Trip Report: Lairs of Cthulhu: Archaeology, Myths and Mysteries in the fiction of HP Lovecraft

Last night, I was privileged to be in the audience for a lecture by James Holloway, a PhD student in a graduate of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, at Treadwell’s esoteric bookshop. Holloway talked about the intersections of archaeology and the HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, two subjects he is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about. It was a fascinating and highly enjoyable evening, and what follows are the rough notes I made of the evening. This is my paraphrasing of what he said, and all errors are mine (and – update – James has added his own disclaimer in the comments).


Introduction: this talk was prepared for an audience of archaeologists who did not know Lovecraft’s work well. Tonight’s audience comes from more diverse backgrounds including archaeology, literature and magick, and so some sections may appear self-evident. Holloway specialises in the funerary archaeology of the late Anglo-Saxon period, and the talk was originally given at a seminar on the Archaeology of Imaginary Civilisations (a notable example being a talk on Planet of the Apes which I’m sure we’d all love to hear).

HP Lovecraft – this audience knows him well. If you don’t, there’s always Wikipedia.

There’s actually surprisingly little explicit archaeology in Lovecraft’s work, although the one cover story he got in Weird Tales (credited as Harry Houdini) did feature the Sphinx.

Lovecraft was part of a circle of writers including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch and others, who all contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos.

Lovecraft talked about actively creating mythology:

“Regarding the solemnly cited myth-cycle of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Nug, Yeb, Shub-Niggurath, etc., etc.—let me confess that this is all a synthetic concotion of my own.” – Letter to Robert E. Howard (August 14, 1930)

“My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” – Letter to Clark Ashton Smith (October 17, 1930)

Lovecraft intentionally blended fantasy and reality. His erudition forces belief on the reader. He performs the part of an academic author to build credulity, citing real and imagined sources alongside one another.

A modern mythology grows up around the mythos, which people are unwilling to debunk. They don’t want to spoil the fun, and it feels like they’re destroying something active. [Although, as we’ll see, this is pretty much the tactic Lovecraft himself used to develop horror.]

Derleth referred to Lovecraft’s “posthumous collaborators”: those who engaged with and built on the mythos after his death. There’s a vast range of merchandise and artifacts, a whole Lovecraft marketplace for such collaborations.

The myth of the archaeologist as bull-whip-wielding explorer and adventurer was self-created by the archaeology profession:

“Those were the great days of collecting. Anything for which a fancy was taken, from a scarab to an obelisk, was just appropriated and if there was a difference of opinion with a brother excavator one laid for him with a gun.” – Howard Carter

Lovecraft’s own background, with quotes from his autobiography, Notes on a Non-Entity. His father died when he was young, and he was raised by various aunts, and his grandfather, whose extensive library he had full access too. He was an autodidact, and actually quite proud of it.

“When about seven or eight I was a genuine pagan, so intoxicated with the beauty of Greece that I acquired a belief in the old gods and nature spirits. I have in literal truth built altars to Pan, Apollo, and Athena.”

“Of my non-university education, I never cease to be ashamed; but I know, at least, that I could not have done differently.”

He was also an unashamed traditionalist:

“In order to avoid the madness which leads to violence & suicide I must cling to the few shreds of old days & old ways which are left to me.” – Letter (August 8, 1925)

“We must save all that we can lest we find ourselves in an alien world with no memories.”

But he was aware that the “old traditions” were fictions too, if comforting ones. He was also terribly racist [Can’t find quote, but more on this to come].

Homesickness was the dominant emotion of Lovecraft’s life: he spent a very unhappy sojourn in New York before returning to Providence, Rhode Island, where he remained for the rest of his life. He writes movingly about his need to be surrounded by things he has known for his entire life, although he was obviously somewhat nuts. It’s hard, from a modern perspective, to empathise with someone who needs, overwhelmingly, to stay in their home town.

Archaeology and Nationalism and contentious and closely linked subjects. 19th and 20th-century nation states used archaeology to give themselves ethnogenesis. Early 20th C. archaeologists complained that Europeans rejected their Anglo-Saxon history for Greco-Roman culture. There was a “Teutonic discourse”, and the views of someone like Kossina, an avowed Nazi, were not controversial amongst contemporary archaeologists. The view was that races have characteristics, and these characteristics can be seen in their artifacts. Artifacts = Nations.

Two quotes from Cornelius Holtorf:

“Archaeology was a metaphor almost before itself was an academic discipline.”

“Most fundamentally, metaphorical archaeology accesses the deep in order to find the past.”

Very Freudian.

Call of Cthulhu: “the piecing together of historical fragments”. A deeply nested story – the narrator is the only one who holds all the pieces and puts it together. Artifacts blur the lines between past and present. The past is connected to primitive peoples; primitive peoples “live in the past” (now regarded as a racist view, but strongly believed by Lovecraft).

At the Mountains of Madness: central narrative is of things being brought up from the ground, and brought to life. The descent underground brings the past into the present. Lovecraft also betrays a sympathetic and empathetic view of alien civilisations: “Poor Old Ones”.

Above left: The snake monument, Petra. Right: Machu Picchu.

The notion of “discovery” versus “brought to attention”. North Americans “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1913, meaning they brought it to a wider contemporary audience. When Lovecraft mentions Machu Picchu in Mountains, he is talking about something ancient, newly discovered.

Likewise, the primal foundation walls of Kish, uncovered in 1929. These are contemporary, visual images.

The Shadow out of Time: dreams and visions related to the distant past. It’s Mountains again, but there are more elder races: not only is man not at the top of the pile, the most advanced species, there are actually loads above him. Lovecraft’s project is to decentre humanity. Shadow also contains another journey underground that leads to the past.

The Picture in the House, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Nameless City, The Rats in the Walls – all contain extended passages of research and “the present past”, and of regression.

And so to Lovecraft’s views on race again. Race was very important to him, and defined his characters. Jewish characters in particular, even when sympathetic, are who they are because they’re Jewish. Narrators frequently find some poisonous secrets in their own family – and, as Houllebecq noted, the narrator is usually a version of Lovecraft (“But it must be stated, someone who is like himself”). Lovecraft writes wish-fulfillment, an idealised version of himself. But even an idealised Lovecraft can’t win: in fact, he loses every time.

“The past is real. It’s all there is.” – Lovecraft

Early 20th C. archaeology was all about race in Europe – Angles, Jutes, Danes, Germans, Italians. In America, it was all about colour.

“Ethnic groups are continually imagined (though not imaginary) groups, which can have no fixed boundaries…” – Lucy, 2000

“An object is produced by an agency (individual or group of individuals), not by a social system.” – Hodder & Hutson, 2003

Identity is not something you are, but something you do, and have done to you. And archaeology was frequently used to reinforce this.

Kennewick Man (aka Patrick Stewart), a corpse found in Washington State in 1996, originally presumed to be a contemporary homicide victim, then discovered to be more than 10,000 years older. Disrupted contemporary archaeological theories, and the social assumptions based on them. Native Americans attempted to claim the body for traditional reburial, White supremacist groups (learning to use the languages of science and indigenous protest) claimed he was Aryan, and proved that Native Americans had stolen the land from original whiteys.

People get upset when you question their origins: you don’t need to be Lovecraft to figure this out.

Two books – The Origins of the British and Blood of the Isles exploded the myth of a “true” or “original” race in Britain, but the lesson hasn’t been well received or understood.

If you tell someone their history isn’t what they think it is, you’re telling them that they’re not who they think they are – and this goes all the way up to academia, leading to ferocios debated.

Horror in Lovecraft is the rendering of cosmic indifference personal: uprooting who we think we are to destabilise the universe.


Questions from the audience: other instances of destabilisation? A: Hard to think of a Lovecraft story that’s not about this.

Lovecraft thought of himself as a classicist, although his style and practice was modernist. Postmodernism should render neutral the horror of Lovecraft’s fiction; the fact that it does not exposes the truth that whatever our professed beliefs, life is not postmodern.

There are a lot of Call of Cthulhu role-players here.

In Anglo-Saxon society, solitude was the absolute worse thing possible. Exile and ostracism the greatest horrors.

In many contemporary communities – notably in the USA and Australia – root myths have become so contentious, it’s almost impossible to discuss them.

Citizenship is now a school subject. This is a pretense of multi-culturalism while reinforcing “Britishness”. Kids should read Lovecraft instead. “When was the Golden Age of Science Fiction? 13.”

Cuddly Cthulhu: not horror any more. Become an icon, and a bonding method for geeks.

Lovecraft said: “tradition means nothing: it’s a comfortable illusion.” But it’s better to be the rats in the walls, rather than the rats outside.

In the last 30 years, there’s been a radical fragmentation of views of what archaeology is – many now write of “archaeologies”, “post-processual archaelogy” versus the “New Archaeology” of the 60s-70s. A discipline in flux (particularly in the UK – the US is still more orthodox).

The closest thing to a religious experience Holloway’s ever had: viewing the copper helmet at the Yorkshire Museum. Emotional reactions to archaeology – by archaeologists – are not discussed enough. They used to be much more so, with many 19th and early 20th C. archaeology reports featuring literary, philosophical and spiritual references, and some archaeologists feel this is missing now.

The creation of the Cthulhu mythos was a literary game – collaboration included different authors writing versions of each other into the stories – and then killing them off.

Lovecraft was opposed to self-contained literature; he drew in other mythologies for a direct literary effect: increased realism.


Here endeth the report.

Posted October 16, 2009 by James Bridle. Comments (6)


  1. Thank you! If you hear of a more complete record of the lecture, I’d love to read it…

    # by Steve, October 16, 2009

  2. Hello, and thanks for coming to the talk. If I’d realised anyone was taking such detailed notes, I would probably have been more cautious!

    Obviously, for the sake of professional somethingorother, I have to say that a lot of the subjects I discussed were necessarily summaries, simplifications, and so on — but thanks for including the links to more general discussion of the topic. I sometimes wish I could include links in a talk.

    Is it prideful of me to point out that I’m not a PhD student anymore?

    # by James Holloway, October 19, 2009

  3. Also, I just realised that in my talk I called Cornelius Swedish, which isn’t true. He works (or worked) in Sweden, but he himself is German, I think.

    # by James Holloway, October 19, 2009

  4. Duly noted, Mr Holloway, and thank you again.

    # by James Bridle, October 19, 2009

  5. Great talk James! Is there any chance you can post your slide show to the site?

    # by Jeff Campbell, October 27, 2009

  6. Jeff – I assume your addressing James Holloway, who gave the talk, so you should ask him directly – this isn’t his site, although I’d be more than happy to post the slides if he wanted.

    # by James Bridle, October 27, 2009

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