Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today is our 200th post! In celebration, we’re watching Sean Patrick O’Reilly’s Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom, released in October 2016 and based on a graphic novel published in 2009. Spoilers ahead.
“Friends don’t eat each other. Unless they get very hungry.”
Once upon a dreary time, we find young Howard Lovecraft living not in his beloved Providence but in what appears to be dreary rural seclusion, in the dreary house of paternal relation Mary Lovecraft. Mother Sarah drags him to see father Winfield at an institution very much NOT Butler Hospital, run by Dr. West. Yes, the ethically challenged prototype of THAT Dr. West, who keeps Winfield locked babbling in a bare cell. Winfield’s birthday visit with his cringing son doesn’t go well—he raves about words and symbols he should never have seen, that drove him mad, that Howard must avoid. He denounces a King Alhazred and his Necronomicon, which Howard must destroy! When he starts clutching at the boy, West and his thuggish orderly subdue Winfield, and Sarah and Howard hurry from the asylum. But Winfield has surreptitiously passed a gift to his son, a coin imprinted with a strange five-pointed star.
That night Sarah gives the troubled Howard his father’s “journal,” which bears a star-symbol like that on the coin. Howard sits in bed poring over its diagrams, drawings and formulae. He reads about a place called R’lyeh, where a terrible god lies dreaming, one day to wake and destroy the world. He whispers aloud a string of barely pronounceable syllables. Oops! They conjure a glowing portal on his bedroom floor, into which he falls for a shrieking kaleidoscopic eternity or two.
At last he lands (with bed) in an icebound realm very obviously NOT Rhode Island. Curiosity overcoming initial shock, Howard explores the glacial landscape. Suddenly a huge tentacle-faced, bat-winged, vaguely anthropomorphic creature leaps out and gives hungry pursuit! The chase only ends when the monster slips into a crevasse and begs Howard for help. After Howard lends a hand, the monster is at his service and gives him a ride to the house of some friends, where Howard can spend the night. Along the way we learn the monster calls himself Thu Thu Hmong, but Howard decides to call him Spot.
The friends turn out to be a charming mix of squid, octopus and humanoid—four parentless children caring for themselves. [RE: Probably Deep Ones? They look like Deep Ones.] Gotha, the eldest, tells Howard he’s in the kingdom of R’lyeh. She remembers another like himself, a bold traveler who visited her people years ago. Between them, they figure out this must have been Winfield Lovecraft!
Asleep by the childrens’ fire, Howard dreams of a book, and a vast door, and a monster that seizes him. Also of an icy castle to which he must go. He and Spot set out for it in the morning. Along the way, Howard teaches Spot how to make snowmen, throw snowballs and otherwise “play.” (Meanwhile, a goblin-like creature with mechanical wings tracks them for that icy castle’s ruler, who’s long awaited the coming of another Lovecraft…)
The castle crowns a disturbingly deserted city. That situation changes at the castle gates, where the pair are greeted by spear-wielding goblins (or “govlins,” as the cast list would have us know.) Howard and Spot endure dangling over a boiling cauldron before a gaunt masked “envoy,” (possibly Nyarlathotep) leads them to R’lyeh’s ruler.
Algid Bunk is nowhere near as imposing as her name. In fact, she looks like she could be Howard’s grandmother with her upswept white hair and her staid black Edwardian gown. She proclaims him the one come to save R’lyeh from its cursed eternal winter. It was not always so. Once it was a blessed and beautiful place, but that was before Cthulhu and his dark hordes came to raven and destroy. Desperate magic froze them to sleep, but still they remain, and the land was frozen as well. Nothing thaws, nothing changes. Howard must find the third part of the Necronomicon held by the dread Shoggoth so that evil can be dispelled and harmony restored to R’lyeh!
Despite Spot’s reluctance, Howard accepts the mission. They trek to the Shoggoth’s cave. Howard confronts the toothy, many-eyed, many-appendaged monstrosity. It has much to monologue about concerning Great Old Ones and Elder Gods and destruction and deceit before it gets on with the business of devouring Howard. This gives Spot time to bull his way into the cave and save his little master by getting eaten himself! Luckily Howard drops that star-imprinted coin he got from Winfield. The Shoggoth recoils and melts away, ululating “The Elder Sign, no!”
Spot trudges out of the Shoggoth puddle unharmed. He doesn’t like the Elder Sign either—very powerful symbol, that. Howard pockets it. They return to the castle and give Algid the Shoggoth’s Necronomicon. She’ll now restore R’lyeh, yes? Yes, but not to harmony and light, it seems. Her grandmotherly facade drops, revealing her to be a gorgon-visaged monster! One kingdom is not enough for her—she’ll have them all through the power of the Necronomicon, for she is in fact King Alhazred, and her first feat of magic will be to finish the waking of Cthulhu that Howard started—for Thu Thu Hmong is the Great Destroyer, but still half-asleep! [RE: Truly astounding, the only entitity in the universe Who’s nicer before coffee.]
Cue soundtrack outburst and start of climactic sequence. Algid/Alhazred chants from THE BOOK. Spot begins to change for the worse, red sigils flaring on his shoulders. Howard struggles to talk him back, but govlins close in with distracting spears. The throne room doors slam open. It’s Gotha and siblings, the squid-octopus-human ninjas (who knew), come to Howard’s aid! They make quick work of the govlins. No matter, sneers Algid, summoning nightgaunts from the floor. Uh oh. Time for Gotha to execute a mighty ninja leap, snatch the Necronomicon from Algid, and deliver it to Howard. A Lovecraft, she says, will know how to use it.
And after a couple of stutters, Howard does know how. He turns evil Cthulhu back into nice Thu Thu Hmong aka Spot, zaps the night gaunts, and forces Algid to scuttle like a spider out a shattered skylight, vowing to return one day in another of her many forms.
With R’lyeh free to thaw out, Howard magics himself back home. He has hopes that his father with the evil he inadvertantly set in motion reversed, will now recover his sanity. He also hopes to continue his adventures in strange corners of the multiverse. Hopes likely to come true, given the sequels to this masterpiece that IMDb lists…
What’s Cyclopean: Howard is startled when “Spot” refers to a snowman as a “simulacrum.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Normally we side-eye hard the trope of the savage attacker made obsequious by a minor act of kindness, and calling their savior “master.” We may be willing to give a pass when the attacker in question turns out to be an eldritch entity for whom “sleeping” turns out to be code for “passing as a mild-mannered animal companion.”
Mythos Making: Most of the movie takes place on R’lyeh, inexplicably pronounced “r-lay.” Lovecraft gets into a snowball fight with Cthulhu. Deep Ones show off their karate chops. Ron Perlman voices a shoggoth.
Libronomicon: Winfield Lovecraft’s diaries, and possibly a half-assed copy of the Necronomicon, play vital roles.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Young Howard visits his father in an asylum, presumably Butler. (Maybe? Anne doesn’t think it’s Butler. Anne lives in Providence and would know.) In this reality Winfield’s been institutionalized not for symptoms of syphilis, but because he’s delved too deeply into Things Man Wasn’t Meant To Know. Doctor West probably doesn’t help much, given how he seems to relish his observations: “Winfield’s mind is like a shattered looking glass… That’s a good one.”
Well, that was certainly a thing, that I just watched. If you’re looking for a half-ernest half-parodic take on Lovecraft, that’s a lot of fun to try and explain to your friends, Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom might be just the movie to meet your needs.
My friends boggled in gratifying fashion as I attempt to explain that, while Howard’s coming to R’lay is foretold in prophecy, and while the formerly paradisical land has lain for endless aeons under a magically imposed winter, it’s not just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with the serial numbers filed off. Even if the adorable and possibly inbred family of ninja Deep Ones do bear a passing resemblance to the Pevensies. There are also hints of Lord of the Rings, after all. And beyond these parallels, it seems to be trying hard to attain the perfect balance of creep and whimsy you get from a good Tim Burton film. Alas, very few people are Tim Burton.
But mostly, this is a series of “spot the obscure reference and throw snowballs at it”, mixed with random bits meant to drive you mad as you try to decide whether the lack of a reference is deliberate or accidental. Howard’s father’s name—Winfield—is accurate; his mom’s isn’t. Hat tip to this being an alternate universe? Failure to check Wikipedia? Not wanting to engage with conflicting reports about whether Suzie smothered or neglected her son, an ambiguity that a director would have to resolve? Then R’lyeh comes well-stocked with Deep Ones, nightgaunts, giant penguins, and a shoggoth—and also the “govlins” that serve Algid/Al-Hazred, which appear to be the result of unholy union between Minions and the muppets that served David Bowie in Labyrinth. Why wouldn’t Abdul, even when passing as a careworn queen, bring along an entourage of ghouls, lizard person ghosts, and other things that do not, generally speaking, snowboard? Snowboarding goons should be beneath the dignity of even the most stressed-out evil overlord.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Algid Bunk. Lovecraft himself mostly forgot to include women in stories, except when working with Hazel or Zealia, but he also mostly managed to not completely embarrass himself when they did show up. (“Horror at Red Hook” being a significant exception.) Here, Sarah and Mary are unexceptional if unexciting, but Algid reminds me of the great awkwardness that is Asenath Waite. The parallel may be intentional—a woman who seems in need of help, perhaps a little strange but ultimately on your side, turns out to be ACTUALLY A MAN, and not merely a man but a sorcerer of great power who’s about to sacrifice your life and soul for their personal benefit, muhaha. Many powerful women, cis and trans both, get annoyed by this trope, and discerning creators might consider that some of these powerful women may be evil overlords in their own right. Muhaha.
Gotha does provide a decent counter for this annoyance, and (surprising no one) is my favorite character in the whole thing. Deep One matriarch who can keep toddlers safe, host a kid from Providence on no notice, put together a deliciously slippery meal, and then drop-kick overlord goons with her whole family? Would she like to come over for dinner afterwards? ‘Cause I’m free.
Also, since I’ve complained in the past about sucky illustrations of Deep Ones, the animators here manage a good compromise between The Innsmouth Look and the movie’s general chibi style, that doesn’t turn the girls into sexy mermaids. (The fact that I have a thing for any lady who can cook a meal one day and kick minion butt the next is a separate matter.)
I did wonder whether Alternate Mom Sarah is responsible for Alternate Howard’s snarky level-headedness. He certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’ll grow up to be terrified of old houses and foreign languages—even if his effort at pronouncing Thu Thu Hmong’s name is thoroughly pitiful. He seems rather to be the man/boy of action that the real HPL always wanted to be, complete with the old “unflappable” merit from GURPS. “Where I’m from, our homes are the same size on the outside and the inside.” Too true. Maybe Gotha and her family would enjoy a season on a TARDIS?
Let me begin my contribution to this. our 200th post, with good news and most auspicious auspices! The other day I ventured into my dew-drenched garden (always an adventure, should night-skunks still sport in the shrubbery) to find that the Outer Gods had vouchsafed us an OMEN during the deep starry hours. I whipped out my phone and snapped this picture of our compost bin, upon which some eldritch fungus or slime mold had tortuously shaped itself into an undeniable image of the Great Old One Himself. Let none try to contest it. Let all simply gaze and marvel, or despair:
It is Cthulhu. Cthulhu on a composter. Truly we live in apocalyptic times.
As for this week’s offering, I have a few things to say.
One: HL&TFK makes me want to rewatch Haiyoru! Nyaruani and Kishin Houkou Demonbane. I’m sure I would do so with greater appreciation for such comparative bursts of genius as the sexual tension among Outer Gods and mortals when crammed in small urban apartments and Dr. West as impromptu rocker.
Two: First of several weird connections my brain made, perhaps desperate to drift from the unfolding disaster before it. Hey, doesn’t young Howard kind of look like Dash Parr from The Incredibles, if Dash were deeply depressed, terminally consumptive, and permanently wearing his eye-mask?
Three: Spot is essentially Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Or Treebeard. Or a gorilla. A gorilla-tree played by Vin Diesel?
Four: Why doesn’t Howard have any pajamas—he’s always going to bed in full suit and shoes. Bad Sarah-mom!
Five: The Flying Govlin looks like a Simpson. Bart Simpson.
Six: The Govlins in general are the lamest minions ever. Much lamer than the Despicable minions. Lamer even than Star Wars IV-VI stormtroopers.
Seven: The playing in the snow scene is so Frozen. As in “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” [RE: My household did in fact burst into song when I described this scene.]
Eight: Related to Seven. Algid is so Elsa from Frozen. At any moment, she’s going to lose the prim black gown for a diaphanous aqua negligee, drop down her platinum locks and launch into “Let it go, let it go!” The cold never bothered her anyway.
Nine: IMDb says that the masked Envoy dude is Nyarlathotep. That’s why he’s cool.
Ten: The squid-octo kids are also cool. And they buy their houses in Diagon Alley, same place the Weasleys get their tents. What’s not to like?
Eleven: I liked Shoggoth’s teeth, but the rest of him wasn’t amorphous enough for my taste. I guess the teeth weren’t actually amorphous either, but they were hella teeth.
Twelve: The idea of writing a dissertation length comparison of HL&TFK and Joyce Carol Oates’s Night-Gaunts did occur to me, but then I realized that way madness lay.
Happy 200th all!
Next week, we stay local (and return to the ever-intriguing subject of bad-idea painting methods) with Max Gladstone’s “Crispin’s Model.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.