Sunday, May 3, 2015

Nothing Mu Under the Sun

Charles Fort—from whom we get the adjective fortean, meaning “of, or relating to, or denoting paranormal phenomena” as well as the interesting periodical The Fortean Times (see—was an inhabitant of libraries and museums, where he was preoccupied with incessant study of unusual events and speculations throughout history.  An inheritance from a wealthy uncle allowed Fort to live comfortably and pursue his writing and research unencumbered by the need for a day job.  If only H.P. Lovecraft had enjoyed similar financial circumstances!  Fort wrote several books about occult subjects, one of which was likely read by Lovecraft, Fort’s The Book of the Damned (1919).

Though unverifiable, it seems possible that Charles Fort—in addition to Lovecraft himself—was the model for Lovecraft’s character of “Richard H. Johnson, Ph.D., curator of the Cabot Museum of Archaeology, Boston, Mass.”  Johnson, like the narrator’s great-uncle George Gammell Angell in The Call of Cthulhu (1928), is one in a long line of doomed scholars, whose obscure investigations lead to a suspicious and untimely end.  Which end is typically at the hands of “swarthy”, subversive cult members.  Professor Johnson appears in the H.P. Lovecraft-Hazel Heald collaboration, Out of the Aeons (1935).

Throughout his career, H.P. Lovecraft worked with several less talented authors, producing some 24 stories.  These “revisions” appeared in various publications from approximately 1920 through the late 1930s.  A few of these joint efforts are remarkable, though most are mediocre or even laughably awful.  But all of them will be interesting to Lovecraft enthusiasts.  The author used these collaborations—typically published under the lesser partner’s name—to recycle favorite motifs, explore new ideas, and venture beyond his usual comfort zone.  (See for example Lovecraft’s Brush with Necrophilia.)

Out of the Aeons (1935) is one of five stories Lovecraft co-authored with Hazel Heald.  S.T. Joshi and others believe that these were largely written by Lovecraft.  Judging by the prose style, the Mythos related content, and the familiar italicized ending sentence!, the work appears to be primarily Lovecraft’s effort.  This is a long story—it may seem like an aeon to get through all five parts—and is an example of the author at his most verbose. 

The first three sections present interminable back story, and detail the Professor Johnson’s quiet research and meticulous connecting of dots. The material is repetitive and reads like a padded term paper.  Johnson consults several Lovecraftian textbooks, among them the Book of Eibon, the Pnakotic fragments, the Necronomicon, The Occult Review, (subscribe today!), and Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, also known as “the Black Book”.  The latter he reads cover to cover by the end of part three.

Strictly speaking, Out of the Aeons, is not really a story at all so much as a pastiche of ideas and imagery from other more famous works by the author.  There is no dialogue, characterization, or conflict, and except for the final two sections, nothing actually happens other than scholarly research.  To be fair, with careful editing, sections IV and V, and some of III might have formed the germ of an interesting and even unsettling story.  The notion that petrified human remains might house an intact intelligence and consciousness over centuries is a perennially intriguing one.

Professor Johnson’s researches uncover an entity known as “Ghatanothoa”, who continues to be an object of veneration among a remnant of his cult that has survived for millennia.  Ghatanothoa and his followers closely resemble Cthulhu and his in a number of ways.  A geological anomaly thrusts the mountain top ruins of a cyclopean temple above the waters of the Pacific, recalling events in Lovecraft’s Dagon (1919) and their later refinement in The Call of Cthulhu (1928).  An exploring party retrieves an unusual mummified figure and a scroll containing heretofore unknown hieroglyphics.  These items are taken back to the museum where Johnson works, prompting his study of ancient occult legend and mythology.  The island, which may be an outcrop of the lost continent of Mu, sinks back into the sea again.

It turns out that the mummy is the remains of one T’yog, a heretical priest who attempted to free humankind of the scourge of Ghatanothoa using a magical scroll.  Regrettably, it was the wrong magical scroll; unbeknownst to T’yog, his jealous colleagues had replaced the correct hieroglyphics with a close facsimile—he was “set up.”  Gazing upon Ghatanothoa while bereft of the protective scroll converted T’yog into a leathery petrified cadaver, but with his brain, personality, consciousness and intelligence preserved for eternity.  (Gamers may recall an application of this idea in Nintendo’s awesome 2002 game Eternal Darkness, Sanity’s Requiem, when the character Ellia meets her fate before Mantorok, “a multi-eyed abomination from beyond our world”.)

The museum and its new found artifacts become the subject of world-wide interest and speculation, fanned by “yellow journalism”.  This is a term that came into vogue in the late 19th century to describe sensationalist journalism characterized by “scare headlines”, pseudoscientific or fictional interviews and exaggerations of fact that were geared towards increasing newspaper sales.  Lovecraft rails against this bane of mass media in Out of the Aeons; it is also the subject of some insightful commentary in an earlier joint effort of Lovecraft’s, The Last Test (1928).  (See also The Curse of ‘Chuckle-Head’)  Here are some of the author’s trenchant remarks, still relevant today:

On April 5th the article appeared in the Sunday Pillar, smothered in photographs of mummy, cylinder, and hieroglyphed scroll, and couched in the peculiarly simpering, infantile style which the Pillar affects for the benefit of its vast and mentally immature clientele.  Full of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and sensationalism, it was precisely the sort of thing to stir the brainless and fickle interest of the herd…

Soon the quiet museum is besieged by visitors, among them various suspicious representatives of non-Western ethnic groups from Asia and the Pacific islands. Two of them, a Burmese and a Fiji-Islander—“both known to police for their share in frightful and repulsive cult activities”—suffer peculiar deaths in close proximity to the mummy.  There is an interesting though scientifically questionable incident when Professor Johnson peers into the eyes of the mummy and sees recorded in the retinal tissue a photographic image of what T’yog saw just before his petrification.  The image itself has residual power to alter the status of its viewer, even thousands of years later.  More poetic than biologically possible, it is still an effective story device. 

The last two sections comprise the most memorable part of the story, and one wishes that Lovecraft had made the closing scenes the basis of a much tighter, more focused tale.  An aspiring horror writer, who would like to contribute to currently popular anthologies of new Cthulhu Mythos stories, would do well to fashion a tale going forward from where Lovecraft left off in Out of the Aeons.

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