Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Can't I Enjoy Plush Cthulhus?

First of all, I’d like to apologize to my plush Cthulhu-owning and Miskatonic University shirt-wearing friends for this grumpy and curmudgeonly post. I admit I have an unfair and unhealthy psychological hang-up - my inability to relax and enjoy the recent campy commercialization of H.P. Lovecraft. Instead of resenting me, I hope that you will instead choose to pity me.

I’m a very easy-going fellow when it comes to the never-ending cycle of pop-cultural appropriation, re-interpretation, and commercialization. Mostly I just don’t care. I know what I like, seek it out, and tune out the noise. For instance, I’m okay with the Lord of the Rings movies - even though I think they are a pale shadow of the books, I enjoy them for what they are. I see no benefit in being a snobby purist about these kinds of things. Given this general disposition of mine, I have a hard time understanding why this thriving subculture of campy H.P. Lovecraft knick-knacks drives me crazy. You know, items like “Cthulhu for President” bumper stickers, “I Escaped Arkham Asylum” t-shirts, Munchkin Cthulhu card games, and, of course, the ubiquitous plush Cthulhus. This stuff should all be really fun and wink-wink, but I just can’t…  can’t… enjoy it.

I have been reading and rereading Lovecraft regularly for over half my life now. I know all of his stories like relatives of mine; their personalities, atmospheres, characters. I don’t really know if this is good or bad. Does it mean my literary tastes haven’t evolved since I was 12? Or does it mean I was lucky to find the good stuff early on? At this point it’s hard to untangle how much of my aesthetic fancy is simply attracted to Lovecraft vs. defined by Lovecraft. Whatever the case may be, it all boils down to the fact that some portion of my creative identity is quite intertwined with Lovecraft’s work.

I think this must be the root of my problem. Maybe when I see campy t-shirts having a little fun with Lovecraft it’s akin to strangers making fun of one of my family members. This is particularly stinging because I suspect that the whole Lovecraftian campfest probably began as a late-20th century tendency to mock Lovecraft’s writing style – especially his use of odd and extravagant adjectives (which I love). Read this 2005 New York Times “review” of Lovecraft where the enlightened literary scholar Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket – awesome credential, huh?) mocks Lovecraft’s style with precious little mercy! I find that this critical view of Lovecraft’s writing style is more widely known than the content of his fiction, a state of affairs which has frustrated me endlessly.

On top of everything, it turns out that many of the plush-Cthulhu type people I’ve chatted up have never actually read Lovecraft (or maybe they read a little and forgot – I don’t know what’s worse). Five or ten years ago I would become excited by seeing Cthulhu bumper stickers. I’d think, “Wow, here is one of those rare folks who appreciates the Golden Era of Weird Tales Magazine! I can’t wait to have a conversation about what Brown Jenkin looks like or what Wilbur Whatley’s ancestors were like!!” (Pathetic, I know.) No longer. In my experience most of these folks know of “Cthulhu” primarily as a pop culture franchise. Maybe they saw one of the movies (Re-Animator? Argh!) or maybe they played one of the licensed boardgames. Luckily, they all seem know that there is, in fact, a “Cthulhu Book” by H.P. Lovecraft, but I guess that book, whatever it is, is not worth reading for most of them. Easier to wait for the movie...

But, you know, I bear no ill will towards the people who love to cuddle with their plush Cthulhus yet have never taken even a few minutes to read The Music of Erich Zann. There’s no real reason any of these people should know or care about H.P. Lovecraft, really.  I recognize Lovecraft is very weird fiction written in an unusually baroque style that was self consciously archaic even for the 1920s. I also recognize that most people don’t really read fiction anymore anyway. There’s nothing wrong with having a cute little stuffed demon, it’s fun and funny, after all. I should just be thrilled that some aspects of Lovecraft’s fiction have wiggled down fairly deeply into the slime pit of pop culture... And I suppose I am to a degree.

Yes, this problem I have is all my own – a minor twisted tragedy in my life where my obscure literary hero has been mercilessly mocked and ultimately commercialized as a camp icon. I will now cringe in my isolated corner of the blogosphere, with tears streaming down my face, my sweaty hands clutching a small stack of sticky old paperbacks, while the smiling people move on around me cuddling their plush Cthulhu dolls.

On second thought… Maybe if they came out with a plush Yog Sothoth I’d have to get one.


  1. I confess to suffering from the same aversion to the 'cuddly lil cthulhu' thing. I think it was because when I first read some Lovercraft short stories in High School (I picked up a compilation at the bookstore because it had a cool cover), no one else in my circle of friends had heard of him.
    After reading stories like "The Call of Cthulhu," I made references to "secret cults" in my D&D games and had NPC sheriffs named LeGrande who "had never been the same since he broke up that cult of devil worshippers in the swamp" and creepy old men who lives upstairs in the boarding house and played strange music. I felt like Lovecraft was my secret inspiration and when I 'introduced' his fiction to my peers, I felt like a sponsor introducing an acolyte into the mysteries of a cult.
    A lot of self aggrandizing narcissism on my part, I admit, but I was young.
    Whenever I see a plush Cthulhu or a "Cthulhu For President" sticker, I want to shout, "I liked Lovecraft before liking Lovecraft was cool!" But every time I encounter someone who says, "I liked X before X was cool," I find them to be insufferable pedants, so I suffer in silence.
    I also hate to say it, but one of the problems with commodification of an author or a story or work of art is that whatever attracted you to the story or art or author then becomes conflated with the work in your own mind. These days, when I imagine Frodo, I picture Elija Wood and then resent Peter Jackson for having replaced my own conception of that character. And I think the sense of horror that you could extract from some of Lovecraft's stories gets diluted by all the knick-knacks and pop culture references.
    Its a modern problem. Other than going Kaczynski and living in a hut in the wilderness, I don't see a solution.

  2. I agree with you two folks on this. I am not really a fan of the cute crapipification of Lovecraft at all. I am sure he would have been mortified. Hek, I do not even like most of the films that have been made from his work (and I do not believe that I am alone here.) Sure, I own a couple of idols (Cthulhu, Ygolonac etc) and a bust of the Gentleman of Providence, himself, but these works are usually typified by accuracy craftsmanship and good taste. You should not feel at all wrong or bad for not hopping on the plushy bandwagon here. Some one gave me one of those plush Cthulhus, once, someone who has never read anything HPL ever wrote of course. I gave it to a small child of a friend for her birthday. With the parents she has, she will grow up knowing who that is and read the story...upon consideration, I should have just burnt it...oh, crap.

  3. Due to tragic circumstances of birth (having occurred this side of the publication of AD&D 2) it is a rare occurrence for me to like cool stuff before it became popular (I do boast having read and liked Harry Potter before anyone else in my immediate family, but that is the extend of my avant garde credentials).

    For your sake, I will refrain from getting a Cthulhu plushie until I've actually read H.P. Lovecraft. It might take a while, though, because I still have Rhialto the Marvellous, some Silver John stories and The Mists of Avalon to read, before I can move on to the latest Discworld novels...

    ...I might have to take some time off my university education to catch up.

  4. I have read that satire can be seen as the highest level of admiration. In the case of all the cutesy Lovecraftian memorabilia I just cannot sit by and abide. For whatever reason this shit just crawls under my skin. I guess it all points back to the amount of respect I have for HPL and his work. When I see a plush Cthulhu, or shoggoth or whatever they have plushed-out this month, I can't help but feel that the world is begging to be destroyed by ancient cosmic gods resurrected from their graves and mad as all hell!

  5. Heh, I certainly have no problems with people doing as they please. For myself, I know that I am a man of odd tastes and often find myself outside the norm. For instance, I did not like the Lord of the Rings movies for the most part. Not that I am a purest...its just that when the unspeakable and indescribable is made not only speakable but cute...well. This is one of the reasons that I have always wondered why people who make these Lovecraft films never seem to want to make them from his later works...HPL became more descriptive in At the Mountains of Madness or Whisperer in Darkness than in Dunwich Horror or the Outsider.

  6. There's a sizable hunk of alt culture that wants to make cutesy versions of everything.

  7. The first time I saw a bumper sticker or plush I was jazzed and found them funny, but never owned anything. I considered some Arkham University shirt and Cthulhu bowling shirts from Ebay, but never got them as they were always expensive. I don't think they do any harm, unlike a shitty Lovecraft movie or something.

    I actually have thought about creating my own Mi Go plush, if I can ever find a plush lobster to work on (ya'know, take the head off and replace with a plush brain, etc)

  8. Hipsters ruin everything.

    For the gentleman with an unironic yen for tentacular plushies, might I recommend giantmicrobes.com?

    (I might.)

  9. Correction: nerds ruin everything just as much as hipsters.

    I think it's the fact that most people who own a Cthulhu plushie have never read Lovecraft, or even just played a game of Call of Cthulhu, that gets my gears grinding. It's an image nigh-completely disconnected from its source material.

  10. Part of me understands what you are going through. It's a bit like the public image of Conan the Barbarian vs. the literary source - my GF will never read a single word of Robert E. Howard because of John Milius/Arnold Schwarzenegger and Roy Thomas/John Buscema.

    Those "Cthulhu for President" bumper stickers and similar paraphernalia were marketing tools or supplemental material (Miscatonic University/Arkham Asylum letterhead?) for Chaosium's role playing game. Chaosium had big election parties at their Gen Con booth during the 90s - are they still doing that?

  11. I think it's the fact that most people who own a Cthulhu plushie have never read Lovecraft, or even just played a game of Call of Cthulhu, that gets my gears grinding<

    Then why did they buy it? They ain't cheap.

    It's an image nigh-completely disconnected from its source material<

    I think that is supposed to be the irony of it.

  12. I'm not sure if it'll make you feel any better, but I loathe the domestication of Lovecraft's otherworldly entities too. But then I also intensely dislike the comic book-ification of Conan, go figure.

  13. I have a theory about the whole Plush Cthulhu thing. A lot of people just don't "get" Lovecraft, and that is part of it. But a lot of people do get it. What is the essence of Lovecraft's work? It's not big, scary monsters. Lovecraft wrote cosmic horror. In his works, there was a whole huge universe out there, and we didn't matter to it. Our whole history was nothing. We were a joke, or mistake. We weren't important to it, not even as some kind of food source. I mean at least with vampires, they need us for something. In Lovecraft's world we didn't even have that.
    So you read Lovecraft, and you are disturbed by the implications? How do you respond? You try to control it. You turn it into a joke. You take the sleeping elder god and turn him into a plushie. Something you can own, and make talk in funny voices.
    There is an irony there, if you want to look for it.

  14. I was going to say,"Hipsters ruin everything." But Scott beat me to it.

  15. Well, I don't loathe the comic book-ification of Conan.

    I remember that when I was, I don't know, 12~14 I read the extremely bad German translation of the Marvel run of Conan - and I liked them a lot.
    There were (now) 49 novel-sized paperbacks, each collecting roughly 10 issues, including back-up features as fillers (Kull the Conqueror, King Conan, Annuals, What if..., Red Sonja, Solomon Kane, etc.)
    Can you imagine what this reduction in size does to word balloons? The material was censored, no less.
    (In that link is one trio of panels comparing the original to two different German translations; one a later b/w magazine reprint, the other one the pocket book with the smaller word balloons.)

    OTOH, the Dark Horse Conan I like very much. Issue #0 (the one leading up to the famous "Know O prince" verse) alone sends shivers down my spine. Kurt Busiek knows how to channel Horward.

  16. I'll cop to owning some of the things which irk you, I've got a Cthuhlu Hand Puppet.. which I think is tremendous.. But I've also read lovecraft extensively.. as far as I know all his " Weird Fiction " anyway..

    I think its just something profoundly human.. it's like the teddy bear.. the bear is a large predator who for long periods of time has competed openly with man for resources. So once we have "Conquered" bear totally we turn him into a stuffed toy for children.. so maybe the act of turning Cthuhlu into a stuffed toy is just a symptom of that same impulse.. to turn things we are afraid of into something soft and cuddly which we can beat up easily or let the dog chew up.


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