Lovecraft in Pop Culture

Maddd Science

HP Lovecraft: Creepy, groundbreaking, trailblazer of weird horror, famously racist. It's pretty tough to avoid focusing on that last descriptor. I'd argue that the right move is to glean the best stuff from his work (I love how he can set a skin-crawling mood and then actually deliver on everything it promises) while not replicating the worst of it. And, like any flawed creator, we should remember but not valorize the guy himself.

Which is why this review is so entertaining: Apparently, Lovecraft has been turned into a hilariously bad kids cartoon. This is another example of a review that's a lot more entertaining to consume that the actual film would have been.

Maybe don’t turn real-life racist H.P. Lovecraft into the cuddly star of an animated kids’ movie?
Alex McLevy, AV Club

It turns out the graphic novel source material is more about completely altering the tenor and tone of Lovecraft’s work, making a kid-friendly hash of the author’s painstakingly detailed mythos and reimagining the whole thing as a sort of quasi-Narnia, with Lovecraft’s fiercest creatures twisted into petting-zoo animals. As the author Bruce Brown puts it when describing Howard’s friend Spot, “Cthulhu is a malevolent god who lay in slumber in the undersea world of R’lyeh. The return of Cthulhu strikes terror in the hearts and minds of mankind. He is worshiped by evil cults and undersea creatures known as Deep Ones. So, it made me laugh to make Spot incredibly charming and adorable. Ha!”

More seriously, here's an interesting article that explores essentially the same topic, how Lovecraft's mythos has been folded into a more commercial form. His particular brand of horror is so self-serious that it can be ironically reappropriated with more enthusiasm than most, making the Lovecraft Mythos a great entry point when considering paratexts and their recursive effect on pop culture.

Plus, that new Hellboy movie just came out, so now's a great time to be thinking about Lovecraft's ongoing impact on pop culture anyway!

Cult Conversations: Lovecraftian Myth and Paratextual Ripples in Popular Culture
Keith McDonald, Confessions of an Aca-Fan

No doubt some will see this practice as diluting the power of the mythos, particularly in terms of the frivolous nature of some of the products. However, I would argue that in continually resurrecting such images as simulated artefacts (even in resin and vinyl) they chime, however discordantly, with the mythos itself, in that they both preserve and pervert it.

Speaking of paratexts, this game was one of the most fun serendipitous half-hours I've stumbled on recently: It's a retro-style 2D browser puzzle game inspired by golden-age detective stories, except you play as a snail. It pulls you in pretty quick, and if, after collecting all the clues, you can't immediately identify the culprit, you'll forever tarnish the great Snail Detective's reputation. So the stakes are high, is what I'm saying.

Artist Sarah Carter created it during a game jam for the game editor Bitsy, and if I ever have a free weekend, I'm now inspired to try creating my own game on the platform. Granted, it wouldn't be anywhere as good as this. I solved it with my second guess, so see if you can outdo me.

Snail Detective is a free murder mystery that doesn't skimp on the detective work
Tom Sykes, PC Gamer

As the titular escargot investigator, you'll be exploring and conversing with the inhabitants of a hotel, dragging your sluggish body from room to room in order to solve the murder of hotel owner Mr. Sheridan. There are plenty of items to examine, documents to read, and guests and staff to interview—despite the jokey premise, real care has obviously been taken to develop the mystery. I love the loungey, almost Twin Peaksy soundtrack too, which perfectly sets the breezy tone for this mystery.

Here's a great take on the rise of puzzle-box TV shows that theorizes it's due to a social component that turns viewers into participants, and therefore keeps them invested in finishing the show despite the glut of TV/film available to watch. I've actually had a similar thought before, but this article puts it all together better than I could have.

Incidentally, the article touches on how pop culture skews towards the intellectual/literal/plot over the emotional/metaphorical/character, which I've been thinking about after seeing the difference in critical reception between Jordan Peele's movies Get Out and Us. I think Peele made an intentional choice with Us to lean into the metaphorical at the expense of the literal, and lost a few Rotten Tomato percentage points as a result. Anyway, article:

The biggest mystery on TV is how every show became a puzzle box
Kellie Herson, The Outline

Proving your theories lets you feel like a good, smart cultural consumer instead of someone who’s letting your brain atrophy in front of the Netflix “still watching?” screen. The puzzle box doesn’t just let the cachet of prestige television rub off on us; it makes us responsible for it, gives us the opportunity to feel like co-creators or, at the very least, respected critical thinkers. The process of solving the mystery isn’t just a quest for external validation, though — it’s an interactive, often social experience that minimizes the isolation of watching television for hours on end, and lets us assign order to a chaotic world.

Cinemax has a new show out that's flying a little under the radar, Warrior, and it sounds great: Based on a concept by Bruce Lee and created by Justin Lin, the guy behind all the good (in my humble yet correct opinion) Fast and Furious movies. Here's an article that explains how the creators cracked an old storytelling problem in a new way: How do you get a white mainstream audience to identify with your minority protagonists?

'Warrior' Gives Viewers a "Universal Translator" in 19th Century Chinatown
Eric Francisco, Inverse

In the series, the actors playing Chinese characters speak modernized English among themselves, rather than their native Cantonese. They only speak in accented English when interacting with the show’s white Anglo-Saxon and Irish characters, who themselves speak in period-appropriate talk.

“The goal was to make the Chinese characters the most accessible on the show,” says series co-producer Jonathan Tropper.

This article's been making the rounds, but I really enjoyed it, so you're getting it regardless:

Heathers Blew Up the High-School Comedy
Naomi Fry, The New Yorker

“Veronica, you look like hell,” Heather Duke tells her, surprised, to which Veronica responds, “Yeah? I just got back.” She then leaves a char-black kiss mark on Duke’s cheek, before helping herself to her scrunchie. If Hughes tended to prize a makeover moment in his movies—who could forget Ally Sheedy’s transformation from outlier weirdo to garden-variety dream girl in “The Breakfast Club”?—Veronica’s metamorphosis in “Heathers” seems to critique that impulse by turning it on its head.

My favorite thriller show just returned. Looks like season two's still going strong:

“Killing Eve” Season Two Review: Eve and Villanelle Still Want Each Other, Madly
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Autostraddle

Killing Eve also remains a seductive visual sensation, a stylish spy thriller in the streets and a twisted story about fixation, identity, and power in the sheets. While the premiere does do a lot of reacting to the finale, the second episode propels things forward. Both are tense and alive, sizzling with possibility. Because a caged Villanelle and a spiraling Eve are unpredictable forces. One way or another, they want each other, madly.

This twitter thread has an interesting dissection of comedy at the end. Fans of r/PerfectlyCutScreams should appreciate the "moment before the moment" that it talks about at the end.

Finally, here's an interesting newsletter on the state of science fiction storytelling and who's willing to pay for it. Andrew Liptak's been covering the space for long enough to know what he's talking about, and it looks like he's concluding that it's only doing well when invested in by media operations that see it as tangental to their true focus. That's not terrible, but it's not really great, either.

The streaming TV boom, science fiction storytelling and advertising, and fan fiction
Andrew Liptak, Wordplay

I see a common thread with print genre storytelling — a sort of loss leader for a larger suite of products. This isn't universally true, as you have consumers paying a bit more directly when they buy a book or movie ticket, but even then, there's ane element of support from a larger industry. Publishing famously operates on thin margins, and a massive bestselling book like Michelle Obama’s Becoming will subsidize the other books that Crown / Penguin Random House is selling that doesn’t turn a profit. When looked at as a commodity, short fiction (which, I might add, are enormously undervalued — the professional rate as set by SFWA is $.08 a word) is not something that’s terribly profitable, but which is incredibly valuable for both the author and publication — if not in actual hard currency, in experience, experimentation, intellectual property, and in some cases, acclaim.

Next Time on Maddd Science: Us

Header image: “The Dream-Weaver,” by Daniel Williams. Anything this guy creates would be a great thematic fit for Lovecraft, I have to say.

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