Mythos: Let’s Get The Conversation About Madness Out Of The Way

I still intend to review Leaves of the World Tree, probably intermingling stories from that collection with stories from this one. But I really need to concentrate on reviewing whatever will get me posting again, and that means some kind of proper investigation where even if an individual work is bad, it’s part of an overall picture which is important even if I don’t particularly enjoy and do not recommend many or any of its component parts, and that means we’re going to start chipping away at the complete works of HP Lovecraft. I got one of those Barnes and Noble classics that contained, so far as I can tell, everything Lovecraft ever published and some things he didn’t, and I’m going to be going through that, hopefully alternating with Leaves.

I inaugurated a discussion about Conan with a post about how, although racist, the Conan stories were considerably less racist than Nazis would lead you to believe, because Nazis try to reframe practically everything that isn’t explicitly progressive as being secretly pro-Nazi. The most stand-out example of this is Nazi reinterpretations of the mildly anti-racist Lord of the Rings as secretly being pro-eugenics, despite Tolkien having explicitly gone on record to tell the actual Nazi Party to get bent.

In context of HP Lovecraft, though, although certain specific stories aren’t about race even though people think they are (Lovecraft had a lot of phobias), Lovecraft personally was barely less racist than actual Nazis. Now, he was less racist than actual Nazis, and it is still important to maintain perspective that, for example, Lovecraft was the kind of fellow who would marry a Jew because “she’s one of the good ones” rather than calling for total extermination. But for the most part, even if specific accusations of racism turn out to be sensationalism, Lovecraft is pretty much exactly as racist as you’ve been led to believe. Like, he once wrote a story where the real horror was that someone who is like one-sixteenth black was successfully passing as white. Not that there was some kind of fish-monster whose lineage was a metaphor for race-mixing, but that the big reveal is literally that the villain had a black great-grandparent.

That said, many of the tropes assigned to Lovecraft as core to the experience by his modern fandom are drastically exaggerated, in some cases to the point of being almost completely baseless. I’ve actually talked about this before, but only as a quick post articulating a pet peeve, so for purposes of proper analysis, I want to draw attention to three things commonly believed about the Mythos that are pretty much completely wrong:

-As the linked article suggests, Mythos monsters are not generally all that durable. Although Lovecraft’s protagonists frequently find themselves physically outmatched, this is because they are aging antiquarians, amateur home renovators, and underpaid clerks. Most Mythos creatures succumb just fine to a blast of dynamite or a shotgun scatter, Lovecraft’s protagonists just don’t have dynamite and shotguns. FFG’s Arkham Files games have a radically different tone from Lovecraft’s because they tend to star investigators who are actively confronting the Mythos and have made some effort to prepare themselves for that confrontation, but they’re not inaccurate to the general level of threat posed by the Mythos. People complain about how players in the Call of Cthulhu RPG rarely act in accordance with Mythos lore as though it were a fault in the adventures that GMs are running, and while I’m certain there are some GMs out there running dungeon crawls with a Mythos coat of paint on, Old Man Henderson is actually a perfectly reasonable protagonist for a story that’s about confronting the Mythos rather than being ambushed by it.

-People generally don’t go insane from contact with the Mythos. This has happened to  couple of Lovecraft’s protagonists, but nowhere near the majority, and that’s counting people who were institutionalized as insane for reporting the perfectly real Mythos encounters they’d had. When they do, it’s usually because they share a certain neurosis with their author, and we shouldn’t expect people with ordinary mental resilience to be so horrified. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that all Lovecraft stories are about the same sheltered white guy going for a walk and being horrified to realize that a black person has moved into his neighborhood, but the basic sentiment is accurate: Many of the things that Lovecraft felt were so terrible that the human mind was better off not knowing they were real are things that many readers of this blog already believe are true and haven’t taken any particular SAN damage from. There’s nothing special about humanity, and our existence is actually quite small and insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and it’s not currently clear whether we’ll ever expand past the tiny speck we’re currently locked on. Comforting? No. Madness-inducing? Also no. Some people do get really worked up about this kind of thing and are only able to function by ignoring it, but other people feel a brief moment of disappointment and then get on with their lives.

-The Mythos doesn’t always win. This is actually a common problem in any form of media: People are so used to seeing incessant victory that they treat any context in which the good guys even occasionally lose as one in which things are completely hopeless. A 50/50 win:loss ratio is treated as an inevitable death spiral rather than a closely matched battle, and 70/30 tends to be treated like a single slip could spell doom for our team, despite the fact that 70/30 win:loss ratio actually suggests that we’re winning handily and would have to bungle multiple encounters to lose the initiative. Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t have a 100% victory rate, and to a certain kind of grimderpy fan, that automatically means they must have a 0% victory rate. In the actual works by Lovecraft, you win some and you lose some.

With almost everything weird and different, the things which set a piece of media apart get exaggerated to the point of self-parody by fans, and sometimes, in the modern era, by creators who can react to fan communities in real time. So when we’re reading HP Lovecraft, we’re going to take a step back from the hype and bear in mind that, although Cthulhu lies dreaming beneath the ocean, the deep ones lurk in the waters of Innsmouth, and an invisible abomination the size of a barn lives in Dunwich, all three of those things were shot in the face until they died.

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