When I published The Cult of Alien Gods thirteen years ago, expanded from a Skeptic magazine article I had published the year before, I was genuinely surprised that a lot of people, mostly fans of H. P. Lovecraft, were outraged. Several critics found absurd my conclusion that Lovecraft had taken ideas about prehistoric extraterrestrial contact articulated by Theosophy and Charles Fort and transmitted them to the midcentury UFO and ancient astronaut writers. Still others were deeply upset that the book discussed—in 2005, two years before the housing bubble burst—the argument the great historian Jacques Barzun had made that the West had grown decadent and faced a long period of stagnation and decline, something I mentioned because it echoed Lovecraft’s pessimistic view that similar envisioned America in a spiral of corruption and decline.
Here we are thirteen years later, and it turns out that I was right and the critics were wrong. The “controversial” parts of my book were prescient. In the mid-2000s I used to get letters from outraged readers arguing one or the other of the above points. Today, readers who have just discovered my book and contact me about it no longer take issue with any of the above. The Great Recession, political polarization, and Trump’s implicit claim of American decline (“Make America Great Again”) took care of the political point. On the actual subject matter of my book, the evidence has grown so overwhelming that it is simply accepted as fact—even by ancient astronaut theorists!—that Lovecraft was a key figure in the development of the Paleo-SETI idea.
I suppose it is ultimately a compliment that this idea is now so self-evident that many researchers no longer consider it either controversial or noteworthy, and wonder whether I actually did any work in pointing out what now seems obvious. I was, though, the first to document the influence across texts, showing how the idea moved from one writer to the next, traveling from Lovecraft to Morning of the Magicians and to Peter Kolosimo, and from them to Robert Charroux and Erich von Däniken and then to the world. I was the first the connect Lovecraft to Erich von Däniken, except for a lighthearted comparison Robert M. Price made of the parallels between “The Call of Cthulhu” and Chariots of the Gods in Crypt of Cthulhu thirty-five years ago. He, of course, made it known that he was mad at me for taking the credit for what he considered his idea, though he never tried to document the connections. I did add a reference in the notes to Cult of Alien Gods when I found out, but as I said then, I hadn’t read Price’s piece when I wrote my book. I will add here that it was on account of the fact that the Crypt of Cthulhu article had been published when I was one year old in a small-circulation fanzine and collected in an obscure edited volume when I was 11. I only found out about it during the editing process of my book, when someone remembered reading something similar decades prior. In the article, Price reported that von Däniken had been asked if he stole his ideas from Lovecraft, and von Däniken had no idea who Lovecraft was. Price left the story at that.
This is a long way around saying that it is no longer either surprising or shocking that the Fortean Times would devote its August 2018 cover to H. P. Lovecraft, nor that I show up on the first page of the article “H. P. Lovecraft and the Horror of History.” Writer James Holloway cites me to connect Lovecraft to ancient astronauts:
The tentacles of Lovecraft’s influence even wind their way into supposedly non-fictional accounts of humanity’s history. Jason Colavito has suggested that Lovecraft’s stories, which often feature the influence of alien beings in Earth’s early history, were a major influence on the “ancient astronauts” school of alternative archæology. But while most readers seem to find the theories of writers like Erich von Däniken exciting and intriguing, Lovecraft assumed that people would react rather differently to these ideas.
Holloway summarizes many of the now-standard views about Lovecraft, many of which were still controversial when I wrote, sometimes too briefly, about them in 2005. He talks about Lovecraft’s deep racism and how his views of race impacted his fiction, and he rightly notes that it is Lovecraft’s very fear of the racial Other and of the contamination of WASP culture by non-white outsiders that allowed him to project his terror into the stars and imbue his aliens with the kind of elemental horror that gave them lasting power. Lovecraft was a racist, but he used his own fear to create aliens that were themselves monstrous and fearful in ways that the more anthropomorphic aliens of his contemporaries often were not.
Holloway also correctly points to Lovecraft’s contradictory nature and his understanding that values are relative. Lovecraft leaned hard into racism because he believed that culture and tradition were essential to create the illusion of permanency in a changing world. He didn’t want America to stop being white, because if it did, then the culture would change. Holloway quotes one of Lovecraft’s letters, which is enlightening because Lovecraft had a better understanding of the drive to give scientific cover to traditional culture than any of the New Atheist writers who want to create a fake “scientific” morality to justify modern Western capitalistic ethics as “universal”:
…‘good’ is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of ‘values’ which we need in order to feel settled & contented – & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of ‘lostness’ in endless time & space.
Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, and the other champions of “scientific” morality ought to read that last sentence and memorize it. When even an extreme racist from a century ago can articulate in a few sentences everything wrong with your argument, you need to go back to the drawing board. As I’ve said before, it is surely no coincidence that Harris, Shermer, et al. propose a “scientific” morality that just happens to justify the practices and values of middle and upper-class Westerners (mostly Americans) of the early twenty-first century, or that they hold up science as an anchor against the feeling of being lost in the chaos of time and space.
Holloway, however, devotes most of his article to what he calls “Lovecraftian archaeology,” correctly noting that Lovecraft’s concept of archaeology—in his fiction, not reality—is close kin to the pseudoscientific and white nationalist archaeological fantasies of the nineteenth century, and he does a good job of comparing past frauds, like the Mound Builder myth, to present ones, like the so-called Bosnian Pyramid, identifying these false claims as expressions of nationalism by laying claim to an imaginary but grander past.
While Holloway’s analysis is for the most part quite good and demonstrates a thoughtful understanding of the difference between the scientific practice of archaeology and the popular media conception of archaeologists as, essentially, scientific occultists releasing the forces of history from their tombs, Holloway does lean a little heavily toward justifying fringe history and alternative archaeology because he chooses to privilege the social construction of historical knowledge over the question of historical and scientific accuracy. He frames this in terms of “narrative significance,” or how the stories we tell ourselves about history are useful or empowering. Consider this:
Perhaps, in fact, it’s the restoration of a sense of narrative significance that makes alternative archæologies so appealing. Alternative theories can give voices to communities ignored by the historical establishment. Afrocentrism is an example of this type of inspirational alternative. Afrocentrist historians have often been criticised for historical errors, but for many readers their writings provided a sense of historical identity not found in mainstream history (which was also, of course, committing an historical error by neglecting African history; sometimes it’s historical fantasy all the way down).
It makes me uncomfortable to claim that a lie is inspirational for being both untrue and empowering.
Near the end of the article, Holloway makes an important, but disturbing, point. He notes that Victorian archaeologists and historians worked in a nationalist and racist framework and produced narratives of history that emphasized and empowered specific racial and ethnic groups, giving them aid and comfort and bestowing on their self-importance the blessings of history and the sanction of the universe. “Modern archæologists and historians, though, seem – at least in principle – to embrace Lovecraft’s slippery, uncaring sense of the world,” Holloway writes. “If the shocking revelations are coming from the former defenders of the cosmic order, we may all be, like Randolph Carter, looking in strange places for our priceless illusions.” In other words, the quest for scientific accuracy comes at the price of racial, national, and ethnic pride, for which alternatives to archaeology become the best way to restore the value of tradition.
I wish, though, that Holloway had played his thoughts through to their obvious conclusion. The embrace of alternative archaeology and fringe history to justify racial pride or nationalism must inevitably go to some very dark places.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.