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Lovecraft Pathetique
Bar Harbor
I've been reading more Lovecraft stories lately. I'm noticing a trend that I had not previously. The baddies, for all their horror, are kinda... pathetic.

Take "The Dunwich Horror, for example. Yog-Sothoth wants to use his demi-human offspring to open the gates that will allow him enough access to desrtoy all earth life. But the only person he manages to breed with is barely above trailer trash. The first son is killed by a guard dog while trying to rob a library. The second, though he terrorizes the countryside, is barely able to feed himself, much less open any gates without the info his brother failed to get. In the end, he is brought down by a group of aging academics.

"The Color Out of Space" depicts the arrival of some extremely alien life forms. They seem to try to mesh with the local ecosystem, but with disastrous results. Nonetheless, they manage to extract enough energy to return to the stars -- mostly; one doesn't manage the take-off, and falls back to the barren (for it) earth.

In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", the Deep Ones boast that they could wipe out the surface-dwellers whenever they chose to. Yet, when the U.S. military finds out about the Innsmouth colony, they quickly eradicate it, without any apparent difficulty or retribution.

The aliens in "The Doom that Came to Sarnath" might be seen as more effective. After all, they do visit retribution on the humans and completely wipe Sarnath from the face of the earth. But when one considers that Sarnath, between their genocidal offense and the retribution for same, managed to be the dominant city-state in the region for *one thousand years* -- that retribution loses some of its impressiveness.

Even the big bad, Cthulhu himself, isn't that impressive, looked at impassively. When, in "The Call of Cthulhu", R'lyeh rises from the deep, what's the net effect on the world? A handful of innocent sailors kill a bunch of obviously-evil cultists, then get eaten by Big C. Some sensitives around the world get bad dreams. And after a few days, R'lyeh sinks again, and the world as a whole didn't notice anything had changed.

All these eldritch horrors have only the slimmest and most fragile of footholds in our world, and they know it. Most of what power they do have is based around humans they can influence, who are invariably an inferior, marginalized lot even before they convert. All activities are carried out in terrified secrecy, but the town drunks and gossips seem to know plenty of details anyways. Anything that gets written down uses obscure languages and/or ciphers, but never obscure enough to prevent the good guys from reading them.

It's often been said that one of Lovecraft's main themes is The Uncaring Universe. The real horrors aren't the things which seek to wipe out humanity, but the impersonal forces that just don't *care* about humanity. It seems that those impersonal forces cause just as much trouble for non-humans.

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I think I've read two of these, but an interesting analysis. Got any theories about why the evils are so weak? I mean "why Lovecraft wrote them so weak" rather than "in-story explanations/handwaving of why."

Partially, that's what my last paragraph is meant to cover.

Some of it may also be explained by certain structural tropes that HPL liked to work with. He liked his stories to have a great deal of verisimilitude. Hence, many of them are set in the very recent historical past, and are either narrated by direct witnesses, or refer heavily to 'documented accounts' by witnesses. In order to maintain the sense of realism under that structure, it is necessary that the horror not have made a significant impact to the world, since the reader won't have previously heard of it. That doesn't cover every instance I cited, but it may have been a factor for some.

Contrast with certain of Tim Powers' novels, where he finds interestingly suggestive bits of real, documented history on which to hang his frameworks of fantasy. That lets him (to a limited degree) have his plots 'affect' the real world, by having those plots be the secret explanation behind certain events.


I keep meaning to mention: my friend Danabren did a Cthulu Victorian dress recently. Here's a pic:

Lovecraft and bigotry

One possibility is that it's a reflection of Lovecraft's bigotry.

Lovecraft writes all his non-WASP characters as inferior. Blacks are either servile or subhuman; foreigners and Catholics are superstitious; mixed breeds are untrustworthy. With a world view like that, it's obvious that Real People won't be the ones worshipping demons—and, indeed, the cultists trying to raise Cthulhu are all the lowest sort.

But it then follows that the cultists can't possibly be competent, because they aren't Real People; so they get caught and fail to have any effect.

The exception that proves the rule is "The Case of Charles Ward", in which a good young man, a New England intellectual from a good family, loses. The first main difference is that he doesn't intend any wrongdoing; he learns a way to raise his Colonial ancestor from the grave, and tries it because he's fascinated with history. The second main difference is that the evil is also a Real Person, a well-off New England merchant; and his trafficking with dark powers has brought him wealth and long life. So it's not a case of a Real Person losing to the dark; it's just a case of old age and treachery beating youth and inexperience.

When I was reading these, the incompetence seemed like a threat; last time the bad guys had inferior materials to work with. What will happen when they get something competent?

Question: Did world domination/destruction exist in fiction much before WWII/the cold war? There may be a correlation.

Of course it did! H.G. Well's War of the Worlds in the 1890s is only the most famous of the invasion and destruction by aliens stories--not the first or the last. It's true that world-wrecking as an SF cliche is post-WWII (when the general public realized that we now had the power to do ourselves in, we didn't need the Martians).

But Lovecraft was indeed doing something new--which Alexx has his finger on--he was transforming the tropes of traditional Gothic horror (necromancy and reanimation, cults, secret history, grimoires, "ancient sorceries," witches etc.) by merging them with Real Gosh-Wow SF (Big History, evolution-devolution, Polar exploration, space travel, FTL and Einsteinian physics, etc. And yes, he was self-taught so he got some of these wrong--but he was doing something new and original).
So, why are the bad guys weak?
Dunno, but the bad guys are traditionally pretty easy to conquer in the Gothic mode, so maybe that's part of it.

I haven't read any of Lovecraft's stories yet, but he's been mentioned a lot lately, and I have read two webcomics and played a browser-based card game based on his works.

"The Color Out of Space" depicts the arrival of some extremely alien life forms. They seem to try to mesh with the local ecosystem, but with disastrous results. Nonetheless, they manage to extract enough energy to return to the stars -- mostly; one doesn't manage the take-off, and falls back to the barren (for it) earth.

I just read this one, and I don't think they were trying to fit into the local ecosystem; they were parasitizing it. They arrived as seeds, grew up, and moved on, not caring that they'd devastated their nest. That kind of reproduction goes with low parental investment, which goes along with sending out extra seeds and not caring if some of them don't make it.

In that view, the aliens aren't incompetent, just uncaring. To me, that's scarier than a crashed ship: aliens who just happened to crash on Earth aren't likely to come again; organisms that found a useful nesting spot are likely to send their seeds there again next time.

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