Dispatches From Arkham: Cthulhaha – Humor and The Mythos

This post is by JUSTIN STEELE, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

Back when I first devoured all of Lovecraft’s writings, I was delighted to find out that Lovecraft’s works were only the foundation of a much farther reaching Mythos. I began gathering all the books related to Lovecraft I could find. Some of these collections and anthologies were simple pastiches, some not much better than fan-fiction, while some had strong literary merit. It didn’t matter, I eagerly read them all, absorbing as much of the Mythos as I could. But there was one type of story that used to bother me: the humorous Mythos story. I would be all settled down in a dark room, only a small lamp on for reading, fully prepared to be creeped out, but instead finding on off-putting story that was meant to be funny.

When it came to film, I had always enjoyed horror comedy hybrids, yet I found that many of these stories didn’t work for me. Looking back, I think some of it had to do with the fact that I was sitting down expecting to read horror, so was off-put by the comedy factor. Another factor was the type of humor used. Much like horror, some types of comedy just don’t work for certain people, and when comedy and horror are blended together it can be a hard product to pull off. Mythos horror was always a serious affair, full of ominous revelations of mankind’s insignificance and ensuing madness. Basically, a hard sub-genre to blend with comedy.

Not that Lovecraft didn’t have a sense of humor. Despite his serious views on supernatural fiction, the Gentleman of Providence certainly had a sense of humor. One just has to look at his insertion of protege Robert Bloch into the tale of The Haunter of the Dark, which was written in response to Bloch’s The Shambler from the Stars (in which a character more than strongly resembling HP Lovecraft is killed) to see that Lovecraft could have fun. The humor in these stories might not be apparent to the new reader, but when knowing what the authors were up to it’s hard to suppress a smile while reading while reading them.

With the combination of comedy and Mythos seeming to be a hard sell, there have been many over the years who have managed to pull stories that worked. Some authors took the meta-fiction approach, like Ramsey Campbell in The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash. The story is told in epistolary format (a format which Lovecraft himself used a few times) and concerns the letters from a fan of Lovecraft. The letter’s touch on many of Lovecraft’s stories, and it becomes quite humorous as the fan writing the letters is either onto a dark truth or is totally crazy and obsessive. Campbell’s story works, and fans of Lovecraft will feel like they are part of one big in-joke.

Other authors use the Mythos more directly. Neil Gaiman’s Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar is an homage to the deadpan humor of old Pete and Dud sketches set in an Innsmouth inspired village in the English countryside. The story manages to be funny, while maintaining a sense of wrongness in the background.

Perhaps the most successful stories blending horror and Mythos, come from not explicitly using Lovecraft’s Mythos, but playing with his themes enough that their stories can be called Lovecraftian. The best recent example of this would be David Wong’s John Dies At The End. The story concerns two slackers from an undisclosed Midwestern city whose lives are changed when they take a “drug” called soy sauce, which allows them to see what normal people can’t. The story has many Lovecraftian themes including powerful alien entities, other dimensions, creatures that are barely describable, and protagonists who see behind the veil of everyday life to the dark truths that lay beyond. The novel has horrific moments, and succeeds in showing a narrator who is truly changed and disturbed by the things he sees and the truths he discovers, yet the majority of the novel is hilarious. The humor won’t work for everyone, and mostly reads as if it’s written for the boy that’s inside all early twenty-something males. Basically it’s Kevin Smith’s take on a Lovecraftian horror epic. The novel has become immensely popular and even went on to become a movie directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep fame.

I’m now a lot more forgiving when it comes to humorous Lovecraftian ficton. Part of me might be that I’m older, and I realize that it doesn’t necessarily need to be purely terrifying in order to enjoy it. Part of it may be that I have finally found stories with a balance of horror and comedy that really speak to me. I was recently watching a video of a Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast featuring Cody Goodfellow and Robert M. Price. I had heard of this events, which are infamous at Mythos related cons, yet I didn’t know what to expect. If the name of the event didn’t give it away, the tone is entirely humorous. It’s as if Goodfellow and Price are speaking at a roast of Mythos fiction, and I found myself laughing out loud throughout the entire affair. Further proof that humor and the Mythos very well CAN work.

Readers, how do you feel about humor in the Mythos? Do you think it has a place or do you think that the subject matter of the Mythos doesn’t allow for humor to work?

This post is by JUSTIN STEELE, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

14 responses to “Dispatches From Arkham: Cthulhaha – Humor and The Mythos

  1. I think it works quite well. My own “At the Shoe Shop of Madness” is a mashup of Lovecraft and the Brothers Grimm tale The Elves and the Shoemaker. It can be found in the anthology Death to the Brothers Grimm.

  2. I tend to steer clear of humorous takes on the Mythos, although I loved the hilarious pair of scientists in the somewhat Lovecraftian Pacific Rim.

    A detail in HPL’s “At the Mountains of Madness” that has always bothered me a bit is the description of waddling, giant albino penguins in the tunnels; no matter how hard I tried to visualize them as sinister presences, the picture in my mind of the “waddling” birds struck me as a funny, and therefore discordant note, in the story. Strangely enough, he Del Toro script posted on this site actually accomplished for me what HPL’s story didn’t, in making the birds quite creepy.

  3. I think it mostly comes down to two things, the quality of the writing (humor is difficult to pull off in general) and the mindset of the reader. If the reader is reading an anthology of creepy tales, he/she may be put off when they reach a silly story, as it can be a bit of a mood kill.

    As for the giant penguins, I had much the same reaction. I read a copy of Del Toro’s script years ago, and I also thought he succeeded in making them a bit creepier.

  4. I can’t see what the problem is with infusing Lovecraftian or Lovecraftian-derived (or, better still, extrapolated) stuff with a good dollop of humor, or irony and even subversive topsy-turvy concepts.
    I think that this arises, in part from the uneasy combination of humour and horror (uneasy but also stimulating), in part because of the reader’s expectations, as Justin says, and in part because the quasi- religious approach to Lovecraft’s universe. Any deviation seems to be regarded as disrespectful heresy. I’ve loved HPL nearly all my adult life.
    I respect his imagination and some of the philosophy behind his stories (although not the racism, obviously). His powers of descrition delight me now as much as when I was 14, possibly more.But when it came to do my own takes on his Mythos (which I call Myffos and comprise graphic and literary stuff ) I kept on coming out with definitely…”revisionist” produce, i.e. “what really happened in the hills of Vermont/Antarctica/Dunwhich…” For which I’ve got a fair ammont of stick from amongst the faithful.
    Of course, this could be due to the fact that my illustrations and stories may be rubbish. I wouldn’t know. I like them because they are my babies and what parent doesn’t. But it has put me off trying to get further feedback from specialist sites. A blessing, perhaps…? 🙂
    Anyway, nice contribution, Justin. A much needed one. Might even stirr things a bit and wake folks up from dogmatic slumbers, always A Good Thing.

  5. Having written a few humorous Mythos stories myself, I find it hard to be funny AND scary at the same time. I can insert a few jokes into a horror story without spoiling the effect, but horror takes a back seat when comedy is the goal. It’s not difficult to work the aesthetics of the mythos into a funny story, but weird fiction requires a certain degree of ominous tension to work and I can’t maintain that when I’m defusing it all the time.

  6. I’d argue that the failure or success of Lovecraft inspired stories have less to do with the presence of humor as the skill of the author(s). The wonderful William Browning Spencer’s Resume With Monsters was the first title that came to mind. It’s poignant, disturbing and hilarious. The incredibly talented Molly Tanzer popped into my head as well: The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins and The Hour of the Tortoise are profoundly disturbing, grotesque, haunting and funny as hell. Humor and Lovecraft go together just as well as anything else and are wholly dependent on the individual author’s abilities.

    And Tanzer and Spencer are pretty damned able.

  7. Christopher, I think that you’re pretty dead on with the failure/success of a Lovecraft inspired story (and any story for that matter) to hinge on good writing above all else.

    Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the humorous Mythos story, although I know many who don’t like their horror and humor combined. I still think a good deal comes down to the reader’s expectations as well.

    I believe Molly Tanzer is an excellent example, and A Pretty Mouth was one of my favorite reads over the last few years.

  8. Good article. A melding of Lovecraftian themes and humor is diffiicult at best. Pure horror (in the bad “ew I can’t believe I read that”) is more common in what I have read. I like your reference to Pacific Rim. When I saw it I did wonder how one of the mechs wouuld do against Cthulu. Would need special anti-tentacle weapons. Was privileged to attend the Cthuhlu Prayer Breakfast at the Portland Lovecraft Film Festival this year. I agree – it is a great rhost of mythos elements. And I can only dream to be squamous as are all females of the church .

  9. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator has humor and horror in equal measure. Both work well and the one is amplified by the presence of the other. Not just anybody can pull off this trick because it requires great sensitivity toward story and viewer / reader response.

  10. Mostly the problem is the quality of the writing, which pretty much trumps everything. I didn’t find the film The Last Lovecraft able to sustain much interest because it was mostly mediocre writing. There are actually only a very few examples where the fusion works for me.

    Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar, particularly the way it is read by the author himself, is a brilliant example.

    Eldritch Fellas by Tim Curran, most lately appearing in Hardboiled Cthulhu is perhaps the funniest mythos story I ever read.

    http://www.amazon.com/Hardboiled-Cthulhu-Two-Fisted-Tentacled-Terror/dp/0975922971/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379282134&sr=8-1&keywords=hardboiled+cthulhu

    In comic books, Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time is delightfully entertaining.

    http://www.amazon.com/Atomic-Robo-Volume-Shadow-Beyond/dp/0980930251/ref=cm_lmf_tit_26

    My favorite such comic is Young Lovecraft, now available in three compilation volumes.

    http://www.amazon.com/Young-Lovecraft-Jose-Oliver/dp/0977806634/ref=cm_lmf_tit_34

    http://www.amazon.com/Young-Lovecraft-Jose-Oliver/dp/8415153333/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y

    http://www.amazon.com/Young-Lovecraft-Volume-Jose-Oliver/dp/8415153872/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_z

    Also enjoyable is Goomi’s Unspeakable Vault of Doom

    http://www.amazon.com/Goomis-Unspeakable-Vault-Doom-Misc/dp/3937826092/ref=cm_lmf_tit_32

    http://www.amazon.com/Goomis-Unspeakable-Vault-Doom-Vol/dp/3937826696/ref=pd_sim_b_1

    The Dark Goodbye tanked after two manga volumes, and is packed with puns and over the top situations and dialogue.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Dark-Goodbye-Volume-1/dp/1598169726/ref=cm_lmf_tit_36

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Dark-Goodbye-Volume-2/dp/1598169734/ref=pd_sim_b_1

  11. Oh, one other thing about humor. There are several attempts at getting a laugh with Cthulhu giving advice. I found the books by Patrick Thomas, for example, Dear Cthulhu: Have a Dark Day to be initially amusing, but repetitive and not able to sustain interest.

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=sr_nr_n_0?rh=n%3A283155%2Cn%3A49%2Ck%3Ahave+a+dark+day&keywords=have+a+dark+day&ie=UTF8&qid=1379326720&rnid=1000

    On the other hand, there are 11 episodes of Calls for Cthulhu on Youtube, and this show is pretty much gold. My favorite is episode 6.

    Another area where authors try to leaven things with humor is introducing the mythos to new readers. Frankly I don’t care for these books as a concept, as I think you should just read HPL in the original, or else refer to The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, but here are the three most popular such efforts.

    http://www.amazon.com/What-When-You-Meet-Cthulhu/dp/1934501182/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379327076&sr=1-1&keywords=what+do+you+do+when+you+meet+cthulhu

    http://www.amazon.com/Lovecraft-Necronomicon-Primer-Cthulhu-Mythos/dp/0738713791/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379327138&sr=1-1&keywords=the+necronomicon+primer

    http://www.amazon.com/Cthulhu-101-Books-Kenneth-Hite/dp/0981679218/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379327163&sr=1-1&keywords=cthulhu+101

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