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They Took Our Myths

(Hi - Hugh Hancock here. Charlie is still grappling with a Laundry Files novel, so I'm helping fill in this week. He'll be back later.)

Just why is Cthulhu so popular?

Sure, H.P. Lovecraft's horrifying vision of an uncaring universe is pretty good stuff. Sure, he was one of the first writers to tie all his creations into a single semi-coherent universe. Sure, he was drawing on and remixing ideas from older writers too, such as Robert Chambers' "King In Yellow".

But there are a lot of great fictional universes out there -- even great horror universes. What is it that makes writers -- including both Our Gracious Host, Charlie, and myself -- gravitate so hard to the big squid?

This is something that I've been thinking a lot about recently, because almost all my artistic output at present has a strong Cthulhu flavour. Notably, even the title of my just-released comic is taken from the Mythos and its forebears: Carcosa, the City By The Lake in which the King In Yellow waits.

So why does the Mythos have such draw? Is it because the Mythos is classic?

Absolutely not. It's because, comparatively speaking, it's modern.

The Cthulhu Mythos is almost 100 years old. And it's the most modern part of our mythology that we're allowed to access.


It's not terribly uncommon -- to put it mildly -- to see articles complaining about Hollywood's unoriginality. Hollywood puts out sequel after sequel, and when the studios do vary things by starting on "new" material, it's usually material that has been proven in another medium, from the Hunger Games to Guardians of the Galaxy.

It's very easy to see that this trend has developed and accelerated over the last 30 years. In 1981, 7 out of 10 of the year's top-grossing movies were original material. In 2014, it was 1 out of 10.

Most articles on the subject tend to treat this as a mistake. The assumption is that Hollywood executives are greenlighting these projects because they're "safe". I'm really not convinced by that.

I think Hollywood's onto something, and has been for some time. And that thing is mythology.

From Star Wars, to the Marvelverse, to - well, every other thing with a "-verse" after it - the biggest movies are those which tap into a mythic quality. Often they'll simply hint at other parts of the universe, at mythic heroes or elements of their universe with powerful resonance. The TV series "Smallville" was one of the first shows to really tap into this; they'd evoke the shadow of Superman as a god-like figure, using symbols rather than the figure himself -- a strain of music here, an image of a man in blue with a red cape there.

Since then we've seen the Marvelverse do much the same thing in movie after movie, hinting at larger things, whether it's Thanos's persistent post-credit appearances or even the Guardians of the Galaxy nod to Howard The Duck. We've seen "Hunger Games" very consciously create its own imagery and mythology. And of course the build-up to the Star Wars sequels has been almost entirely about this mythic figure, image, and theme-building.

Why does this work so well? Well, it *has* worked for thousands of years, after all.

The IronManiad

Humans interact with myth at a very primal level. We reuse symbols and symbolic characters from our mythologies to illuminate our current circumstances and understand where we are today in terms of universal archetypes. It's a sufficiently powerful part of human consciousness that one of the primary strains of psychotherapy is oriented around mythic symbols.

As storytellers, we want to interact with the myths of our age. They have a meaning beyond just the stories, serving as filters for universal archetypes. And they need to be **set* before they can be used: a new character in a new world doesn't have the power of myth, but a character we've grown up with as a god-like figure in our stories does.

For me, the King in Yellow mythos and Carcosa is something evocative, spine-tingling and fascinating. It's definitely part of my personal myth-space: I encountered the Mythos as a young teen, and nearly named my production company "Made In Carcosa" when I founded it (in -- gulp -- 1997). The mystery, the decadence, the symbology -- these are fascinating myths that provide rich fuel for Carcosa-the-comic's story, and that I know will appeal on a similarly mythic level to a lot of people.

In fact, a lot of the positive comments I've had on the comic so far have mentioned the Carcosa element and their desire to see more stories around it. It's a myth thing.

There are many other myths I'd love to explore and expand upon, too. For example, Clive Barker's horror universe is another fascinating construct that a lot of people, including me, encountered at a comparatively young age.

But most of our myths are locked up beyond our reach.

Thanks to various intellectual property laws, notably copyright, any mythic figure created after approximately 1920 has a unique custodian. That's an incredibly powerful position, and it's responsible for the positions of most of the nobility of storytelling today. In the film world and the comics world, in particular, there are sharp deliniations between the studios -- the myth-holders, the nobles -- and everyone else.

The former can make far more money than the latter. Why? Because of their hold on our myths. The public hungers to see tales of their mythic heroes, as they have throughout history. It's an incredibly powerful draw, and possibly the only thing sustaining the top-heavy world of moviemaking as it is today.

But the result is that storytellers can't access most of their mythworld. We reach for our mythic figures, but we can't touch them; at least, not without risking legal battles that we'll almost certainly lose. And we definitely, definitely can't do what storytellers have been doing for the rest of humanity's existence, which is tell tales of our myths for money.

Enter Cthulhu

And so we reach for the most recent myths we can access: things that still have some mythic resonance, even if that resonance is faded in comparison to James Bond, Star Wars or Middle Earth.

And the most recent mythic tales with any great power? The Cthulhu Mythos. Reaching further back, there are a few more; vampire fiction supplies a few, of which Dracula is by far the best known, and Sherlock Holmes is another.

We can also attempt to tell tales of more recent myths with the serial numbers filed off. The wave of fantasy fiction in the '80s and arguably the rise of D&D both demonstrate that. But it's not as powerful, nor as satisfying.

And we can create our own mythic figures and attempt to rise to the nobility. That's been the path for most really successful novelists, from Charlie's Laundryverse (there's that -verse suffix again) to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, to Iain M. Banks' Culture, George R. R. Martin's Song Of Ice And Fire, and so on. But that takes time -- a lot of time. *The Atrocity Archives* was originally published in 2001, for example.

Of course, there's a real danger here. As time marches forward, thanks to the magic of ever-extending copyright terms, the list of myths that we've got access to remains static. They become steadily less useful as myths for our current culture. For example, it's been noticable over the last couple of decades that the Cthulhu Mythos' original obsession with secretive, backward cults of non-white people has become more and more of a problem.

But there's no real prospect that anything's going to successfully change that status quo in the near future.

And so storytellers will keep making the best of a bad situation. Some will thumb their nose at the custodians. The highest-profile of those rebels at present is probably "Dredd" producer Adi Shankar, who makes short films about mythic figures as part of his Bootleg Universe. We'll see if he keeps managing to do that.

Others -- most of us -- will divide our time between attempting to become part of the nobility ourselves, and reaching increasingly far back to find the few pieces of myth that we're still allowed access to.

Will Cthulhu ever become less popular? Only if copyright terms stop extending, and Disney's prevented that so far.

So, oddly enough, the fate of Cthulhu rests with Mickey Mouse.

What do you think? Do you agree? Is there another cause? Is the myth monopoly justified, and if not, is there anything we can do about it?

If you'd like to read the comic I talk about in this piece, find it at . Have you seen the city's spires?



That is pretty much the standard argument on copyright life, with the mythic element added.

Is Melancholy Elephants a Myth? Maybe it is.

But I think I see a weak point. What has happened to the "realistic" movie? One basic example: the Warner Bros. gangster movie. It was stylised. It was constrained by the Hayes Code. It was as much storytelling as an myth. But it was a story that you could see reported in the newspapers.

So why has the fantastical version of myth-making taken over? Why is the real world such an apparently pointless setting for big-money movies?

Of is it some sort of runaway feedback mechanism? Fantasy depend on special effects (OK, this stuff is more common than you might think in all movies.) and that pushes up the cost a lot. That encourages you to spend more money on publicity, which means more people pay to watch the movie.

That doesn't have to work every time to be a good bet to make.

And a studio needs a supply of big money films to stay in business. While a franchise also looks a good bet to meet that need.

I recall reading that the Marx Brothers were rather like that too.


The Mickey Mouse Protection Act has, indeed, distorted a lot of the intellectual properties of the last century. Mickey Mouse cannot be allowed to escape copyright, and so the terms far exceed the length of the life of the writer.

Charlie mentioned sometime about the longevity of corporations, and the Mickey Mouse Protection Act is a backdoor way to make Mickey Mouse's copyright last the life of the Disney corporation.

And as a result, a lot of properties are tied up, and seemingly, forever. So those who aren't, like Cthulhu get used again and again. See True Detective. Or the new novel by Downum. Or your work. Or Charlie's.

There is a fascination for Lovecraft's work on the merits...but the ability to access and use it does count for a lot.


Good point!

I think that what we're looking at here is the difference between a specific mythic figure and an archetype. Gangster movies and TV series, for example, are very heavily Archetype-based.

Archetype-based movie-making is definitely alive and well. Whilst some archetypes are temporarily out of fashion (Western gunslinger, for example), many of them are still trundling along just fine. Indeed, the entire world of television series production has until quite recently depended upon archetypes almost exclusively - the Homicide Detective, the Doctor, etc.

Likewise, the Super-Spy in films is still doing pretty well, particularly for indie movies.

But I think what we've seen is a gradual realisation that whilst Archetype is powerful, Mythic Figure is more powerful. Hercules trumps Warrior, James Bond trumps Superspy. And so Archetype-based fiction is being relegated, in film and TV at least, to the sidelines, with specific mythic characters being used to boost what would have once been an Archetype-based story with fresh characters.

For example, various people have commented that Daredevil could have quite happily been a generic gritty-crime-fighter story. But the Daredevil and Marvel connections gave it more mythic power, allowing it to outcompete everything else for its ratings share.

That's a theory, anyway! I'm sure it has holes aplenty.


the fate of Cthulhu rests with Mickey Mouse

How sure are you they're distinct entities?


My take on the popularity of the Mythos is that it has more to do with promise vs. execution. I first heard of the Mythos through gaming. The Call of Cthulgu RPG promised something so dark, so terrible, that you'd need to check your sanity every so often, as merely looking at one of ol' H.P.'s creations was supposed to drive you insane. That is some heavy shit, so naturally I went and got a paperback and started reading. ...And for the most part, it sucked. It promised a lot but rarely delivered and the style was atrocious. Now I'm no writer but I am a creative sort so I can guess what every would-be author was thinking when they read it: "I Can Do Better". And lo and behold, almost every genre author has written at least one Lovecraft pastiche - and so the cycle continues.


I think that gif link is broken - either that or I'm waiting insufficiently long for it to do its eldrich, squamous thing.


Interesting theory!

I think there's a division between idea and execution with Lovecraft's work - amplified by the existence of the RPG which explains his ideas arguably better than him.

Lovecraft's execution is sometimes pretty poor. But his ideas are remarkable.

I can't speak for any Mythos author but myself, but personally I definitely wasn't thinking "I could do better than that" when I wrote any of my Mythos work. If I'd been thinking that I'd have invented an original mythology. Instead, I was thinking "those are really powerful, interesting ideas, they've got resonance for me personally, and there's this neat thing I could do with them..."


Oh dear, it was working a moment ago, including from the comment preview, maybe this is some anti-hotlinking thing. Here's the version.


There is certainly something in this, but it's not the whole issue. A mythos clearly must be complex and thorough enough to be a complete framework (single novels don't usually cut the mustard), but it must also catch the zeitgeist at some point. Neither Dunsany nor Ashton Smith did, but Lovecraft and Howard did. But it also must be original enough to be more than a variation on an existing theme, or a pastiche of existing ones, to remain distinguishable in the long term. Frankly, I regard most of the currently popular candidates as being unlikely to survive in even the medium term. I doubt that it is reasonable to expect a new mythos to establish itself more than very occasionally.


It helps that Cthulhu Mythos is an open world and HPL encouraged others to appropriate and experiment with his ideas. And there's plenty of scope to play because his mythos isn't rigid and well defined.


Hmm - that brings up a very interesting point.

There's a difference between a single very successful myth-figure and a mythos.

Myth-figures: Rambo. Indiana Jones. Mad Max. Pinhead.

Mythoi: Star Wars. Cthulhu Mythos. Marvel and DC universes. Buffyverse. Middle-Earth.

I think that in this age of niches, filter bubbles, and subreddits, you may be underestimating the ability of mythoi to stick around even if they don't appeal to the mass market. A myth doesn't need to have resonance for a lot of people to be powerful to those people for whom it does have resonance.


Well, there's mass market and mass market. Even Cthulhu is still a niche attraction, considered over all UK book readers. But I fully take your point that a niche merely has to have enough followers to be a viable market. I was thinking more of the time factor, because even immense popularity can vanish very quickly.


Ok, here's a twist on this: it's not all the MMPA. You seem to have missed the massive monopolization of the media, from big, but not that big studios, to arms of Cthulhu, er, multinationals.

And with that, they've made their own myths: they're variants on the Cold War mythos (Commies! EEK! Under your bed!), but with the big twist is that what matters is coming out of it all not only not under "anyone's thumb", but also rich. In fact, nothing is worth anything other than winding up Rich!.

To me, that's a huge reason I loathe the GOP in the US: they've stolen our kids' dreams.

Used to be that you go into an elementary school classroom, and ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up, and you'd get mommy, daddy, doctor, teacher... and astronaut.

Now they just want the standards... and to be rich. Because if you can't put a monetary value on it, it's not worth anything. And if people want something like that... you can't control them; they have different triggers and pressure points. And some of them might succeed, and that might make big changes in the world... which might leave you not as rich as you are, or even ... horror! POOR. One of them (wave hand at serfs working in the fields, pounding away at keyboards, as you sit on your veranda and drink your drink with an umbrella in it).

It's easier to push their buttons if they believe what you want them to.


His style might not appeal, but it's technically brilliant. It's all about the atmosphere. Read other writers' efforts at it or, better yet, essay it yourself and you'll soon discover how deceptively simple it is. He's pushing at the limits of what prose can achieve; that meaningful narrative won't go much further is not really his fault. He's also a sharp break from his antecedents, at least those I've read.


Beat me to it. Lovecraft was big on sharing, and a lot of his contemporaries used his ideas with his blessing. That's a big reason he's still relevant.

The other thing to remember is that Lovecraft didn't make a lot of money off the original Mythos. He's not the precursor to Charlie, let alone George R.R. Martin. There's a lot of people like him right now who are giving away their art and scratching a living from their singular visions.

The other thing that protects Lovecraft is that his work isn't terribly filmable, and it's actually pretty bigoted. There isn't a classic film canon that we all think of, like Peter Jackson and LOTR, when we think of Cthulhu, and there's unlikely to be one. After all, does anyone think that a faithful adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, with its bigoted descriptions of African Americans, Italians, Chinese, even Eskimos, would sell well in today's market?

What has worked out well for the Cthulhu mythos are derivative works like Hellboy, and I think that's the power of Lovecraft. He's more fertilizer than franchise maker. We're not reading him because we're bigots like him and he's preaching to us in the white-robed, pointy-headed choir. Instead we're reading him because his vision of the superhuman universe resonates with us right now, and most of us cringe past all the 1920s xenophobia he spews. It's fun to do derivative works, but faithfully copy the originals? I'll pass, thank you. Most of us will.

IMHO, that's why he's still around. That and The Game, of course.


The myth figures you mention first appeared on-screen in the 1970-80s, that is, when the baby-boomers were anywhere between 10 and 30.

I think the age of exposure is probably at least as important as the particular trope. Myths are very lucrative entertainment commodities. Getting the timing right can mean several lifetimes (generations) worth of revenue. From what I've seen, I'd say that one of the biggest 20th century mythoi is Sesame Street.

Seriously ... if you're trying to create a myth universe, you need to have product fit for the market entry consumer. For most books and films, this means the YA consumer. Charlie's Laundryverse can sorta straddle the YA market mostly because he injects enough nerdy (often a synonym for adolescent male) humor.

Which brings me to another point... the importance of humor in contemporizing mythology. Old-time serious (classical) lit including Greek/Roman mythology all read as very serious, mostly tragedies.

Now look at your mythic heroes from the 20th/21st centuries, specifically those that have made it to the big screen: many of the most memorable, character-defining scenes involve humor. It's 'signature humor' - something that only our hero could possible come up with. It's this humor that enables us to relate to an otherwise larger-than-life untouchable hero. (Another reason for humor: Because life in the 20th/21st centuries is not nearly as horrific as it was for our ancestors.)

Wikipedia - Sesame Street:

"A 1996 survey found that 95% of all American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were three years old." (The show currently airs in over 140 countries.)


Definitely. I didn't have space to get into this in the article, but I'd guess that the age of myth-formation is between about 2-3 and about 16.

And those myths, which we grow up with, are then largely locked out of our reach as creators.

Signature humour - interesting concept. Counter-examples: Middle-Earth springs to mind. It's not exactly a laugh riot. Also, Superman and Batman both tend to be somewhat humour-free, and do very well.

Perhaps we're getting into an archetype issue here? A lot of the most popular mythic heroes both now and throughout history are Tricksters of one sort or another. Obviously, humour's important to them. On the other hand, Warrior figures, Teacher figures and similar don't have humour in as central a role.


Speaking as a filmmaker, I'd disagree on the "filmic" issue.

Del Toro was famously working on a Mountains of Madness adaption, and Haunter of the Dark has been adapted a bunch of times. Call of Cthulhu was adapted quite recently in a faux-period version.

And of course there's the very long-running H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival.

The racism's pretty easy to work around - you do have to adapt around it, but the same's true of elements of a very large number of books from more than 50 years ago.

Personally I'm not primarily interested in adaptions, but I can't see any huge barriers in the way of adapting Lovecraft, and I imagine we'll see it sooner or later. My guess is that post-John Carter, it'll be a while before the studios are willing to consider any classic SF works for adaption, though.


Old-time serious (classical) lit including Greek/Roman mythology all read as very serious, mostly tragedies.

Norse mythology certainly doesn't read as very serious! Other than that, I'm not sure what you define as "old-time", but plenty of "classical literature" has humour. What much of it doesn't have is enough world-building to produce a "mythos": you need a setting which is recognisably different from contemporary reality (Jane Austen doesn't build a mythos, and neither does Charles Dickens, because there is nothing really to distinguish a novel set in the "Austenverse" from something that is simply set in the Georgian period of English history), and sufficiently solidly established to have an (imaginary) existence outside one specific work (some of Shakespeare is distinct from contemporary reality, but the backdrop is exactly that, and doesn't establish itself solidly enough for others to make use of).

That said, I'm not wholly convinced of the truth of the initial thesis: as Elderly Cynic said, "even Cthulhu is a niche market, considered over all UK book readers" – and I'd extend that to "considered over all UK fantasy book readers": there are clearly a lot more people reading standard quasi-Mediaeval/sub-Tolkien, or nowadays vampire/werewolf, than Cthulhu-based.

How much of this is really "the power of myth", and how much is bandwagon-jumping? It seems to me that it makes some writers' lives easier if they have pre-defined archetypes: if someone writing a quasi-mediaeval fantasy says "elf", that word brings with it a lot of baggage which they presumably want, and which saves a good deal of backstory writing. I assume that that's why Elizabeth Bear in her Norse-myth-based "Edda of Burdens" trilogy chose to spell "valkyrie" as "waelcyrge" [which I identified as probably old English, and was unreasonably smug when I looked it up in the OED and found I was right!] – specifically to avoid calling up all the Wagnerian baggage of the usual spelling.


'Classical' ... I was thinking pre-Shakespeare ...

"Norse mythology certainly doesn't read as very serious!" - The only Norse mythology I ever read was pretty glum stuff. Even the gods had little hope about the future (Ragnarok).


I think part of the attraction of Cthulhu Mythos is how it shifts our fears towards new geographies. We may be about to eyeball Yuggoth, and not so far off mapping extra solar planets, but the unknowns beyond our spacetime will be able to terrorise us forever. And no-one, prior to HPL, not even, I suspect, Einstein himself, had contemplated how the simple geometry we depend upon for our everyday existence might turn upon us with vindictive malevolence. HPL was around at the right moment in history to write that.

And I think he couples that with another, very modern fear: that we will degenerate into irrational, hate-filled monsters. Look at how we have to carefully separate ourselves from HPL's own hate speech. (If I were in a trollish mood, I would suggest this fear is also in evidence in the New Atheist movement.) HPL explores this, often literally, such as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. While in The Haunter in the Dark, he articulates technology's role in protecting us: we remain safe while the electricity flow; but when it stops, the primordial anarchy takes over and satisfies its vilest wants. That was in contrast to a lot of what had come before and is a very modern fear.


"He's also a sharp break from his antecedents, at least those I've read."

Not really. Distinct, yes, but consider Stoker, Poe, the gothic novels, Doyle etc. Between them, they included a great deal of what he put into his mythos. The big difference is that he created a complete mythos. I strongly suggest that anyone who hasn't yet done so reads "Ralph Wollstonecraft Hedge: A Memoir" by Ron Goulart.


Most mythology of the ancient era was closely tied up with religion, which makes it tricky to compare them with the modern era. But I agree that most of it was pretty humourless.


Yes, Lovecraft's universe is surprisingly relevant and still quite unexplored in a number of ways.

I'm fascinated by (and playing with) his notion of "bad" knowledge (and by extension "bad" speech), for example. That's something that feels very contemporary right now.

His influence over later horror writers and his embrace of a sharing culture also means that his work interfaces very nicely with ideas from later writers. "Carcosa", for example, is quite heavily inspired by Clive Barker too, and Barkeresque horror plays very well indeed with Cthulhu.


(I have some strong and nuanced opinions about Lovecraft's work. If this comes off as a rant, it is. Don't mistake it for a personal attack on anybody; I'm angry because I repeat myself every few weeks, not because anybody here in particular has pissed me off.)

I agree that Lovecraft's mythos is a mythos, and that it's a modern one. I disagree that it has anything to do with its success, nor with Lovecraft, for that matter.

Lovecraft's writing circle was not aiming to create a mythos so much as rapping on shared themes and freely stealing ideas from each other while collaborating, in much the same way that Paul Erdos was not particularly trying to invent whole new branches of mathematics so much as trying to find somewhere to crash where there'd be lively conversations. In what appears to be the result of Lovecraft's own biases moreso than those of the others he worked with, his ouvre ends up being modern insomuch as it's both incredibly materialistic and incredibly xenophobically paranoid (in other words, it's modern in the first-half-of-the-twentieth-century sense; thirty years later people started considering pure materialism to be a little old-fashioned as the cultural pendulum swung in the direction of new-age relativism). A good amount of the apparent coherence in Lovecraft's mythos is the result of his work being heavily edited after his death in a way that emphasized its coherence and attempted to systematize an otherwise wholly disorganized motley crew of references. The most modern part of this project was that it was largely unsuccessful and largely irrelevant.

Pop culture derivatives of Lovecraft's recurring references began popping up as early as the late 50s, and have rarely ever gotten the point (an early film adaptation is Die, Monster, Die!). Where Lovecraft's stories focus on a xenophobic paranoia filtered through a lens focused on information (protagonists are almost always scientists or historians, and are killed or driven mad by knowledge, either from books or from direct experience, often relating to their lineage or to the deep history of the earth -- it is not that the creatures are maddening, but that to already intelligent and cosmopolitan people, what the creatures imply breaks apart their entire worldview, while masses of unintelligent or uninformed characters are shown as being perfectly alright with our monsters to the point where they are willing to worship them or interbreed with them). His is a fear of high culture being damaged by low culture, or of his own elitist pretentions being shown to be ultimately unfounded. The monsters were never a major part of that, except insomuch as they demonstrated that there was much that remains unknown to even the best-educated sons of the western university complex.

Modern pop culture references to the Lovecraft mythos -- how much mythology do they actually reference? Cthulhu is almost always completely out of context. References to Lovecraft stop at sea-themed monsters, or maddening books. They don't represent a deep, or even shallow, understanding of the text; instead, they represent a familiarity with other texts that have referenced the mythos indirectly -- sixth-order references to Derelith's arguably unnecessary categorizations. Squid-faced monsters out of context do not say anything about the deep strangeness of those parts of the world we have yet to explore -- and the monsters of Lovecraft were never frightening, precisely because they didn't need to be: what was frightening was that the universe is vast and ancient and everything that human beings have ever come across is insignificant in the greater scheme. Cthulhu wasn't frightening because he was important; he was frightening because he was so insignificant as to have been completely forgotten, despite being clearly so much more significant than the learned men who discovered him. He was frightening insomuch as, by being so much greater than humanity and yet still failing, he indicates that humanity will too be forgotten in the dusts of time. Lovecraft's work is scary because mankind doesn't figure into it except as a background detail.

This is really incompatible with the contexts in which it has been referenced, and runs the opposite direction of both most ancient mythologies and most modern mythologies.

Compare the Lovecraft mythos with the currently most popular modern mythology: Tolkein's. Tolkein reshaped high fantasy, to the extent that pre-Tolkein conceptions of fantasy are difficult to categorize as fantasy at all. Any piece of literature that says "Elves" and "Dwarves" rather than "Elfs" and "Dwarfs" is influenced by Tolkein; any piece of literature that shows these elves as tall pointy-eared nordics and these dwarves as short, hairy mine-dwellers is a Tolkein derivative. And, Tolkein's biggest contribution to mythology is taking the hero's journey to an extreme by combining it with an underdog story: he replaces Jason and his Argonauts with the weakest race of beings he could imagine, and thereby implants the sklavmoral into a heroic/epic context. Unlike previous heroes of christian-influenced fantasy and myth, the hobbits were neither notable warriors nor pure saints, but were instead merely small, weak, relatively stupid agrarians whose interests ranged primarily between food and alcohol.

If the Lord of the Rings were written by Lovecraft, there would be no Orcs, and the Hobbits would be working for Sauron; our hero would be some Elven librarian who would read about the whole affair in a bundle of correspondence that washed up on the Western Shore, and afterwards, he'd set himself on fire, because he had never heard of Sauron before but now realized that he had spent his life serving Sauron's purposes unknowingly. And Sauron would not be evil; he'd just be strange.

Tolkein's mythology is much more popular, and it's easy to see why. It has the same underdog message that underlies the Hollywood formula for popular movies; it has just enough christian undertones to appease the monotheists while attracting heathens of all stripes with its reverence of natural beauty; the antagonist is an uncomplicated Lucifer analogue who is shown as literally pure evil and is strongly associated with a caricature of Dickens-era industry; all of the authorities are either pure of heart or corrupted against their will by an external force, and you can tell who's evil because the lands they rule will become conveniently color-coded with signs of decay. It's a Disney-ready plot and visual language with none of that confusing moral nuance, and the moral nuance that it did retain gets lost as soon as bits and pieces are adapted for use in D&D manuals and video games and extruded fantasy product. It's entertaining, and can be salvaged morally and intellectually, but it also predisposes itself to facile readings.

In Lovecraft, nothing is pure evil, and nothing is good either. The moral of every Lovecraft story is: the world is more complicated than you think, and sometimes in ways that will shorten your lifespan! That's a hard thing to swallow. Science fiction readers have a better time swallowing it, I think, than some other groups (novelty is part of the reason people choose science fiction over some other genres), but nobody particularly likes to think that everything they know is wrong. That said, it's a realistic worldview -- and Lovecraft was prescient in the sense that it's a worldview that is far more clearly realistic now, when communications technologies have made it very easy to come across dissenting opinions and well-documented facts that explode your umwelt, than it was during an era when a telephone was an expensive luxury and basic literacy was far less common.

Instead, I think that the popularity of Lovecraft references lies in that many of the basic themes that occur again and again in more minor ways (ocean-themed monsters, magic books, ancient aliens) are alien enough to Tolkein-inspired universes that they can be incorporated into them as a way of providing novelty with minimal effort. (See, by way of example, World of Warcraft -- a D&D-inspired Tolkeinesque universe that borrows liberally from various religions and cultures with simplifications that border on racist, and which has a backstory that's clearly more influenced by The Mountains of Madness than by the Simarillion; see also how mid-level dungeons that tell this backstory require individual players to defeat ancient evil gods while avoiding "insanity rays".)


As an addendum to my previous comment, I should note: Lovecraft wrote, and was published, before Tolkein. It's a testament to Tolkein's dominance of the market that we consider him representative of fantasy, and not others before him. Vril seems like a pretty strange thing to have in fantasy, along with hollow earths, but it was absolutely standard at the turn of the 20th century; now, the most popular fantasy writer of the ninteenth century is synonymous with poor writing.

I think that Tolkein's draw is absolutely mythic, and I also think that it has a lot to do with the time in which the LOTR was published -- it struck a chord with hippies in a big way.

I don't think the market was really ready for a horror focused on information theory in the 1920s (the shannon equation hadn't been invented yet; nobody knew about dna), but Lovecraft is gaining popularity now precisely because the internet makes available the capacity for normal people to do what drove Lovecraft's protagonists insane. (You'll note that Lovecraft was big on Usenet long before J. Random User heard of him, and the scale of his popularity at least somewhat tracks with internet access.)


''Any piece of literature that says "Elves" and "Dwarves" rather than "Elfs" and "Dwarfs" is influenced by Tolkein; any piece of literature that shows these elves as tall pointy-eared nordics and these dwarves as short, hairy mine-dwellers is a Tolkein derivative.''

Not really. Elves is 16th century and in Shakespeare, dwarves in modern English is, I agree Tolkein, but matches the middle English usage. I have certainly seen those physical descriptions in old (i.e. 16th century or earlier) work, except for the colouring and pointy ears. I am pretty sure both recent (Victorian?), and I don't remember seeing either in Tolkein. Remember that, in the 16th century and Tolkein's use, "fair" rarely meant blond.


Not entirely coincidentally - it was prompted by a namecheck from Charlie - I got The King In Yellow the other day. I wasn't totally swept away by it - for me that "extremely unreliable narrator" style is only good for a story or two - but the excerpts are mesmerising.

Also, the comic is superb - can't wait for part three! (But shouldn't the towers be behind the moon?)


One mythos that has been bubbling under for decades, against quite justifiable resistance, is the Nazi Mythos. From Wolfenstein to Iron Sky and of course any number of conspiracy theories. A rather nice blend..


Klarkash-Ton had a very particular sense of humor, as well. It's not everyone's cup of tea.


That was extremely interesting - no apology necessary.

I couldn't agree more on the core worldview of Lovecraft's work - that's one of the main reasons I work within a Mythos framework when I do.


Following on from that - one of the biggest mistakes that a lot of the interpreters of the Mythos make, in my opinion, is attempting to somehow inject a "Big Good" to oppose the "Big Evil" that is the Old Ones.

That's a complete and tragic misunderstanding of what makes both the Mythos and morality within a narrative context interesting, IMO. One of the fascinating things about the Mythos is that it's one of the few fictional universes where Good (FVO good) isn't predetermined to win, and it's not even a fair fight.

That doesn't mean heroism doesn't exist within the Mythos. Indeed, I'd argue that it makes heroism against that background all the more interesting.


See the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. You've got the single dreamer standing up against a being vastly more powerful than him, without any gods really on his side.


I'm not sure I agree with this. If this was true, we should see more mythic universes in play from before the 20th century. And we don't really have those. Off-hand, in the English tradition there's Arthurian legends, some Shakespearean works, Gothic horror, and (depending on how you look at it) Austen/Heyer Regency.

That's not really a lot. Which leads me to the suggestion that prior to the 20th century, building new mythic universes was really, really rare.

Perhaps you have it backwards. Perhaps the existence of strong copyright is what gives authors confidence in building their own universes and mythologies.

Or alternatively a third element changed in the 20th century, making building unique mythologies more likely.


An obvious element would be the reduction in belief in conventional mythic universes - Christianity, mostly, in the West.

Our relationship to myth is a great deal more complex than it used to be. In the C19th, Charlie and I would probably both be reacting to and fictionalising in different ways elements of the Judeo-Christian mythopedia.


Apropos Lovecraft and human insignificance, can I point you at this essay I wrote a couple of years ago about the influence of astronometrical developments during Lovecraft's lifetime on his perception of the universe?

From 1880 to 1937 the universe grew in age by 2-3 orders of magnitude and in volume by something like 9-12 orders of magnitude. That's harsh if one is contemplating one's own place in the cosmos.


Add in relativity and quantum mechanics to that. Space and time could distort in non-Euclidean ways which paid no heed to human intuitions. The clockwork universe, ticking onward in predetermined ways since creation, was replaced with a reality that was chaotic and uncertain at the most basic level.


I think the article misses an important aspect of our collective interaction with modern myths. It's true that many modern myths are blocked from commercial use by gate-keepers but that doesn't stop people from telling new stories about them. Fan fiction is created, distributed and read by large numbers of people. People are directly interacting with modern myths in a non-commercial way.


Just to follow up and be a brat, what are the relative sizes of the Harry Potter Fanfic community at its peak and the Lovecraft community at its peak? Any idea of how to find out? Should we throw the Trekkers and the Baker Street Irregulars into the comparison too?


I would think that that would be difficult to measure. You could take the major fanfic communities and add them up, but you would miss a lot of people who posted stuff in smaller locations. The same is true of Lovecraft, especially because there are probably a large number of minor authors who wrote things that never gained enough popularity to be remembered. This is assuming that you're only counting people who write things that are shared publicly, of course.


It's interesting, I absolutely adored the first Laundry novel. I am slightly older than Charlie, I turn 49 this month. Even so I would think that the number of people who intersect between reading Deighton and Lovecraft, at my age, is very small. I sought out Lovecraft because of D&D ( my aunt had the books) and had read the classic Deightons after reading his more recent stuff (my Mum had those). So much as I loved the Laundry, I was always worried it wouldn't appeal to a broader audience, that fear seems misplaced, the series has broadened out significantly and seems to be selling well. I think we are entering an era where it will be impossible to read pretty much everything in a genre, nor would we want to. I chased most of (but not all) of the significant novels in SF and Fantasy (back to Wells and Verne) down and read them during the eighties. That isn't possible at all anymore ( younger folk tell me I am idiot and disagree, please) imho


Of the myths that do make it to the screen, any thoughts on why ancient Greece gods are so popular and the Norse aren't?

Film and TV frequently use Greek mythology, from Jason and the Argonauts to the Hercules and Xena TV series. Yet I can't think of any equivalents using Norse fantasy. ("Vikings" is on the TV here in Australia, but that's going for gritty realism.)

Not classical enough?


While the problems with long copyright terms have been gone over on this blog before, there is a fundamental difference between "not being able to access a myth" and "not being able to tell or film your own version for profit."

I think that anyone who thinks that traditional myth is all serious and gloomy needs to read more of it!


Of the myths that do make it to the screen, any thoughts on why ancient Greece gods are so popular and the Norse aren't?


When I was a kid there were lots of age-appropriate books about the greek gods and greek heroes, but very little about the norse. Nothing at all about the finnish or welsh or irish stuff, of course. I think maybe the greco-roman stuff got a head start with the renaissance and another boost with the british empire.

My kids got a little bit of native american folklore, a little bit of african, a little norse, a lot of greco-roman. They got some old egyptian from riordan along with more greco-roman.


If I were in a trollish mood, I would suggest this fear is also in evidence in the New Atheist movement. Explain, please? Without trolling, of course .....


he replaces Jason and his Argonauts with the weakest race of beings he could imagine... No. The Hobbits are very strong in endurance. The (religiously-themed) journey of suffering that Sam & Frodo (YES, that way around) from the crossroads in Ithilien to the miraculous survival of the bombardment by Orodruin shows their dogged determination - very alike to the soldiers in the trenches that JRRT was revisiting in those passages.


Oops. posted too soon ... primitive agrarians, were the Hobbits? Yet their agriculture is recgonisably that of the 18th Century in England - far in advance of the other societies shown in LotR. Remembering, of course, that Numenor had a technology equivalent to that of about 1970-1990 ....

all of the authorities are either pure of heart or corrupted against their will... No, not that either. Feanor? Galadriel, who was one of those across the ice & present at the kin-slaying - only "saved" by her actions in the War of the Ring. Somewhere, I think t was Gandalf, says that even Sauron was not always evil .... Excuse me, you have read the books?


Thor? ;)

More seriously, part of the answer is that the Greek stuff on screen is about humans (ok, demigods sometimes). Of course the gods, monsters, etc feature strongly, but we like roughly people-sized heroes. There's not much Norse stuff about humans that I can recall.

Another point though is that the Greeks are less fashionable now; in terms of modern stories, I can only think of the Percy Jackson books (and the movie adaptations of those flopped).


"I think we are entering an era where it will be impossible to read pretty much everything in a genre, nor would we want to. I chased most of (but not all) of the significant novels in SF and Fantasy (back to Wells and Verne) down and read them during the eighties."

I don't think this has changed at all. Time and distance are great filtering mechanisms that have worked to determine what is significant (for a given definition of significant) for at least the last century. The only change is what the limiting factor is. It used to be communications bandwidth and the cost of publication - now its the cost of time and purchasing for the reader.


That's a good point - although gatekeepers can perfectly well block, or at least make difficult, fanfic, if they choose to. I recall there are a number of authors who have explicitly said they don't wish people to write fanfic in their worlds, and I believe that wish is mostly adhered to.

I'll have to think a bit on fanfic and how it fits into this thesis.


I'd have said that the Norse myths or derivations therof were at least somewhat well-represented right now, whilst as others have commented, the Greek gods appear to be going out of fashion.

Obviously you've got the Marvelverse. The Norse gods appear in a number of other all-encompassing fictional universes right now too, notably Supernatural.

They got their own TV series with "The Almighty Johnsons", which whilst it wasn't high-budget was very, very good in places.

And in terms of influence, In video games Skyrim might not have been explicitly Norse but was so in all but name.


@John Ohno.

Great comment; I happen to disagree, but it was worth the read.

Regarding Lovecraft and Disney, you almost hit on the element where the two intersect on mentioning xenophobia, but missed it I feel. Disney is all about Cultural Domination and Re-appropriation; Lovecraft is all about what is hidden beneath the plastic veneer (proto-Authenticity post-modern angle ahoy) where the real domination and appropriation occurs.

Let's focus on the quintessential element to both: the village / community. Disney has Celebration; Lovecraft has Innsmouth. (And they intersect more than you probably realize: The dark heart of Disney's dream town: Celebration has wife-swapping, suicide, vandals ... and now even a brutal murder (warning, Daily Fail link)). Celebration's Covenant (warning:PDF) is legendary in its scope and desire to manage a community; in seeming opposition to this, Innsmouth is visibly corrupt and decaying:

The vast huddle of sagging gambrel roofs and peaked gables conveyed with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay, and as we approached along the now descending road I could see that many roofs had wholly caved in. There were some large square Georgian houses, too, with hipped roofs, cupolas, and railed "widow's walks". These were mostly well back from the water, and one or two seemed to be in moderately sound condition....

<em>The decay was worst close to the waterfront, though in its very midst I could spy the white belfry of a fairly well-preserved brick structure which looked like a small factory. The harbour, long clogged with sand, was enclosed by an ancient stone breakwater.... <em>

However, both have a public facade that seeks to hide what lurks beneath: Celebration, by its very inauthenticity, is a critique of American society (look to what it does not contain rather than what it does), whereas Innsmouth hides behind a facade of Capitalist failure (faded industry, docks no longer working, hints of past glory and wealth) to dissuade prying eyes who would spread the gospel of modernism to their rather older belief systems.

Both work on the same principle: that which isn't said / apparent is where the real aim of their cultural identity lies. (Let's just say: Disney's version has just a whiff of racism and socioeconimic class about it).

So far, so normal. But there's something more, hinted at by the Covenant link. Disney strives to lock down the universe by use of Law and Covenants, but at each stage is willing to challenge the Law and change it to benefit themselves, (Copyright Law, IP Law, even planning Laws if you look into what it took for them to build their physical empire) and more importantly, to do so with the goal of essentially infinite duration (extend each time the copyright etc is about to expire). Whereas, Innsmouth is predicated on a similar Covenant with the Deep Ones, where the Law is never fully understood, but is also subject to change if the alien whims of the non-human contact is challenged (it's almost certain that China Miéville's "The Scar"'s antagonists, the grindylow are a clever commentary on the mythos that Lovecraft appropriated to create the Deep Ones, but I digress - ay up lad, Yorkshireman ahoy). However, the duration is the same - multi-generational for the human scale, 80,000 years for the Deep Ones.

So, in these terms, W.Disney (the Corporation, not the man) and Father Dagon / Mother Hydra / Cthulhu are performing similar roles for their consumers / worshippers. That they're nominally on a side of "Order" or "Chaos" (not Good and Evil, important distinction) is immaterial, given that the side for "Order" is willing to break / change the Law constantly, whereas the side for "Chaos" is actually bound by the Covenants they agree to. (Ahh, see? Intersectionality, finally). The unifying goal being that the human in both cases has no real control over the process, however much they fool themselves that they do.

And, lastly: many readers will suggest that Lovecraft is hopelessly niche and vastly unimportant in terms of cultural mythology, and is almost a mirror image of Disney. However, again, this misunderstands what the impact of Lovecraft is; the certainty that the Universe is a chaotic one which the human mind cannot fully understand (I'd suggest researching his interactions with Quantum Theory symposiums, he was reading them as they happened) against Disney's own uncertainty that its modernist Utopian universe cannot exist without draconian legislation and bounded Law and Community.

Essentially they're both sides of a particularly American coin.

But that's a different story, and a lived one.

(And, I'll behave: no yellow cards, or flights of fancy).


Skyrim is wonderfully Norse in almost every way but, I would argue, not in its mythology. But that's what happens when you mix in Dragons, mummies in dusty tombs and stuff. Culturally though, yes, it's pretty Norse.

(If I had to live somewhere in a fictional world, Whiterun would be one of my candidates. Once the dragon issue has been sorted.)

It's very odd to be on a ship sailing up the coast of Nordland and looking across the water at a landscape looking like that of Skyrim, though any towns look rather different.


Botched link alert. Nordland doesn't lead anywhere.

[[ commenter unable to spell 'href' - mod ]]


I am slightly older than Charlie, I turn 49 this month

That makes you younger by 18 months or so.

Your worry reminds me of an anecdote about a different work of fiction: "Lobsters", which went on to be the start of "Accelerando". When I first wrote it I showed it to a friend of mine. This was some time in early 1999. "It's great," he said, "but you'll never sell it; the readers would have had to have overdosed on slashdot for a year before they understood it, and there just aren't enough of them." He was wrong: there were lots of tech-sector geeks out there (as is glaringly obvious today). It just wasn't obvious.

As for reading an entire genre ... nope, that stopped being possible some time in the early to mid 80s in SF. Circa '83, there were only about 40 SF/F novels a year published in the UK; today it's closer to 200, making keeping up a full-time job. And the US market, is a whole lot bigger and more diverse.


Other contextual stuff on OGH #55.

Of the friends that I've discussed OGH's works with, I am the most computer-geeky. I am also the one who enjoyed Accelerando most. So that argument still stands up.

Reading an entire genre - FIP!! In particular, I don't think I'm unusual in reading some US market authors as well as some UK market ones? And, indeed, in not only reading genre fiction?


making keeping up a full-time job

At the end of the 80s, a sad bunny living on my own, I'd read a novel a night. But there were few interruptions apart from the occasional TV licensing peeps coming to see this odd person who had no TV, and the online world was a bit scant. So I reckon it's possible, if you have nothing else and stay off the 'net.


I read them over a decade ago; the general tendency toward glorifying authorities and toward the underdog narrative stuck out in my mind moreso than the exceptions to those tendencies (and my memories may also have been polluted by the films, which I saw when they came out). I don't feel like I'm massively mischaracterizing LOTR when I say that it falls generally in line with sklavmoral & with the divine right of kings, but perhaps that's just a side effect of not particularly being a fan (and thus not looking too deeply into the obscure details).

Bringing up Tolkein was not an excuse for me to slander him (not that it should matter to anyone -- he is both rich and dead, so why should he care what some random on the internet thinks) but instead to compare his mythos to Lovecraft's, and point out why his is so much more popular. However, to the extent that either are being mined for content and references, both are being mined in generally a very shallow way -- so I'm not sure that even a shallow understanding by someone who has read the material is unrepresentative. (I submit, however, that the shallowness of understanding that leads to people characterizing Lovecraft's universe as one of fish-faced monsters rather than one of fear borne from information is incompatible with having read the material!)


Funny thing happened back a few comments: classical myths= Greek and Norse? Wow. Not even Roman, even though they're not quite the same as Greek?

Talk about a profoundly parochial view. Shall we start with Egypt and Babylon, move to the Celts, and perhaps not entirely ignore a few thousand years of divine inspiration in places like India and China?

There's a huge amount of mythology out there, and most of it never makes it into the fantasy books, let alone on to English-speaking screens.


I couldn't agree more. There are hundreds of marvelous historical mythologies out there waiting to be explored - although for the purposes of the discussion in the original article, it's important to distinguish between a mythology and the myths that matter to each member of your audience.

I could spin a great story around the rise of Agloolik from the deeps, but the mere mention of Agloolik is unlikely to tap into the same mythic resonance for most of my viewers as the mention of Carcosa, of the Pale Horseman, or of the Bat Symbol.

I don't see where anyone equated all classical mythology with Greek and Norse, I must admit. The original poster on the topic of ancient myth, Hugh Fisher, just asked "Of the myths that do make it to the screen, any thoughts on why ancient Greece gods are so popular and the Norse aren't?"


"Of the myths that do make it to the screen, any thoughts on why ancient Greece gods are so popular and the Norse aren't?"

Having seen what Hollywood does to Greek / Roman mythology, you can argue that it rarely does make it to the screen. However:

There's many answers to give to this, one of which is that Baldr has uncomfortable resonances with the Christ story and if you want to be commercially successful in the USA you don't challenge that 'uniqueness'.

Another answer is that while Beowulf certainly has been mined (even with Angelina Jolie) the lack of knowledge on the subject would confuse the audience. (The 13th Warrior tried and flopped - and if you've not seen Valhalla Rising, well, it's an experience, let's leave it at that. Worth watching but it expects the audience to know about the history of Christianity in Nordic countries for one).


Someone upthread mentioned the lack of age-appropriate Celtic myths in comparison with kids' versions of Greek and Roman mythology; part of the problem is in bowdlerizing the myths for kids (and it's been tried, back to Lady Gregory) is you tend to lose the essential...nuttiness of Celtic myth. Fionn mac Cumhaill's stories are more-or-less doable, but Cú Chulainn's?*

*Why yes, that is the culture hero whose statue stands on the site of the 1916 Rising slaughtering 150 women for mutilating his friend's wife for being too sexy. Why do you ask?

(Side note: Cú Chulainn is the only warrior-type culture hero I can think of routinely described as "small".)


AIUI Greek and Roman mythology being called "classical" comes basically from academia calling ancient Greek and Latin languages "the classics".

This is obviously arrant nonsense when we consider language, never mind mythology!


>>>But most of our myths are locked up beyond our reach.

I call bullshit politely disagree with this. When Alan Moore found the myths "locked up beyond his reach", he simply changed the names, and thus we got the amazing Watchmen.

And it can be done with every myth. You can copyright Harry Potter, but you can't copyright Magic Schools and fish-out-of-water tropes. You can copyright Superman, but there are dozens of flying-brick type superheroes out there.


... part of the problem is in bowdlerizing the myths for kids (and it's been tried, back to Lady Gregory) is you tend to lose the essential...nuttiness of Celtic myth.

Isn't that true straight down the line? You get Loki turning into a female horse and getting pregnant with Sleipnir. Jove seducing somebody as a swan. If I read it right, Sigurd forgot Brunhilde and married somebody else, and then got Brunhilde married to somebody else, helping her new husband rape her. I don't specifically remember any nutty welsh sex fantasies but I remember there were some, and similarly with the finnish witches.


Alan Moore had permission to use the characters until DC saw what he was going to do to them, at which point he changed the names (whether he was just asked or there was corporate pressure, I don't know). He was already an insider and the company whose myths he was using knew they'd be making money off what he came up with; they just wanted the characters to be usable elsewhere afterwards. Very different to being an outsider starting off in an adversarial relationship.


Yes, but then you're dealing in archetypes, not specific myths.

Why do you think that Marvel have spent a great deal of time, effort, and money getting Spiderman back from Sony, rather than just creating a Spiderman-alike? Because what audiences want to see is the specific myth-figure, not an own-brand equivalent.

There's nothing wrong with doing what Alan Moore did, and it created an amazing new universe, but it's clearly not using the existing myths.

Likewise, I can create a Tolkien-a-like universe, but it won't have the same resonance for people who love Middle Earth, no matter how clearly it's clearly a knockoff.

Tropes / archetypes != myths.

Now, there's an interesting argument that was raised on Metafilter as to whether the lack of access to these mythic universes forces people to do what you're suggesting, meaning that we get a whole lot more mythoi generated, but that's a different argument.


No, seriously. Cú Chulainn: - Got his name by killing a guard dog with a piece of sports equipment and offering to take its place in recompense. - Around age 8 kills three grown warriors and arrives back to the king's hall still in "battle fury," prompting the hall full of warriors to panic that he'll kill them all. The queen leads the women of the hall outside and they flash him, at which point he averts his eyes. The warriors tackle him and wrestle him into a barrel of water - which explodes into steam. So they do it again. And again, at which point he calms down. - Defeats the Scottish warrior-woman Aífe, but spares her life if she'll bear him a son (yep, this is the culture hero committing rape). - Accidentally kills said son when he turns up later.

All before he turns 17, if I figure correctly. And then he really gets going.


Resonance? Yeah. Right.

I won't comment on zombies, werewolves, and vampires, although the "resonant" myths are 1930s Hollywood retreads, not the actual things (see Wade Davis Serpent and the Rainbow for the real zombie poison recipe).

In any case, let's deal with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, just to see how wrong we get this. As most people know here, I've been writing a post-apocalypse book on what happens during and after severe climate change, so I've been (un)fortunate enough to read what historians say about major civil wars, famines, and droughts.

Here's the deal: they all trigger each other, and afterwards, you generally can't tell who died of what or even how many died, which is why there are endless arguments about things like the cause of the collapse of the classical Maya. It probably was due to drought, but drought led to famine and disease, both led to civil unrest, and because there weren't enough safe places to go, a lot of people ended up riding.

That's why the Four Horsemen ride in a squad, and why only one of them is named death. Famine, war, and disease are all tied together in the breakdown of everyday culture. They all trigger each other. The thing we forget is that people survive wars, famines, and epidemics. That's why death is the Fourth Horseman. When things break down, all four of these problems ride together. That's what the metaphor is about.

We've gotten into a lot of trouble autonomizing these buggers, making them each a separate calamity that does his or her own thing. In doing so, we've lost a really old insight into the nature of the catastrophes that civilization faces, to our loss. Is the excuse for this "mythic resonance?" If so, it's insufficient. If we knew that what the meme of the Four Horsemen was about, we'd be much better prepared for what's going on in civil wars all around the world.

We can equally talk about vampires and werewolves as folkloric responses to disease (especially rabies) and death from an epidemic that hasn't stopped killing.

Gotta be careful, arguing about resonance. Sometimes that's not the important point.


Yes, but then you're dealing in archetypes, not specific myths. Why do you think that Marvel have spent a great deal of time, effort, and money getting Spiderman back from Sony, rather than just creating a Spiderman-alike? Because what audiences want to see is the specific myth-figure, not an own-brand equivalent.

Ah, but in a world where even Marvel's Spiderman exists in a several alternative universes, with several look-alikes (spider-woman, venom etc), is written by numerous authors who often contradict each other, and gets rebooted every seven years, can we really call it a specific myth anymore?

Likewise, I can create a Tolkien-a-like universe, but it won't have the same resonance for people who love Middle Earth, no matter how clearly it's clearly a knockoff.

Well, doh. You can't enter the exact niche of LOTR - it's already occupied by LOTR. And that would remain true even if Tolkien was in public domain. You have to put something new in the work to go beyond pure fanfic.

Anyway, do you really want to be able to publish Tolkien fanfics? Sure it sounds fun, but in a world with public domain Tolkien you are going to compete with thousands of other Tolkien fans.


I'm torn between defending that statement and accepting it was hyperbole.

HPL clearly plunders Poe. I don't know what he said about The City in the Sea but it shouts R'lyeh, and the unnamed occupant seems awfully familar ("While from a proud tower in the town/Death looks gigantically down.") But there's always a vein of human optimism in Poe.

I think H.G. Wells comes closest to HPL. In The War of the Worlds, HGW compares humanity to "infusoria under the microscope" (great phrase) and victory is achieved without human agency. But the tentacled Martians are mortal and humanity does survive. The conclusion of the Island of Docter Moraeu is even more Lovecraftian: Prendick, having escaped the island, is reunited with Victorian society, but he sees everybody as resembling Moreau's Beast People, "...animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls...that would presently begin to revert." That's the closest I can recall anyone else getting to HPL's "relentless aura of doom". But the scale is tiny. And while I've certainly not read everything in Supernatural Horror in Literature, I can't think of anybody that builds out to cosmological distances and then collapses it back on humankind. This was our Rite of Spring.


You might want to check the dates. Wells' works of fiction that you're referencing pre-date Lovecraft's mythos writing, other than juvenilia. (Wells was born earlier and lived a lot longer.)


Considering you mentioned turning fifty here, I can apologise for the brain fart


Yes, but again, that is only an issue if you want to =make money= off someone else's setting. Thousands of gamers and fan-ficcers and fan-filmers tell collaborative stories set in other people's intellectual property, and as long as no money changes hands that is not a problem. Some people in the US have become very clever at riding the "parody" exception to intellectual property law as far as it will go.


I've mentioned before, though not on this thread, that JRRT's work, especially LotR is consistent with RC theology (as it was at the time of writing). This is NOT a help - in fact it is the great weakness of the mythos - & thus of course it tends towards "respect" for "authorities". However, note at the Scouring of the Shire in LotR ... the "rules" (by which the Shire has its internal self-governance) are cut back to their sensible minimalist set, from Saruman's extra impositions. Parallel here with the non-relaxation of DORA after WWII & the continuation of the supposed necessity of carrying ID cards in Britain after the end of said war. Tolkien was a respecter of "legitimate" authority - now - how do you determine if that authority is legitimate? An old question indeed.


''"Most mythology of the ancient era was closely tied up with religion, ..." I'm torn between defending that statement and accepting it was hyperbole. ... Lovecraft, Poe, Wells, ...''

Er, ANCIENT era! Norse, Goedelic, Greek, Roman, Hindu etc. Lovecraft, Poe and Wells are all modern, not even historical (in this sense) because there was a major shift in the late 19th century and the modern era dates from then.


Seriously - my guess as to why Greek/Roman myths are so popular among Westerners boils down to TV shows. What TV shows do you recall watching as a kid? Which cultures did they represent? You watched TV long before you were able to read ... unless your parents/babysitters read myth-themed storybooks to you. What kiddie books are based on non-Western mythic themes apart from Disney's Mulan?


"Western" is not the same as "Greek/Roman"! A fair number of stories told to children, including a huge amount of Disney, descend from folktales which are more or less modified versions of themes from Norse or Celtic mythology, rather than classical.

And no, I didn't watch TV long before I was able to read (my parents tell me I started to read at 3; I don't think I paid much attention to TV before that). I have very vague recollections of children's TV from the early 60s, but much clearer ones of the Cat in the Hat and Thomas the Tank Engine – neither of which really feels very linked to mythic themes.


Okay, so you're part of the 0.1% of the population (i.e., reading by 3 years of age), so pop culture probably doesn't apply to you. However, if we're talking about reasons for certain books becoming best sellers (widely read therefore part of the culture) then we do have to consider everyone else's likely experience (i.e., the 99.9% who started reading at an older age).

I was educated in North America in a smallish school that was heavily skewed toward academic achievement, as in heavy on the maths and sciences, English Lit & Comp, Latin plus a bunch of histories. The English Lit never went into any of the Celtic/Nordic themes ... unless you count a few poems by romantics (Tennyson mostly). The ancient history course covered Egypt, Greece, Rome, through to Constantinople ... that is the fall of the Roman Empire which is where the Goths, Ostrogoths, Vandals etc. (the 'westerners') showed up and 'civilization' subsequently fell apart. The Latin courses apart from a few passages about Julius Caesar's tax grab/annexation of Britain also ignored Britain. So, basically, most of what you refer to as the west was systematically ignored. If you ask why ... as some of us did ... the answer is that these other/northern western cultures left nothing of merit: no foundation of civil and martial laws, no engineering, no arts, no architecture, no sciences, no trade/commerce. If these cultures had a literature, they chose not to export/promulgate it. (Yes, Britain did develop an export market ... mostly tin.)


TV shows -- I remember Superman, Batman, and some things like that. I Love Lucy. Oh Susannah. The Three Stooges. Burns and Allen.

Superman was like the USA, he went around the world as fast as he could trying to protect people, especially to protect them from bad people. Perry White the newspaper editor was like Britain, he tried to find out what was going on in the world and he passed judgement on it. He was highly respected and Superman wanted Perry White to respect him.

A few years after my time we got Hercules. Hercules was like the USA, he decided people were bad and beat them up with his big club. There was a faun that was like Britain, he jumped up and down and yelled "Hercules is the best!". I don't think it showed much about greco-roman religion or even folklore.


Yep, there were two different Hercules cartoon series. And, neither was particularly true to the original myth sources/material possibly due to a combination of dramatic license and target audience appeal. (Do you really want your 3-6 year old watching Zeus change into a swan just so that he can seduce Leda?)

About the Americanization of Hercules:

Maybe this too relates to the repackaging for a contemporary target audience: You have an ancient hero, but if he were alive today, what would he do?

No one's mentioned anime, manga and Japanese culture ... I'm not particularly familiar with either apart from some general awareness that anime/manga is a big deal in Japan. Has anime displaced more traditional Japanese mythology?


Obviously, I was being twice as opaque as usual. :(

I was trying to defend my claim in #14 that HPL was "...a sharp break from his antecedents..." which Elderly Cynic wasn't entirely convinced by. So I was providing example of things before Lovecraft and trying to show he was different from all that preceded him.

So HG Wells is quite similar but too optimistic and a little too small. Arthur Machen is pretty pessimistic (I flicked through The Novel of the Black Seal (1895?) and I can't see much hope in it) but it's very parochial; the danger hidden away in rural hills. HPL seems more than a progression; he made a sharp turn. But I'm willing to be corrected.


The first sentence quoted isn't mine! See above for what I was trying to say, although it may not be any less opaque.


Sorry. I take your point, but am not convinced. You will notice that I did NOT include Wells as a plausible antecedent to Lovecraft! I agree with your comment about Machen, but Stoker, Doyle etc. had ancient evils living among us. Basically, a good half of the concepts in principle (not detail) of the Cthulhu mythos are recognisable from Dracula, Pegana or (if I have it right) Vathek. But - what the heck! - whether he was a sharp break or not, he WAS a serious innovation and incredibly influential.


Personally, I never got into Lovecraft. Cthulhu seemed silly to me (maybe not zombie silly, but much sillier than vampires). The best thing Lovecraft ever did was create a background for Stross's Howard.

On the other hand, I did appreciate the mythic history seen in Star Wars.

So apparently one man's mythos is another man's silliness.


I don't know to what degree anime displaced any pre-existing Japanese mythologies -- but Japan is pretty atheistic to begin with, so (with some notable exceptions like Bakemonogatari and Kyosougiga) references to Japanese mythology in anime have as much resemblance to Shinto & Buddhist ideas as Ghostbusters has to the Goetia.

I intended to mention this earlier in the thread, but I noticed that norse mythology has a comparable place in anime to what greek mythology has in western TV. The best explanation for this that I can think of is that the names sound cool -- there's nothing that shouts "mysterious and interesting" moreso than trying to wedge words like "freyr" and "skidbladnir" into a syllabet with no terminal consonants. (I can only really trace this back to the late 80s with the success of Ah! My Goddess, so I don't know if it predates that, although I suppose you could point to Harlock Saga as a precursor)


The thing Lovecraft did was cosmic horror. Stoker, etc., had horror, certainly, and Dunsany definitely did cosmic and horror, but Lovecraft brought them together. Dracula is purely terrestrial, and MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI isn't really presented as horrifying. Azathoth is very similar to MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI in pure concept, but it's the element of horror that makes the difference.


I'm surprised to see an aspect to Lovecraft go unmentioned so far -he considered himself an antiquarian.

Yes, he had an avid interest in biology and astronomy, but many times he was writing from the point of view of a "man of letters" from the 1840s. Many times he claimed that he had been born too late, or that he didn't fit in to "today's world".

So I think referring to ol' squid face and company as the first "modern" mythology is really overlooking that Lovecraft was longing for a time when there were still blank places on maps to fill in, lost civilizations to uncover, and strange new animals to run into.

Another guess as to why his stories have the staying power and influence they do? He (and his writing circle) created their own backstory. Once you read a few stories that referred to the Necronomicon, or Unaussprechlichen Kulten, this made the next story you read feel part of something older, something larger.


Lord of the Rings became a major wellspring of the modern notion of fantasy, part of contemporary myth.

Here's a point that relates to the OP's argument about the corporate lockdown of myth.

LOTR sold enough to be kept in print, but showed no sign of the amazing phenomenon it was to become until the publication of the US paperback editions.

Under US copyright of the time, if a sufficient number of copies (I think 1,250) of a book were imported without filing a copyright registration, it fell into the public domain. Allen & Unwin steadily shipped small quantities of signatures to Houghton Mifflin for binding in the US, and, thinking that the book would never sell enough, omitted to file for US copyright.

Don Wollheim, publisher of Ace Books, found this out in the early 1960s, and brought out the first US paperback edition of the trilogy in 1964, without any authorization. That was when the trilogy first really caught fire. (My first encounter with The Fellowship of the Ring was a copy of the Ace edition given to me by friends when I was eight years old and sick with the mumps.)

Tolkien and his publishers responded by preparing the appendices and a new foreword, and the trilogy was reissued with a new copyright and a new US paperback publisher (Ian Ballantine). But for a while, LOTR had escaped the strictures of IP law into the liminal zone of the public domain.

The Ace text may very well still be in the public domain in the US. But nobody is going to try to test this, because the Tolkien Estate lawyers are very vigorous and aggressive, and very eager for the opportunity to charge billable hours with which to transfer funds from the estate's trust account into their own.


Tolkien and his publishers responded by preparing the appendices and a new foreword, Are you sure about that? My original LotR copy is a late-impression 1st edition. It has the full appendices. I know that the foreword/Introduction(s) were changed in later editions, agreed.


Yeah, it's very mashupable. I think it's because in most long running sagas the heroes pollute the mythos. Could you write a Dalek story without the Doctor turning up? And the significance of Winchesters in the Supernatural universe has become an in joke. But in Lovecraft, the progagonists are ephemeral cannon fodder. So it's tailor made for franchising.

I don't know if Hellraiser is where you're going, but doesn't that have much the same property? (I haven't read enough Barker to know if he's stitched together a complete mythos outside of that.) But your comic did make sense as something Barkeresque: the normal Lovecraftian hero starts our perfectly ordinary but yours is already traumatised!

My reflex response to bad knowledge is Snow Crash. Or even, the Ring films. And, you're right, the process of corruption hasn't been really explored, which has set me thinking...


My reflex response to bad knowledge is Snow Crash. Or even, the Ring films.

I'm sorry, I didn't get that. And it looks like it will be interesting.

My teachers used to say not to be afraid of looking stupid by asking questions, if you don't understand it lots of others won't. Hardly anybody ever asked when they didn't understand something, though. But I'm asking now.


Just to round this one out - I wrote up a short piece discussing some of the points that have been raised here and elsewhere about the original article (Fanfic, archetypes, open culture) and stuck it over at

It's been fascinating, everyone - thank you. I've had a lot of food for thought (and future blog posts) over the course of this discussion!


Long weekend. And my answer's not going to be interesting or worth the wait; it's just a loose thematic grouping.

The Lovecraftian stereotype is of a hero driven "mad" by reading a book. I can't recall that actually happening; Lovecraft's occult tomes are generally conduits to experiences, and it's the experiences which trigger the breakdowns not the words. (I'll have overlooked something obvious.)

But I read Hugh as wondering whether that was possible. And Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is all about words that can involuntarily reprogram the brain. I've no notes so I'll relay Wikipedia's ersatz distillation:

...Stephenson describes [Summerians] as speaking a very powerful ur-language. Sumerian is to modern "acquired languages" as assembly language is to high level programming languages: it affects the entity (be it human or computer) at a far lower...level....Sumerian is rooted in the brain stem....Furthermore, Sumerian culture was ruled and controlled via "me", the human-readable equivalent of software....The keepers of these important documents...could write new [ones], making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.

QED, I hope.

When I knocked off my post, I couldn't conceive of a credible way that could happen "in reality". (I've partially reversed that opinion.) But strobe lighting can trigger epileptic fits and subliminal images have some effectiveness so perhaps a video, with the soundtrack adding a second channel of attack, could trigger a psychotic break or death. And that's how I arrived at the Ring films. Okay, not quite an obvious jump from bad knowledge, but it's beginning to explore the idea. If it wasn't that a victim can be cured by somebody else watching the tape, then the video tape would be a perfect a science fictional idea. I guess in that context you'd view the ghosts as hallucinations. But Lovecraft was a psychic realist so, in the context of his work, I'd argue the video would function like Machen's Great God Pan -- where watching it "lifts the veil" and enables someone to see the hidden faerie world.

There is also a modern-day thriller where hidden runes curse or kill people, that's intermediate between the two. I can't remember what it's called, who wrote it or if it's any good.


Thank you for replying!

I'm glad to fit that together now, and I don't feel the least bit bothered that I didn't understand it from your other post. Particularly when there was lots of LOTR references recently to confuse the Ring films with.



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