A decade ago, I published The Cult of Alien Gods and began to explore the strange interplay between science, pseudoscience, and horror fiction by examining the origins of pseudoscientific archaeological claims, a theme I explored from the fictional side in my 2008 book Knowing Fear. In a series of recent (and often poorly written) articles on Mysterious Universe, it seems that our old friend Micah Hanks decided to go exploring in the same waters but doesn’t have much of anything to say about topics ranging from H. P. Lovecraft to cannibalism. I tend to wonder what purpose articles serve when they lack substance, but I imagine that in the brave new world of online media, simply clicking on an article justifies its existence. I know this sounds very negative toward Hanks, but my negativity come not from any particular animus at Hanks but disappointment that so many writers fail to put into their work a fraction of the research and analysis I try to put into each of mine.
Hanks’s foray into the world of horror seems to have been inspired by the recent controversy over the use of H. P. Lovecraft’s likeness in the World Fantasy Award trophy. The organization voted to remove Lovecraft’s face from the award due to his virulent racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. Hanks took the opportunity to… offer nothing original at all. He offered no insight into Lovecraft’s social views, or thoughts on how to consider Lovecraftian fiction in its original social context as well as in today’s social mores. Instead, we get platitudes masquerading as profundity: “If one thing can be agreed about Lovecraft, at least with regard to his writing, it is that Lovecraft was no amateur, despite his lowly opinion of his contributions.” What, precisely, does that add?
Hanks seems to have fallen under Lovecraft’s spell without wanting to confront the totality of Lovecraft’s work, which let us remember is hardly free from racism even when considering only his fiction. This seems to be the reason why, two weeks later, Hanks devoted an article to a low-calorie discussion of why Lovecraft’s stories haven’t been made into major motion pictures despite the fact, as he awkwardly expressed it, that “the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is revered by many as possessing the hallmarks worthy of sub-genre status, at very least.” (Personally, I’ve always thought the Mythos would work better as a TV series.) Hanks’s article seems to be a reaction to Guillermo Del Toro’s renewed attempt to film At the Mountain of Madness, but Hanks’s perspective on Lovecraftian cinema is quite limited. He says that on a recent podcast he lamented that “hordes of films” have been based on Lovecraft’s works, but that the “masterpieces” haven’t been filmed, and he attributes this to a lack of happy endings in Lovecraft stories. He draws this, quite literally, from the Uproxx article he based his own upon, which explained that Universal wanted a happy ending as a condition, not for filming Lovecraft, but for devoting a blockbuster sized budget to Del Toro’s uncertain project. Hanks adds almost nothing to the Uproxx article, and lacks even the historical perspective to consider The Haunted Palace (an adaptation of the Case of Charles Dexter Ward), Die, Monster, Die! (an adaptation of The Colour Out of Space), or The Dunwich Horror movie, all of which are Hollywood adaptations of Lovecraft’s longer “masterpieces.” They aren’t “good” movies, but they stand against Hanks’s understanding of Lovecraft in Hollywood. It is perhaps noteworthy that they predate the modern blockbuster age.
The trouble with Lovecraft’s work remains twofold: that much of it is racist in ways that aren’t easy to write around, and, more directly important, Lovecraft’s major works are typically centered on interior monologues and literary-scholarly investigation—formulae that do not lend themselves to easy dramatization. At the Mountains of Madness’s centerpiece is, at its most basic level, the main characters staring at a carving on a wall and reading the reliefs like a comic book. It’s not particularly action-oriented.
A further article looking at a proposed sequel to the Wicker Man is similarly focused on copy-and-paste journalism rather than insight. Hanks simply regurgitates a few pages from a book about the making of the Wicker Man movie that describes the script for a failed sequel that would have focused on a serpent and the effort to kill the monster, which would have taken its inspiration from the legend of St. George and the Dragon. Hanks, since he doesn’t quite want to draw clear connections between the real world and horror fiction beyond recognizing the story as a “clash of mythologies,” simply pooh-poohs the idea as “implausible.” Someone with more understanding of history and myth might have recast the story in terms of the facts on which the movies scripts drew, particularly the actual ancient reports of Druid wicker men (whether they actually existed is open to debate). The story is first told in Caesar’s Gallic Wars 6.16, speaking of the different ways Gallic tribes make sacrifices: “Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames” (trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn). The story of George and the Dragon is well-known enough that its Indo-European dragon-slaying mythic undertone need not be repeated here. The point, of course, is that Hanks added nothing to his sources, not even to connect the dots back to the history and mythology Mysterious Universe purportedly exists to explore.
Hanks also tried to explore Edgar Allan Poe’s beautiful poem “Annabel Lee,” one of my favorites, which he consistently misspells as “Annabelle.” But more infuriating than his spelling (of which I can’t complain too much since I can’t type or spell very well!) is the awkwardness of Hanks’s prose. He tells us that the poem was found in Poe’s pocket at his death, and then adds of the story that “it may likely be apocryphal.” Which it is? “May be” or “likely”? More seriously, where did that story come from? I’m not familiar with it, and the fact that Poe sent the poem to his literary executor before his death argues against it. Is he thinking of the fact that Earl Stafford was found with the poem in his pocket at his death in 1943? Or might this be some kind of outgrowth from the key found on the dead Poe and said to open the trunk containing his manuscripts?
Hanks wondered whether Poe gave out copies of “Annabel Lee” before his death because he had foreknowledge of his impending doom; in truth, among other things, he sold a copy to a magazine to be printed, as he did with his other works, and gave a copy to a man whom he owed money to settle the debt. But because Hanks speculated that Poe knew he was about to die, this inspired Hanks to write an article about fiction that “predicted” the future. He refers in it to the “fact” that Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym duplicated circumstances from the sinking of the Mignonette in 1883. In both, he said, the “lowly cabin boy named Richard Parker” was cannibalized following a shipwreck. While the name is certainly a coincidence, the circumstances were quite different: Poe’s Parker was no boy, but a full grown man and a mutineer. The boy in the Mignonette was 17. Hanks also appears to attribute a phrase from the murder trial of the Mignonette cannibals (R. v. Dudley and Stephens [1884 14 QBD 273 DC])—that their act was a “custom of the sea”—to Poe’s Pym, where it doesn’t appear; he also seems to think that cannibalism was the custom of the sea, whereas the phrase, with an indefinite article, referred to any common practice not sanctioned by maritime law.
Anyway, Hanks’s article is once again a series of summaries from other sources, wrapped in a meaningless platitude: “Whether or not it is indeed evidence of psychic abilities or premonitions, it would certainly seem that on occasion the notion of ‘life imitating art’ does take on a whole new, and far more literal meaning.” This isn’t even half as thoughtful as when Helena Blavatsky, writing in the Secret Doctrine, proposed that fiction writers have special access to Theosophical truths from spirit realm. For Hanks, though, simply stating that a “mystery” exists is sufficient; understanding why it exists or what purpose it serves is secondary at best.
That leads us to his most recent article, from today, in which Hanks appears to have seen the October 16 episode of History’s True Monsters (S01E02) in which the Scottish legend of cannibal Alexander “Sawney” Bean was discussed and cited as an inspiration for the 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes. Hanks repeats the same information from the show, but his research seems to go no further than Wikipedia. All of his facts appear in the articles on Sawney Bean and fellow cannibal Christie-Cleek, and even the outside sources he quotes use only the quotations provided on Wikipedia. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Hanks’s article is little more than two rewritten Wikipedia pages, while managing to be less detailed and useful than either. Now, granted, there isn’t really a huge problem with turning to Wikipedia to get pointed to the facts, but when the article is nothing but Wikipedia facts with virtually no original analysis, criticism, or explanation, what is the purpose of writing it at all?
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.
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