Wednesday, July 3, 2013

From Cthulhu to Alien

By David Luhrssen
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The stories of H.P. Lovecraft, the reclusive New England master of cosmic horror, have been the source for around two-dozen movies. In scanning the list, I realize that most have slipped past me unseen, and those I did watch were inevitably disappointing. Lovecraft’s unsettling dread requires masterful staging and acting. And his sense of malign, inhuman reality —that even the stars twinkling in the night sky portend menace—cannot be replicated by men in rubber monster masks (old school) or garden-variety CGI (new). Perhaps “The Call of Cthulhu,” his signature story, is best left to the theater of the imagination?

At first glance, the new Lovecraft collection, The Classic Horror Stories (Oxford University Press), seems nothing more than a handsomely designed package for stories available in every other Lovecraft anthology—from the cheapest paperback to the Library of America’s Tales. But the introduction by Roger Luckhurst, who teaches literature at the University of London, is worth the admission. Luckhurst summarizes Lovecraft’s life and strange afterlife: relegated to the fringes of pulp before his death in 1937, Lovecraft’s work was kept alive by his fans, especially Wisconsin author August Derleth, the first to put those stories between book covers through his Arkham House press. And then in the ‘60s, the morose face of Lovecraft found its way onto the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, inspired the Chicago psychedelic band H.P. Lovecraft and infiltrated the imagination of the nascent Counterculture. Lovecraft’s shadow continues to loom over contemporary horror writers, from the massively popular Stephen King to the culty Thomas Ligotti.

The infinite vistas opened by 20th century physics and astronomy left Lovecraft profoundly pessimistic. In his fiction, humanity is a vulnerable species in a vast cosmos of incomprehensible beings. Alas, as Luckhurst points out, Lovecraft was—like many scientists and savants of his age—imbued with racist ideas of Northern European superiority. Many of his stories can be read as metaphoric warnings against the danger of miscegenation—of mixing with “other kinds.”

One of Luckhurst’s observations brings me back to the movies: the Alien films are “unthinkable” without Lovecraft. Perhaps the horrible creature in Alien, designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, is the greatest possible depiction of Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s monstrous entity “whose face was a mass of feelers.” Cthulhu wasn’t just horrible but “weird” in the word’s truest sense—a transgression against commonsense Newtonian reality, an absolute otherness beyond the scope of human comprehension.

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