April 4th, 2005

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Recent Ghoulishness

The slow deaths last week of Terry Schiavo and Pope John Paul II really had the ghouls circling. And this time, I don't mean ghoulish people like that creepy Viennese archbishop who's been openly campaigning for the Papacy (in flagrant violation of canon law), or a certain notorious anti-abortion terrorism supporter, or a certain increasingly conservative long-time Democrat presidential candidate who's famous for a dubious bloody shirt. I mean the real ghouls.

Most people don't know that there's not really a ghoulrights community on LiveJournal, but they shouldn't be surprised. The ghoulish community never really had their own Stonewall, but ever since Lawrence v Texas implied that states can't impose morality laws any more, the ghouls have joined the polyamorists, polygamists, the sex-toy sellers, and everybody else who's trying to argue that they're not practitioners of a society-destroying vice, they're just an "alternative lifestyle" that harms no one and ought to be completely legal. (Edit: I see that they've not really finally creeped out LiveJournal.com management enough to get their little community deleted, presumably for advocating illegal magic. I'm not surprised. It doesn't invalidate my point, though.) Since what they advocate includes the legalization of civilian use of highly classified and highly dangerous Forbidden Magic, I'd be stunned if ghoulishness ever becomes both legal and socially accepted. (Of course, back in the 1970s I said the same thing about robust cryptography, so what do I know?)

Anyway, their latest little foray into bad taste has been that certain (obviously anonymous) members or supporters of the ghoul community spent the last week or two pushing a couple of "harmless" little proposals. As everybody knows, a ghoul is a former human being (or a descendant of former human beings) with a subterranean lifestyle, an extraordinarily hideous and almost liquidly flexible body shape, and a permanent nearly-uncontrollable craving for human flesh. Although the ghoul rights community denies this accusation, and points to a handful of known scholarly ghouls who are allegedly harmless, it's a well known fact that the (apparently dangerously simple) spell that turns a human into a ghoul not only involves cannibalism, but the first use of that spell permanently turns the spell caster into a sociopath, someone with a total empathy disorder, a complete inability to care about other people's feelings or pain except (in rare cases) in a theoretical or intellectual way. People turn themselves into hideous, flesh-eating freaks not just to renounce society, not just for kicks, but for the specific power it gives them: upon consuming a tiny bit of the deceased's flesh and performing the visualization or spell or whatever it is, they acquire the deceased's memories, and the ability to assume that person's shape for as long as they can maintain their concentration.

So imagine my disgust when I found out that the ghoulrights community was trying to contact Terry Schiavo's parents, the Schindlers, and and the office of governor Jeb Bush, to make an offer. They offered to settle the issue once and for all as to whether or not Terry Schiavo was able to form thoughts or memories for the last 17 years. They offered the Schindlers a chance to say goodbye to their daughter, and final closure. In other words, they offered to eat her. Being good Catholics on both sides of the 17-year fight over the disposition of the disintegrating mechanically animated corpse of Terry Schiavo, neither Michael Schiavo or his inlaws took them up on it, obviously. At least, dear gods, I hope not. Hopefully fate has been merciful, and someone intervened to keep them from even hearing about the offer. If you need any further proof that ghouls can't feel human feelings, that somebody thought this was a good idea should pretty much settle it in your mind.

So on top of that public relations "coup," the ghoulrights community took it one step further, saying it would be a terrible shame if the now-late Pope's remarkable gifts, and memories, and abilities were all lost to mankind. Knowledge and ability like his should be preserved, they argued. Besides, all it would take is the most tiny change in canon law (they claim) to have John Paul II remain Pope for centuries. That's right, they asked to eat him, too. The ghouls or ghoul-wannabes who chimed in on that thread seemed to think they were doing the college of cardinals a favor. No, not really.

It boggles my mind, sometimes, what people in alternative or underground communities think of as being likely to make them more popular.
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Cthulhu

Explanation: Lovecraft didn't really say that

OK, since I have readers who have an even higher Mythos Knowledge score than I do, I had better cover my butt on this one.

First of all, the background for people who aren't long-time readers. I have a series of alternate-universe essays, written by myself from an alternate time line in which H.P. Lovecraft's classic science fiction horror stories were not fiction published in Weird Tales, but were actual journalism. The world really is in danger from the Great Old Ones, and other cosmic terrors both extra-terrestrial and home-grown. There really are books of real magick out there that create horrific consequences for the reader and those around him. And everybody has known this for as long as they've known about machine guns, dynamite, poison gas, aerial bombardment, disease warfare, nuclear weapons, antibiotic-resistant germs, and all of the other things that might kill us off any day now. And yet, since it's just one more (in this case literally) damned thing, society learned to adapt and adjust, which is what I think would really have happened. Here's my longer introduction to the series, and here are my previous essays:
  1. Say No to Shoggoth/Human Sex!
  2. Cthulhu versus Spider-Man and the Justice League
  3. It'll Never Work
  4. 2005 Prediction: We Will Not Make Any More Contact with Extra-Terrestrial Life
  5. Global Warming and the Interspecies Cold War
Now, someone is very likely to jump on me for the fact that my take on ghouls depends very heavily on a "fact" that H.P. Lovecraft never mentioned. So let me talk a little bit first about ghouls and what Lovecraft did say about them in his fiction. Ghouls aren't an invention of his, they're a pre-Islamic legend in the Arabian penninsula, one that shows up prominently in the Arabian Nights stories which were so influential over Lovecraft. In traditional folklore, they're just a form of evil faerie or degenerate demonic species that lives out in the desert, comes out only at night, and otherwise lives alongside the people of that part of the world.

Lovecraft had an obsession with cannibalism, among other sources of horror; in his fiction, there are at least three distinct degenerate species of creatures that were once human before their distant ancestors combined the practice of forbidden magic with a taste for human flesh. The only ones that recur in multiple stories though are the ghouls, best documented in the marvelous short story "Pickman's Model." But Lovecraft never actually explains why the ghouls are obsessed with human flesh, especially the flesh of famous dead people.

I saw a fantastic, wonderful extension of this in a Martin Greenberg anthology called Miskatonic University. I wish I could tell you the author and the story title, but my copy seems to have grown tentacles and snuck away. (Isn't that how it always goes with Cthulhu mythos fiction?) Anyway the premise of this story was that ghoulishness briefly became a fad among the "jazz set" on the Miskatonic campus during Prohibition, and it's the story of a father trying to separate his daughter from a bad crowd, but he doesn't know how bad. Anyway, the idea in that story was that by eating bits of people, living or dead, ghouls could take on their shapes and gain their memories. This made sense to me, and not just because I was prepared for it long ago by an excellent 1980 Ted Sturgeon short story called "Why Dolphins Don't Bite." That you can gain a person's powers or memories or shape by magic and cannibalism is one of the standard recurring themes of fairy tale and folklore.

So my interpretation is that what costs ghouls their looks and their shape, what gives them the ability that Lovecraft mentioned to squeeze themselves through the tiniest pipes and tunnels, is that they acquire the power of shapeshifting in part by becoming these rubbery, super-flexible things. I'm suggesting that once you've changed your shape, this new more flexible but much creepier shape is your default permanent shape. Since we know that a lot of Forbidden Magic was actually learned from other species' records in the library of the Great Race of Yith, I further imagine that this spell was created by intelligent dinosaurs, the fabled Serpent Men of Valusia, and that's why in humans it creates a permanent empathy disorder and a tendency towards sociopathy; it was intended to be performed by someone with a more reptillian brain. Of course, Lovecraft himself probably only mean the sociopathy to be the "obvious" result of addiction to human flesh, and the addiction to human flesh to be the "obvious" result of dabbling in pre-Christian religion and forbidden magic. But I like my explanation better.
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