he was anti-Catholic, although as a nativist, he might have been disposed against Catholics and people from Catholic countries, for example, Italians, Spaniards, and Latin Americans. Castro, the old man who knows the story of Cthulhu in "The Call of Cthulhu," leaps to mind as one of that type. He's only one, but I would hazard a guess that there were others.

So was Lovecraft exposed to anti-Catholic feelings remaining from Colonial America, especially from New England, which was first settled by Puritans? And did those feelings find their way into his stories? Rhode Island was founded as a colony of religious freedom. Did that include freedom for Catholics? I would like to think so. I have read that 44% of the people in Rhode Island are Catholic, making the state the most Catholic by percentage of any state in the Union. But how far back does that Catholicism go? To colonial times? I can't say.

In addition to being a WASPish and old-fashioned New Englander, Lovecraft was a fan of the writers and thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Penal Laws were enacted and enforced in Ireland around that time. That was also a time for the casting out of religion in favor of the supremacy of reason in western Europe. Our revolution grew, in part, out of the Age of Reason and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Unfortunately the French Revolution did, too, and it is still bearing poisoned fruits in the forms of materialism, atheism, leftism, socialism, etc. Lovecraft himself was a materialist or an atheist, a fact S.T. Joshi, an atheist himself, never fails to mention. All that may be beside the point. The point is this: Did the image of the Catholic mass rock, hidden in the woods in a place where forbidden rites were held, survive into the twentieth century? And did it find its way into weird fiction? If so, was it still moored to anti-Catholicism, or had it been cut loose, only to survive as a kind of atavism?

(1) You could say that, in a way, the Catholic Mass is symbolic of human sacrifice and a bringing into the world of a being from another place. Beyond that, we shouldn't forget that the story of the resurrection of Cthulhu is similar to the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that similarity to have been unintentional, but you never know.

H.P. Lovecraft in eighteenth century dress, by Virgil Finlay.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley