This Column is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine Contributor
“Number Six: Where am I?
Number Two (not identified as yet): In the Village.
Six: What do you want?
Six: Whose side are you on?
Two: That would be telling. We want information…information… information!!!
Six: You won’t get it!
Two: By hook or by crook, we will.
Six: Who are you?
Two: The new Number Two.
Six: Who is Number One?
Two: You are Number Six.
Six (running on the Village’s beach): I am not a number; I am a free man!!!
Two: [Laughter]” (1).
What is the measure of genius?
One lies in the enduring nature of their great works. The mediums vary, to the artist, it might be a canvas, to the composer, a sheet of music, to Einstein, a chalkboard. The memorable, the iconic, the piece that lives on in people’s conversations and cultural references; literarily, the great works of genius take on lives of their own.
Works of Genius survive the death of the maestros that manifested them.
For Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the vehicle was paper. As a body, his weird and macabre tales have survived and flourished despite HPL’s sometimes anemic constitution. Among Lovecraftians, each person has his or her favorite Lovecraft tale. Notably, here, we will largely reference HPL’s, At the Mountains of Madness (1931).
For Patrick McGoohan, the other subject for our essay, the medium was television. McGoohan’s Magnum Opus was the TV series, The Prisoner (1967-1968). McGoohan’s creative fingerprints are all over that series, from starring, to writing, to directing, to negotiating with the powers that bankrolled his vision. Few compromises were made, nor expense spared. When an agent or actor in the production disagreed with McGoohan, that party immediately got fired or was otherwise sidelined.
While McGoohan was a fine actor, with many other credits to his name, The Prisoner, is a standout, named by many in the TV culture as one of the best series of all times.
It charmed even the band, Iron Maiden, to write a song entitled, “The Prisoner” (1982). The band reported about their contact with McGoohan:
“Rod Smallwood, the band manager, was very nervous about calling Patrick McGoohan to get permission to use the quote. After bolstering up the courage to call McGoohan, he explained the proposition uncomfortably. McGoohan thought for a moment, then asked, ‘What was the band’s name again?’ Rod, who was downright scared at this point, told him again. ‘A rock band, you say?’ McGoohan continued thoughtfully. Suddenly, he commanded ‘Do it!’ sharply before hanging up. The band cracked up at this afterward” (2).
Rumor is that some metal bands, through seances, attempted to contact H.P. Lovecraft to gain the author’s permission for their numerous, HPL-inspired hits like Metallica’s, “The Call of Ktulu” (1984). To a band, those paranormal efforts ended in horror. Many musicians ended up confined to the Arkham Asylum, near Dunwich, Mass. until the psychic vibrations from Lovecraft’s universe dissipated or death under guarded circumstances ended their suffering.
In this work, we will first compare some elements in HP Lovecraft and Patrick McGoohan’s lives. Second, we will isolate components of each man’s creative endeavors, Lovecraft’s Shoggoths & McGoohan’s Rover, and discuss the similarities and distinctions between the two fictional beasts.
Patrick McGoohan–Rough and Reserved:
Here, we will discuss some parallels that exist in McGoohan and Lovecraft’s lives. We will also detail points where their paths diverge.
Patrick McGoohan grew up a staunch Catholic, his large family intact from his childhood to adulthood, though steeped in poverty. That same faith impacted his adult life.
How did those influences affect McGoohan’s career as an actor?
For one, McGoohan was offered the role of James Bond before Sean Connery, but turned it down. His reason? McGoohan said:
“It has an insidious and powerful influence on children. Would you like your son to grow up like James Bond? Since I hold these views strongly as an individual and parent I didn’t see how I could contribute to the very things to which I objected” (3).
One of McGoohan’s initial big breaks took place when he played the part of secret agent, John Drake in Danger Man. Initially written in the same vein as James Bond, McGoohan changed the character to fit his scruples:
“ITC’s Danger Man (known as Secret Agent Man in the states) is the complete antithesis, with the calm, icy-cool demeanour of British M9 agent, John Drake (Patrick McGoohan). Whereas Bond’s all-flash, Drake…used his brain…and is very adept at defending himself with his hands. He also eschewed having the ‘babe of the week’, or even having Drake involved with a woman” (4).
McGoohan was not only offered the role of 007 a second time when Sean Connery left the franchise, but the role of The Saint could have been his too—he turned down both in sequence, as each opportunity arose (5).
Roger Moore subsequently got the nod for that TV series, and also, he stepped into the shoes of James Bond.
Alongside McGoohan’s religious convictions, his relationship with his wife and children were as important to him as his family growing up.
Others who worked with McGoohan attributed his physical distancing to different reasons:
“It has been mentioned by at least one co-star that McGoohan had a problem with physical intimacy on the set. Perhaps that’s why most of the love scenes were written out of other scripts (both ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’ and ‘Many Happy Returns’ originally called for at least one ‘kissing’ scene). McGoohan has defended his editing of such scenes to ensure that the series be good, wholesome, family entertainment” (6).
Likewise, McGoohan’s reserve around women may have grown out of childhood shyness. As one biographer noted concerning Patrick’s sisters’ attempts to intervene in his budding love life:
“Very little is known about these sisters, bar their names, but there is an intriguing story included in the obituary that The Times published when McGoohan died in 2009. They had once ganged together to get their shy elder brother a girlfriend, with whom he ‘walked out’ for a few months (largely one feels, out of a sense of duty)” (7).
Whichever reason you find for the Star’s physical reticence, while many leading men used fame to further their sexual exploits, to use a Freudian model, McGoohan funneled those same biological urges and energies into his creative endeavors.
McGoohan’s bout with poverty also hardened his resolve and work ethic. He had little patience for colleagues who failed to take the craft of acting and its related disciplines as seriously as he did. That drive alienated many colleagues while earning the respect of others during his long career.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft—An Inflexible Single-mindedness?
Howard Phillips Lovecraft exhibited some similarities to McGoohan’s character, though they arose from different grounds. Case in point, Lovecraft also possessed a single-mindedness and strong opinions when it came to his creative projects.
For one, once Lovecraft completed a story, he did not like others, especially editors, to alter his work.
For instance, Lovecraft liked to surprise his readers with unexpected, ironic endings. But sometimes, an editor monkied with the climaxes to his stories.
In HPL’s In Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (1920), the source of grotesque disfigurements in a clan of British explorers, are traced back to a grandfather who cohabited with a human-like white ape, while that ancestor lived in unexplored parts of Africa.
To HPL’s chagrin, In Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, was retitled, The White Ape, by Farnsworth Wright when it appeared in Weird Tales (1924). Lovecraft’s comment on the Editor’s decision, “If I ever entitled a story The White Ape, there would be no ape in it” (8).
Though Lovecraft was strong-willed and opinionated about his craft, as was McGoohan, unlike the Actor, HPL lacked the constitution throughout life, to succeed at other endeavors such as finishing high school or holding down a job.
Let us add one other thought, concerning ideals that held back HPL in life. Lovecraft had been brought up to be a member of a Northeastern Aristocratic family. In that vision of life, people who worked for a living were looked down on. An amateur gentleman, as Lovecraft envisioned himself, could pursue whatever turned his fancy without thought of commercial gain. That’s how Lovecraft perceived his writing pursuits.
When editors pushed him for more conventional, and in their minds, saleable fiction, Lovecraft rebelled at the idea:
“…I am well-nigh resolv’d to write no more tales, but merely to dream when I have a mind to, not stopping to do anything so vulgar as to set down the dream for a boarish Publick. I have concluded, that Literature is no proper persuit for a gentleman; and that Writing ought never to be consider’d but as an elegant Accomplishment, to be indulg’d in with Infrequency, and Discrimination…” (9).
Lovecraft might have been able to live out the aristocrat myth, had it not been for the death of his maternal Grandfather, Whipple Phillips. In 1904, Whipple died from a stroke brought on by the loss of a major part of the family’s fortune in a business venture. Though Lovecraft lived in poverty after those events, the ideals of the amateur gentle, not the reality of having to eke out a living, guided his life.
Lovecraft—As a Secular Puritan?
Next, though Lovecraft, on some level, admired the puritans, and in his fiction, very few overt references to sex appeared, his hands-off approach to the subject did not flow from a religious fountainhead.
Lovecraft was an atheist, equating beliefs in God and the hereafter to a childhood belief in Santa Claus. As Lovecraft put it:
“My first positive utterance of a sceptical nature probably occurred before my fifth birthday, when I was told what I really knew before, that ‘Santa Claus’ is a myth. This admission caused me to ask why ‘God’ is not equally a myth” (10).
Why then did HPL, by in large, limit sex as a feature in his fiction?
To begin, Lovecraft was largely not a person dominated by his biological passions as other men. As one HPL biographer put it:
“…No one has ever seriously suggested that H.P. Lovecraft was a homosexual (active or latent), but then, no one has ever seriously suggested he was a Casanova (active or latent) either. He seemed to have been fairly-neutral on the whole matter…” (11).
Why was this? Here are a couple of other reasons commonly cited for Lovecraft’s reserve.
One, HPL had no interest in human beings. Human astronomy – mapping the courses of neural pathways and ganglia clusters in inter-cranial space – held no fascination for HPL:
“I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest, there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relations to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background…” (12).
Two, Lovecraft had a disdain for human biology. He had no more desire to explore human sexuality than he did the sexual lives of amoebas.
Few explicit sexual references are found in Lovecraft’s body of literature. While some find HPL’s fiction rife with shaded and symbolic allusions to sex, such assertions may be largely Freudian conjectures, interpretations of Rorschach inkblots, or the product of those raised in an age with extreme sensitivities to such matters.
Observe HPL’s opinion on Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), said to be the height of realism and liberation from Victorian sexual morals:
“In a word Child [Belknap Long], I look upon this sort of writing as a mere prying survey of the lowest part of life, and a slavish transcript of simple events made with the crude feelings of a porter or bargeman and without any native genius or colour of the creative imagination whatever…’Fore God, we can see beasts enough in any barnyard and observe all the mysteries of sex in the breeding of calves and colts. When I contemplate man, I wish to contemplate those characteristicks that elevate him to a human state, and those adornments which lend to his actions the symmetry of creative beauty. ‘Tis not that I wish false pompous thoughts and motives imputed to him in the Victorian manner, but that I wish his composition justly apprais’d, with stress lay’d upon those qualities which are peculiarly his, and without the silly praise of such beastly things as he holds in common with any hog or stray goat…I do not think that any realism is beautiful” (13).
Three, Michael Houellebecq believed Lovecraft eliminated references to sex because it did not fit into HPL’s vision of literature as art or his aesthetic universe (14). To Lovecraft, sex was a common biological act that distracted from the wonderment and fascination he attempted to instill in his readers.
On the other hand, Lovecraft Scholar Bobby Derie finds:
“…there is no denying that sexuality—normal and aberrant—underlies a number of significant tales in the Lovecraft oeuvre. The impregnation of a human woman by Yog-Sothoth in The Dunwich Horror and the mating of humans with strange creatures from the sea in The Shadow over Innsmouth are only two such examples” (15).
In one fashion or another, both McGoohan and Lovecraft held the world at “arms-length” when it came to sexuality in their creative endeavors.
The Prisoner: A Brief Synopsis:
At this point, let us turn to a brief summarization of The Prisoner plot, as suggested by Collin Cleary in Summoning the Gods (2011).
An unknown, but senior government operative angrily resigns his job and prepares to leave the U.K. on permanent vacation. Unknown to him, he is followed home by a man driving a Hearst, who knocks him out with an unknown gas. When the official awakens, he finds that he is in a strange, cosmopolitan little town, known only as “The Village.” He also learns that he is a prisoner there. No one is referred to by name, only by an assigned number. In appearance, the other villagers seem happy. They:
• Wear colorful costumes,
• Spend endless time parading around,
• And having fun.
Behind the façade, the Villagers are oddly mindless, soulless, and servile. Beneath “The Village” lies a huge underground maze of control rooms, from which a vast bureaucracy watches each prisoners’ every move using the latest electronic surveillance gear.
The top authority in “The Village” is “Number Two.” That office constantly changes hands, based on the orders of higher-ups. “Who is Number One? Who runs “The Village”? Where is the place?” These questions remain unanswered for, “Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself.” The Villagers are cared for from cradle to grave. Some seem to work, whereas others do nothing.
“The Village” rulers can marshal the most advanced technology imaginable. For instance, they:
• Can invade other people’s dreams,
• Indoctrinate one into believing almost anything,
• Switch minds from one body to another,
• And resurrect dead men.
Escape is unheard of. “The Village” borders are secured by “Rover,” a shadowy creature shaped like a weather balloon. “Rover”:
• Lives on the sea bottom,
• Can suffocate escapees,
• Can subdivide into other “Rovers” when needed to carry a prisoner
• Or stun them.
Is it alive? Is it a machine? Why do the guards fear it? “That would be telling,” quips Number Two.
The spies behind “The Village” want to know why the Prisoner—also known as “Number Six”—resigned his position. He refuses their request or to conform to their dictates. Their overall scheme, to break him. They:
• Drug him.
• Hypnotize him.
• Trick him into believing he has escaped, then disclose that he never left.
• “Elect” him to the position of Number Two, then brutalize him.
• Turn old comrades against him.
• Make him question his identity.
• Perform a bogus lobotomy on him.
• Deceive him into thinking he is a hired gun during Frontier Times.
• Regress him back to his childhood, then “bring him up” all over again.
• Even allow him to escape, and then decoy him back.
Finally, their bag of tricks exhausted, the Village Hierarchy surrenders and asks the Prisoner to become Number One.
At the Mountains of Madness: A Short Summary:
Next, if it has been a while since you read this story, let us continue with a brief retelling of Lovecraft’s Antarctic adventure.
Geologist William Dyer, a Miskatonic Professor, recounts how he led a group of scholars and students, on a perilous mission to Antarctica. There, they discovered sinister secrets in a range of mountains higher than the Himalayas. An advance group, led by Professor Lake, dug up fourteen primitive life-forms – some complete, some incomplete – previously unknown to science. The stratum where Lake found the fossils – approximately 40 million years old – places them far too early for their advanced features to have evolved on Earth. Their likeness roughly corresponds to beasts portrayed in the fabled Necronomicon; the entities are nicknamed the “Elder Things.”
When Lake’s party fails to make radio check-ins, Dyer and company investigate. They find Lake’s camp devastated; the remains of men and dogs alike curiously hung, butchered, and salted. Also gone are a student named Gedney and a dog. Close-at-hand, they discover six star-shaped snow mounds, with one imperfect specimen buried beneath each heap. Coincidentally, they fail to locate the eight unsullied specimens.
Dyer and his assistant Danforth, fly an airplane to search for Gedney in the nearby mountains. There, they locate a vast stone-city, alien and ancient. As the twosome explores the ruins, they learn through cartouche murals that the builders – clearly the Elder Things – first fell to Earth soon after the Moon took orbit.
They erected their cities using Shoggoths — biological beasts of burden they created to perform any feat, assume any form, and follow any hypnotic suggestion. As they enter other buildings, the men witness the Elder Things’ conflict with the Cthulhu Spawn and the Mi-go, both subsequent arrivals to Earth. Later, as the Elder Things struggled to retain supremacy over the rebellious Shoggoths, the etchings become random and crude. When Antarctica turned too cold for the Elder Things, they migrated to a warmer, underground sea.
Upon entering a deeper network of tunnels, Dyer and Danforth smell the unmistakable aroma of gasoline. Also, the men recognize their surroundings as the path to the subterranean sea depicted in earlier murals. Next, they find a debris trail that leads to battered sleds from Lake’s Camp and the dissected corpses of Gedney and the lost dog. It dawns on Dyer and Danforth that somehow, the missing Elder Things had reanimated, slaughtered the advance group, then traveled to the dead city. Further, they locate the eight Elder Things, freshly beheaded in pools of blood. Confronted by a vast, undulating mass – unquestionably a Shoggoth – the men flee. Later aboard the plane, Danforth sees something below that finally unhinges him.
Dyer surmises that the Elder Things, as men of another age, slaughtered Lake’s crew, and dogs out of self-defense, scientific curiosity, and for sustenance. Their creations – the mutinous Shoggoths – exterminated them. Dyer warns, should an upcoming Antarctic expedition disturbs the ruins, they may unleash a Shoggoth Apocalypse on humanity.
Rover and The Prisoner:
Now, let us isolate some of the appearances and actions of Rover in The Prisoner. As part of that survey, we will draw inferences about Rover and either relate or contrast those characteristics to Lovecraft’s Shoggoths.
Rover was a titillating subject in The Prisoner, a subplot unto itself.
>Rover behind the Scenes:
On a historical note, the original concept of Rover was an amphibious, robotic, wheeled vehicle with a siren. It reminded one of a combination of a circular inflatable swimming pool topped with a black-and-white ridged dome with a blue flashing, police-style light on top. The resulting prop vehicle sank the first-time the production company attempted to use it. That disaster prompted some quick thinking with a simple “weather balloon”, an unlikely last-minute stand-in, becoming the menacing, iconic “Rover”. The idea originated with the production manager Bernard Williams, Patrick McGoohan, or is attributed to someone else in the production.
On a technical aside, the ensuing balloon:
“…was dragged across the set with wires, with the wires and the attachment point sometimes being visible. Several approach scenes were filmed through the use of reversing a film of the balloon being towed away from the camera, although the balloon was often also filmed from the side being towed in direction of travel” (16).
>The Prisoner and At the Mountains of Madness, Same Timeline?
Suppose that the fictional world of The Prisoner existed in the same timeline as Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness?
We know that in the episode, “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”, Number 6’s mind is transferred to another person’s body, then back again. That’s a science fiction trope featured in several Lovecraft stories, ranging from The Thing on the Doorstep (1933) to The Shadow Out of Time (1935). What if humanity ignored Dr. Dyer’s warning from At the Mountains of Madness and the horror of Shoggoths that inspired the words?
“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests” (17).
Next, Rover “looked” like a weather balloon, but in its essence and internal workings, it was anything but. Rover’s status as a machine or a living organism was never defined.
In rough outline, Rover did resemble Lovecraft’s description of a Shoggoth:
“Sculptured images of these shoggoths filled Danforth and me with horror and loathing. They were normally shapeless entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles, and each averaged about fifteen feet in diameter when a sphere. They had, however, a constantly shifting shape and volume; throwing out temporary developments or forming apparent organs of sight, hearing, and speech in imitation of their masters, either spontaneously or according to suggestion” (18)
Where Shoggoths differed in outline from Rover was in their shape-shifting surfaces, which continually formed various organs or tools needed to address a task-at-hand.
The one instance when Rover displayed some shape-shifting qualities was when it broke off parts of itself into smaller units to carry prisoners above the water. It did so to prevent a prisoner from drowning when such escapees were recaptured and neutralized in the ocean that bordered “The Village”. In that situation, the broken-off portions of Rover still possessed enough intelligence and strength to carry out the rescue event.
So, except for the bewildering, everchanging face of Lovecraft’s Shoggoths, was Rover an offshoot of that most ancient beast?
>Where did “The Village” find Rover?
Think about it for a minute. What stirs beneath dark waters, whether a pond, lake, or ocean, stands a mystery.
Life was supposed to have arisen from that primordial layers deep beneath the seas from the earth’s dim past into the world’s dark present. I use the words “dark present” for good reason. We make compelling arguments about the nature of the earth’s oceans, which cover roughly 70% of the planet’s surface. However, we do so in the face of the fact that human beings have explored only 5% to 7% of the oceans’ floor and less than 1/2% of the seas themselves (19)
Did Rover arise from that ancient primeval soup? Consider what happens when “The Village” Guardian swings into action.
Numerous times, in the opening sequence of shots where Rover appears, it arises from an anonymous location, from among the nameless amorphous things that exist as a gelatinous mass covering the ocean floor.
Two characteristics of Shoggoths echo Rover’s behavior in many of The Prisoner episodes:
“Another cause of the landward movement was the new difficulty in breeding and managing the shoggoths upon which successful sea-life depended. With the march of time, as the sculptures sadly confessed, the art of creating new life from inorganic matter had been lost; so that the Old Ones had to depend on the moulding of forms already in existence. On land the great reptiles proved highly tractable; but the shoggoths of the sea, reproducing by fission and acquiring a dangerous degree of accidental intelligence, presented for a time a formidable problem” (20).
For one, though Shoggoths could be used on the land, they were originally bio-engineered for the sea.
And two, Shoggoths reproduced by fission. Similarly, in the Rover sequences, we see not only a separation of the beast from the seafloor, which suggests fission. But also, as previously noted, in the “Chimes of Big Ben” and “Free for All”, Rover subdivides into several smaller Rovers apart from a larger, single Rover, to perform tasks, such as carrying an unconscious escaping prisoner safely.
What if humanity discovered a bloom of Shoggoths in the primeval sludge that exists on the bottom of the unexplored ocean? And what if whichever secret service that operated “The Village” tampered with that lifeform to serve their ends?
>Rover—Is It Organic or Inorganic?
Next, is Rover a machine? Is it an animal of some kind, as we have suggested? Or some hybrid of the two?
At times, Rover’s handlers treat it like a machine.
A switch on Number 2’s desk can activate it. Rover could be summoned at the direction of the control room, by declaring an “Orange Alert”. And in the episode, “Schizoid Man”, No. 2 commands, “Deactivate Rover immediately!”.
Plus, what if during the ongoing experimentation with the ancient life forms, Village scientists found an electrical means to disturb the Shoggoth’s molecular structure into doing the human’s bidding?
As Lovecraft noted, “[such] shoggoths were tamed and broken by armed Old Ones as the wild horses of the American west were tamed by cowboys” (21). In that vein, the behaviors of a tamed shoggoth (or Rover) need not be extensive for “The Village’s” purposes.
On the other hand, Rover responds to voice commands with intelligence, as would an entity with aptitude.
In “Schizoid Man”, both Number 6 and the imposter Number 6, voice passwords to Rover, hoping to avoid its wrath. When the imposter makes a mistake, Rover kills him, “thinking” the other Number 6 to be the imposter and Village loyalist.
That ability, in the absence of a Village staff member listening and making the decisions on Rover’s behind, indicates a living entity of some type. Rover even “roars” like a large predator.
Relating Rover’s dual characteristics to Lovecraft’s Shoggoths depends on the timeline in At the Mountains of Madness.
Early on, the Elder Things were masters of genetics, where it moved beyond science to an art. The Old Ones created organic automatons. They were the Shoggoths. Of the Shoggoths, Lovecraft wrote:
“…They had always been controlled through the hypnotic suggestion of the Old Ones, and had modelled their tough plasticity into various useful temporary limbs and organs…” (22).
Each creature remained inert until needed. A Shoggoth was activated by the equivalent of hypnotic switches.
Later, things changed. Shoggoths grew to enormous size, singular intelligence, and were represented as taking and executing orders with marvelous quickness. The Shoggoths had learned something new – to follow verbal commands:
“They seemed to converse with the Old Ones by mimicking their voices—a sort of musical piping over a wide range, if poor Lake’s dissection had indicated aright—and to work more from spoken commands than from hypnotic suggestions as in earlier times. They were, however, kept in admirable control” (23).
Shoggoths had moved from the ranks of organic machines to obstinate organisms. In the beginning, there had been no choice. A shoggoth followed a hypnotic command – like an inorganic automaton, following a push-button or keyboard stroke. Later a Shoggoth, possessing its own volition, was able to follow or disobey verbal instructions.
Had Rover also reached a rebellious state with the Village authorities, akin to the Shoggoths rising up against their masters, the Elder Things? In “Once Upon a Time”, the episode begins with Rover sitting in Number 2’s chair–the seat of the Village’s visible authority–while an angry Number 2 calls Number 1, screaming, “I’m not a Prisoner here…” and asking Number 1, “How many times do I have to ask you to remove it?” Slowly, Rover leaves Number 2’s throne, but the issue is clear. Who’s truly in charge, Rover or Number 2? Had Rover usurped Number 2’s authority?
So, Rover and the Shoggoths possessed similar features. On and off buttons, one based-on machinery run by Village personnel, another based-on hypnotic suggestions, given by the Elder Things.
Both enjoyed a level of intelligence. Rover, to discern the best option given a limited number of choices. The Shoggoths, to understand the instructions of the masters, and the will to obey or disobey them.
>Rover the Feared Enforcer:
Why did Rover become such a symbol of “The Village”, almost on par with the Penny Farthing Bicycle?
Rover was the faceless, sexless, inhuman enforcer of “The Village”. When Number 6 first woke up in “The Village”, he asks, “Where is the police station?” to which the waitress at the Village café says, “There isn’t one…”
None was needed. Instead, Rover watched over them.
Lava lamps are also a symbol of Rover. Each home in “The Village” contains a lava lamp. Perhaps they are used as an intimidating reminder, that each citizen is being watched and is subject to swift punishment from an inhuman force.
That token of Rover’s constant presence is meant to keep each person in fear and in line.
And why shouldn’t Rover or anything related to it, horrify the Villagers? For example, in the episode, “A Change of Mind,” Number 6 witnesses an Aversion Therapy session, where a terrified man is locked in a chair and forced to watch bounding images of Rover.
Rover is the consummate guard of the Village’s borders, both land and sea.
In the Cold War Era, the historic backdrop against which The Prisoner was produced, countries under the Soviet-Bloc, particularly in Eastern Europe, existed behind “The Iron Curtain”. Literally, barbed-wire or high barricades, staffed by armed guards with orders to shoot-on-sight, fenced-in citizens of those closed societies. The obstacles prevented them from escaping to “freedom” in the West. Symbols employed in “The Village”, those that enforced the idea of the locale as a prison, were daily seen in the nightly news.
So, “The Village” seemed open and free to some because it lacked the usual visuals– high walls and armed guards—associated with a prison. But the wards of that state were anything but free.
>Rover the Omnipresent Sentinel:
Rover was also an otherworldly, ever-present, though hidden, force that served all the police-state functions in one package. It was god-like and virtually indestructible. I say “virtually”, because in the episode, “The Chimes of Big Ben”, Number 6 and his confidant, Nadia, are pursued by Rover, but Nadia has an ally waiting on a Polish headland: his rifle obliges Rover to retreat.
Or does it? Since Nadia was a plant, and the sniper another agent of “The Village”, did Rover just back off because it was all a ruse?
Also, in the final episode, “Fall Out”, as Rover deflates in a lower cavern under “The Village” for the last time, the exhaust from a rocket launch enters that subterranean lair. Is Rover done in by the blast? Does possible damage equate to potential death?
As one person put it about the open-ended question of Rover’s final scene:
“Towards the end of the series, Rover is seen to ‘melt’ away as all hell breaks loose in ‘The Village’, presumably returning to a dormant state, or perhaps simply ceasing to exist” (24).
Like so many images in The Prisoner, when asked of the series itself, Number 2 might retort to that oft chimed in non-answer, “That would be telling…”
Those attributes, though not deliberately touched on as part of The Prisoner’s narrative, might lead one to see Rover as immortal in however it manifests “life”.
The idea that Rover’s place in “The Village” taking on a god-like status finds some brief, though powerful evidence in the series. In “Free for All”, as Number 6 is drawn deeper into the inner workings of “The Village”, apparently carried out underground, one scene portrays several Village insiders seated around Rover. What are the human beings doing?
Rather than tinkering with a machine as technicians, instead, they seem to be worshiping Rover.
A parallel here to Lovecraft’s Shoggoth pertains to that creature’s longevity. In At The Mountains of Madness, the Shoggoth that appears has been alive for untold years. For example, the Elder Things that arose from ice tombs had remained in some sort of suspended animation for 500,000 years. While an Elder Thing’s lifespan might have been longer than that, I am going on what is suggested in the story. While being frozen probably preserved the lives of the Elder Things, during that same timeframe, the Shoggoth required no such evidence of preservation to live.
The Shoggoths were near eternal, in comparison to man’s limited lifespan.
>Rover, Man, and the Mysterious Ocean:
Why symbolically did Rover terrify Villagers?
To illustrate the thought, consider what Lovecraft wrote of the unknown sea bed and what dwelt there:
“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed” (25).
In that primordial world and the inhuman universe, man is not preeminent, he Is prey. We find ourselves at the bottom of the food chain. Other, invisible, immutable, seemingly indestructible inhuman assailants can swiftly appear out of the darkness and savagely end our lives.
One Lovecraft researcher added additional depths of understanding the savage place the oceans had in HPL’s world:
“…The ports give onto the open sea, on unknown immensity, whence anything could come: the blue line on the horizon that represents the famous ‘Edge of the World’ so dear to Dunsany, beyond which…terrifying abysms of dream might lurk……its depths [are] more unsoundable, more primordial than…those of the earth, concealing nauseous horrors. It is inhabited by monsters who menace the peace of mankind and pull men in after them into their original element. Nothing is more abominable than a Deep One – unless it be…the deity they adore, Dagon, that gigantic, scaly, viscous entity, the mere sight of which makes lost navigators lose their reason. It does not do to explore the bottom of these liquid abysms…It is a setting strangely familiar and fabulously faraway, where a dream topography is superimposed on the real topography…” (26).
Let’s stop for a moment. Number 6 was the ultimate individual, a man’ man, a true non-conformist. Such rugged individualism inspired William Ernest Henley to write the familiar words of the poem:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tear
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul” (27).
Invictus epitomizes McGoohan’s Number 6. Yet, as one author put it, no man is an island unto himself, especially when it comes to the sea things that predate man, such as Rover:
“My suggestion is that Rover is supposed to be a hybrid animal-machine. It represents the mysterious, amorphous, chthonic, primal, uncanny element in nature, which modern man tries to factor out, to deny, or to control. It is what Sartre calls ‘the viscous.’ But man cannot fully tame the chthonic. Rover’s imprisonment in the lava lamp represents man’s attempt to do this. Rover’s killing ‘Curtis’ in ‘Schizoid Man’ represents man’s failure to do so. Even the masters of ‘The Village’ are afraid of their ‘machine.’ Number 6’s fear-reaction, when confronted by Rover, has a special quality: he is reacting to the terrible, the uncanny. When not doing man’s bidding, Rover sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it reunites with a much vaster ‘viscous,’ the parameters of which we do not see—suggesting our inability to comprehend the chthonic. It is our confrontation with the uncanny that is often our first confrontation with something that transcends human knowledge and power…” (28).
“One of McGoohan’s most notable stage experiences had been playing Starbuck in Orson Welles’ production of Moby Dick – Rehearsed. So, the notion of gradually crafting an epic, ambiguous, potentially infuriating work of unique art was not unknown to him. Certainly, The Prisoner aspires to be enigmatic. It appears to reach out for multiple interpretations, just as Moby Dick might seem to do. Many labels can be attached to it, ‘surreal’ or ‘Kafkaesque’ being the most common. This invites the danger that the series will be thought of as having no fixed meaning (other than a vague aspiration to support individuality and ‘freedom’). But appearances can be deceiving, especially when a work like The Prisoner maintains its own conspiracy of silence against the viewer” (29).
Did Moby Dick come to mind as an afterthought when The Prisoner, created by accident, its own version of Melville’s Great White Enigma? Or did McGoohan (or other Prisoner writers) consider the attributes of H.P. Lovecraft’s Shoggoths, as the role of Rover in “The Village” expanded according to the needs of each episode?
“That would be telling…” Number 2 forever retorted, when asked a question that might give any solid information to Number 6. In the many interviews over the years, when similar questions were posed to McGoohan, he responded not in the ways people expected, but in a guarded fashion, wishing to let the magic and mystery of The Prisoner stay intact.
We conducted a limited survey of McGoohan’s ground-breaking series, centered around one of the TV Show’s many unknowns, namely Rover.
If “The Village” had been fact and not fiction, perhaps Rover too would find its explanation, partially founded in Lovecraft’s Shoggoths, the mythical marine-based destroyer of civilizations.
(1) “Opening and closing sequences of The Prisoner,” Wikipedia.
(2) “The Prisoner” by Iron Maiden, Album: The Number of The Beast (1982), songfacts.com
(3) “A Prisoner of His Demons,” by Jane Warren, Express.co.uk, April 29, 2011.
(4) “Storyline,” Secret Agent/Danger Man (original title). IMDbTV.com.
(5) “The Best James Bond Who Wasn’t: Patrick McGoohan,” Michael Pinto, Fanboy-com: For Intellectuals with Imagination, November 14, 2008.
(6) White, Matthew. The Official Prisoner Companion. Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition, p. 95.
(7) Booth, Rupert. Not A Number: Patrick McGoohan – a Life. Aurora Metro Press, Kindle Edition, p. 18.
(8) Lovecraft, Howard Phillips and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Dark Tales. Barnes and Noble, 2009, page 12.
(9) “Ritual Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. by Michel Houellebecq, Gollancz UK, 2008, p. 39.
(10) Lovecraft, Howard Phillips, A Confession of Unfaith, (1922).
(11) Lin, Carter. “The Horrors of Red Hook,” in Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972, p. 38.
(12) “The Defence Remains Open!” (April 1921), published in Collected Essays, Volume 5: Philosophy, edited by S. T. Joshi, p. 53.
(13) HPL’s Letter to Belknap Long, as quoted in “Utter the Great ‘No’ to Life without Weakness,” H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq, Gollancz UK, 2008, p. 58.
(14) Ibid. pp. 58-59.
(15) Derie, Bobby. Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2015, Amazon Kindle description.
(16) “Rover_(The_Prisoner),” wikivisually.com.
(17) Lovecraft, Howard Phillips, At the Mountains of Madness. (1931).
(19) “Mysteries of the Oceans Remain Vast and Deep” by Andrea Mustain, Livescience.com, 8 June 2011.
(20) Lovecraft, Howard Phillips, At the Mountains of Madness. (1931).
(24) “17: Fall Out,” The Prisoner: Episode by Episode: Essays on Each Individual Episode Published on the 50th Anniversary, by Brian J. Robb, theprisonerepisodebyepisode.wordpress.com
(25) Lovecraft, Howard Phillips, Dagon. (1917).
(26) “Dwellings and Landscapes,” Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, by Maurice Levy (translated by S.T. Joshi), p. 36, 40-41.
(27) “Invictus”, by William Ernest Henley, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus (1875).
(28) Cleary, Collin. “Appendix: What about Rover?”, Summoning the Gods. Counter-Currents Publishing. Kindle Edition, p. 171.
(29) Cox, Alex. “Introduction,” I Am (Not) a Number: Decoding The Prisoner (Kindle Locations 174-182). Oldcastle Books. Kindle Edition.
© 2021 John A. DeLaughter
John A. DeLaughter, M. Div., M.S. is a Data Security Analyst. His work has appeared in The Lovecraft eZine, Samsara: The Magazine of Suffering, Tigershark eZine, Turn To Ash horror zine, The Atlantean Supplement, The Eldritch Literary Review, The Chamber, and Horizontum (Mexico City). John’s first two novels in the Dark Union saga, NIGHT OF THE KWATEE and DAWN OF THE DARK UNION are now available. His horror shorts appear in a variety of horror anthologies. Follow John’s latest publication news on Twitter @HPL_JDeLaughter, Facebook @HPLJDeLaughter, and Instagram @HPL_JDeLaughter. John lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi.
Thank you for writing this article. I’m a fan of both Lovecraft’s writing and “The Prisoner,” and I don’t believe I’ve ever thought about the two together. Watching “The prisoner,” I always wanted to know more about Rover. It’s fun thinking of it as a Shoggoth which makes me really want to re-watch that show now.
Patrick, I appreciate your leaving a comment! This essay is one I wanted to do for a couple of years, but couldn’t find an angle–plus, there are so many themes in “The Prisoner”, Rover finally became the natural place to tie Lovecraft & McGoohan’s masterpieces together. It was interesting to see parallels, once the study began. Enjoy your rewatch of McGoohan’s Masterpiece!
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Thank you for this article.
Rover was the only part of the series for me that demanded “a willing suspension of disbelief.”
“Secret Agent” was a great series and The Prisoner was one of my all time favorite series, and except for total wretchedness of the last episode, each episode was a work of art.
You are welcome, Paul! It was truly a nostalgia trip, reviewing the series, reading the behind-the-scenes about Patrick McGoohan during the series filming, and of course, H.P. Lovecraft–there was much to focus on, though Rover arose to the surface as the natural central figure to the essay. Thanks for leaving a comment!