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One of the things that I love the most about modern mythos stories is their sheer creativity. I am not a purist in any sense of the word. I’m much less impressed by stories that replicate Lovecraft’s tone and structure perfectly than stories that toss elements of his fiction into the most unlikely settings and somehow—how?—make it work. The weirder the premise, the more intrigued I am. A detective story and tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle in a world where Queen Victoria is an elder god?  Amazing.  A history of the Cold War in which the USSR and USA struggle to weaponize the technologies and powers written about in the Necronomicon? It’s one of the bleakest, realest stories I’ve ever read. And while I can be critical, I do try to keep a lid on my own judgment unless I’m explicitly reviewing a book or story—I’m certain that half of the stories that I hold closest to my heart would make a serious Lovecraft scholar vomit, so who am I to roll my eyes at something that might be just as dear to another cultist?

In summary: I started this blog to celebrate weird fiction, not to shit on it.

But, you guys.

I just read the worst piece of Lovecraftian fiction ever written. The. Worst.

And ordinarily, I would just keep this to myself, because I aspire (in general) to not be a complete asshole, either by ruining works of fiction by picking them apart or insulting authors who love this genre as much as I do, but ultimately I decided to write this post for three reasons:

  • The work was published in 1949, so I’m well past any risk of spoilery.
  • The author died in 1966, so I’m doing nothing to discourage or insult an active writer.
  • It is so sincere in tone and so astoundingly bad in content that it has brought me tremendous, unironic joy, and I wish to share it with you.

 

I won’t hold you in suspense any longer. The worst piece of Lovecraftian fiction in existence is “The Final War”, by David H. Keller. It’s a very short piece, but I promise you, it will linger in your mind long after you’ve closed the book, or thrown it across the room in disbelief or disgust.

A brief biographical note, derived entirely from Wikipedia: David H. Keller was a practicing psychiatrist who wrote for pulp magazines under a variety of pseudonyms. As per a sci-fi historian: “Keller’s conceptual inventiveness, and his cultural gloom, are worth more attention than they have received; it is also clear that he fatally scanted the actual craft of writing, and that therefore he is likely never to be fully appreciated”. (Read: creative enough, dreary enough, but a crap writer.) He was something of an early Lovecraft historian, as he was apparently the first to posit the “influential but wrong” hypothesis that Lovecraft inherited syphilis from his parents.

This last bit is the part that boggles my mind. He loved Lovecraft, he clearly appreciated the man, and yet “The Final War” reads like a short story by an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic who once heard the name “Cthulhu” and thought it sounded cool.

“The Final War”, by David H. Keller, MD: A synopsis

A scholar sits alone in his library, reading a grimoire* bound in the tanned skin of some unfortunate sacrifice. He learns of hideous interplanetary beings, of cold, fungus-laden worlds, of “living things with shapes that could only be imagined by the opium eater”. He becomes horrified as he learns of the doom that will soon claim all of Earth.

And then he learns of Great Cthulhu.

You know about Cthulhu, right? No, you don’t.

Oh really? Well did you know that Great Cthulhu currently rules Saturn, after enslaving the beautiful men and women of Venus, forcing the brilliant scientists of Mercury to create technological atrocities, and forcing the armies of Mars into battle on his behalf?

marvin martian

You have defied the Great Cthulhu.  This makes me very angry, very angry indeed.

But you know what he looks like, surely. A winged squid? A many tentacled and taloned beast? What the hell are you smoking?

Cthulhu has many shapes but usually assumes that of a gigantic toad, with hypnotic eyes, poisoned claws, and an intelligence which defies earthly mind to understand.

Wait…wait…

hypnotoad

But if his mere appearance isn’t terrifying enough, Cthulhu will attack with “spaceships, mechanical armies, poisons and obscene weapons”. You know, as he does. But—what if we’re somehow able to route his technological horrors? Don’t think Cthulhu’s tricks end there, dear reader:

If all these fail, he will, in the end, transform himself into a beautiful woman, and, thru [sic] her seductive beauty enslave and torture their souls.

Yep.

Darn tootin’.

But! Earth is doomed. Perhaps not quite in the manner that Lovecraft envisioned, but doomed nonetheless. But do these heroic men give up? Do they curl into the fetal position and wail and whimper at the infinite blackness lying just outside their consciousness. Or, more realistically, does everyone shrug and ignore the one poor Cassandra who knows the truth, going about their daily business until suddenly they’re swept into the cold, warty clutches of the OverToad?

No! They do not! Everyone listens to this man with the skin-book, and within hours, the world is at work! The UN erects an experimental laboratory! Astronomers scan the skies for spaceships! Biologists prepare anti-serums against potential biological threats, which, coming from Saturn, surely is close enough to the threats we face on earth that we could prepare for it. (And you thought the Independence Day OS issue was bad enough.) So…we prepare, and wait. And Cthulhu does not disappoint.

“I will destroy their cities!” Cthulhu boasted to the lesser Gods. “I will make their earth a waste place. Finally, in their despair they will lose the power to resist and will seek only death, not realizing that I will take their souls and torture them in many obscene ways thru [sic] an eternity of years.”

Cthulhu, it appears, is a bit of a dick.

And this is no idle brag—he has prepared a space ship, and is sparing no expense.

At the appointed time, he went to the tube which housed the ship and for the last time went over every detail of its construction. Once again he correctly charted its course so that it would land in the rich corn belts of the United States.

Shit. It’s heading right for us! To the Midwest! I’m impressed that he’s so detail-oriented, honestly…I hadn’t really known Cthulhu to do anything more than sleep, destroy minds with his incomprehensibility, and inspire deadly cults intent on honoring him. He’s a very Type A Lovecraftian abomination.

But fear not, dear reader. We are prepared. Many die in the atrocious, very-much-like-War-of-the-Worlds war that followed, but we prevail! But Cthulhu does not give up easily. Do you know what he does next, to enslave our minds and torment man? If you’ve read any Lovecraft mythology whatsoever, I bet you do. As per pretty much every Cthulhu mythos story in existence, he lands on earth, splits into a male and a female, impregnates himself, and gives birth to a beautiful woman.

Duh.

What on earth will we do? How will we survive the onslaught of this very beautiful woman? Fear not, I say again. The scholar knew that this was coming, and he devised a plan. A cunning counter-strategy, an inescapable trap. As the woman makes her way from the desert in which she landed, she is confronted with a strange sight:

Suddenly the Woman saw a gigantic hand rearing out of the sandy desert. It was a very masculine hand with short, stubby, powerful fingers. The back was covered with hair; the palm was soft.

“What a beautiful hand!” exclaimed the Woman. “I could rest in that hand while the fingertips caress my lovely body”. She crawled into the hand and cuddled on the soft palm.

“Love me, you wonderful, masculine hand,” she commanded.

The fingers and thumb closed on her, slowly crushing her to death.

The end.

SONY DSC

My hero

If this was written with an ounce of irony, a trace of mockery, I think I would have thought much less about this work. BUT IT’S NOT. The author is so clearly sincere and genuine that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I haven’t been able to get it out of my skull for two weeks now. It’s still bothering me. I don’t know that it’ll ever stop.

…so actually, maybe this is the best Lovecraftian piece ever written.

I’ll end this post with a challenge: Has anyone encountered a piece of Lovecraftian fiction—whether that be video game, short story, novel, or movie—worse than this? Comment away, I’m a glutton for punishment.

The Cultist

 

*A textbook of magic, pronounced “grim-war”. Not trying to be a jerk, I didn’t know that word either before I started writing this post.

 

There’s a devotion to Lovecraft that strikes me as improbable and amazing. There have been so many amazing horror writers in the last century but, so far as I can tell, none of them boasts the strange communal legacy that Lovecraft has developed. A lot of it, I’m sure, was derived from Lovecraft’s tendency to correspond with and encourage his fellow struggling writers as they all banged out oft-rejected horror for the pulp magazines. Some of it relates to the rather prosaic fact that the gods and creatures Lovecraft developed lend themselves to experimentation more effectively than the characters created by other horror writers: it’s hard to, say, write “Return to the House of Usher” when by the end of the original two of the principle characters are dead, the third has fled and is probably going to go mad really soon, and said house itself has been subsumed into the living earth, or whatever.

But I feel like there’s more to it than that. And I don’t have a great handle on Lovecraft yet, but (obviously) it’s a subject I love to think about. Lovecraft has undoubtedly influenced modern horror tremendously, so what was it about Lovecraft’s horror that proved to be so fertile? He died in 1937, for Christ’s sake. How many other 1930’s writers inspire so much popular thought in 2015? And, within his twisted pantheon, what leads to popular success? I’ve read maybe one mythos story about Azathoth*, but…

…I’ve been beating around the bush for two paragraphs now, so I might as well just come out and get to the topic of today’s post:

I have NO IDEA why everyone is so impressed by Cthulhu.

On my ever-growing shelf of Lovecraft horror, I see (and these are just for starters): On the Black Wings of Cthulhu I through III. Acolytes of Cthulhu. The New Cthulhu. The Book of Cthulhu I and II. But:

  1. Squids are not particularly scary.
  2. Adding bat wings and legs to a squid does not make it scarier.
  3. There’s exactly one Lovecraft story in which Cthulhu features.
  4. He gets wiped out by a dude who drives a boat through his head.
  5. He’s not even a particularly powerful god. (See #4)

I’m not saying “The Call of Cthulhu” is a bad story. On the contrary! You’ve undoubtedly heard the opening sentence thousands of time, plastered at the start of every other mythos story in existence, but in my opinion, the entire paragraph is startling in its bleak assessment of humanity’s path:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

We’re ignorant, yes, cozy in our false sense of isolation and certain of a security built on an imaginary foundation. But if that were the sole source of the horror in Lovecraft, we’d surely have moved on by now. In a few (surprisingly clear, uncluttered sentences), Lovecraft mercilessly pinpoints the source of our doom: our insatiable curiosity. As much as we crave coziness and safety, we keep digging. Despite everything, we keep digging. The only outcome possible is our destruction, and (and! Not but, but and) we keep digging.

The inevitable self-destruction, the curiosity that overcomes our innate, tragically weak sense of self-preservation is one of the most powerful currents in Lovecraft’s work. It continues to inspire horror writers today.

And as we read further, we’re introduced to another key Lovecraft trope: the manipulation of humanity’s shared consciousness. We may live on a placid island of ignorance, but we’re shockingly weak against outside forces that wish to make their presence known. They will be known, regardless of whether we’re the lowest cult worshipper or a foppish, rather delicate young artist. They poison our dreams. They are inescapable.

Part II, I would say, is excellent as well. The Tale of Inspector Legrasse introduces the reader to the worshippers of the Great Old Ones, the backwater practitioners of unspeakable rites performed to please their dead and dreaming masters.

And then…and then…we come to Part III. (Trigger warning: apostasy ahead!)

To a group of sailors that come to a mystical isle, and, after encountering a multitude of slimy rocks and grotesque obelisks, encounter a most dreadful beast. It emerges from its lair, “visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings” (all right). It grabs the poor sailors with its “flabby claws” (huh). It slides into the water, this dreadful “pursuing jelly” (I…okay) , but our brave Norwegian protagonist (whose yellow hair was whitened by this encounter) still has the presence of mind to drive his boat into the “awful squid-head with writhing feelers”, which results in a collision typified by the “bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper” (ewwww). And then Cthulhu is dead, but he was dead all along so maybe he’s not dead (but, I mean, he is dead, maybe just temporarily stymied and dead, not dead-dead).

It’s not a bad ending, by any means. I just don’t think it’s worthy of the two parts that preceded it. And I certainly don’t understand why Cthulhu remains the most recognizable (and, arguably) beloved of the Lovecraftian pantheon. He’s certainly recognizable. (Although, it must be pointed out, the hideous tentacled behemoths are perhaps a far cry from what Lovecraft himself had envisioned, as you can see from his sketches.)Lovecraft's cthulhu

And it can’t be denied that while I might be somewhat unimpressed by the visuals, a lot of Lovecraft’s characters suffer from similar or worse impediments. A friend of mine pointed out that Cthulhu is the only mythos character that isn’t actively, you know, stupid-looking. (Fighting words, for sure, but when the horrible civilization-ending Shoggoths are compared to both subway trains and luminous bubbles in the same breath, you can’t ignore the fact that the argument holds water, at least slightly.)

While my perception of Lovecraft’s fiction is constantly in flux, I would say that the real horror of Lovecraft’s work isn’t derived from its villains itself. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite: the lonely and horrible realization that the villains aren’t really villains, per se, because a villain takes an active interest in its prey. Lovecraft’s most immortal monsters are as indifferent as they are powerful. And the identification and creation of a mascot with a tentacle-y head and little flappy wings diminishes the impact of this conclusion.

The Cultist

*”The Sect of the Idiot”, Thomas Ligotti