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A Guide to H.P. Lovecraft’s Alien Terrors

For most of the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft‘s brand of cosmic horror consisted of multidimensional deities, doom-destined lineages, and excursion into fantasy-inspired Dreamlands. This period culminated in some of his most lauded writings, like “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” But following this, Lovecraft began veering into sci-fi in his horror, explaining humanity’s utter unimportance through ancient aliens rather than eldritch mysteries. Four of his best works of all time come from his sci-fi oeuvre, and I’m going to discuss the aliens depicted within and how they continue (and perfect) the idea of “Lovecraftian” horror.

When we talk about “Lovecraftian Horror,” what that means, in the most basic sense, is two fold: 1) that there is but a thin shell of safety and normality over the everyday world people hold dear, and if one learns too much, that shell cracks and everything they thought about existence would be changed inherently; and 2) that there are greater, uncaring, unknowable forces at work beneath that shell of safety that are older and more horrific than could possibly be comprehended. Almost too perfect for looking at beings from outer space.

The first of his major science fiction works is the 1927 short story, “The Colour Out of Space.” In it, an investigator from Boston tries to uncover the secret of a meteorite that crashed to Earth in the hilly farmland to the west of Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, MA. The man discovers, through conversations with a crazed old local, the tragedy that befell the farmer Nahum Gardner after the meteorite fell on to his property. Emanating from the meteorite was something that can only be described as a “colour,” an amorphous, almost vaporous, something or other that was a color no one had ever seen before. The colour gets in to the ground and causes the crops to grow large, but foul tasting; the animals on the farm eventually grow massive and deformed, and the humans grow sick and die of madness. The colour returns to space in a dramatic fashion and the area eventually becomes barren and dead; it becomes known as “The Blasted Heath.”

For this story, Lovecraft wanted to create a truly alien entity, and one that seems to bring prosperity at first–the crops do grow to world record size in a matter of days–but soon brings about nothing but decay and death. While the colour could not be described as intelligent or having intent, it’s nevertheless totally indifferent to what its arrival is doing to the surrounding area, and it’s the Gardners’ bad luck that it landed where it did. This is a case of the horror of randomness that permeates the author’s work.

Lovecraft’s next major science fiction work was his 1930nnovella “The Whisperer in Darkness.” It followed Miskatonic University professor Albert N. Wilmarth and his attempts to debunk reports of strange things seen floating in rivers during a historic Vermont flood. He soon gets a letter from a Vermont farmer named Henry Akeley that he has proof that will make Wilmarth stop his investigation. He asserts that extraterrestrials do exist and have been seen and heard chanting with humans, worshiping old gods like Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep. Agents of the aliens intercept Akeley’s correspondence and, pretending to be him, convince Wilmarth to come to Vermont, and that he’s changed his mind. Once there, Wilmarth discovers a race of winged, hulking aliens who place human’s brains in jars and use their bodies as hosts for their nightly rituals.

The aliens in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are the Mi-Go, pinkish, fungoid, crustacean-like entities from the planet Yuggoth. They also have a pair of bat-like wings which are said to help them traverse the “ether,” a part of outer space from Pre-Einsteinian conceptualization. The Mi-Go can transport human consciousness to Yuggoth via their brain cylinders, which they do in order to get access to the human bodies for their plot to invade and take over. The title refers to the strange buzzing heard in the voice of Akeley upon Wilmarth’s arrival, a noise that Wilmarth learns is the sound of a Mi-Go approximating human speech when disguised.

Unlike the colours, the Mi-Go have physical form and sinister machinations. This makes them singular among Lovecraft’s aliens; generally the aliens have no care one way or the other about humanity, beyond as a curiosity, or a pest.

Written immediately after “Whisperer,” Lovecraft wrote his most ambitious piece, At the Mountains of Madness (easily my favorite of his work). In it, he details not only how aliens existed on planet Earth long before humanity, and that all life on Earth was a byproduct of their experimentation. An expedition from Miskatonic University sets out to Antarctica (still very unexplored in the early 1930s) and discovers frozen creatures in the ice. Our narrator, geologist William Dyer, believes the tall, star-headed, winged aliens to be the Elder Things written about in the accursed Necronomicon. After horrors befall the scientists, Dyer and his assistant, Danforth, fly their small plane over intensely high mountains and discover a massive abandoned city, the work of the Elder Things.

Through studying art and etchings, Dyer learns that the Elder Things came to Earth billions of years ago as explorers and scientists and created a slave race of tentacled behemoths called Shoggoths. All other life on Earth began as waste product from other experiments, meaning we owe our existence to amoral genetic experimentation by aliens. Eventually the Shoggoths killed off the Elder Things, and still exist deep down in the Antarctic depths.

The story also gives background on various cataclysmic events the Elder Things witnessed while on Earth, including the arrival of Cthulhu and he and his city, R’lyeh, sinking into the sea, and wars with both the Mi-Go and the Great Race of Yith. Who are the Great Race of Yith, you ask? Well…

From late 1934-early 1935, Lovecraft wrote what would be his penultimate work of fiction, the novella The Shadow Out of Time. In it, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee tells us of his nightmarish existence of losing huge chunks of time in trances, during which people tell him he’s acting unlike himself. Eventually, Peaslee begins realizing his vivid dreams that occur during these blackouts are actually happening, and that his consciousness has been transplanted into the body of a being with “immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes.” This, we learn, is the Great Race of Yith.

The Yithians have the technology to send their consciousnesses through space and time, trading places with various other races to learn through observation and communication. As horrific and invasive as this experience is for Peaslee, the Yithians are not the villains of the piece. The actual threat are flying, interstellar polyps which predated the Great Race on Earth, were defeated, and then returned in force. Peaslee knows that the Yithians will eventually return to Earth and take over the bodies of yet-to-evolve species, and he also knows that humanity will be wiped out by the polyps.

So, as with all of Lovecraft’s visions of terror, even stuff from outer space is worth staying away from. But it’s not like it would matter much anyway. We’re always doomed.

Images: Astounding Stories, INJ Culbard, The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He is the writer of 200 reviews of weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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