Madness Takes Its Toll: H.P. Lovecraft, Erich Von Daniken, and the Rise of Credulity

Madness Takes Its Toll: H.P. Lovecraft, Erich Von Daniken, and the Rise of Credulity

[This article is going to open a whole can of worms. I know it already. I’m expecting a certain segment of our reader base to be angered by this article. But I must make my witness.]

Greetings, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! Let’s talk about Ancient Aliens for a minute here.  You all know what I’m talking about — the belief that space aliens came to Earth in the distant past and were mistaken as gods, built the pyramids, et cetera, et cetera.  It’s an idea that’s experiencing a renaissance; it was used as a plot device in Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS, for example, and it’s the basis of a blood-boilingly shitty show on the History Channel produced by and starring that big-haired Greek jackanape Giorgio Tsoukalos.

Let me just say this real quick.

ANCIENT ASTRONAUT THEORY IS INTELLECTUAL FRAUD.

In the best-case scenario, belief that aliens built the pyramids is a simple case of being misinformed or uninformed regarding actual legitimate archaeology.  More commonly, though, Ancient Astronaut Theory is the vehicle of smirking hucksters preaching a gospel of lies to a public left vulnerable by a decreased emphasis on developing critical thinking skills.  At worst, Ancient Astronaut Theory is gussied-up racism, arguing that non-whites were incapable of building edifices such as the pyramids of Africa and Central America.

And Ancient Astronaut Theory is a brand of pseudoscientific bullshit I have been quite proud to champion legitimate science against.  Which brings me to the actual subject of this article: reviewing Jason Colavito’s excellent study, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture.  Colavito, a regular contributor to Skeptic magazine, has traced Ancient Astronaut theory’s history, and found a surprising point of origin.

That’s right, Ancient Alien Theory as it exists today has its ultimate roots in the cosmic horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), a fact that would make Lovecraft, a hardcore scientific realist who considered the stories he wrote to be “sheer fun,” shit himself in rage and despair.

Our story begins with Charles Fort.  A collector of news of the odd and unusual, Fort synthesized his rather bulky collection of notes and newspaper clippings into a number of books: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932).  In The Book of the Damned, Fort speculates, in his erratic and stream-of-consciousness way, that possibly some of the “rains” of coal, ash, and debris he’s recorded instances of are the result of spaceships plying the airways far above our heads, and that the pilots of these ships may have interacted with humanity at some point, including speculating idly that maybe the blue skin of the ancient Britons was not woad-based paint, but that they were actually blue.

Lovecraft reads this with a chuckle, and makes a note to write a story about aliens interacting with ancient peoples.

In 1926, Lovecraft pens what becomes his most famous tale, “The Call of Cthulhu.”  An epistolary tale assembled in the framing story by a young man going through his uncle’s collection of notes and newspaper clippings, the story unfolds the gradual realization that in ancient times, alien beings came to Earth and by the power of their minds influenced humanity’s development, before being sealed away by the endless cycle of the cosmos.  A cult dedicated to the eventual resurrection of these beings persists into the present time.

In 1931, Lovecraft writes “At The Mountains of Madness,” in which hapless explorers discover evidence that not only did aliens come to Earth in ancient times, but that their genetic experiments may have given rise to humanity in the first place.  This is Lovecraft’s scientific materialism; well-versed in evolutionary biology, Lovecraft is here rejecting the religious notion of Man as a divinely inspired Special Creation by inverting it — Man is an Accidental Creation of godlike entities from beyond the stars.

In 1937, Lovecraft dies of bowel cancer, and his work would have been forgotten if not for the efforts of his friend and sometimes-collaborator, August Derleth.  Derleth, however, in penning new stories of the Cthulhu Mythos, shoehorns the Great Old Ones into A) a Judeo-Christian “Good and Evil” dichotomy and B) a fourway classification based on the classical elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. In 1939, Derleth released The Outsider and Others, a hardcover collection of Lovecraft’s prose.

World War II rolls around, and for the benefit of soldiers experiencing lulls in combat, the U.S. Government has cheap paperback books printed by the tens of thousands to be delivered to the troops.  Among these are a collection of Lovecraft’s tales.  Though Lovecraft failed to find much notoriety in life, his stories proved surprisingly popular among the GIs in France.  Following the war, many of these paperbacks were left circulating in France, where Lovecraft experienced a surprising renaissance of popularity.

1960, France.  The book The Morning of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier is released.  An overview treatise on a wide range of occult topics, it becomes a best-seller.  Pauwels and Bergier had previously served as editors of the magazine Planète, which had reprinted Lovecraft’s stories for years.  In The Morning of the Magicians, Pauwels and Bergier claim that an exhaustive study of comparative religions had revealed an underlying truth to them: that Mankind was predated by a superior race of beings.

The Morning of the Magicians, in its German translation, is cited in Erich von Daniken’s famous 1968 best-seller, Chariots of the Gods?, and indeed, most of his major points supporting the notion that aliens were a major force in humanity’s past initially appear in The Morning of the Magicians.

Having explained this history, Colavito then follows the thread forward, from 1968 to the present day, examining along the way Zecharia Stitchin’s claims of a 12th planet, Nibiru, where amphibious aliens known as the Annunaki originated from before coming to Earth to educate the Sumerians; Graham Hancock’s claims of an Atlantis-like globe-spanning civilization that built the Sphinx 17,000 years ago; suppositions of advanced astronomical knowledge among the Dogon tribesmen of Africa; the explosion of UFOs into human consciousness from 1947 to the present; and modern-day UFO cults such as Heaven’s Gate, who committed mass-suicide to send their souls to a spaceship following Comet Hale-Bopp, and the Raelian organization which claims to have cloned a human being.

All of this Colavito ties into a rise in credulous thinking; in the 18th century, when we had the Age of Reason, we also had the Romantic Movement, the wet blankets who were pissed at the idea of trying to understand the world and so retreated into a backwards belief that the past was better and people were happier when they didn’t try to understand the world and were content to attribute everything to forces beyond their capacity to understand.  While the Romantic Movement produced some excellent music, as a worldview it kind of sucks, and if it had caught on too strong we’d all be outside crapping into a ditch.  Colavito argues that with the 1950s-1960s-1970s counter-culture movement, we experienced a rising distrust of authority figures (like that jowled motherfucker, Nixon).  And you know what group as a whole is made entirely of authority figures? SCIENTISTS.  Colavito argues that we’re now experiencing a new Romantic Movement in the wake of this anti-authoritarian movement.

This, in turn, led to a decreased value being placed on being able to think critically about things we see, hear and read.  This decrease in critical thinking is why we have 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, JFK assassination conspiracy theorists, and yes, Ancient Astronaut adherents.  Because we’re losing the ability to dissect concepts, coupled with the post-modern relativism that preaches a democratization of ideas, that every idea is equally valid.

Colavito’s book (an elaboration on an article he’d published in Skeptic magazine in 2004) is beautifully thorough and well-researched, and pleasantly annotated to reveal his sources — though, I have to say, I hate end-notes (as used here), and find foot-notes much more useful.  If you were to hold a gun to my head and demand that I find fault with the book, I’d say that at times Colavito’s professional detachment from the subject matter slips, and the passion with which he’s combating this credulity shines through, occasionally in acidly-worded passages such as when pointing out that Graham Hancock sued the BBC for presenting a documentary expressing skepticism of his statements regarding the age of the Sphinx.  Given the degree to which individuals such as Tsoukalos and Hancock push their deceptive revisionist agendas, I don’t think Colavito is being unfair; indeed, I think he gives these individuals a fairer shake then their ilk gives him and his.

Colavito’s ultimate conclusion to the book is a frightening one, pointing out that in a sense, Lovecraft was truly a prophet.  If one reads “when the stars come right” as “when in the cycle of human thinking, superstition again holds sway over science” and read “the Great Old Ones” as “totalitarianism, genocide and terrorism” and “return” as “become more and more prevalent,” then…

…then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.


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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

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