This weeks prompt: 25. Man visits museum of antiquities—asks that it accept a bas-relief he has just made—old and learned curator laughs and says he cannot accept anything so modern. Man says that ‘dreams are older than brooding Egypt or the contemplative Sphinx or garden-girdled Babylonia’ and that he had fashioned the sculpture in his dreams. Curator bids him shew his product, and when he does so curator shews horror. Asks who the man may be. He tells modern name. “No—before that” says curator. Man does not remember except in dreams. Then curator offers high price, but man fears he means to destroy sculpture. Asks fabulous price—curator will consult directors. Add good development and describe nature of bas-relief.
We’ve discussed some of the mythic resonance of mighty Cthulhu last time. This time we will delve into some of the more …forgotten portions of The Call of Cthulhu. Some of the, frankly, uglier portions as well. For The Call of Cthulhu in many ways resembles that potent primeval ocean, containing within it an embryonic form of all sorts of ideas for the mythos. And sadly, one of those ideas has not aged well.
It is in this prompt as well. You might, fellow brothers and sisters of our esteemed society, have noticed something odd about the nations cited. Egypt and Babylon, not Greece or Rome (nations of great antiquity in other works), nor China or India (who’s age equals Egypt and Babylon’s). What is peculair about these states? Simply put, they are nations of sorcerers.
The magic of Egypt was well documented for an Anglephile such as Lovecraft. Not only was their familiar references in the Exodus story, but the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which contains number of rituals for passing through the afterlife unscathed gained Egypt a reputation of sorcery for many years. The form of Nyrlanhotep as the “Black Pharaoh” show signs of this notion. Not that, perhaps, it was undeserving. Egyptians certainly practiced magic to a remarkable degree compared to others.
Further Egypt had a reputation in older mysctisicm. In Kabbalah, Egypt is often metaphorically tied to the lower realms of existence, inhabited by strange demons and dark magics. It ought not be surprising, then, that Lovecraft ascribes that land a special place with regards to dreams and age, as dreams and magic are often joined.
But garden-girdled Babylonia? What has that have to do with sorcery? The same text damns them both. Firstly, it should be understood that Babylonia might refer to Babylon itself – which has a dark reputation in Bibical works and those works influenced by them, producing the centuries old Emir who fights Charlemagne in The Song of Roland, supposedly building the Tower of Babel, the Biblical Beasts of Revelation – or a general region of the Middle East, a stand in for the notions of Zoroaster, the Magi, and similar learned men.
Claiming the Middle East is mystical is not novel. Not even for Lovecraft (note, it is a mad Arab who unearths the Necronomicon, and it is Irem the City of Pillars he dies in, and Azazoth we will see is the Demon Sultan). This sort of Oriental-ism was in vogue at the time.
And even the notion of a nation of sorcerers is far from rare. Gulliver, in his travels, finds a nation of necromancers. The Persian epic the Shahnameh includes such a nation under the White Div and Afraisib. Many in Scandinavia attributed (according to James Frazer) the power to command the winds exclusively to the Fins. Giants the world over have hidden powers. The Greeks believed (to a point) that the priest of Zoraster could preform magic. The Rakshasa and Danavas of India were mortals with magical powers. Even elves and fae, it could be said, resemble a magical tribe of men more than a strict divinity.
But I mentioned ugliness before, didn’t I? And I’d rather not delve into this, but no discussion can hide from this forever. So, I will conjure a spirit rarely raised when observing the Call of Cthulhu. In the second portion of the story, we hear talk of an ancient conspiracy of sorcerers and madmen who eagerly await the return of Cthulhu. This becomes common in many such stories. The more troubling part is the language:
“negro fetichism”; “Esquimau diabolists and mongrel Louisianans”; and that these are all organized around “undying leaders of the cult in the mountains of China.”
Yes, it’s time to talk about the racism portion of Lovecraft, as well as the uncomfortable conspiracy his story engages in. It must be noted that in a short space of time, Lovecraft associates the Cthulhu cult not only with Africa, Native Americans, East Asians, and Arabs, but further that he distances it from European witch cults. The intent, apparently, being to show how alien and strange this new(old) cult is.
Which is functional, and other authors have corrected the imbalance, but it certainly comes off as Mr. Lovecrafts own paranoia that every non-Caucasian ‘race’ is scheming against civilization. I’m not sure if that was the intent, but in this day and age sadly that is the take away. I will allow the fine Mr. P.H. Lovecraft to talk a bit about this detail of Mr. H.P. Lovecrafts life:
Many movements have sprung up regarding conspiracys and the power they have. And while some are amusing (the Illuminati conspiracy, which was started in the middle ages, existed to promote democracy, womens rights, and literacy; the fears of Satanism are also unfounded), others have disturbing tinges. The fears of a New World Order and the Elders of Zion conspiracy reek of anti-semitism. The Freemasonry conspiracy, while slightly more grounded, seems to have started from a fear of deism as opposed to more tradtional religions. Many truther attempts likewise are more concerning for implications than nothing else (including, for example, the Kennewick man).
That is not to say such things have no place in horror. Mysterious lodges and secret societies are excellent venues for horror. And the notion of magical conspirators is hardly modern. The old Gnostic tradition with its mighty Demiurge and Archons who manipulate the world certainly subscribed to something akin to a conspiracy theory. More recently, the Rose of the World presents a similar conspiracy (a Satanic one at that) to maintaining communist power. It is sometimes, however, necessary to be aware of where things come from.
With that delightful thought I will have to leave you, brothers and sisters. Next week, part two of Mr. Derelth’s tale. I do wonder what comes next from his old bones.