There are many ways I could talk about the point I want to make in this week’s post, but when it comes to the really difficult issues—and yes, we’re going to be talking about one of those—the indirect routes are generally the most useful. For that reason, I want to start out with a seeming irrelevancy, and talk a bit about shoggoths.
Some of my readers already know about shoggoths. For the benefit of those who don’t, I’ll note that they’re one of the many species of imaginary critters that slithered out of the perfervid brain of iconic American fantasy-horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Shoggoths look a bit like huge hungry masses of iridescent black soap bubbles, fitted out with a random scattering of phosphorescent green eyes that ooze to the surface and then sink again. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re nightmarishly fast, and like most of the other critters in the Lovecraftian universe, their entire purpose in existence is to give investigators something to run away from as quickly as possible, screaming in terror all the while.
That sort of thing is a staple of bad horror fiction, but Lovecraft was doing something at once highly subtle and unpleasantly familiar with it. Central to his worldview was the belief that the eight-inch-long lump of meat called the human brain is completely out of its league when it tries to make sense of the cosmos in which we live, and can all too easily go stark staring crazy if it makes the attempt. His monstrous beings and tentacled devil-gods get most of their power over the reader from their sheer incomprehensibility. In his very best stories—“The Color Out Of Space” is perhaps the finest example—that theme takes center stage, and lives are destroyed and minds shattered by a force without malice and without meaning, irrupting from an impersonal cosmos serenely indifferent to the pretensions of our species.
That’s a stunningly difficult effect to achieve, and at his best, Lovecraft managed it better than any other author of his era. Like every author of every era, though, he had his off days, and fell back on easier gimmicks to try to prop up the machinery of his stories. Like every author of every era, too, he was a person of his own time, place, and culture: specifically, a downwardly mobile white male New Englander whose short life covered the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first three and a half decades of the twentieth. That background gave him what was then a very common set of bigotries, and very little practice in thinking clearly about them. Accordingly, when he wanted to crank up the sense of incomprehensibility, he tolerably often used the cheap machinery of racial, ethnic and class difference to do it.
That’s a common wheeze in the literature of the privileged, by the way. One of the consequences of every kind of privilege—racial, gender, ethnic, class, you name it—is that the people higher on the ladder don’t have to understand the people lower on the ladder, and so they generally don’t get around to it. (The people lower on the ladder don’t have that freedom, and so typically have a clear understanding of the people above them.) Thus literature written by and for privileged classes very often uses the supposed incomprehensibility of those outside the circle of privilege as a distancing maneuver to further villainize the villains. Think of all those dreary pulp-era tales of square-jawed, ham-fisted, thick-headed English or American heroes foiling the plots of “inscrutable Orientals”; that “inscrutability,’ of course, reflects the simple fact that those who’ve never taken the time to learn the first thing about another culture will tolerably often have a hard time figuring out the motives and plans of people raised within it.
So in Lovecraft, when you get a sinister cult worshiping the devil-god Cthulhu, for example, you can bet your bottom dollar that the cult won’t recruit its members from among Lovecraft’s own racial, ethnic, and cultural group. What’s more, you can bet your last thin dime that the cult will recruit members from everybody but Lovecraft’s own racial, ethnic, and cultural group; the “they’re all in it together” trope is another common wheeze in the literature of the privileged. If you belong to a privileged class, after all, the thought that everyone below you class knows more about what’s going on than you do is a reliable source of shudders, not least because most members of privileged classes suspect from time to time that it’s true. (What makes that more shuddersome still, if you belong to such a class, is that far more often than not, it is true.) The thought that the groups below you on the social ladder might be in cahoots with one another is an even more reliable source of shudders, since when that happens—and eventually it always does—your privilege is toast and, fairly often, so are you.
There’s nothing whatsoever unique in Lovecraft’s use of these tropes. Pick up any random issue of Weird Tales magazine, in fact, and odds are you’ll find them used far more gracelessly by other writers of the same era. They were a commonplace of white American literary culture in that era, and in most Lovecraft stories—there are exceptions—they could have been lined out by an attentive editor without requiring any major changes to the plot. Indeed, some stories would have been made even more effective by that sort of blue-pencil work. Repopulate the sinister Cthulhu cult with apparently fine, upstanding, respectable, white New England citizens, say, and you’ve got a source of shudders at least as effective, if not more so: the creeping suspicion that people we think we know well are doing dreadful things and keeping us from finding out about them…but those weren’t the kind of shudders Lovecraft appreciated.
And shoggoths? They’re part of the same pattern. In Lovecraft’s short novel At the Mountains of Madness, where shoggoths make their most memorable appearance, we get to learn the secret history of the Earth—a fairly common Lovecraftian theme. Something like a billion years ago, the planet was settled by the Elder Things, starfish-headed, five-winged, tentacled horrors from some distant corner of the cosmos, who bred the shoggoths as a slave species to do their work for them. All this and much more gets learned by a team of human scientists who’ve discovered the last city of the Elder Things, a frozen ruin in an isolated corner of Antarctica—and who bit by bit figure out that, due to their own actions a little earlier, a small group of Elder Things have revived and are also exploring those same ruins.
The Elder Things get the standard Lovecraftian monster treatment through most of the story: they’re alien, they’re incomprehensible, they’re smarter and tougher than we are, and they tot up a substantial body count among humans and their sled dogs. Then, at the story’s climax, Lovecraft deftly manages a stunning reversal of his usual tropes. For a moment the reader looks at the events of the story through Elder Thing eyes, and the monsters become subjects instead of objects, individuals with their own stories and motives who excite the empathy of the reader, rather than simply mechanisms wound up and set lurching onto the scene to frighten the protagonists.
So, inevitably, the Elder Things are killed by shoggoths.
That’s inevitable because of the nature of what Lovecraft was trying to do in his writing. If you’re going to write Lovecraftian horror, you’ve got to put in something incomprehensible to threaten your characters, and if you can pull off the trick of turning your incomprehensible beings into characters, however briefly, then something even more incomprehensible has to threaten them in turn. You can’t have everyone on stage be a character—not if you’re doing Lovecraftian horror, that is; there are plenty of other kinds of literature where that’s done as a matter of course, but Lovecraft didn’t write those. Given what he wanted to do, the empathy had to stop somewhere.
Not all authors want to do what Lovecraft wanted to do, though, and it so happens that some of the most interesting writing these days that uses Lovecraft’s ideas does exactly what he didn’t do, and takes the empathy all the way out to the edge of the Lovecraftian cosmos. I’m thinking here of Ruthanna Emrys, whose novella “The Litany of Earth” and a novel-length sequel, Winter Tide, take the fish-people of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and put them at the center of their own vividly told story. I’m also thinking of Victor LaValle, whose novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” takes one of Lovecraft’s most overtly bigoted tales, “The Red Hook Horror,” and turns it inside out by telling it through the eyes of an African-American protagonist.
And of course, as my regular readers know, I’ve also published two volumes so far (1) (2) of a quirky epic fantasy with tentacles, The Weird of Hali, which stands the Lovecraftian universe on its head: the nightmare Great Old Ones are the old gods of nature, their multiracial and not always entirely human worshipers are the protagonists, and those square-jawed action heroes who blaze away at shoggoths and cultists alike with massive firepower in so many utterly forgettable Call of Cthulhu campaigns are the villains, pursuing the mad dream of Man the Conqueror of Nature with fanatical zeal. I had no idea anyone else was thinking in anything like this vein when the first volume of The Weird of Hali downloaded itself into my psyche and poured out onto the keyboard, but there it is; it steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time, as Charles Fort liked to say, and when it comes time for eldritch horrors to tell their side of the story, why, the strange dreams go whispering out from drowned R’lyeh to waiting minds.
When the Great Old Ones are guiding your pen, though, books get written faster than they get published, and while I’m waiting for the publisher of The Weird of Hali to work through the manuscripts he’s already got on his desk, I’ve had another tale seize my imagination and a good part of my keyboard time. It’s not part of the same sequence but it takes place in the same fictive cosmos, and it so happens that one of the two main characters is a shoggoth. The other is a young woman of multiracial ancestry—her paternal grandmother was an African-American blues singer who married her white pianist back when that was still shocking—who is taking her first steps toward becoming a composer of classical music, in the teeth of the dogmatic modern insistence that real creativity has to reject traditional forms and trample on the past.
The story’s set in the town of Partridgeville, so fans of Weird Tales-era eldritch fantasy already know that the Hounds of Tindalos and a curiously annotated copy of Halpin Chalmers’ sinister volume The Secret Watcher are also involved. So, for more complex reasons, is that most underrated denizen of the Lovecraft circle’s invented mythology, Nyogtha, The Thing That Should Not Be. The working title of my tale is, of course, The Shoggoth Concerto, and it will be looking for a publisher as soon as it finishes slithering its way to the final page.
(You may be wondering, dear reader, why I’ve taken a serious story putting a new spin on the old conflict between innovation and tradition in the arts, and cluttered it up with claptrap about shoggoths. Alternatively, you may be wondering why I’ve taken a promising weird tale about shoggoths, eldritch tomes, and the Hounds of Tindalos, and cluttered it up with claptrap about classical music. In each case, the answer is the same: because I want to. Thank you, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled post.)
If you’re going to have a shoggoth as a character in a story, of course, you have to know something about the biology, psychology, history, culture, customs, personalities, and quirks of shoggoths. It so happens that I haven’t found much of anything along these lines in the usually bountiful fields of Cthulhu Mythos fiction and pseudo-nonfiction. Unlike some of Lovecraft’s other creations, shoggoths have remained essentially as he left them, two-dimensional figures of horror that exist only to scare the protagonists. I know of precisely one discussion of shoggoths that puts their own experience of their history at center stage and approaches them with empathy; that’s a short passage in a review of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness in The Lovecraft Reread by Anne Pillsworth and Ruthanna Emrys—the latter, of course, being the author of “The Litany of Earth” and Winter Tide, mentioned above, and the former being another highly talented writer of Lovecraft-influenced fiction.
(If I may insert another aside here, dear reader, if you’re at all interested in Lovecraftian fiction, The Lovecraft Reread might better be titled The Lovecraft Must-Read. Maybe there’s an equally good survey of Lovecraft’s work and that of his peers and successors, one that manages to combine the same lively affection for the subgenre and its writers with an equally lively awareness of their flaws and not always occasional stupidities, but I haven’t encountered one. Thank you, and we once again return you to your regularly scheduled post.)
So, from one point of view, I had to make a whole bunch of things up. From another, I spent a lot of time sitting next to a shapeless black iridescent thing who peered at me through a random scattering of pale green eyes, while I asked questions and listened to the musical piping that expressed her answers. (Her? Yes. Shoggoths reproduce by budding; to my mind, that makes them parthenogenetic females, and the pronoun follows.) Among the things I learned from these imaginary conversations are that shoggoths’ sense of their own history is profoundly shaped by their awareness that they were created as slaves by a species that despised them, and that they eventually destroyed; that their closest personal bonds are with broodmates, those offspring of a given broodparent who budded at the same time; and that they don’t have permanent names—they take names to express their moods and circumstances and change them as these change, a habit that humans who deal with them find disconcerting at first.
That is to say, I learned the sort of things you learn when you approach someone as a person, rather than a monster whose sole function in your world is to have an emotional effect on you. It’s a useful exercise, and I’d like to suggest that it could be applied these days with good results to a great many beings that are a bit less imaginary than shoggoths.
Look around you, dear reader. Over the last few decades, here in the United States, what once occasionally resembled a functioning representative democracy has collapsed into a permanent state of conflict in which shrieking mobs pelt each other with rhetorical brickbats in lieu of more lethal projectiles—well, most of the time—and caricature their opponents in terms of a strident moral dualism that would be considered unusually crude in a cheap superhero comic. Meanwhile both sides vie with each other in their willingness to fling aside constitutional liberties for which older and arguably wiser generations fought and died.
Ask the people on the front lines on either side what caused this ghastly state of affairs, and you’re sure to be told that it’s exclusively the other side’s fault. You’re even more sure to be denounced in heated terms if you suggest that maybe it might have some cause other than the absolute wickedness that’s so enthusiastically attributed to everyone on the far side of whatever line of battle is under discussion. Still, I think it’s time to get past the fantasy that the implosion of our political dialogue can be blamed solely on the personal failings of this or that politician—vast and cyclopean as those quite often are—or on the supposedly incomprehensible evilness of those incomprehensibly evil people over there. Step back from the bipartisan yelling and you may just catch a glimpse of something gone catastrophically wrong at the heart of our thinking about politics, society, and ourselves.
The problem is that too many of us have picked up the habit of turning our opponents into shoggoths. Too many of us seem to have lost track of the fact that the people on the other side of a controversy have thoughts, feelings, and motives of their own, which aren’t necessarily those we choose to impute to them, and may not even relate to the issues that concern us most. There’s an odd sort of egotism at work here, a refusal to grant the people we hate any existence apart from their effect on us. It’s the attitude of the common or garden variety anti-Semite, say, who copes with his sense of personal irrelevance by insisting that all the Jews in the world are out to get him—but it’s astonishingly widespread these days, on all sides of contemporary politics.
It’s also deeply entangled with the most unmentionable aspect of American social life these days, the struggles over privilege that do so much to shape our cultural nondialogue. The conflict over privilege between the white working class and the nonwhite underclass that gets so much press these days is precisely paralleled by the conflict over privilege between the mostly white middle class and the white working class, and the distancing maneuver I discussed earlier—the insistence that those further down the ladder can’t be understood, because those further up don’t want to understand them—gets plenty of use in both cases. The actions of the nonwhite underclass, however problematic those actions may themselves be from time to time, are motivated in significant part by valid grievances; so are the actions of the white working class; and in both cases, those who don’t want to deal with the grievances are fond of self-righteous denunciation as an evasive maneuver.
Here again, H.P. Lovecraft provides a useful bit of litmus paper, for those willing to make use of it. Like just about everyone else of his background, he was as bigoted against the impoverished lower classes of his own race as he was against people of color. It’s thus ironic, to use no stronger word, to hear people who fiercely denounce his racist rhetoric turn right around and issue blanket condemnations of the rural white poor, using hate speech all but identical to the sort Lovecraft himself used in such stories as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”
But it bears remembering that Lovecraft himself wasn’t a Lovecraftian monster. He was, among other things, a profoundly troubled man; both his parents died in an insane asylum, his childhood was one long toboggan ride from relative comfort into poverty, and he came out of those experiences with a fair-sized laundry list of oddities—we’re talking about a man, please note, who had a lifelong fear of salads. He was also capable of learning. By the end of his short life, his experiences with the Great Depression had convinced him to abandon the Republican Party and become a New Deal Democrat. Had he lived to old age, I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility that, like so many others of his background, he might have been sufficiently shocked by the Holocaust to revisit his racial biases and abandon them as well. People do such things from time to time.
Maybe, then, it’s time to admit that there ain’t nobody here but us shoggoths, and to recognize that projecting our fantasies of ultimate, incomprehensible evil on the people we disagree with, however emotionally comforting that habit may be over the short term, doesn’t lead anywhere useful. That admission won’t come easily; self-righteous outrage is an addictive drug, and it’s pretty clear that a lot of people are using it pretty heavily to get through the day. Still, it has to start somewhere. Shall we?