“We can only avoid assimilation by writing hermetically; by not making ourselves clear to every department store shop-assistant. Mystery is frightening…”––Unidentified Trotskyite speaker sampled in Greater Than One’s “Fear Is The Agent Of Violence” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAn2_Jfw7eo
Much rhetorical blood and literal ink has already been spilled over the question of graven or implushed images of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones; but, while the argument may have fallen away unresolved as a relic of the halcyon days of sane public discourse, the failure to address the true scourge afflicting our dreams of hegemony haunts us still, and shall grow ever worse unless and until we cleanse it with purifying (albeit figurative, for now) fire.
While the Cthulhu Mythos offers modern materialist readers a rich existentialist mythology infused with the horror of being wrong about the nature of the universe and its higher powers, the cult of Cthulhu offers us the thrill of trying on the trappings of the fanatic, of snuggling with the wet electric blanket of unspeakable certainty. With our baffling bumper stickers and spooky cephalopod hoodies, we model the same infuriating self-assurance that keeps evangelicals from offing themselves after a long night of amateur porn and cognitive dissonance. When we trawl for cosmic horror tropes in Season 2 of True Detective and share photos of whatever washed up on a foreign beach yesterday on Facebook hashtagged #couldbecthulhu, we indulge in the cheap gnosis of the god-bothering nitwit who thinks he sees Jesus in a tortilla, a botched stucco wall or a dog’s anus. When we promote memes mashing up Cthulhu with other pop culture tropes, we cosplay the gormless nincompoopery of Jesus-freaks pondering whether the Avengers could lift Christ’s cross, or who would win in an arm-wrestling match between Samson and Superman. And when we fulminate against plush tchotchkes or Hello Kitty-cute depictions of the Great Old Ones, we try on the inchoate rage of Islamic fundamentalists declaring a fatwah on cartoons; but we are, at these moments, every bit as clueless as the aforementioned jihadists, and no closer to our own abominable caliphate.
While all of these activities are understandable diversions from the endless grind of doomsday-clock-watching, any ancient theologian could tell you, once someone showed him how Twitter works, that this is a pretty good way to ruin a cult long before it becomes a legit, tax-exempt religion.
Because ANY and EVERY depiction of Cthulhu, even those that do their level best to trumpet the unfathomable inscrutability of the subject, chips away at the mystery that lies at the heart of this thing, and why we love it. If it is our hope to goof on this thing until it becomes as much of a pop culture eyesore as Chick Tracts and the Kardashians, then please disregard this message and continue doling out those high-larious hentai memes… but if it is our hope to see the Cult of Cthulhu prosper and claim new fanatics, it is the enigma, and not the tentacle-fetishism, that will draw them to our altar.
Say it’s 100 AD, and you live in the Mediterranean region: the Roman Empire is a perennial shitshow, the Aeneid is still stinking up the bestseller list, and polytheism is deader than disco. Patriarchal sky-gods are the new hotness, but which one to choose? There can be only one, and while Mithras and Ahura Mazda have the hits, mortal upstarts like Apollonius of Tyana, Siddartha and this woke socialist carpenter from Nazareth keep upsetting the savior game. Moving from relative obscurity to a persecuted minority to the law of the land in less than five centuries, the cult of Jesus prospered in no small part because they understood key concepts of brand awareness. First, LOCATION… and the best location is on the desecrated ruins of your competition. Second, MEET YOUR WORSHIPPERS’ NEEDS… and Jesus offered the hope of personal redemption in a chaotic world besieged by upheaval and catastrophe that the cult of Dionysus lamentably overlooked (or we’d all be going to church a lot more often, and getting a lot more naked). And third, GET A BADASS LOGO.
As white people have demonstrated ever since he got crucified, Jesus looks however you wish he looked, genetics be damned. But his cult didn’t carry around likenesses of him; using the cross, the most elementary design conceivable, as a metonymic stand-in for Jesus, Jehovah and the whole ball of Iron Age campfire stories behind them, was a stroke of marketing genius. Unlike that Hollywood bullshit about Superman’s S, the instrument of Christ’s demise actually came to stand for hope, in spite of everything the Catholic Church has done to stamp it out since then.
Islam famously took the branding aesthetic to a dizzying extreme by banning not only depictions of Allah or the Prophet, but any illustrative art at all, as a mockery of God’s creation, limiting the Arabic visual vocabulary to ornament, geometry and text, and leaving them woefully vulnerable to the sting of political cartoons. While Salman Rushdie and the Charlie Hebdo staff might find fault with how this theocratic overreach plays out in the modern world, the dogmatic restraint allows Islam to preserve the image of the divine as beyond human imagination.
Even if our idea of suicide bombing is eating at the Haven Brothers hot dog truck after last call in Providence, we need some of that ol’time mystery back. And it should be easy. Because (as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, as if somebody was paying me by the word), we DON’T know what Cthulhu really looks like.
Consider the meticulous lengths HPL went to, to build “The Call Of Cthulhu” as an attenuated collage of far-flung accounts, unified by disturbing threads of paranoia. As HPL said in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, “My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax… a deception clever enough to make adults believe it. My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoaxweaver.”
An arsenal of doubt and distancing devices leaves us far more engaged than we would’ve been with a straight third-person pulp yarn. We only seem to get unequivocal answers with the climactic testimonial (by a fisherman, I shouldn’t have to add) of an encounter with what the narrator supposes must’ve been Lord Cthulhu. It seems to be the creature from the idol in the flesh, but its advent is not heralded as the second coming for which the worldwide cult has been waiting, and it never wreaks all that much havoc. Indeed, it is ignominiously impaled on the prow of a fishing smack, and retreats to its lair as a noxious vapor. Not a good look. If this is really Cthulhu, 2 out of 10; would not worship again.
But supposing the eidolons of Cthulhu are nothing more than an iconographic representation of his mastery of the earth, air and water? And supposing further that the shambler laid low by the doughty Alma was not the herald of the last days, but a star-spawned factotum, an animate incarnation of the Dreaming Deity’s unknowable will?
Like you, I devoured everything by Lovecraft and wanted more, and soon lived to regret it. For every acolyte’s story that rejuvenates the enigma of the Mythos, there are literally hundreds that fumblingly lard it up with overexposure of the entities, dopey genealogical Derlethery and bloated Lincartography, demonstrating both deep misunderstanding of Lovecraft’s vision and a distressing ignorance of how sacred knowledge is conveyed and kept. To be more than the goofy amalgam of Satan and Godzilla that he’s become in popular culture, Cthulhu simply has to be more than a big green octopus-headed dude who’s gonna step on your house, someday.
Cthulhu is the embodiment of nature’s unknowable design, the leviathan lurking in the depths of our dreams, the merest contact with which could tip the world into hysterical chaos. Cthulhu is the name that threatens to reveal all our anthropocentric delusions for the firefly-farts they truly are, and no mortal hand or eye can do justice to it.
Of course, I’m not calling for you to burn your Cthulhu T-shirts or form an angry mob at Nick Gucker’s house, but pleading for those who still see hope in a tangle of tentacles to recommit themselves to keeping their suction cups out of plain view among the heathens. We should not rudely forbid any art or prose or eldritch merch that offers more answers than enigmas, but failing to share them on social media amounts to the same thing. Once, all of this was frightening and wondrous to you, because it satisfied some gnawing need you never knew you had. Now, it’s everywhere, and often just as noisy and disappointing as everything else. We need Cthulhu more than ever, but we don’t need all those dick pics of him you keep sending us.
Next time a relative or a TSA guy or the bailiff at your arraignment asks you about this Cthulhu thing all the kids are abuzz over, resist the urge to prosyletize like a door-to-door Mormon. Simply adopt a knowing grin, draw close enough for your rasping, anaerobic whisper to be heard, then scream, “SOON, ALL WILL BE REVEALED!” and run giggling like a maniac for your domicile, departure gate or holding cell, and know you’re doing his dread work.
Can I get an IA?!?