Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Weird Gazetteer: Daily Excursions into the Lovecaftian Imaginary 12 - Terra Cthulhuvia (Mapping the Mythos)

Mapping the Mythos 1 - Terra Cthulhuvia (version 1)

Outside of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, the fictive universe of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos may be one of the most well-mapped imaginary realms. This cartographical richness is due in part to the popularity of the Call of Cthulhu rpg (and the pervasive influence of Lovecraft on a number of early roleplaying games), which contributed to a revitalised interest in Lovecraft’s fiction during the 1980s and 1990s (Chaosium, the publisher of Call of Cthulhu, also began to produce an extensive line of anthologies dedicated to Lovecraftian fiction, which continues to this day).

Influenced, perhaps, by their wargaming roots, roleplaying games and supplements typically include detailed maps to facilitate tactical play - often when players engage in in-game combat - as a means of topographically-contextualising various locales to be explored by players (this continues to be a key activity in many rpgs - whether it be dungeon delving or investigating a haunted house). World maps also exist in many games as a means of allowing players to grasp the scope of the realms throughout which their imaginations are allowed to roam (maps, after all, are as much about boundaries as the spaces within them) - as well as offering a kind of concrete sense of spatial/geographic (as well as temporal) relations between important locations within those realms. As opposed to real-world cartography, in this respect rpg maps are the territory (or at least are a kind of verisimilitude of the real), across which players travel. 

Even so, these maps must also serve an aesthetic purpose in the sense that they are not always functional artefacts: carefully-rendered and beautifully-illustrated maps of a dungeon are, afterall, only for the eyes of the dungeon master: the poor player characters have to make do with their badly-drawn scribblings on a sheets of graph- or hexpaper. Certainly a map like today’s offering - probably the first map to try locate and represent key terrestrial sites of the Cthulhu Mythos as they appear in Lovecraft’s fiction - is not something that your typical Keeper of Arcane Lore is readily going to reveal to their players. Such a map has, I’m sure, graced the walls of many a Keeper’s bedroom (as it once did mine), perhaps prompting the dreadful imagining of the many terrible shapes of horror one might conjure up from the dark corners of the Earth to trouble the sanity of one’s gaming group. Good times.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Weird Gazetteer: Daily Excursions into the Lovecraftian Imaginary 11 - Locating Leng, Race, and the Horror of Indetermination

The Plateau of Leng constitutes something of a spatial and geographic anomaly in Lovecraft’s fiction: initially located in Central Asia, by 1929’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, it appears as part of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian-influenced Dreamlands - only then to be relocated to Antarctica in 1931’s At the Mountains of Madness.

This is unsurprising, as what later became known as the Cthulhu mythos was never used by Lovecraft in any systematic or systematised way, but was rather mobilised in an often-vague and suggestive manner to provide colour and background to his tales. Even so, this has not stopped later writers and scholars from trying to formalise the Cthulhu Mythos and reconstruct it as a clearly defined (and often hierarchically-structured) classificatory system. Thus Leng in the Dreamlands is sometimes presented as the oneiric analogue of Leng as it supposedly appears in the real world - or, as is the case with the Delta Green rpg setting, there exists in Central Asia some sort of portal which leads to the Leng of the Dreamlands. The problem with the first of these ideas is that there is not much else in the Dreamlands which otherwise has a clearly-defined real-world analogue.

The relocation of Leng to Antarctica is more problematic - although Lovecraft himself vaguely attempted to address the continuity of this’s in the context of his artificial mythology, claiming that Leng as it appears in human mythologies represents was some kind of of genetic memory of the city of the Elder Things in Antarctica which, somehow, had been mistakenly located in Central Asia.

One of the more popular unifying views is that, much like the Dreamlands Leng, the dread Plateau actually exists in some undimensioned state, either shifting its location, or functioning as some kind of hub between worlds. This latter view - which doesn’t seem to be born-out in any of Lovecraft's own writings - has more recently been popularised in Alan Moore’s Neonomicon.

However, perhaps it is Leng’s very anomalous, hybrid status as ‘matter out of place’ which is worthy of consideration here - especially in relation to its Orientalist roots as discussed a few days ago. Following Mary Douglas’ classic drawing of equivalence between anomaly with dirt and pollution, in the racialised, colonialist imaginary which shapes so much of Lovecraft's notion of horror (which is - if I am quoting him correctly - in Lovecraft’s own words, the ‘horror of indetermination’) - and insofar as it resists the hierarchical ordering of colonialist classificatory systems - Leng and its inhabitants represent a blasphemous, impure and disorderly state of being.

This in and of itself isn’t just an abstraction framed around a fictional space. What I call the ‘Lovecraftian imaginary’ encompasses not only the fictional realms which Lovecraft constructed but, following the likes of Jacques Lacan and Benedict Anderson, also speaks to how the ‘imaginary’, when considered real, has very real-world effects. The notion of ‘race’ being a case in point: whilst genetics, in the main, has long challenged the notion that there are fundamental differences between so-called ‘races’ (usually arbitrarily constructed along lines of skin colour), the fact that many people continue to believe that such imaginary differences exist leads to very concrete (and invariably violent) real-world consequences to those perceived to be ‘racially inferior’. That this ‘racial inferiority’ is itself constructed around the denial of personhood and humanity is not, in my mind, far removed from a problematic inherent in parts of the Lovecraftian community: those who, for example, claim that Lovecraft and Derleth’s Lengian Tcho-Tcho is not an inherently racist concept, based on the claim that the Tcho-Tcho are neither real, nor are they human. In the first instance, this seems to be wilfully-ableist ignorance of the way metaphor and symbolism are used in literature; in the second instance, regardless of their unreality, it seems that reclassifying the Tcho-Tcho (clearly a racist metaphor) as lacking humanity legitimises enacting symbolic violence’s against them (and the people’s who they metaphorically represent) by claiming that such racist stereotypes should be allowed to exist unchallenged.

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Weird Gazetteer: Daily Excursions into the Lovecaftian Imaginary: Roerich and Leng

As a follow-up to the previous post, it is well-known that the imagery informing Lovecraft’s later conceptions of Leng (in At the Mountains of Madness) were influenced by the paintings of Nicholas Roerich. I’m not aware that Lovecraft was specific about any particular of Roerich’s painting’s in this regard, although I am presuming that he visited the Nicholas Roerich Museum during his time in New York. In any case, here are a few images - taken from my third visit to the Museum in 2013 - of Roerich paintings which likely shaped Lovecraft’s alien vision of Leng as it appears At the Mountains of Madness:

A Weird Gazetteer: Daily Excursions into the Lovecraftian Imaginary 9: Colonialism and Lovecraftian Orientalism in the Plateau of Leng

The Plateau of Leng appears on a number of occasions in Lovecraft’s fiction, and is commonly recognised as the Lovecraftian analogue of Tibet. Subject to extensive exoticisation in the Western orientalist imagination, Tibet has, in the 20th Century,  specifically come to signify a kind of New Age stereotype of ‘the mystic East’ (the Theosophical Society more generally - and Alexandra David Neel’s 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet specifically - are probably two of the key Western sources which have popularised [and mythologised] the idea of Tibet as a sacred space of spiritual enlightenment). However, during Lovecraft’s lifetime, a concurrent (and perhaps more dominant) colonialist tendency was to represent Tibet as a remote and ‘uncivilised’ territory in its perceived stubbornness in resisting Westernisation.

Whilst there are components in the literary construction of Leng which resonate with this exoticised notion of a primordial wellspring of (non-Western) spiritual enlightenment, Lovecraft’s vision unsurprisingly relies more on the well-trod  colonialist and racialised notions of ‘the Orient’ as an imagined site of ‘primitive’, foreign Otherness and (at least where Lovecraft is concerned) destable hybridity: in the first instance, 1919’s The Hound introduces us to the ‘corpse-eating cult’ of Leng (notably, the only white Westerners who take an interest in this are ‘degenerate’ and morally-corrupt aesthetes); in the second instance, 1929’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath identifies the dread plateau as the habitation of the barely human Men of a Leng (who not only sport horns and cloven hooves, but who also - it is implied - participate in cannibalism [we were told that they buy slaves ‘by the pound’]). Similarly, Derleth’s quasi-human ‘Tcho-Tcho people’ have also been associated with Leng (in one letter, Lovecraft invoke’s the ‘Tcho-Tcho lama of Leng). I don’t recall if cannibalism is something which Derleth attributes to the Tcho-Tcho, but this is certainly a characteristics in some of their later fictional iterations.

In effect, the Plateau of Leng becomes established as the primordial site at which horrific ‘sub-human’ (and this non-European) monstrosity is produced, demonstrating some of the ways in which place, space, and landscape in Lovecraft’s fiction become indexical of a distorted vision of the real world as perceived through the prejudices of Lovecraft and the equally-racialised colonialist narratives of his time.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

A Weird Gazetteer: Daily Excursions into the Lovecraftian Imaginary 8: A Mysterious Delivery

This morning I became the recipient of the above item: a small wooden case or valise, engraved with the crest of Arkham’s Miskatonic University. When delivered, there was no accompanying information regarding the identity of the sender, or any indication of a return address. Not only does the case remain physically locked (no key was provided by which to open it), it also appears to be protected by less corporeal wards of a powerfully apotropaic nature which, at present, I lack the knowledge or skill to bypass. Needless to say, I will provide further updates as this particular mystery unfolds.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

A Weird Gazeteer: Daily Excursions into the Lovecraftian Imaginary 7: Dunwich and Rendlesham Redux

Pictured above is a folder containing collated fieldnotes pertaining to a series of psychogeographical investigations undertaken by myself in July 2008, which delved into the suspected influence of certain alien presences (assumed to be identical with those which Lovecraft describes in his fiction) in and around Dunwich, Rendlesham, and Orford Ness. Whilst these praeternatural forces have almost certainly been present in the region since time immemorial, my investigations at the time were prompted by numerous portents indicating that they had become more active during the early stages of the 21st Century - probably as a consequence of a powerful occult ritual of which I had been made aware, and which had been performed in the vicinity of Dunwich Village sometime in 2001.

The second photograph is of various materials gathered from Dunwich, Rendlesham, and Orford Ness over the course of my investigations. Unsettlingly, the pamphlet concerning Dunwich Heath and Orford Ness regularly refers to those regions as part of Suffolk’s secret coast...

I may eventually get round to making public a (redacted) version of my notes, which include the observation of strange aerial and oceanic phenomena near the village of Aldeburgh, an unsettling encounter with what may have been a Man-in-Black (who followed me at a distance - stopping exactly when I stopped) whilst I was exploring Dunwich Forest, and the eerie sense of utter cosmic abjection which, to this day, afflicts parts of what was once the Ministry of Defence atomic weapons establishment at Orford Ness.