Essays

Mr. Lovecraft Goes to China11 min read

Nick Stember delves into H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy, and a new Chinese collection inspired by it

Long a loomingly tenebrous presence in American pop culture, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the disturbing specter of H.P. Lovecraft slithered into Chinese. While the definitive history of Lovecraftian sino-fic remains to be written, Camphor Press’ new collection of Chinese short stories inspired by Lovecraft, The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories, may well be the first to survived the journey into English, thanks to translators Arthur Meursault and Akira.

Although Lovecraft’s work had found its way into Chinese as early as 2005 with a translation of August Derleth’s classic 1969 collection Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (credited to Hu Jianhong and Yu Yunling, published by Harbin Press under the title Myths of Lovecraft: Return of the Evil Gods), this particular iteration would seem to trace it’s eldritch origins back to late 2007, in the heady days before the bacchanal of the Beijing Olympics. On (one would imagine) a dark and stormy night of December 5, 2007, a subforum dedicated to the bestselling tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu (CoC) was launched on The Ring of Wonder (TROW), an online community for Chinese (and Chinese-speaking) fans of fantasy gaming, roleplaying and fiction.

Duly inspired to take up the pen, in July 2011 Oobmab (‘bamboo’ spelled backwards) posted his first Lovecraft-inspired story, ‘The Ancient Tower’ (古塔)  to the CoC These were followed by more stories, including the other three included in this collection: ‘Nadir’(天底, published November 2011), ‘Flock of Ba-Hui’ (巴虺牧群, December 2013) and ‘Black Taisui’ (黑太岁, January 2016).

While clearly drawing on Lovecraft (in his introduction to the collection, Meursault worries that his synopses of the stories “may sound a little too much within the Lovecraftian oeuvre, and there may be accusations of imitation”), oobmab’s stories seem to be inspired as much by Lovecraft as they are by the ever popular ‘tomb robbing’ (盗墓) genre, epitomized by Nanpai Sanshu’s net-novel Chronicles of the Tomb Robbers, serialized on Qiandian from 2006 to 2011, and anthologized into nine volumes allegedly selling over 20 million copies.

Genre fiction succeeds and fails to the extent that it is able to both adhere to a known formula while also playing the expectations of that same formula off against itself. With their ensemble casts of protagonists racing to solve a series of puzzles before time runs out, the conflict at the heart of tomb-robbing tales is often: what are you willing to give up in order to win the prize? For oobmab and Lovecraft before him, however, it is a Faustian thirst for knowledge, rather than greed, which brings the downfall of his increasingly isolated protagonists. In the face of the abyss, they find themselves utterly alone, providing a wry deconstruction of the tomb-robbing genre’s almost obligatory happy ending.

It is a Faustian thirst for knowledge, rather than greed, which brings the downfall of his increasingly isolated protagonists”

In the titular story, ‘Flock of Ba-Hui,’ an expedition of archeologists set out to discover the truth behind a fellow researcher’s disappearance. In a cavern deep below the earth, they come across the skeleton of a half-human beast:

This unexpected, looming horror was both sudden and short-lived. We picked our way around the skeleton, using our torches to navigate the bottom of the natural shaft — and were greeted by a maddening sight. Before us stretched an incredibly vast open plain, piled with behemoth platforms of stone. Throughout lay debris fallen from on high among a field of ash-grey bones. We had no way to guess how many had died here, nor what fate had befallen them. Some bones had been piled into small mounds, but most were scattered chaotically around. The dry underground environment had preserved much of their original appearance — the lonely scattered bones were perfectly intact, as if someone had nonchalantly left a body on the floor to decay for millennia.

Equally grim is ‘Nadir’. Less directly inspired by tomb robbing than the other three stories in the collection, it was posted by oobmab to the original fiction subforum of TROW. Meursault sees the story “tak[ing] us on a journey through many locations from the Dream Cycle – Ooth-Nargai, Dylath-Leen, Sona-Nyl” – a reading which I will have to leave to those with better grasp of Lovecraft-lore than myself. But the story itself is wonderfully unsettling, and every bit the kind of thing you might expect to find in “realms beyond our own.”

Although these four stories were originally unconnected, for their translation Meursault and Akira make the amusing decision to provide a linking frame, in which the stories are told by four guests (the Researcher, the Dreamer, the Historian, and the Anthropologist) to an unnamed narrator, who has brought them to an “abandoned farmhouse in the desolate regions of western China,” so that he might “learn from them some of the arcane mysteries that lie out of sight beyond the normal range of human knowledge.”

It’s an opening which echoes Lovecraft’s own claims, that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Here, though, a word of warning is perhaps in order. While oobmab’s collection – particularly as translated and framed by Meursault and Akira – is, if dark, pleasantly tongue in cheek, Lovecraft himself was anything but.

The birth of fan-fiction and fandom can both be traced back to Lovecraft”

Born into a family of failing New England nouveau riche in the last decade of “the Gilded Age” (a period described by historian of post-Civil War Reconstruction Rayford Logan as “the nadir of American race relations”), Gothic horror provided Lovecraft and his admirers with an Anglophilic foil for the twin terrors of miscegenation and immigration. Rather than being incidental to his fiction, as writers from Michel Houellebecq to Nnedi Okorafor have argued, it is not just fear of the unknown that is integral to the Lovecraftian project, but fear of the unknown other.

In turn, Lovecraft’s creations are embedded in the DNA of American speculative fiction – so much so that until 2015, the premier award for fantasy writing was literally a bust of his head. Mostly unknown during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s posthumous fame relies on a large body of deeply unsettling work which, not coincidentally, provides one of the earliest and most successful examples of collaborative, serialized world-building. In a sense, the birth of fan-fiction and fandom can both be traced back to Lovecraft.

Blatant ripoffs of more successful works had of course been a mainstay of the pulps from the very beginning; Harry Blyth’s Sexton Blake, for example, was referred to as “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes.” Lovecraft himself was no stranger to “creative repurposing,” borrowing liberally, as Robert Price has pointed out, from pioneering fantasy authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany and Robert W. Chambers, in addition to the esoteric theosophical “revelations” of Madame Blavatsky. Uniquely, however, Lovecraft was one of the first authors to actively encourage pastiches of his own work, initially taking the form of friends and acquaintances being invited to borrow “Elder Gods” and “Old Ones” from his pantheon of eldritch horrors, with their own creations being borrowed in turn.

More fundamentally, however, the stories penned by Lovecraft and his inner circle of outsiders reflect a profound pessimism about the human capacity for reason in what was, to Lovecraft, a “formless, infinite, unchanging and unchangeable void”. Lovecraft saw his writing in the tradition of “cosmic horror”, a tradition he delimited with characteristic bombast:

 Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

Derleth, Lovecraft’s posthumous publisher, never met the Man from Providence in person. Like many in Lovecraft’s circle, he was known to Lovecraft (who by one estimate wrote over 100,000 letters in his lifetime) through correspondence, and from being published in the same handful of magazines devoted to horror and weird fiction, the Chicago-based Weird Tales primary among them.

A prolific novelist, poet, short story writer, and 1938 Guggenheim fellow, Derleth spent most of his life in his home state of Wisconsin. He first contacted Lovecraft in 1926, the same year that Lovecraft’s short story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (from which Derleth borrowed his gloss) was published, and the two would go on to correspond extensively (at points, weekly) until the older author’s death from cancer of the small intestine in 1937. While controversial among cognoscenti for his Christian-tinged Manichean reinterpretation of what Robert Price (among others) sees as Lovecraft’s “morally neutral conception,” it is Derleth who is largely credited with rescuing Lovecraft from pulp obscurity, first and foremost by anthologizing and republishing his short stories and non-fiction through Arkham House, a press established explicitly for that purpose.

More fundamentally, but also more controversially, Derleth cemented Lovecraft’s legacy through his critical elaboration of Lovecraft’s original fictional universe under the banner of the Cthulhu Mythos. Whatever Lovecraft himself would have thought of the Mythos, its success can hardly be understated, going on to spawn countless short stories, novels, films, and even games – eventually catching the attention Chinese fans of horror, oobmab among them. Just taking fiction, a concordance published in 1999 lists over 2600 stories, with writers including William S. Burroughs, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Mike Mignola, Neil Gaiman and China Miéville citing the author as a direct influence on their work. Most obvious perhaps is the case of the director Guillermo del Toro, who has been trying for over a decade to bring Lovecraft’s 1931 Arctic exploration tale ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ to the silver screen.

Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that – with the exception of the odious Burroughs (who is holds the dubious honor of being only marginally less infamous for his anti-Semitism than his misogyny, having murdered his wife) – many of Lovecraft’s late 20th century heirs have taken his cosmic fear of the unknown other and re-crafted it into a criticism of the same. Consider, for example, Del Toro’s Oscar Award-winning Shape of Water, or Gaiman’s American Gods, both of which explicitly deal with the legacies of European colonialism, slavery and genocidal displacement of the First Nations through the lens of the supernatural.

While there are many more examples of works that have self-reflexively repurposed cosmic horror to comment on the disturbing resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia in the 2010s (Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country comes to mind), other authors of “weird fiction,” such as Jeff VanderMeer, have explicitly rejected Lovecraft’s legacy, not only due to the author’s deep-seated racism and misanthropy, but also because “[a] mode of fiction that eats itself, that becomes cannibalistic, cannot be said to be progressive or innovative in any real sense.”

For all of its lighthearted fun then, the translation of these stories into English provides an excellent opportunity for those with eye for detail to unpack some of the more serious issues that oobmab hints at without necessarily stating outright. For example, towards the beginning of the first story, we are given this description of coming across an Yi village in Western Sichuan, which highlights the social and economic isolation of non-Han groups within China:

As the road twisted around a prominent hillside, a plain and simple Yi village cropped up out of nowhere. … The ash-grey stonework and narrow, meagre windows silently told the village’s ancient history. A few of the larger, more ancient wooden constructions had been eroded by winds and rain to possess a dark dendritic gloom. The majority of the village were old people and children dressed in the traditional attire of the Yi. Young adults in their prime, all seeking more gainful employment in the city, had left the area, smothering it in a desperate, decaying desolation.

The setting of the story did not escape readers, albeit for other reasons. As one reader commented on the original post:

I came across this on Zhihu, such a great story. Especially the part where they are exploring the cave, I couldn’t stop reading. I had a thought though: Zhang Cunmen was in Sichuan from March to August, 2008. Could it be that the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12 brought the ancient kingdom of Southern Yu to light? Just a thought, it’s not necessarily right.

Fiction is, of course, only fiction; or as Freud put it, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar. Even so, I can’t help but wonder what the afterlives of stories like oobmab’s might be – how they might move through hidden paths and interstices of Chinese internet, mutating into less dark, but perhaps more visible forms. As Mersault and Akira write in their closing vignette, inspired by the final story in the collection:

“It is still moving?” asked the Historian, for it was he who spoke.
“Yes,” I said. “It moves.”
“Does it grow?”
“It is safe for now. It cannot leave its container.”
I did not raise this particular object from the box, for unlike the scroll and the painting, this vile, unnatural creation filled me with loathing and I felt more than an inkling of fear intermingled with my abhorrence. It continued to wriggle and squirm in its container in defiance of me, so I closed the box and decided to leave the room, heading into the cool night air to recollect my senses. ∎
Oobmab, The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories, trans. Arthur Meursault and Akira. (Camphor Press, Feb 2020)