(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.
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.
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 http://www.strangecompany.org/carcosa/ . Have you seen the city's spires?