Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Farewell Thomas the Tank Engine, and beware; for I am Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!

Nyarlathotep in one of his thousand forms
Thomas the Tank Engine stories are moralizing. They tell us about listening to what we are told and avoiding arrogance. Almost every story features an engine failing to listen to the Fat Controller - later Sir Topham Hatt - and thinking they know best. Eventually this creates a problem and they are told sternly that they have created "confusion and delay." When they remedy the problem they are told they are a "really useful engine."

Recently I read a blog post by horror author David Nickle on the racism of Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft - a hugely influential writer for horror, science fiction and fantasy - was extremely racist. He was, perhaps, an extreme example of racism even in his own time. Nickle tells of panels he has sat on where he tried to raise the issue of Lovecraft's racism. It fell flat each time.

Now I don't personally worry very much about Lovecraft's racism. He was definitely, definitely racist. Sometimes his racism oozes into his work and it really leaps off the page at you. But he's been dead for a while now. I can't exactly sit him down and have a talk with him about his attitudes, and reading his public domain works at The H.P. Lovecraft Archive isn't supporting his attitudes in any way.

What Nickle does, though, is tries to pin Lovecraft's racism to his work:
I'd make the case that Lovecraft's fiction--and Lovecraftian horror--depends on the xenophobia that was endemic to Lovecraft's work to the point that without it, many of his stories lose their unique and uniquely profound effect.
He illustrates this point by describing how subsequent writers who modeled their work after Lovecraft tried to fill the gap left by the lack of xenophobia:
Charles Stross has good fun with Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos in his Laundry books, without appearing to draw on anxiety much deeper than a solid recollection of a bad time working I.T.  Where Stross blends espionage adventure with the Mythos, Laird Barron blends noirish elements with pseudo-Mythos tropes to explore themes that are nearer to Jim Thompson's brand of nihilism than Lovecraft's. Thomas Ligotti cheerily swaps out xenophobia for all-out misanthropy.
I couldn't disagree with Nickle more. I think that Lovecraft's racism is a side-note. I think his stories would work just as well without it. The fear that Lovecraft taps into isn't the fear of the unknown, it is the fear of meaninglessness. Cthulhu isn't terrifying because he is unknowable, unknowability is just a reminder that there are things in the universe much more important than we are that we can't understand and to which we don't matter. Lovecraft's horror is the horror of the Total Perspective Vortex. It is the idea that knowing how truly insignificant you are would drive you insane.

The Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who wrote the stories on which Thomas the Tank Engine was based, tapped into this fact to produce stories that are compelling to children. The ultimate goal of Thomas and his friends is to be really useful engines. There are some stories where they imply that engines wish to be useful for fear of being scrapped but that never comes to be so I take it to be a kind of fantasy - like a child worrying that his parents won't love him if he doesn't meet certain conditions.

From my own experience, my toddler is most engaged when she is being helpful. Whether its baking, putting together furniture, or any other task that produces a tangible result, I always look for ways to include her and allow her to make a contribution. While she won't put away her toys, go to bed or come to dinner when asked, she'll jump and run if we ask her to fetch us a diaper or a blanket for her baby sister. When we tell her she's been very helpful she beams.

She's a little young to start wondering if maybe the muffins and the chair and even her sister and herself don't matter. I also wouldn't be surprised if worrying about meaninglessness is a somewhat gendered activity - H.P. Lovecraft fans seem to be mostly male and philosophy is the malest of field of academia.  But I'm sure most people regardless of gender, at some point in their lives, experience at least one moment of existential horror or one crisis of faith where they wonder what the point of their lives is.

I have read that Lovecraft really believed that we were ultimately insignificant in the universe. He thought that the march of science would bring us to that realization and when it did we would, for the most part, lose our collective minds. I think he failed to understand the march of history and that the paradoxes of one generation become the clichés of the next. Existential horror is still a thing, but what is capable of triggering it in us changes drastically over time.

Something that Thomas the Tank Engine doesn't teach is that one day you will no longer be able to get a sense of meaning from other people and you will have to find one for yourself. Thomas and his friends have Sir Topham Hatt to tell them what to do and to validate them when they do it. Reverend Awdry fades and Lovecraft enters when Sir Hatt says, "Thomas, you are a really useful engine," and Thomas thinks, "But am I? What was really accomplished by delivering that coal?"

That, not xenophobia, is the basis of Lovecraft. Azathoth is a metaphor for a universe that doesn't care about you. I'm firmly convinced that all of my favourite Lovecraft stories could be edited to remove the racist elements without damaging their central point. So I think that Nickle is just plain wrong about Lovecraft. He was a racist when he was alive, but now he is nothing, and I think the racism baked into his work is just an embarrassment, not a linchpin.

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