"Fortean Times" Devotes Its August 2018 Cover to H. P. Lovecraft and "the Horror of History"
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.
7/20/2018 11:20:40 am
Very interesting, Jason. I look forward to reading Holloway's complete article. I do recall, all those years ago, reading your book The Cult of Alien Gods and finding myself, as a fan of Lovecraft's writing, in agreement, rather than disagreement with your assessments.
7/20/2018 11:25:50 am
7/20/2018 11:42:09 am
Great blog post. Loved it.
7/20/2018 11:46:54 am
Somehow and quite by accident after reading this blog post, I landed on your Wikipedia biography which I'd never seen before. Who wrote that about yourself--did you? It's time to lengthen it in my opinion.
7/20/2018 12:10:02 pm
I did not write it. It's my understanding that Wikipedia doesn't allow people to write their own pages, and I have never touched it.
7/20/2018 09:57:37 pm
Jason’s husband John Hetherington wrote it.
7/21/2018 01:31:31 pm
You can click the "history" tab at the top of a Wikipedia page to see all the edits to it since it was created and by which users, although most Wikipedia usernames are pseudonyms. The article about Jason was created in March 2013 by an experienced Wikipedia editor named MrX, probably in response to discussions that took place over the previous few weeks about whether Jason's work was usable as a source in Wikipedia's articles about America Unearthed and topics related to it.
7/20/2018 12:46:10 pm
Great going, Jason! This explains why you are the Great Nemesis of Peter Levenda. I mean, what else is Tom deLonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences but the modern upgrade of the Cult of the Ancient Gods?
7/20/2018 02:23:06 pm
Talk about your puff pieces. I wonder how much Sweeney got paid for that review ?
7/20/2018 02:32:02 pm
When I read about To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences I remember the ironic words of Irenaeus in the second century AD.
7/20/2018 05:28:48 pm
I read it and enjoyed it.
7/20/2018 02:14:43 pm
“Horror of History”
7/20/2018 03:07:16 pm
Great blog, and yes I have your book. I just shared this to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society FB page. They are crazy into the the mythos, but I was surprised at how refreshingly skeptical they were one someone published a BS post on archaeology.
7/20/2018 08:26:45 pm
Will this Fa-lib hate blog mention the new Ancient Aliens?
7/20/2018 11:29:58 pm
7/20/2018 11:30:26 pm
7/20/2018 11:53:04 pm
7/21/2018 04:41:28 pm
Man, the stuff about Afrocentrism really bothers me. It's like, "Nah, man, it's perfectly okay to COMPLETELY IGNORE doing the work to actually highlight real African and African-descent history, of which there is plenty to be found if you're willing to go looking for it, in favor of arguing that everything is stolen from people of color by whites." Like...okay, yes, I'm not even going to TRY and deny that white people suppressed and/or outright stole plenty from non-white people. Still, why is "ATLANTIS WAS REALLY BLACK" so much more appealing than "OMG, there was a vast, sophisticated Islamic empire in Northern Africa, fully the equal of the Roman Empire, that we actually have real, physical evidence of and current digs going on in SEVERAL of its former cities, and its story is complex and fascinating and still being uncovered and it is distinctly AFRICAN, not white at all"? (And dear GOD I wish I could remember the name of it but it's been a while since I read the last article on it and I SUCK with remembering names...)
7/21/2018 05:34:53 pm
Ah, Afrocentrism. Northern Africa is not black. Afrocentrism says Greeks stole from blacks. They did not. That's it in a nutshell. You're welcome.
7/23/2018 03:23:25 pm
7/23/2018 04:12:20 pm
Ah, Afrocentrism. Northern Africa is not black. Afrocentrism says Greeks stole from blacks. They did not. That's it in a nutshell. You're welcome.
8/15/2019 06:09:08 pm
I realise I am a year late in commenting here, but thank you very much for the comments. My goal in talking about the appeal of things like Afrocentrism was to observe rather than than endorse. I think that people like fringe archaeology because it helps them find satisfying stories of their place in history. I don't think they're right to do so, anymore than the Victorians were right to justify their sense of their place in history via what was at the time mainstream archaeology, but I think that's why they do it. And I think it's interesting that that role has moved to the fringe in many cases.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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