Micah Hanks, H. P. Lovecraft Accused of (Separate) Efforts to Suppress Truth about Giants, Theosophy
Today I have two topics to discuss. The first is rather amusing in its way. You’ll remember Micah Hanks, the researcher into “giants” who published some criticism of me just about one year ago in which he took exception to my evaluation of claims for a Smithsonian conspiracy to suppress the existence of giants, not because there was any conspiracy but because giants are real. Anyway, a year later Hanks returned to Coast to Coast AM to discuss giants, and he was surprised that listeners accused him of being part of the conspiracy to suppress the truth about a lost race of Bible giants when he declined to endorse the most wide-ranging conspiracies:
Some have even tried to assert that I’m working to aid in a “scam of disinformation,” as one listener put it in an email, while others still have reported that I’ve intentionally overlooked discussion of skeletons that exceed nine feet in height, perhaps as part of some personal agenda I’m withholding from the public.
Hanks found himself in the position of defending the claim that humans between six and half and nine feet tall once existed in “numbers greater than today,” but not as a separate race, while denying that there was a genetically separate race of giants, or humans over nine feet tall.
This is very similar to Dr. Greg Little’s claim that the “giants” were between six foot six and roughly eight foot six, though he prefers to see them as a separate race.
I wonder what’s behind the move to downgrade the giants. For Hanks, it is plausibility: “Sadly, in my opinion many Americans are riddled with a variety of pathological thinking that caters to learning what we want to hear, rather than what the facts entail… and this leads to conspiracy theories.” But why should we necessarily trust an account from 1874, and not this one from Giovanni Boccaccio from 1374? “…those who can determine the total height of a man from the size of even the smallest of his bones calculated from this remnant that his size was two hundred cubits or more” (Genealogia deorum gentilium 4.68, my trans.). There were witnesses, after all. You don’t believe in a 300-foot giant? Absent the bones in both cases, what makes one old record claiming abnormal height more believable than another except for your trust in people making the record, trust that other errors and problems with Victorian science may not bear out?
Hanks believes that newspapers are untrustworthy, but earlier Smithsonian records are. Hanks discusses how believers in the giant skeletons are wrong to use old newspaper accounts, but that evidence exists in the form of “actual records for large skeletons in the Smithsonian archives that corresponded with newspaper reports.” The trouble is that those records from the late 1800s may or may not correspond to actual bones as we might measure them today. The people who collected them and wrote the records were, by and large, not professional anthropologists and often enough not formally trained in science or medicine, and we have no idea how they measured the overall height of a disarticulated skeleton. Accession labels often reflect whatever was given in the field report, whether or not it corresponded to reality. And when these records are corrected—as in the case of the famous Arkansas stone coffins that were relabeled (correctly) as wooden troughs—fringe writers cry conspiracy, as David Childress did when Frederick Pohl found that the stone coffins had been wrongly labeled.
A Cthulhu Conspiracy
On another topic,Christopher Loring Knowles, author of Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes (2007), wrote a piece on the origins of the Cthulhu Mythos that made two unusual claims and then used them to “shovel dirt on” what Knowles wrongly sees as (apparently) my claim that Lovecraft invented ancient astronauts. He didn’t invent them; he popularized them and gave shape to a nebula of half-formed earlier claims from Theosophy to Garrett P. Serviss to Charles Fort. He was instrumental, though, in creating the specific version of the ancient astronaut theory, as developed by Pauwels and Bergier and their copyists.
Knowles’s Spandex attempted to make the case that superheroes emerged from a combination of ancient mythology and Theosophy during the pulp era. He therefore has an interest in promoting the primacy of Theosophy, as we shall see.
The first claim is that Lovecraft derived much of the plot and color for “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) from Jack London’s “The Red One,” an early ancient astronaut story that ran in Cosmopolitan magazine in October 1918. I discussed this claim briefly last year when I added “The Red One” to my Library. The long and short of it is that Lovecraft certainly did read stories by Jack London, but there is no specific evidence that he read this one, though it is likely he did. How much he took from it, though, is debatable since the “unique” elements Knowles points to—the island setting, the strange carvings, etc.—were already present in Lovecraft’s story “Dagon,” written in 1917 (but not published until 1919) and widely acknowledged to be a dry run for “Cthulhu,” and the concept of cosmic beings coming to earth and leaving tribespeople in awe was already the subject of J.-H. Rosny aine’s “The Xipéhuz.”
The second claim is less secure. Knowles claims that Lovecraft was more deeply familiar with Theosophy than the evidence warrants. Knowles asserts similarities to the work of Alice Bailey, the Theosophist who claimed that aliens from Sirius had induced the evolution of humans from the apes. Lovecraft himself was quite clear that he had very little direct knowledge of Theosophy beyond what he read in W. Scott-Elliot’s omnibus edition of The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria (1925), which contained all of the alien intervention claims one would need to generate the Cthulhu Mythos. It is the reason he referenced Theosophy seven times in “Cthulhu.” He read the book in early 1926, just before writing “Cthulhu,” which is fairly strong evidence of influence.
Scott-Elliott, for example, had written of “Beings who came from the Venus system as rulers and teachers,” who brought wheat to the earth, ruled over its people as gods, and raised cyclopean cities and statues to their own honor in the most ancient of days. He wrote of how the alien races could transfer their consciousness to earthlings—a theme Lovecraft recycled frequently! Sound familiar? Lovecraft did not hide this borrowing.
Anyway, Lovecraft made quite clear that he had little other direct knowledge beyond what his correspondent E. Hoffman Price provided to him long after writing “Cthulhu,” as he admits in a letter of February 18, 1933 to Clark Ashton Smith:
Price has dug up another cycle of actual folklore involving an allegedly primordial thing called The Book of Dzyan, which is supposed to contain all sorts of secrets of the Elder World before the sinking of Kusha (Atlantis) and Shalmali (Lemuria). It is kept at the Holy City of Shamballah, and is regarded as the oldest book in the world—its language being Senzar (ancestor of Sanscrit), which was brought to earth 18,000,000 years ago by the Lords of Venus. I don’t know where E. Hoffmann got hold of this stuff, but it sounds damn good…
Now we have a problem. Lovecraft claims in 1933 not to have known about Theosophy and its myths, yet he wrote “Cthulhu” in 1926. Thus he could not have explicitly based “Cthulhu” on Alice Bailey’s work, except for the parts that filtered to him (largely unknowingly) through Scott-Elliot. Only later did he learn more from Price. That later influence is especially strong in Price’s contributions to the joint collaboration “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” which is markedly more Theosophical than “Cthulhu,” describing chains of beings and other supernatural claptrap familiar from Theosophy. (Price’s role vis-à-vis Theosophy can be seen by comparing the published story to Price’s original draft, later published as “The Lord of Illusion.” The Theosophical material is all his.)
So how does Knowles deal with the chronological trouble?
I would suggest that it's highly probable Lovecraft had access to this literature and it's possible he was keeping it secret from his circle of correspondents (or at least some of them), most likely to safeguard a source for material.
Yes, it’s a conspiracy. The man who wouldn’t shut up about every possible source for weird fiction supposedly conspired to keep his vast knowledge of Theosophy secret—from his correspondents, like Price, who already knew of it!
Knowles goes on to cite Lovecraft’s professed excitement at discovering Theosophical material (secondhand) in 1933 as evidence that he somehow used it in 1926. Knowles even has the gumption to suggest that elements of Theosophy that appear in Besant but not Lovecraft or Scott-Elliot were purposely rejected by Lovecraft! Parsimony would suggest he borrowed instead directly from Scott-Elliot.
Amazing. Lovecraft must have been confident his audience—young, male, nerdy—would never go near Theosophist literature, which was written for a largely older, mostly female audience. How else can you explain such brazen appropriation?
Well, it’s fiction for one thing, and fiction makes use of all sorts of influences to tell stories. (The plagiarism allegations against True Detective from taking influence from the non-fiction philosophy of Thomas Ligotti are ridiculous for similar reasons.)
But what takes the cake is that Knowles cites Robert M. Price’s article on Lovecraft and Theosophy which refutes Knowles’s own thesis with much of the evidence I just presented above!
Nevertheless, all of this, Knowles says, proves that Lovecraft borrowed the idea of ancient astronauts from Besant and thus did not, as he (without mentioning me by name) claims I say, invent ancient astronauts. (He cites Twelfth Planet as a favorite book and seems to have an interest in establishing a nonfiction basis for ancient astronauts.) But I don’t believe Lovecraft invented the concept. Even in my Cult of Alien Gods (2005), written long before I knew half as much as I do today, I specified that he derived the concept from the ancient astronauts of Charles Fort and Theosophy. What Lovecraft did was to give them a scientific-materialist (rather than spiritual-occult) cast and package them in a way that allowed them to transmit Theosophy’s claims to other artists, writers, thinkers, and hucksters. This is how the ancient astronaut theory ended up in Morning of the Magicians (1960), in which Pauwels and Bergier cite Lovecraft explicitly.
That’s why, for example, Lovecraft is more important to understanding ancient astronauts than Jack London or J.-H. Rosny aine. They didn’t inspire a nonfiction bestseller about ancient aliens. But if you are going to try to make an argument about Theosophy and Lovecraft, having your facts straight should be a prerequisite to rewriting a half century or more of Lovecraft scholarship based on a hunch and a gut feeling.
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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