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What the Heck Was That? - Answered!

I imagine that yesterday's journal article left some of you scratching your heads and going, "What the heck was that all about?" It left at least one of you willing to say out loud, "You have too much time on your hands." But I had a lot of fun writing that one (and my replies to some of the comments), and I imagine that I'll do something like this again sooner or later. It's related to the theme of the book that I'm not working on often enough, for lack of time lately. I wrote it in no small part to help me get myself back into the mood to work on the book some more. Here's what I was really doing with that.

H.P. Lovecraft's original "Cthulhu Mythos" stories were set roughly between the years of 1920 and 1940. Hundreds of authors have attempted to continue the series beyond that point in time. They write stories set in their own time, or in the intervening years, based on the same assumptions and with the same nightmares, horrors, hazards, props, and mystical symbols. There are at least two role-playing games set in the future of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, GURPS CthulhuPunk by Steve Jackson Games (set in a cyberpunk future in which the mythos beings have broken out into the public) and Pagan Publishing's Delta Green supplement to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game (set in the 1990s).

What bothers me about nearly all of the Cthulhu-like stories that I've read that are set after the 1940s, though, is that they all assume that one of two things must be true. Either (1) the Dark Secret Forbidden Lore that would reveal all of the secrets of the Great Old Ones is still a secret, known only to a handful of investigators and a small secretive subculture of evil cultists, or else (2) that same lore has become common knowledge, and because of this widespread revelation the Earth has become a living nightmare. I can see how they could come to that conclusion. It is the conclusion that every Lovecraft narrator comes to, and relates in his story ... and this despite the fact that most of them end up telling their stories, revealing yet another piece of the puzzle to friends or co-workers or the general public despite the risk. They usually do so because they realize that somebody else is about to stumble blind into something that will end the world, and telling them (or the public) is the only way to stop this. And thus the ultimate terror of the Lovecraft universe: the Earth is doomed, but if we're lucky and careful we may be able to stave off the end of the human race for another couple of years.

Now, here's the part of all of that that bothers me - we've heard this before, and since! When Frazer published The Golden Bough, the end of civilization was forecast, because by undermining people's confidence in religion it was gutting our only defense against anarchy. Then came the early dawn of psychoanalysis, sex research, and small-press pornography, which was guaranteed to remove all inhibitions against perversion and slaughter in the vulnerable majority of the population. When poison gas and aircraft became weapons of war, science fiction writers like H.G. Wells confidently predicted that in the next war those awful weapons would be used to kill the entire population of every city on the planet. Then came nuclear weapons, and worse yet after them came the nuclear arms race and Mutually Assured Destruction. Every human being for the next two whole generations grew up knowing that it was inevitable that we were only One Small Mistake away from the destruction of civilization. For about two whole generations before that, it was widely known that the technological means to destroy civilization existed, and were within the reach of most industrial national armies. By the mid 1970s, every reasonable person knew that ever-rising population was going to lead to rampant air pollution that would choke us all to death. And the Cold War wasn't even over before we started getting really weird plagues out of Africa and other places, and we were confidently assured that another mass extinction event, The Coming Plague, was going to kill about a third of us and thereby end civilization. And if that wasn't scary enough, we had no sooner staved off the Y2K Bug (that was going to end civilization) than home gene-splicing equipment capable of building home-built virulent biological weapons dropped in size, price, and complexity to about the level of my 1986 model IBM-compatible PC. Oh, and don't forget that everybody in America now knows how to build a copy of the bomb that destroyed the Murrah building in Oklahoma, and knows that it only cost about $2000 bucks, which means that any random average mid-level drug dealer has enough money and manpower to murder and thereby overthrow pretty much the entire US government. And that was before al Qaeda came along to threaten to murder us all at our desks at work some random day, and before yet another wacko got away with using the US Mail as a weapon of mass destruction.

A smidgen over a hundred years ago, prophets of doom started walking the streets of America carrying signs and wearing sandwich boards that warned, "The End is Near!" They've been doing it so long that it's a common joke, a cartoonists' cliché. That "End" has been "Near" for an awful, awful long time. As a reviewer said of one long-running anti-climactic SF series (I forget which), "He's had his hand in that hat for a long time, there'd better be a rabbit coming out of there at some point." We've had the capability to destroy our entire civilization for something close to five whole generations. Or, to put it in closer perspective, there have been probably something close to 10 or 12 billion people born who all had the capability to ruin the Earth for human habitation. And yet, here we still are, typing away on the Internet. No rabbit. Huh.

So here's what I think would have happened if Lovecraft's stories had been news articles in Time and Popular Science and National Geographic and regional newspapers and True Crime magazines, instead of fiction in Weird Tales. I think that my grandparents' generation would have been shocked and horrified. I think that my parents' generation would have grown up trying to harness it and control the risk, but frankly spent more time worrying about (and fighting) the spread of fascism and communism than they would have been worrying about any Cthulhu cult. I think our generation would have been bored with it, but probably seen it crop up in at least one moral panic like the Cult Brainwashing hoax we lived through as kids and the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax we went through as young adults. I think that the generation after mine, the one that my youngest readers belong to, would have been tired of hearing about it, and trying to separate the superstitious fear from the practical reality, and trying to make a rational world for themselves amidst it.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, and then again in the 1980s, the government through the military poured huge amounts of money into universities and defense contractors to research and develop nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. I can only assume that they would have poured similar money into thaumaturgical weapons. And I amuse myself to think that the results would have been no different. Miskatonic University with its head start collection of valuable lore is, after all, in Massachusetts. Presumably the same defense-contract money that funded the "Massachusetts Miracle" of engineering firms, computer science firms, and biotechnology firms in Cambridge would have spilled over into Arkham. I see a Miskatonic University in my mind as filled with gleaming glass and imposing concrete and giant brick towers ... built on the bull-dozed slum clearance of old-town Arkham, and with thriving suburbs spilling out around it, and the best students in the nation trying just as hard to get admission and scholarship to the School of Dark Arts at Miskatonic as others do (in the same universe, as they do in ours) to get into MIT.

I see a world that knows that certain chemicals are dangerous, because they can be used for dangerously destablizing occult experiments like the Curwen Effect. But that's no challenge that we aren't already dealing with in our world, in the ongoing struggle to control precursor chemicals used to affordably manufacture illegal drugs. It just means that in addition to looking out to rat you out as a possible meth lab, your glassware provider is also looking whether or not to rat you out as a possible alchemist. It's the same paperwork, more or less.

It's a world that knows that a couple of hundred places scattered around are very dangerous, so don't let anybody go in there. So what? We deal with that all the time, too. So we relocate a couple of military bases to where they can also guard shoggoth pits. So we tell the National Park Service forest rangers to also make sure that the mountain peaks and caves on national park land aren't used for traffic with the Great Old Ones. Yeah, the US Navy probably patrols the area above R'yleh, and satellites and sonar monitor it for activity. So what? None of this would change the way you live your day to day life.

I can think of a few changes that would be visible. That world needs no SETI, because we share the solar system with two other intelligent species (the Deep Ones and the Mi-Go), and have artifacts left behind in the destroyed or abandoned remains of at least three others (the Elder Race, the Great Race, and the Serpent Men). I have my own assumptions about how the world would have dealt, and be dealing with, the Deep Ones and the Mi-Go, and I'm looking forward to writing about that later.

Would there still have been an Occult Revival in the 1960s, in a world where the secrets of real working magic and the secret history of the universe were known to professional, academic, and military thaumaturges by the 1950s, and those secrets were nothing like what Gardner's spiritual ancestors cribbed from Frazer? I amuse myself to think so, that the same people would have sought to legitimize a religious form of what used to be called "white witchcraft," and I'm amusing myself trying to narrow down in my mind what the essential points of difference would have been.

But the most visible change would involve burial customs, and some related social weirdness. This is a world that would have to take "ghoulishness" seriously, and the word wouldn't mean acting like a mopey goth. This is a world that would know that some human beings inherit, and others choose, a lifestyle that involves combining illegal magick with cannibalism, with the result being the loss of permanent human shape and acquisition of a permanent empathy disorder in exchange for shape-shifting and access to the memories of the dead. This is obviously a world in which cremation is the law, and the world still contains elderly people who are haunted and taunted by simulacra of their dead loved ones. I amuse myself by imagining that by the 21st century, there would be people arguing that being a ghoul shouldn't be illegal any more, it should be a protected lifestyle choice. Writing about that argument is going to be a world of fun!

But throughout the series, I want to convey the impression that while all of these things were seen as an unsurvivable threat to civilization by the few people who knew about them in the 1890s and viewed with even greater alarm in the 1930s, 40s, and 1950s, they (like every other threat we've faced) would all be manageable problems that society would be now treating as a matter of course - permanent problems, and often Viewed With Alarm in the headlines, but managed none the less.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
bradhicks
Oct. 5th, 2004 11:11 am (UTC)
No, I hadn't heard of it. But I was just looking at the reviews over on Amazon, and hey, that does sound good.
nancylebov
Oct. 5th, 2004 04:31 am (UTC)
_The Atrocity Archives_ by Charles Stross has the Cthulhu mythos being true, and is written from the point of view of a government agent who's working to keep it all secret.

For a milder example, there's Laurel Hamilton's
Anita Blake novels, set in a world where vampires and werewolves and such are common knowledge.

One of my friends takes heart from knowing that for a long time, cities could have been destroyed by arson, and no one (either public or private) was doing it on purpose.

I would never say that something like your shoggoth silliness is a sign of having too much time on your hands--isn't that sort of thing what people are *supposed* to use their minds for?
idonotlikepeas
Oct. 5th, 2004 07:16 am (UTC)
That sounds absolutely brilliant.

Unfortunately, people who are writing Cthulu are usually writing horror, and the scenario you describe is not horrifying. If the threat is manageable, it's not frightening; the terrifying thing is the threat that can't be stopped or can only be stopped through some incredibly complex and painful process like copying a videotape.

It'd be interesting to see other genres in the Cthulu-mythos setting. Shoggoths on ice! The Mi-Go and I!

Also, check out Hellboy if you didn't already. The comics, that is. It isn't quite what you're looking for, but I like the juxtaposition of Cthulu-monsters with some guy with a great big gun and a bunch of grenades saying things like "That's crap!" (Admittedly, the guy is a big freakin' demon, but whatever.)
(Deleted comment)
bradhicks
Oct. 5th, 2004 11:27 am (UTC)
Or if you wanted to game it you could even play it for laughs, the way that my favorite movie of all time, Real Genius, played with the wacky fun idea of tricking college undergraduates into building a suborbital laser assassination weapon for the CIA, amidst much pranking and hilarity. Make Miskatonic University a lot like the GURPS IOU.

(I loved reading IOU, and I loved the Foglio artwork. It's probably the most fun I've had reading a gaming supplement since the original Paranoia. It may be too open-ended to play, though.)
pope_guilty
Dec. 29th, 2004 02:23 am (UTC)
I love rereading IOU, and always end up wishing desperately that there was more, but I can't for the life of me imagine running it.
wolflahti
Oct. 5th, 2004 08:32 am (UTC)
Lucid and elegantly expressed.

It would be damned hard to write a novel based on such a template, however, without massive expository lumps. Not undoable, but it would require fine balancing and a really good sense of pacing.

Perhaps you could do it as a NaNoWriMo project. :)
ponsdorf
Oct. 5th, 2004 10:44 am (UTC)
yep, but...
It's wonderfully elegant... But I'm not so sure that a completely lucid (as in "having full use of one's faculties") person should be allowed to deal with such subject matter.

From the PD (My personal favorite bit):
"I am chaos.
I am the substance from which your artists and scientists build rhythms.
I am the spirit with which your children and clowns laugh in happy anarchy.
I am chaos. I am alive, and I tell you that you are free."

And the image of Brad hunched over his keyboard with wonderful music in his ears and wonderful thoughts making his fingers move. While an occasional giggle of joy (or freedom or 'something') escapes.

Whatever it is.... keep it up.

luv ya, gene
bradhicks
Oct. 5th, 2004 11:02 am (UTC)
Re: yep, but...
Well, then, all I can say is that it's a good idea I'm only incompletely lucid, eh?

In a world of eldritch horror, having Asperger's Syndrome would almost be an advantage, because while there are perfectly ordinary things that induce sanity-shattering blood-freezing panic in me (job interviews, for example), I could probably, oh, let's pick an example from the up-coming Xbox sequel to "The Shadow over Innsmouth," find a disemboweled reanimated corpse nailed up on the wall of some basement like a butterfly on a bug board and calmly ask him for information and offer him what help I could. I could probably see a shoggoth oozing up through the floorboards of an old building, and the length of time I'd have to stop to think before taking appropriate measures probably wouldn't exceed something like 200 or 300 milliseconds. (Probably "flee like a racehorse, or a bacchanal," but hey, it's something.) I'd have my experience disgust and/or have the shakes and/or suffer self-recriminations later, if at all.

One of these days I'll have to tell the story of the time I almost blew up an apartment building in the Central West End. It's pretty funny, in hindsight.
ponsdorf
Oct. 5th, 2004 11:40 am (UTC)
Re: yep, but...
"One of these days I'll have to tell the story of the time I almost blew up an apartment building in the Central West End. It's pretty funny, in hindsight."

rats.... Talk about a teaser!!! Now I'm gonna have to hang out here more than I planned.

Was it Brad the anarchist?
Brad the accident prone?

Geez....
kukla_tko42
Oct. 5th, 2004 09:42 pm (UTC)
Re: yep, but...
And he's not even talking about the time his neighbor's house blew up in Bridgeton.

Heh. He wasn't even HOME for that one. It was almost a contender for the Darwin Awards.

If you want to, I *could* be provoked into telling THAT story, as I was there. Or pester <lj user="the_geoffrey". Tee hee hee... Oh, and Brad, write it, dammit. I'll help you sell it... just write the damn thing. I'll even write you a prologue telling the story where we're taking inventory of random rubber body parts for the Halloween store and you started talking about the world of Lovecraft's nightmares. BTW, that was over 7 years ago. You know, the other day.
bradhicks
Oct. 5th, 2004 11:14 pm (UTC)
Re: yep, but...
I will write it, I swear ta Christ. But man, I am really starting to resent the time I spend at work. It is cutting way too deep into my writing time.
goddinpotty
Oct. 5th, 2004 09:31 pm (UTC)
You're a hell of a writer. Friendinated.
caraig
Oct. 6th, 2004 12:00 pm (UTC)
GURPS Technomancy and Robert Lumley
SJG put out a supplement that talks about some of the more blatant game-style magic set in a modern setting, and what happens when you popularize and mass-produce magic. Some interesting stuff there, and very thought-oprokoking for anyone who wants to introduce game-syle magic in a modern setting.

The game-style magic is different from what we see in most Cthulhu stories, however, which is more ritual magic. The military thaumaturges you mention wouold probably last for about ten to twenty years abefore the militaries in most developed nations realized that their thaumaturges had become increasingly insane and were no more of a danger to their nation than to the enemies. From then on, thaumaturges would probably be taken on for freelance work, and would probably not have any permamently on staff or would keep them very rigidly controlled, going so far as to control what they read. (Don't want any postcards from R'yleh saying 'Call me soon! <3 Big C.' after all.)

If the Mythos became known to the general public, I could see a case where people will just mistakenly assume it's being 'taken care of' and 'controlled.' You can't really control Cthulhu. Nukes just make him irritable. At least, that's up for debate. If you ask Robert Lumley, he might say that a nuke could take out Cthulhu but then there'd by Cthylla to deal with. Lumley also posited that there would be a world-spaning organization devoted to taking out the Mythos entities on Earth, the Wilmarth Foundation. They operate mostly in secret with a lot of government and corporate support, though wether they would continue to operate in secret if the Mythos became public could be discussed.

Mind you, Lumley wrote his own take on the Cthulhu mythos, the Titus Crow/Wilmarth cycle. These stories started with the Burrowers Beneath, going on to The Transition of Titus Crow (which is less horror and more wierd fantasy in the style of _The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath_) to the apocalyptic and somewhat pulpy Elysia. For a long time Elysia was incredibly hard to find, but I believe an edition was published not too long ago. He had (has?) a MUCH more science-oriented take on the Mythos, where their magic is really just a sort of psionics or mental science. (Not sure if this is the case in his Necroscope novels, where the Mythos makes an appearance in some of the necromantic incantations.)

It's all rather pulpy stuff -- Titus Crow, after his transition, could give Doc Savage a run for his money, and most of the characters are pulp-style paragons -- and it's a much different feel than Lovecraft's writing. I can see where a lot of fans of the Cthulhu Mythos didn't really like Lumley's work. Still, it adds a very interesting alternate take. I borrowed some of Lumley's concepts, maintianing the supernatural aspects of the Mythos, for a game I was doing a few years ago, which was sort of science fiction meets the Mythos.
(Anonymous)
Oct. 9th, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
Ken Kesey and the Merry Diabolists?
A thought: just as LSD research began as a gov't psyops program until Harvard PhD Tim Leary popularized it, given such a scenario it would seem likely that some Miskatonic U. professor would go off the reservation in a similar fashion, and possibly for a similar reason: to prevent such knowledge from being used as a tool of social control by the (earthly?) Powers that Be.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )