Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Josh Finney's Cthulhu is not Godzilla: A Lao American consideration

Over at Broken Frontier they have Josh Finney's breakdown Cthulhu is not Godzilla, discussing the themes and tropes of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the problems we've had with a recent slew of writers trying to cash in on the work of Lovecraft and his more prominent creations. Finney is on target with a good deal of his points, and it's well worth the read as a quick primer on the subject.

This has been an ongoing concern for decades, really. Whether it was the early Arkham House material and Derleth's controversial attempts to create a white-hat, black-hat conflict between the various entities of the Cthulhu mythos, or writers creating works drawn from their adventures playing the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, to people creating material right after having seen the South Park parody episode. There's always going to be crap, and people who like the crap, as much as there is in any sub-genre of horror literature, such as zombies, vampires, werewolves, aswang and jiangshi. That doesn't mean you can't do stories and art well within it, but all of us need to cultivate and encourage an appreciation of the best of the material.

I'd also take a look at the Robert M. Price essay, "Cthulhu versus Godzilla: Was Toho Filming the Lovecraft Mythos?" It's a compelling read. But bear in mind: Many modern Godzilla scholars no longer see Godzilla as being designed to be a deep metaphor for the atom bomb, these days. It can be argued that at this point, Godzilla films are by and large not really an indictment of science or environmental contamination out of control. They're mostly playing lip-service to the issues. Only a few have raised the stakes sufficiently to jar us into a reconsideration of the topics.

Price felt there was a major difference in philosophy between the Lovecraftian sense of the cosmos, where humanity is "an ephemeral incident with no importance or destiny, a cosmos in which barrel-shaped, starfish-headed creatures are his infinite superior." Price contrasts this to Godzilla films where the issue being explored in "is survivor guilt, the lingering moral guilt (however ill-founded) that one had no business surviving the nuclear chaos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when so many others...did not."

Finney quotes Lovecraft: "… my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large… To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism (not catch-penny romanticism), but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold."

For Lao American writers, I think this a space we can write from, but I understand how it can be a challenge for many Americans who grew up within the majority, mainstream perspective. It's not easy for Americans to authentically write from a decentered space even now, a space where the center of the cosmos does not depend on what you've experienced.

A Lao American writer exploring things from a Lovecraftian angle would be very transgressive in the community suggesting that the guiding Buddhist principles which have tried to create order and goals, not just for humanity, but for the Devas, Nyak, Nak, Kinnaly, phi and other cosmic entities are ultimately irrelevant. You can follow the 5 precepts, and it may make you a better person, but it's not going to save you from being eaten or, say, thrown into the middle of a Secret War during the Cold War, or caught in the middle of a clash between the Great Old Ones.

Of course, there's a certain attraction for Lao writers to tell horror stories that's also been far more practical than the West appreciates. They've provided a shield, a mechanism for social critique that has been able to slip past nobles and other officials who could not immediately recognize themselves within those tales. Effective abstraction in the name of greater social dialogue. Not everyone is, nor needs to be so high-minded, but when Lao were living under a very strict society in the old days, attributing things to ghosts or other horrors was a nice way to save your own head if you were in a socially delicate situation.

As for Godzilla, or the incorporation of kaiju within Lovecraftian mythos, I think most mainstream takes on the issue would miss the thematic power and significance of the horror involved. Already, we see most iterations written for camp, with creators largely assuming Godzilla would fight for humanity, and wouldn't be psychically dominated by Cthulhu, or engage in some far more perverse, horrific scenario that invokes a lumbering dread and a sense of hopelessness. A well-done kaiju slugfest has to go beyond to be fully Lovecraftian. It can be done, and done well, but you really have to be committed to it and go deep if you're going to do it. You can't half-ass it.

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