Year’s End

 

My dreams now seem more real

Than my real life, which is divided

Between pre-dawn, post-dusk,

And the bright, bland light of the department store,

Whereas I have always dreamed in technicolour.

I still hope there’s something more than the mundane

That lives inside this frame of pallid flesh,

Something more than this automaton I acknowledge

As myself who asks the same questions again

And again to different people. I have become fluent

In talking about the weather -“Is it still cold

Outside?” “Has it stopped raining?” – while never

Hinting at a life before or after here

In which I face the elements. I think

I am fading away, as if I died and didn’t notice,

Just kept dragging on my corpse through ceaseless

Obligations. Only occasionally do I still feel

A pull to the beyond; as when I walked one morning

Out over the bridge and saw the river seem to ripple

Lengthways in the darkness, like the primal limb

Of some ancient and aquatic monstrosity

Held down with bands of stone and iron

And steel, and I found myself hoping that

Both it and I at last, before the year was out,

Would break ourselves free, and lay the world to waste.

 

             I am – with reservations – a fan of H. P. Lovecraft. His prose is undeniably excessive in its

verbosity, and in the extremes of emotion he aims to describe. He frequently lands on a tone

far more campy than existentially terrifying. Nonetheless, there is something fascinating

about the way his stories conceptualize our world, and the place of humanity within it.

 

           As Francis Wayland Thurston, the narrator of Lovecraft’s seminal 1926 work The Call of

Cthulhu puts it: ‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity,

and it was not meant that we should voyage far.’ In Lovecraft’s stories, mankind sees and

comprehends very little of the world we inhabit, a world that is home also to a large number

of ancient and enormously powerful entities, sometimes called the Elder Gods or Great Old

Ones. What is frightening about these creatures is not usually any malevolent intent towards

humankind, but rather their absolute indifference to us, and to the chaos they might wreak

upon our world. These are the creatures that exist in the ‘black seas of infinity’. Cthulhu

himself is even literally an ocean-dweller (stars permitting), as are the aquatic ancestors of

the fictional New England town of Innsmouth. The depths of the ocean and the vast expanse

of the universe are invoked frequently in both metaphor and tangible plot elements as a

means of representing a dark and unknowable space beyond human comprehension. The

horror in Lovecraft’s stories is in what dangers we go around unaware of, but also in what

might happen to us if these ‘terrifying vistas of reality’ were made apparent.

 

          Lovecraft’s vision of the world was compelling and singular. His influence has been

widespread and creatively fruitful. His work has been an influence on that of Stephen King,

Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro and many other writers and directors. His stories and

characters have also been cheerfully co-opted by makers of board games, tabletop RPGs

and comic books, and his influence can be detected in online horror content created by

amateur writers. These include the wiki archive of the fictional SCP Foundation, and the

 Creepypasta community, the most famous of their creations, Slenderman, having been influential enough to have spawned his own mythos.

 

        However, despite the popularity of his work today, Lovecraft was a bigot even by the low

standards of his time and his intolerant views can be detected throughout his fiction. His

writing, and in particular his letters, is at turns deeply racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-

Semitic. More modern uses of Lovecraft’s works and characters have introduced a more diverse cast of capable characters – as in Alan Moore’s comic Neonomicon or the board game Eldritch Horror – occasionally questioned or removed dubious plot elements in adaption. However, there is one strand of prejudice that runs through. Lovecraft’s work that is far less overtly cruel, but arguably not just difficult but impossible to remove or revise in adaptation: his treatment of mental illness.

 

       Insanity is a frequent occurrence for characters in Lovecraft’s stories. Through contact with

forces and entities beyond our comprehension, whether intentional or accidental, the

worldviews of Lovecraft’s characters are opened up, sometimes with devastating mental and

physical repercussions. The Sanatorium in his fictional city of Arkham really ought to be

twinned with its Miskatonic University, as common as it is to graduate from the latter straight

into the former.

 

      The issue is treated with more sensitivity that the aforementioned indefensible elements of

his work and personal life. Lovecraft’s father had been committed to hospital following a

psychotic episode when he was three, and died there five years later. His mother suffered

from what was considered to be hysteria at the time, and may have been depression. There

is a fear throughout Lovecraft’s works of losing one’s sanity, and the potential

consequences, or of being believed to be insane by others. This is an element of his writing

that features prominently in even the most frivolous of adaptations. Both Eldritch Horror and

Lovecraft Letter – board games based on the Mythos – have mechanics for going insane,

and negative consequences this might entail. In Eldritch Horror extreme loss of sanity can

result in your character being committed to an asylum, out of action for the rest of the game.

 

    I am – with reservations – a fan of Lovecraft’s works. I am also someone who has struggled

with depression for many years. The way in which mental illness is presented by his works

and those who use his characters and settings is as a weakness of character, or as a fate

worse than death. And yet I continue to read his stories from time to time, and to purchase

all the Cthulhu board games I can carry.

 

      Perhaps my enthusiasm is in part due to the fact that mental illness might be an object of

revulsion for Lovecraft, but is also linked with participation in an elect creative group. In The

Call of Cthulhu, there is one night in which across the world a section of the population is

plagued by horrifying dreams. The vast majority of those affected consists of ‘the artists and

poets.’ This creativity is linked to insanity elsewhere in the same text, where it is said that

‘only poetry or madness’ could do justice to the ritualistic music of a Cthulhu cult. Lovecraft

himself had originally thought himself more of a poet than an author, and so this is a milieu

he implicates himself in even as he distances his narrator. Still, this is not a point in favour

of the artists and poets in the novella. The only one of these artists our narrator meets – a

Henry Anthony Wilcox – is described with distaste as ‘of a type, at once slightly affected and

slightly ill-mannered, which I could never like’, but nonetheless a possessor of genius and

artistic talent.

 

      Wilcox is described as a “queer” type, as are others of his ilk. There is an association in

Lovecraft’s work between visionary artists and queerness (in the old and modern senses).

Those impacted by the horrifying dreams in Cthulhu are characterised as ‘Aesthetes’. The

most infamous member of the Aesthetic movement, Oscar Wilde, had been convicted of

sodomy, and the association would still have been an active one, Wilde’s celebrity extended

across the Atlantic thanks to a U.S. speaking tour. Cthulhu is calling not just to the avant-

garde, but specifically those who were marked as sexual outsiders. Having been a queer

person struggling with my sexuality, desperate for kinship and some sign of legitimacy, being

chosen by Cthulhu to share prophetic visions may not be much, but I’ll take it. At least

Cthulhu thinks we’re special.

 

     Being an artist, poet, or other creative person isn’t much consolation for the struggles

associated with mental illness, however much society might romanticise this notion through

figures like Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. However, in my poem, “Year’s End”, I did

seek to find a macabre kind of comfort in the association between mental illness, artists, and

Elder Gods.

 

      I wanted to create a markedly Lovecraftian final image for the poem, where the River Ouse

is imagined as ‘ancient and aquatic monstrosity’. It becomes a tentacle-like appendage of a

vast creature, contained by bridges as manacles. This revelation of a pre-historic being

poised to wreak havoc if released would, in a classic Lovecraftian narrative, be an object of

horror and revulsion, threatened the narrator’s sanity or even his life (and yes, it’s always

‘his’). However, in this poem I ultimately ally myself with the Cthulhu-esque being, both of us

being constrained by the apparatus of a mundane industrialized capitalism, and both of us

ready for revenge on the world that holds us captive.

 

     Perhaps my fascination with Lovecraft’s works has always been only partly horror, and partly

fascination or identification with these horrifying entities beyond comprehension. I’m not

alone in my desire to befriend them, in all their world-destroyed, reality-bending glory. Fans

of other horror media have adopted similarly terrible entities as one of their own. Posts

circulated online claiming the titular monster of the 2014 movie The Babadook as a gay icon,

eventually getting mainstream media attention. The Shape of Water (2017) was based in

part upon the idea of a romance featuring the Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). I’m

personally not above crocheting cuddly versions of Cthulhu (the Elder God with the most

recognizable form) to keep myself, or to distribute friends and family. Currently, an alpine

green Cthulhu sits in my living room as a sort of household guardian.

 

     Cthulhu and his kin can cause mental illness in those who are susceptible to them, and their

sheer incomprehensibility embodies madness itself. I have come to see them as

representations of my depression. However horrifying the representation might be, giving it a

form is a means by which to exert control over it. Cthulhu in particular I’m rather fond of, and

he is the main inspiration behind the creature in “Year’s End”. I wanted to overturn the idea

that a creature from before our own age would be all that horrifying to someone who feels

trapped enough that change, any change, would be welcome. When you are sufficiently

distanced from daily life, you begin looking for kinship and in the most unlikely of places. In

“Year’s End” this takes an ominous and destructive tone, but I’m optimistic that it may also

be possible to use this desire to relate to the unlikeliest of creations in a more productive,

real life way.

 

    In welcoming these creatures from horror and weird fiction into my life, into my home, and

making their inhumanity adorable, I find myself able to characterize depression not as a

horror that menaces me at every turn but simply an appropriately disconcerting mascot. It

may be something that has marked me out for times of immense pain and difficulty, but it is

something I may be able to befriend and so to neutralize. I’m sure Lovecraft wouldn’t have

been able to abide this cutesifying of his abominations from untold aeons, but given his

perspectives on the world and the people in it, I feel comfortable ignoring whatever he might

make of me and my methods. Cthulhu and I are friends now. We’re loose again, and

ravening for delight.

 

Bethan Roberts was born in Pendle and currently lives in York. Her poetry has appeared in The Kindling and The Cherwell.