Nov 06

Call Of Cthenneth

Do You See + FT + The Brown Wedge/4 comments • 654 views

I have spent much of this weekend exploring the nameless and abyssal depths of Earth’s prehistory. Half of this exploration has been in the pleasant company of H.P. Lovecraft, whose Haunter Of The Dark anthology I picked up on a whim last week. I’ve never really got into Lovecraft until now, possibly because when I encountered him in my teens I expected him to frighten me, whereas with that expectation safely tucked away I can simply admire the rhythm of his sentences and revel in their morbid absurdity. (And occasionally, as with “The Colour Out Of Space”, let a slight case of the actual creeps sneak up on me.)

Lovecraft turns out to be relevant to the ‘worldbuilding’ articles I haven’t been writing. His world-creation is mostly supremely effective, because it consists only of a sprinkling of repeated memes – Innsmouth, Miskatonic U, Yuggoth, the mad arab Abdul Alhazred et al. Reading around his work though I get the feeling he wanted to somehow knit this stuff together more concretely, with a semi unified (and slightly feeble) backstory involving a war between elder powers on prehistoric Earth. It’s an understandable urge if you’re writing similar stories again and again, but a risky one: show too much and “cosmic horror” slips into banal sci-fi.

Shapeless flopping horrors, daemoniac luminescence, and the Cyclopaean towers of dead R’lyeh (O R’lyeh? Ya R’lyeh) were all strangely missing from the BBC’s Walking With Monsters DVD, the other half of my prehistoric wanderings. WWM is, however, a similarly powerful attempt at fictional worldbuilding – like the other CGI prehistoric nature documentaries the BBC put together it knits a bunch of best-guess scientific theories into a gory and exciting whole.

This is a staggeringly expensive operation – a million quid per half-hour episode – so a lot of effort goes into scripting a literally ripping story for Kenneth Branagh to narrate. This is a difficult thing to get right – too many coincidences and the illusion of documentary reality is entirely broken (if the constant cute ‘artistic touches’ of ancient creatures nudging the ‘camera’ haven’t thrown you off already). The grand narrative strand is the evolution of life, specifically those forms of life which led to mammals and hence to us: putting the teleology into paleontology.

This is apparently a gross distortion of evolutionary theory, which doesn’t work in the neat ‘family tree’ ways the wallchart tells us it does: but in the battle between science and storytelling, the Walking With saga always picks the latter. At between 250 and 450 million years distance, though, and without any glamorous but familiar stars like Tyrannosaurs or Mammoths to ground us, the suspicion is greater than ever that Branagh and the boys are just making it all up: their grotesque three-metre millipedes not so far from the Mi-Go or the Great Race of Yith after all. Walking With Monsters is cracking entertainment but also seemingly a series that has shot its bolt – though its pervasive air of unreality might make my long-cherished Walking With Myths idea more likely.


  1. 1
    Daniel_Rf on 27 Nov 2006 #

    I’ve found Lovecraft scary not in the scary while reading way, but in the scary when you remember a story of his days/weeks/years after reading it and it feels very haunting sort of way. His imagery sticks in the mind.

  2. 2
    DV on 27 Nov 2006 #

    are the GIANT SEA SCORPIONS in it?

  3. 3
    Tom on 27 Nov 2006 #

    YES! Unfortunately they are eating fish, rather than their true prey.

  4. 4
    Tommy Mack on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Shameless self promotion: my band White Ape* on Tom Robinson’s Fresh Faves! http://freshonthenet.co.uk/2016/02/faves184/

    *named after original unofficial title of early and somewhat mediocre Lovecraft short story The Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn And His Family – http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/faj.aspx – thus providing the barest excuse to post here…

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