Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Call of the Squid people: 'Sea Monsters' by Sheffield Gothic and the Sheffield Animals Research Colloquium

Sheffield Gothic recently joined forces with the Sheffield Animals Research Colloquium, a network dedicated to researching animals and the nonhuman across the humanities and social sciences.  A few weeks ago we held our first (but hopefully not last) collaborative reading group in order to explore the overlap between animal studies and the Gothic.  Under the very loose theme of ‘Sea Monsters’ we screened the 2005 black and white film ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and read Ray Bradbury’s short story The Fog Horn (1951).

Those who are already familiar with this blog will have realized that we’re pretty into Lovecraft in all his forms, but are especially interested the Cthulhu mythos and his work set 'under the sea'. Several of us had actually seen this version 'The Call of Cthulhu’ before this joint session and had discussed it in the context of the larger Lovecraft mythos. It’s a very good movie which sticks closely to the source material, and which also exploits tropes and techniques found silent and black and white films to increase tension, incorporating the German expressionist style which often defined early horror cinema.

'Call of Cthulhu,' 2005

The film highlights many of the concepts which make Lovecraft a ‘Gothic’ author. Aesthetically striking, the film uses the mise-en-scene of classic horror movies - the chiaroscuro lighting, the manipulation of space and proportion to create dreamlike set pieces, the dramatic movements and expressions. The story itself, in keeping with the source material, incorporates fears about degeneracy and the inhuman, the subversion of an orderly and sustainable universe, the loss of faith and the looming threat of madness and death. It also features a grotesque, otherworldly, obscure creature which may be described as the ultimate ‘sea monster,’ i.e. Cthulhu.  However, even as the story undermines established concepts of order, it imposes a new rationale for self-construction – namely, that there are ‘eternal’ things and that they are something beyond mankind’s ability to respond to effectively or even to understand completely. In Lovecraft’s fiction the ‘elder gods’ such as Cthulhu are often nihilistic, indifferent, or evil, acting in opposition to a white, male, Protestant, genteel mode of knowing, and ultimately leading to madness and the destruction of the ‘self.’ If the protagonist is not outright destroyed by his new knowledge then he is often transformed into an ‘other’ or realizes that he was a kind of monster all along. There is a redemptive possibility in this – consider, for example, the protagonist's new-found sense of community when he becomes a fish-person and joins his long lost family in ‘Shadow over Innsmouth’ (1931) – but overwhelmingly this profound shake-up suggests a loss of personal and individual identity, of values, of morality and civilization.


Bradbury’s short story also Gothicizes and problematizes the self in relation to the animal ‘other’. However, in this story the horror manifests in the opposite way and with a completely different goal – the problem is not a loss of individuality but rather the pathos of loneliness, the individual who is so monstrously unique that he is permanently separated from his community and his mate, and unable to adapt to a changing world. Two lighthouse keepers are visited in the night by an ancient creature, possibly the last of its kind, who is attracted to the sound of the fog horn. Discovering that the horn is not, in fact, a rediscovered fellow creature, the sea monster reacts violently.  In spite of the monster's destructive response and inherent alien otherness, however, one of the lighthouse keepers makes a point of narrating and empathizing with the creature's understandable grief and pain. If the creature in question manages to find solace in an imitation, the nature of his identity and his relationship with the ‘eternal’ and ‘unchanging’ only reemphasizes his separation from home, his inherently uncanny nature, and his inability to interact constructively with a world which is itself unfamiliar and protean.

Love at first sight in the 1953 Warner Bros adaptation 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms'

As in ‘Cthulhu,’ mankind’s place in the universe is subverted by the discovery of a creature who defies the laws of death and time and change. Whereas Lovecraft transforms this into a tale of horrific chaotic destruction, however, Bradbury makes us sympathize with the creature and project human emotions and readings of relationships, grief, and loneliness onto it. Though the lighthouse keepers’ attempts to communicate with the creature prove ineffectual, the possibility of communication via a hidden, primal language remains a tantalizing option. The choice to film ‘Cthulhu’ in black and white and the underlying anxieties which define Lovecraft’s work bring up another issue present in many of Bradbury’s texts – the issue of modernity. Lovecraft fears degeneration, while Bradbury seems to suggest that controlled de-evolution might be the only way of connecting with a god-like representative of an ancient ‘self.’ Communication between species, and indeed between humans, is problematized in Lovecraft's work, while Bradbury incorporates the 'animal' to examine what it means to feel and respond as human and non-human.  Writing the 1950s, in the context of the Cold War and the lingering devastation of the atom bomb, Bradbury suggests a new reading of Lovecraft’s own classification of ‘sea monsters’ in 1920s weird fiction.

Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield, studying servant narratives in early Gothic literature.  Soon her squid brethren will arise to crush the puny humans and crown her their many-tentacled queen.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this review! Your group does some refreshing things with the Gothic, but you don't deconstruct the Gothic into dust (still recovering from Foucault and Derrida run rampant when I was in college :) )

    I also like how you showed that Lovecraft's work can still be relavent to a 21st-Century reader at a time when some current fantasy/horror writers are eager to toss Lovecraft into the dustbin of history.

    Thanks for sharing!