H. P. Lovecraft And The Cthulhu Influences On Modern SF And Horror

Where Space Ends, Hell Begins… 

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“Lovecraft creates dark and sometimes horrific scenarios which, in their tense and gothic style, can seem like the visions of a madman. The formless entity dominates his work, an impalpable threat which lies beneath everything he wrote…” –  The SF Source Book. 

With Halloween just about a fortnight away, the focus shifts inevitably from SF to horror. One fine way to execute a clean transition between the two is to select one of the main masters of the macabre: Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) who – through his twisted scribblings – managed to encompass both genres. Surely, you may think, his distorted visions were too dark and twisted to nestle satisfactorily within the boundaries of SF?

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for Lovecraft’s work to be included unquestionably into the realm of science fiction. Primarily, a considerable proportion of those “unspeakable entities” that languished amidst “his cluttered prose” were not so much demons but aliens. Moreover, he was one of the first authors to write and describe alien beings. Outside of the Cthulhu Mythos, he certainly wrote more genuine science fiction. 

The most striking examples include: In the Walls Of Eryx, set on Venus, reimagined as a jungle planet; and tales of unorthodox scientific experiments: From Beyond (made into a movie in 1986) and Cool Air (which deserves big screen treatment). A significant proportion of his short stories were published in Weird Tales, a predominantly SF magazine of the 1920s and 30s; The Shadow Out Of Time was first published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories, then the most prestigious science fiction magazine available. 

Despite undesirable accusations of muddled prose and complicated storytelling, Lovecraft remains one of my favourite 20th century authors. Ironically, his complicated style is distinctive and had such a profound effect on me, helping to conjure some of my own fictional nightmares.

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“[Universal] were blown away by the visual presentation, they openly admitted to loving the screenplay, saying it was dead on… I do not want ‘Mountains’  to be bloody, I do not want it to be crass, but I do want it to be as intense as possible” – Guillermo del Toro. 

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most talented film-makers working today. It is no secret that, just a few years ago, the Spanish director should have made his own grandiose cinematic version of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness.

In this novella (first published in 1931 and serialized in Astounding Stories in 1936), the geologist William Dyer – a professor from Miskatonic University – “writes to disclose hitherto unknown and closely kept secrets in the hope that he can deter a planned and much publicized scientific expedition to Antarctica.” Allegedly, his previous expedition unearthed “fantastic and horrific ruins (including strange fossils of unheard-of creatures and carved stones tens of millions of years old)” and “a dangerous secret of the City of the Old Ones that lay beyond a range of mountains taller than the Himalayas.” 

Problem is, this encouraging project has been festering in development-hell for far too long. No matter how awesome his pre-production designs were – they invariably are – the prospect of a Producer tag for James Cameron and top-billing for Tom Cruise (?!) were too off-putting. Apparently he was just one week away from commencing production of At The Mountains in 2011 when Universal pulled the plug “due to budget issues.”  

However, del Toro would not be perturbed for long; he resurrected his dormant plans for his Lovecraft project in 2013.

“I’m going to try it one more time,” he said in one recent interview. “Once more into the dark abyss. We’re going to do a big presentation of the project again… and see if any [studio’s] interested.”

(Unfortunately)… “Tom [Cruise] is still attachedHe’s been such a great ally of the project.” 

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“In the coldest regions of space, the monstrous entities Ogdru Jahad – the Seven Gods of Chaos – slumber in their crystal prison, waiting to reclaim Earth… and burn the heavens” – De Vermis Mysteriis, Page 87. 

A quick glance at modern strands of science fiction and horror – be it literature, movies or comics – it doesn’t take long to find the influence of the Cthulhu Mythos. 

The most notable is the Hellboy comic, created by Mike Mignola in 1993. Developed into one of the stranger – and better – of the recent crop of comic book movies, directed by (what a surprise) Guillermo del Toro in 2004, the titular hell-spawned hero (played by the ever-reliable Ron Perlman) has to battle with not only Rasputin the “Mad Monk,” but the Ogdru Jahad, the most blatant nod to Lovecraft you’ll get in a mainstream comic book movie.

Lovecraft’s work may not seem best suited to the medium of comics, but in the ever-capable talented hands of the artistic genius: Berni(e) Wrightson, it works wonders. A number of Lovecraft’s stories were adapted brilliantly by Wrightson and published in Creepy Magazine during the ’70s.

In 1971, he did a splendid job on the aforementioned Cool Air, which came into my collection a decade later when Eclipse Comics compiled Wrightson’s best horror strips (in added colour!) in Berni Wrightson: Master Of The Macabre.

This – the third page – is a fine example of Wrightson’s style:  

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The seventh and final page is a creepy classic single splash and will be saved for a forthcoming Post!

Have just discovered this (below) online; how long will it take to track this particular issue down? 

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A portrait of H. P. Lovecraft by Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy.
A portrait of H. P. Lovecraft by Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy.

And, come on, if we’re going to end this Post with Hellboy gifs, might as well have the one with that dastardly mute puppet, the “freak in the gas mask”: Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (“Hitler’s top assassin and Head of the Nazi Cthulhu Society”) performing his ubercool blade-twirling trick inside Manhattan’s Metropolitan Art Museum.  

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“What horrible will could keep such a creature as this alive?” – Professor Trevor Broom. 

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Quasi-Scientific Powers: A Blog About Magic

Is There Any Argument To Include ‘Magic’ In Science Fiction?

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“Magic is, by definition, not science. It is, therefore, that which cannot be entertained within science fiction. Its banishment, however, has been less than total” – Brian Stableford. 

Perhaps the best way to tell the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that while the former emphasizes science, a great deal of fantasy deals with magic. 

By definition, magic is the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. Imagine magic disciplined into an “applied” science. Some SF writers have dabbled in it, leading to a varied array of stories about magic, or – more precisely – quasi-scientific powers.

It’s all James George Frazer’s fault. In The Golden Bough: A Study In Magic and Religion (1890), magic is represented as a kind of proto-science based on presumed natural laws: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. The first states that one can influence a process by imitating it, or influence an object by operating upon a likeness of it; the second states that objects once in contact remain associated, so that – ah, stuff it: anyone fancy any cake?

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke. 

No matter how determined SF authors have been in shutting out the mysterious lure of magic, they have invariably kept returning to it. It is said that one branch of specialised (science-based) jargon can easily pass into fantasy territory; strict boundaries btween the two no longer apply. Why should there be any boundaries in fiction?  

As just one example, psionic power can be converted into witchcraft, and vice versa. The combination of “careful extrapolation and absurd premises” fuelled the fantasy that appeared in “Unknown Worlds,” at one time a short-lived companion magazine to Astounding Science Fiction. One of its most notable stories was “The Devil Makes The Law,” (aka “Magic, Inc”) by Robert Heinlein.

A number of SF authors have toyed with pseudoscientific versions of supernatural phenomena. The shape-shifting inherent in “There Shall Be No Darkness” (1950) by James Blish comes to mind. The world really thrives on the mythology of magic in Black Easter (1968) by James Blish, while a world “where magic works and has been disciplined for application” featured in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos (1971).

Yet perhaps the most awesome SF/fantasy crossover is the The Book of the New Sun, a four-volume series by Gene Wolfe. He pioneered the innovative concept of “science fantasy” whereby conventional science fiction was rearranged into a new “posthistoric” Dark Age centuries after the collapse of our own civilization.

The first volume: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) carries one of my all-time favourite SF book covers (see above), so – if the whole series can be found this Winter during my festive book hunt – then some thoroughly enjoyable reading is in order!

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“I’d like to see little girls playing Avengers in the playground and doing the Scarlet Witch hand gestures” – Elizabeth Olsen.   

While scientific mishaps created (most of) the comic book heroes we know and love today, there are plenty of mystical mavericks ready to fight for justice, especially in Marvel Comics.

Leading the way, dazzling the least-suspecting with her luminous pink hex power is the Scarlet Witch. Wanda Maximoff became one of the most prominent female members of the Avengers; she married everyone’s fave android-in-green-tights: the Vision. 

The mutant mystic made her big screen debut this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Apparently, her character’s powers were useless against the real dangers of filming: “You’re looking around and it’s like all these prestigious actors dressed up in costumes and none of us could stop laughing because we kept screwing up the scene.”  The actress confirms that the Scarlet Witch will make a second appearance in next May’s Captain America: Civil War and the next Avengers adventures.

Sure, my comics radar was well aware of Dr. Strange: the Master of the Mystic Arts, but somehow, his title never appealed. Even when you’re seven years old, a moustachioed man in a mini-skirt, with tights, does not look cool.  

However, having realised (in my teenage years) that he was actually wearing a long tunic, and some of his comics (from the early 80s) were actually quite impressive, the prospect of seeing him on the big screen is intriguing; the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch has signed on to play him has only piqued my interest further. It’s not due for release until 4 November next year, so that leaves plenty of time to catch up with the doctor’s exploits (back issues).

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“m’I tuo fo ym ecaf” – Zatanna Zatara. 

DC Comics – not to be outdone – have their own formidable canon of mystic heroes.

Perhaps this stable’s best-known mystic is Zatanna, who made her debut in Hawkman #4 in 1964. Most notable for her odd knack of casting spells backwards, not only is she more glamorous than either Dr. Fate or the Spectre, but her fondness for white rabbits should be generously rewarded.  

This black-clad, top-hatted, curvaceous conjuror just happens to be embroiled in DC’s Identity Crisis storyline, with all its magical mind-wiping madness. 

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“Pick up any one of the Essential Defenders reprint trades and you’ll see the Hulk and the Silver Surfer venturing into the worlds of magic with the Atlantean prince Namor. Rocking” – Charlie Jane Anders. 

Despite his penchant for blue tights and yellow helmet and cape, there was nothing about Dr. Fate that made me want to grab his comic. Funnily enough, whenever his so-called ongoing series was revived, it never lasted long – so it seems unlikely that we will see him on the big screen any time soon.

So, is there any room in this dizzying technological age for a little bit of hocus-pocus?

You could fly from one side of this galaxy to the other, see a lot of “strange stuff,” but never see anything to make you believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everyone. No mystical energy field controls my destiny! It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

Or is it…?

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Abracadabra!