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August 24, 2010

HP Lovecraft’s influence on heavy metal music

Metal History, Metalheads Who Read, Tr00 Metal Life

So, why would a metal blog like Steff Metal dedicate an entire two weeks of posts to the work of HP Lovecraft? One could argue that if I were to write a book about all the awesomely grymm things in the universe that have influenced metal, at least one hundred and eighty-five pages would be dedicated to Lovecraft. The Great Old Ones and metal go together, like houses and fires, or esoteric knowledge and insanity.

(Excuse the rambling nature of this musing – I have been ill the last few days and and my head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton wool).

Call-of-cthulhu-card-game

Call of Cthulhu: the game

No one can deny Lovecraft’s influence on the horror genre – which rivals only that of his admired predecessor, Edgar Allen Poe. So it’s only natural that metal – which takes much inspiration from horror literature, would find a kindred spirit in Lovecraft’s prose.

Lovecraft’s bleak cosmic horror populated by unspeakable . The themes of forbidden knowledge, civilization under threat, religion and the insignificance of mankind find particular resonance among black metal artists, and indeed, if I were to score a soundtrack for one of Lovecraft’s stories, it would mostly consist of Celtic Frost.

But on another level, bands use Lovecraft’s creatures in a similar way to many other modern pop cultures – as signifiers for evoking emotional responses within listeners. Because of Lovecraft’s popularity, most people recognize the words “Cthulhu” and “Shoggoth” and “Necronomicon”, even if they’ve never read one of Lovecraft’s books. The terms become a catch-all for otherworldly, terrifying beings, and as such, begin to become a parody of themselves.

Cthulhu and Geekdom: The Pop-culture phenomenon

Don’t you just hate it when something you love becomes really, really popular, and suddently all the “cool” kids are doing it, and you’re not weird and odd anymore – you’re just trendy?

Yeah, old-school HP Lovecraft fans – you can thank Choasium for that. With the release of the Call of Cthulhu RPG game, and the subsequent adoption of Lovecraft’s mythos in other RPG, computer and console games, Lovecraft and Cthulhu have become almost mainstream, at least amongst a more geek-centre subculture.

cthulhuforpresident

cthulhu for president campaign

In recent years, with the rise of internet and geek culture, “Geekdom” – things that were once relegated to tubby men with greasy skin and no hope of ever getting laid – has become mainstream. Suddenly, it was cool to own Star-Wars memorabilia, fix computers and have an opinion on Strar Trek DS9. You weren’t anybody if you hadn’t clocked Diablo II or Age of Empires, and … you would be the cool person at a party if you could pull out the Cthulhu jokes.

Most people I know recognize Cthulhu – either through their geeky interests like computer or console games or through references in metal songs – but they’ve never read any of HP Lovecraft’s work. And if they tried, they might throw it against the wall in disgust (HP’s archaic, lumpy prose is notoriously difficult to read).

As such, I split Lovecraft fans into two “schools” – fans of the author and his work specifically, and fans of his “mythos” and the almost-subculture it has spawned. It’s not dissimiliar from Lord of the Rings fans, when you think about it. Lovecraft’s contribution to the wider horror and geek community is more than just the sum total of his stores and letters – it’s the blueprints for a world anyone can enter and add to. Much the same as Tolkien’s books essentially ushered in the birth of the modern fantasy tale.

Now, unfortunately, the mythos has been overused. It’s become a parody of itself. The self-depreciating “geek humor” has, bit by bit, dissipated the true horror of Lovecraft’s stories. Now people find him dull, boring. But Cthulhu is the great Geek in-joke – it’s almost as if we think by embracing the tentacled beast, we will be spared his almighty hunger.

And the metal music has both helped and hindered this cause. Some of the classic Lovecraft-inspired metal songs: Black Sabbath’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, Metallica’s “Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing that Should Not Be” and Morbid Angel’s “The Ancient Ones” – create the perfect atmosphere: desolute, bleak, forboding, harrowing. But others – such as Bal-Sagoth’s efforts and the Black Dahlia Murder’s “Thy Horror Cosmic” – drag Cthulhu from that realm of terrifying into the realm of “This Cthulhu fellow – he’s pretty cool.” And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does rather remove the forbidden and terrifying aura surrounding Lovecraft – when Cthulhu is cool, can he still be terrifying?

Otherworldliness

I think metal draws on Lovecraft more than any other musical genre, because the otherworldliness of his stories parallels the world metal attempts to create.

When we think of metal music, two words immediately come to mind: dark, and epic. (or Grymm and Epic, if you will ☺). Musicians use low tuning, rising and building tensions, the “devid’s triad” and inhuman-sounding vocals to unsettle – to take the listener far away from their comfort zone. They incorporate elements from other musical styles – ecclesiastical choirs add tones of ritual worship, classical strings add deep tones and haunting ambience, electronic sounds and effects pedals give alien effects, and chanted lyrics and varying vocal styles invite listeners to enter another world. And they use elaborate costumes, marketing, stage sets and props to bring their alternate world to life.

Sounds an awful lot like the devices used by Lovecraft and other authors of the Cthulhu Mythos, no? It’s fascinating to me that literary and musical technique often mirror each other – the rules of storytelling are universal, as they say.

Race and Class

“The prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattos, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetishism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with surprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.” HP Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu

Another interesting factor to note is how race and class effect the musical interpretations of Lovecraft. At the time of his writing, eugenics, anti-Catholicism, nativism, anti-semitism and racial segregation were life-as-usual in the US, so it’s no surprise his work reflects these policies. He commonly associates virtue, intellect, civilization and rational thinking with WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants), although this also owes much to his admiration for 18th and 19th century society.

He frequently called out white people of non-Anglo Saxon descent – saying of the descendants of Dutch immigrants in the Catskill Mountains “[they] correspond exactly to the decadent element of white trash in the South”. His unapologetic German U-boat narrator in “The Temple” massacres helpless survivors and kills his own crew. He held the English in the highest regard, and their American cousins as second, and everyone else thereafter, down to those he considered stupid, uncivilized and morally inferior – the lower classes and ethnic minorities (especially blacks). He named his cat “Nigger-Man”. In his letters, descriptions of immigrants focus on one word – alien – making them the perfect worshippers of alien gods.

cthulhu-guitar

Cthulhu guitar!

While metal has become more of a global tribe, it retains some of its own class associations. What began in the UK as a predominantly white working class movement, quickly skipped over to the US as a WASP fad. When metal moved underground, it become once again a working class hero – although one might argue the resurging popularity of “core” styles (as well at the folk metal movement in Europe) are pushing it back into the middle class. Despite a thriving worldwide ethic metal community and fierce local style popping up all over the world, metal IS dominated with white musicians and fans. Many of metal’s songs could be said to include “white” heroes, or focus on “white” problems and “white” worlds.

It is on issues of class that Lovecraft and metal divide. Lovecraft holds the working classes in scorn, while looking up to gentlemen, whereas, in most metal music, the roles are reversed. Perhaps this is why, when writing about Lovecraftian themes, metal bands tend to focus on events from the point of view of Cthulhu’s worshippers (lower classes, in Lovecraft’s tales) or on invoking the creatures themselves. Metal has always seen the positivie side in aligning oneself with malevolent beings, so adopting the vestments of the cultists seems fitting.

In contrast, Cradle of Filth, always embracing their portrayel as the English Aristorcrats of mayhem, write from the same point of view as Lovecraft’s upper class characters, and with their gothic trappings, they pull off a successful series of decadent classics “Cthulhu Dawn” and “Mother of Abominations”.

Lovecraftian scholar Michel Houellebecq suggests Lovecraft’s “racial hatred” provided the emotional force and inspiration for much of the writer’s greatest work. Here we see another parallel with extreme metal, where matters of race, class and culture often fuel some of the most truly awe-inspiring, emotional music. Never afraid to embrace the darker sides of their personalities, musicians have used metal to explore many of the same themes employed by Lovecraft: religion, anti-Semitism, racism and political unrest. For dark music – as in dark literature – you need dark emotions.

cradle of filth

Cradle of Filth

According to Lovecraft biographer L. Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft’s racial views softened in his latter years, because increased travel exposed him to people of diverse ethnicity. Sprague de Camp shows Lovecraft enjoyed baiting people he considered his intellectual inferiors by using a deadpan tone to expunge views he thought would offend them, and watch them attempt to argue their case. He believes stories of Lovecraft’s profound racism might have stemmed from this practice.

Cthulhu Metal

What is it about Lovecraft that makes him so appealing to heavy metal musicians?

It’s simple, really. Lovecraft’s stories thrive on gloomy, bleak atmospheres, building and rising tension, archaic symbolisms and a profound sense that all good in the world is coming to an end. Metal takes those themes and techniques and turns them into music.

So – if you’ve managed to make sense of any of this rambling, I ask – why do you think metal musicians love to explore Lovecraftian themes in their music? Do you think the geek culture’s embracing of Cthulhu as that “cute, cuddly, tentacled monster everyone loves to love” has tarnished the impact of Lovecraft’s books and the media (not just music, but books and comics and movies and games) inspired by him? How do you think issues of race and class impact Lovecraft’s books and how does metal translate these into its own milieu? I welcome any thoughts, comments and criticisms.

7 Comments on “HP Lovecraft’s influence on heavy metal music

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October 6, 2011 at 12:18 am

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Brett Gundersen
June 15, 2011 at 8:51 pm

As for why I think metal loves to explore Lovecraftian themes. Lovecraft IS metal before it existed. If Lovecraft were alive today, and was a musician, he’d be in a metal band…or he’d have a solo career making strange sounds with kettle drums and pulling strings attached to puppet monsters that shoots large quantities of PCP into the audience.(he may have a different selection of drugs, I’m just guessing)

Brett Gundersen
June 15, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Ever since I started reading Lovecraft 6 years ago, I’ve been hooked. Lovecraft IS horror. I have yet to read anything, even by Stephen King, that has truly horrified me. I believe, as Lovecraft states, “The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.” This, to me, sums up everything Lovecraft is, and is one of two quotes I cannot get enough of. The other is this,
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
THAT, is truly amazing writing, and it still rings true today. One of the greatest things about his writing (besides the writing ITSELF) is the fact that it’s still inspiring people to this day, as I’m sure it will for YEARS to come.

JBThazard
April 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Lovecraft appreciation month…..I love this

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