university_of_sydney_main_quadrangle2

For the longest time I didn’t really feel the need to read Lovecraft. The popularity of his mythos in popular culture had made his work seem so familiar, without having to have read a word. But that popularity had reduced his work to a very specific part of a single strand of the worlds he wrote, in particular that preeminent tentacle faced cultural behemoth known as Cthulhu (modeled here in legging form). This year I read a collection of his work and found a world far richer than I had anticipated. Among the surprises was the centrality of my home country Australia to a number of his most prominent works and the fact that when the shit hits the fan it isn’t the biologists, mechanical engineers or physicists that are called in, but the historians, linguistics, psychologists and anthropologists. These two threads come together at my alma mater. These specifics in his work brought a kind of familiarity to the facade that hid the abyssal realities he wrote into the world.

Australia features strongly in some of Lovecraft’s most acclaimed stories; notably The Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow Out of Time as well as in passing in a number of his other stories, Under the Pyramids, Through the Gates of the Silver Key and At the Mountains of Madness. The Call of Cthulhu finds port on the east coast, in Sydney while The Shadow Out of Time lands on the west coast, in the Pilbara region. Hobart gets a special mention in At the Mountains of Madness. It isn’t entirely clear as to why Australia (and the South Pacific, and New Zealand) held such attraction to Lovecraft. Perhaps it was just that the other continents had already been taken by his literary predecessors, figures such as Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and so on. Australia was still mysterious and dangerous, its deserts and the oceans around it still deep enough to hide ancient terrors. Lovecraft certainly never travelled here, so, how accurate was he from afar and where did fiction and reality meet?

G’day Cthulhu R’lyeh

In what is probably Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, the protagonist and narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, who is investigating a mysterious cult in New Orleans discovers by chance a copy of the Sydney Bulletin from 18 April, 1925, detailing the arrival of a mysterious ship. The headline reads:

MYSTERY DERELICT FOUND AT SEA
Vigilant Arrives With Helpless Armed New Zealand Yacht in Tow. One Survivor and Dead Man Found Aboard. Tale of Desperate Battle and Deaths at Sea.
Rescued Seaman Refuses Particulars of Strange Experience.Odd Idol Found in His Possession. Inquiry to Follow.

The Sydney Bulletin is (or was) an actual magazine established in 1880 that later became The Bulletin, before eventually closing in 2008. The article goes on to note:

“The living man was clutching a horrible stone idol of unknown origin, about a foot in height, regarding whose nature authorities at Sydney University, the Royal Society, and the Museum in College Street all profess complete bafflement”

Throughout Lovecraft’s work the ancient books, horrific idols, anthologies of folklore and occultism are generally under the auspices of the social sciences, especially at Miskatonic University, but also the world over. The Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney had just been opened under the director of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. You can imagine the excitement of being the first department of the kind in Australia, new libraries being installed, old oaken chairs and tables being scrapped across cold sandstone floors. Radcliffe-Brown sits in his new office, looking out over the Quadrangle when the heavy wooden door is knocked frantically. In bursts a bally of fellows from the Royal Society and Museum – one clutching an obscenity in stonework. They paw at it and turn it over. Baffled, Radcliffe-Brown walks out of his office, flustered boffins following behind him, as he takes the piece down Science Road to the Geology Building for inspection. The geologists can provide no illumination as to its origins. As the curator and fellows walk out, the Chair of Geology grabs Radcliffe-Brown’s hand and pulls him aside. Looking sideways as the Museum Curator walks away he says in a hushed and cold tone “The story we are telling is that it is unidentified, but the truth is that it has been, conclusively as not from this earth”.

Thurston immediately travels to Australia arriving sometime in June of 1925 in order to study the artifact first hand. After finding no further information from “sailors and admiralty” at Circular Quay, Thurston visits the Museum where the idol is being kept. It is described as having “[a] cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings, and hieroglyphed pedestal”. The actual really existing Australian Museum is still located as Lovecraft describes, at 6 College Street. A quick search on their website indicates no reference to Cthulhu, so we can surmise only that the cult has infiltrated museum management to suppress the truth. Fortunately Lovecraft was careful to include a detailed sketch in his “fiction”, so we know what to look for.

Thurston notes a discussion with the curator at the Museum “Geologists, the curator told me, had found it a monstrous puzzle; for they vowed that the world held no rock like it.”. The curator at the time would have been Charles Anderson, noted mineralogist and pictured below studying the angles of crystals on some kind of specialised angularological contraption. He was also published by the Royal Society and lectured at the University of Sydney. Meaning Anderson had connections to all three Sydney based organisations that had failed to be of any use in preventing the awakening of the Old One Cthuhlu. His most significant achievement, allegedly, according to a museum website, was the reclassification of an extinct turtle. He enjoyed fishy things, old things and was an atheist. It would not surprise me if he was in fact born in Innsmouth, and personally responsible for the destruction of the world.

Something about this image seems out of proportion.

Thurston’s story ends with his realisation that Cthulhu has awoken and is set free, ready to devour all of humanity.

Cosmic Horror Down Under

The climatic third and final act of The Shadow Out of Time takes place wholly in the West Australian outback. The protagonist is Nathaniel Peaslee, Professor of Political Economy at the Miskatonic University, who… well, I won’t spoil it, but finds himself driven to an expedition to a location in the West Australian desert, for reasons. Lovecraft’s story contains a great deal more detail in setting the scene in Australia, building an intense and quite insightful sense of a vast, unforgiving and haunted, unknown landscape. In making the landscape so central to the story, Lovecraft taps into the great settler anxiety that so strongly informs a distinctly Australian sense of the Gothic. The expedition Peaslee leads is into a (human) geography that exists within the unimaginable depths of time of pre-colonial human civilisation(s) and deep into the vast and inhospitable interior which threatens extinction – personal and universal – with its proximity. Desert winds and Indigenous folklore slowly build the sense of “something” out there, something that is watched, but also watches, anciently. The fearful winds that emanates from the haunted desert foreshadows the haunted outback and wilderness of films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Jindabyne, and to some extent Wake in Fright and Mad Max. The Shadow Out of Time could be cast as the fantastical and hidden/forbidden eighth in the Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and its time-travelling sci-fi with horror folklore sits recalls the young adult fiction of Playing Beatie Bow (and similarly, the originally unpublished final chapter to Picnic at Hanging Rock novel). Unlike the deserts of the American South-West which are conquered (sometimes again and again) the deserts of Australia have largely remained the domain of “the others” – mythologies and realities of Indigenous peoples, and the times before them. It is not the heat or sands that make the outback so ever present in (white) Australian culture, but that it was always too much – too much in scope but too much in time. Australia, among the continents, is itself a Great Old One.

After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17–18, 1935.

After suffering a term of illness which sees him disappear from his own mind Peaslee receives a letter from an Australian mining engineer by the name of Robert B. F. Mackenzie, telling him of some unusual stone artifacts he had discovered in a remote area of Western Australia. Peaslee has been dreaming of engravings found on these stones, and so is greatly intrigued. He forms the expedition along with his son, a professor of psychology, and a number of colleagues, professors from the departments of ancient history, anthropology and geology. This is very much an expedition of the humanities and social sciences.

Lovecraft gives two very specific locations in the letter from MacKenzie. Firstly MacKenzie’s return address is listed as as;

49, Dampier Str., Pilbarra, W. Australia

And secondly MacKenzie notes the appropximate coordinates of the artifacts as;

22° 3′ 14″ South Latitude, 125° 0′ 39″ East Longitude

The address of 49 Dampier Street exists in contemporary Western Australia, though not  anywhere near the Pilbara region. That said, there are references on the web to this address as existing in the now abandoned town of Cossack, which does lie in the Pilbara. Cossack is an interesting site, abandoned in the 1950s, it was home to a leprosarium from 1910 until the 1930s, and for a time before that it was a booming pearling town and shallow water port with a multicultural population. Buffeted by cyclones, surrounded by first mangroves then ancient desert, and inhabited by a multicultural mix of miners, pearlers, sailors and other labourers, it is ripe for Lovecraftian mystery to be inserted into its history. There are some other contenders, some more likely to be known to Lovecraft, such as Port Hedland, but which do not have this address. So, Cossack it is.

At the very least Lovecraft took the time to observe a detailed map, as other descriptions of the location and the proposed route to the artifacts name three other really existing markers, Joanna Spring, Warburton’s Path and the De Grey River, all which accurately point to a journey from Cossack through the Pilbara gold fields, down the De Grey and then overland to the coordinates given.

The specific location provided is set among the rippling dunes of the Great Sandy Desert, just north of what the Canning Stock Route. During the fateful evening the opening lines of the story alludes to, Peaslee wanders off into the desert alone. We know he headed east, for it is noted that the moon was behind him in the west, and we think he went at least some way north, as on his return he deliriously tells his companions to avoid the north east. Finally, we know he at some point climbs a rocky hillock, discovering the entrance to the forbidden library city of the Yith. Normal walking speed is about 4km per hour. Walking at night, in ill health, and against the wind, in the desert, one could reasonably halve this speed, perhaps even take it below 2km per hour. On that basis, looking to the east of the coordinates there is indeed a rocky outcrop, a few kilometers in the approximate direction we know Peaslee headed.

yith

There were of course no high resolution satellite images in 1925, so this is a remarkable coincidence that Lovecraft happens to include in his work. A coincidence, or a clue? What did Peaslee find there? Well, that would be telling, and it is only a novella (and one worth reading), so the answer is not too far away.

Lovecraft’s use of the social sciences, and humanities, as the mechanisms for understanding these cosmic terrors – and they are largely cosmic  in the sense that they exist in the depth of the cosmos, and therefore in the depths of time, space and dimension – fascinates me. The narrative structure of the detective uncovering a string of clues to reveal truth (or some terrifying portion of it) suits the inclusion of social sciences and humanities far more so than the natural sciences, but not only that it provides a counterpoint to Lovecraft’s overarching truth –  the utter irrelevance and insignificance of humanity. By placing human knowledge (and knowledge of humans) at the center he can put his cosmology in place while preserving the agency of his protagonists. They are not merely irrelevances.

It also point to a more horrifying imagining of the world. The so-called natural sciences, physics, chemistry, biology etc reveal a world to us a world that although complex is nonetheless both knowable and concrete. While the social sciences are considered impure, unable to reveal to us concrete truths about the world, and are inevitably abstractions from reality. Lovecraft sets this upside down, the empirical world of our senses and natural sciences is the abstraction and it is only through a study of the social sciences and humanities – received through mythology, history, psychology, can we hope to understand the world as it truly is, not how it truly appears. For the worlds that Lovecraft creates, the social sciences are means to discover the ontological truths of reality. Anything else will drive a person insane.

Plus, it also feels nice to have gone to a University that Lovecraft wrote about and to have studied disciplines his protagonists studied. One tends to look sideways a few more times than often when walking through Sydney’s Hyde Park knowing that across the road, in the secret cellars of 6 College Street, that idol sits in the darkness.

2 thoughts on “Doing Social Science Fiction in Terror Australis

Leave a Reply to rushofsun Cancel reply