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Humanization of monsters in modern mythos fiction?

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BoxCrayonTales

A fascinating trend I’ve noticed in certain modern mythos fiction is the treatment of Lovecraft’s monsters as people rather than monsters, beyond the Antarctic old ones.

 

The Litany of Earth and The Trials of Obed Marsh humanizes the Marsh family and the Deep Ones they married.

 

Russell's Guide to Interdimensional Entities and the forgettable IDW comic sequel to The Dunwich Horror humanize Wilbur Whateley.

 

The Song of Saya and Sharnoth of the Deepest Black are horror romance novels from Japan, which should need no explanation.

 

These aren’t even farfetched: Lovecraft’s stories rely on unreliable narrators who display extreme xenophobic attitudes and eventually go insane. (A Bogleech comic satirized this.)

 

Are there any other mythos stories which humanize the monsters?

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ScottDorward

Some of Adrian Tchaikovsky's stories in the recent collection The Private Life of Elder Things may be of interest. Donald, Branch Line Repairman and Season of Sacrifice and Resurrection all portray a variety of Mythos entities in very human terms.

 

I wrote a review of the book, if you'd like to know more about it.

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skaye

Peter Rawlik's The Weird Company: The Secret History of H.P. Lovecraft’s Twentieth Century has some humanized monsters.

 

Cassandra Khaw's Hammers on Bone.

 

For older examples, Stanley Sargent's "The Black Brat of Dunwich" humanizes Wilbur Whately. Depending on how you define humanization, ghouls in various works of Brian McNaughton and Caitlin Kiernan.

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asnys

Some of Caitlin Kiernan's work would qualify.

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Nick Storm

Friends don't let friends humanize monsters.

 

I think some of Willium Pugmire's stuff may qualify.

 

And that, folks, is why I don't read any of the modern stuff. If you ain't dead, or at least stopped breathin' temporarily, then I ain't readin' your book. 

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BoxCrayonTales

Peter Rawlik's The Weird Company: The Secret History of H.P. Lovecraft’s Twentieth Century has some humanized monsters.

 

Cassandra Khaw's Hammers on Bone.

 

For older examples, Stanley Sargent's "The Black Brat of Dunwich" humanizes Wilbur Whately. Depending on how you define humanization, ghouls in various works of Brian McNaughton and Caitlin Kiernan.

 

"The Black Brat" was surprisingly good. Certainly much better than IDW's tread on the same ground or the absurd "dunwich romance". I thought it was really funny how it pulled the "Dracula Tape" formula and spun off innocuous details from the original to imply completely different events. The narrator is a creep, but at least that explains his behavior. The slow burning body horror element was perfect: after reading this take I have always imagined Whateley's unearthly patrons as being ruled by hedonism.

 

Currently reading the "Throne of Bones" for the ghouls, which morbidly fascinate me with a vague adams family vibe.

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yronimoswhateley

Arguably, HPL himself humanized his own mythos monsters.

 

One of the more obvious examples would be the Old Ones ("Elder Things") in At the Mountains of Madness:  "...Poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!"

 

We'd spent the whole of Shadow Over Innsmouth presumably sharing in the narrator's repugnance at the shambling half-fish horrors there and sympathizing with him in his terrible experiences, only to learn by the end of that story... "That morning the mirror definitely told me I had acquired the Innsmouth look.... Stupendous and unheard-of splendours await me below, and I shall seek them soon... I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever...." 

 

There are similar themes in many other Lovecraft stories, where we follow a doomed protagonist or narrator along to the point where he discovers that he's one of the monsters - it seems to be a favorite theme of Lovecraft's... "The Rats in the Walls", The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family", "The Festival", "The Outsider"...

 

Oh, "The Outsider"! That little story is virtually a masterpiece model for the way Lovecraft would humanize his monsters in so many other stories... we follow the poor, doomed protagonist right up to the punchline reveal of that story, and the poor sap was perhaps even more human after realizing he was a monster all along than he was before!  "For... I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame...."

 

It's subtle - filtered through accounts by unreliable narrators, but in "The Thing on the Doorstep", we really don't get a very flattering description of Asenath Waite and it's pretty easy to conclude that she had Lovecraftian monster in her ancestry, but before the end of that story Lovecraft gives us more than enough puzzle pieces to put together to reveal that poor Asenath was actually at least as much a victim of horror as anyone else in the story, and I rather felt quite sorry for the poor child when I realized what had actually happened to her, more so than I felt for poor Edward Derby.

 

There are also hints of the humanity of many of Lovecraft's "monsters" to be seen in the recurring motif of alien ruins:  for all of their god-like and alien monstrosity, these monsters have achieved great things, built great cities, made great art, become accomplished scholars and scientists, and, in time, have faced an all-too-human decay, collapse, and eventual extinction, leaving only the ruins of their once proud achievements for the wind, the water, and the sand to erode and grind out of all memory, until not even ruins and decay are left... time puts even the gods on the same footing as mere humanity!

 

I'm sure there are other examples I didn't remember or didn't notice, but that's at least a good start.  As his writing matured, it seems that Lovecraft rather sympathized with his monsters, portraying them as victims of fates and forces beyond their control.

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Graham

Some of Caitlin Kiernan's work would qualify.

 

Daughter of Hounds is the one that immediately springs to my mind.

 

 

But it also happens in scenarios, Freak Show (Tales of the Miskatonic Valley) has Deep One Hybrids risking a lot to rescue a Deep One Hybrid child from display in a traveling carnival. Out of the Celtic Twilight (Whispers in Darkness) features a female Dhole, whose primary concern is protecting/recovering her eggs.

 

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hopfrog

Humanizing monsters can give them additional interest aesthetically, from a writer's point of view. The character of Pickman before he becomes a gibbering ghoul is packed with sinister wonder; but his ghoul-self as expos'd in Dream-Quest has very little about it that is interesting. Writing about monsters is boring, unless they have some kind of personality that gives them depth.

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Nick Storm

I don't think Howard tried to humanize any creature. A major tenant of his work is the 'alien', the other. Pickman was not humanized. He was (is) exactly what he is supposed to be - not human. Just because he talked and painted doesn't mean that H was attempting to provide a 'humanization'.The Elder things were indeed 'men' but again, not men as in human men. They may not be 'monsters' to some, scientists and those of us with intellect and stout psychological constitution, but don't confuse wearing seal skin and wielding tools and weapons with 'humanization'.

 

I think some are misinterpreting interaction with humans as a literary attempt to portray them as closer to being or acting human.

 

I for one, am much more interested in learning about the Dreamlands Pickman.

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hopfrog

I just got the new recording from Cadabra Records of Andrew Leman's spectacular reading of "Pickman's Model," and this is well-tim'd as I've just been invited to contribute to a forthcoming anthology, PICKMAN'S GALLERY. I also have a new Pickman tales in S, T,'s THE RED BRAIN: GREAT TALES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS. To write a Pickman tale gives ye author a multitude of delicious choices: set ye tale in Pickman's ere, or modern time?; set ye tale in Boston, or Salem, or Arkham, or Sesqua?; use yr new tale to investigate legends of ghouls?, or create a new modern legend as one creates a new ghoul character? Lots to contemplate...  

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Nick Storm

My Leman's Pickman is winging it's way thru the aether as we speak, as well. Another author 'wrote' Ghouls - Lumley? I need to give it another chance I guess. Wilum, if you write them, I will certainly give em' a read. I've a soft (aged and meaty) spot for the creature known as Ghouls. As for setting, I am partial to anything not 'modern'.

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SunlessNick
I'm sure there are other examples I didn't remember or didn't notice, but that's at least a good start.  As his writing matured, it seems that Lovecraft rather sympathized with his monsters, portraying them as victims of fates and forces beyond their control.

 

Cthulhu himself, potentially.  He sure doesn't display any human traits unless we count waking up in a cranky mood, but it's an earthquake that wakes him and it seems another earthquake sinks him.  Ultimately, he's as helpless before the universe as we are.

 

The Fungi in Whisperers in Darkness are acting like the bad guy mining barons in a Western, trying to run a guy off his land so they can mine there undisturbed.  But one thing that struck me about the story was how long it took them to resort to violence.  Long enough that I can only attribute it to deliberate reluctance, even after a couple of them had been killed.  Even after they did, they put his brain in a case rather than kill him, and allowed him into the debate on what to do about Wilmarth.

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Cevari

Arguably, HPL himself humanized his own mythos monsters.

 

You touched on the narrators, and I think this is the crux of the issue. We all experience the world through the lens of our own perception, which is shaped by that which we know and have experienced before. Therefore, as Lovecraft uses unreliable human narration, it is only natural that the narrators would try to assign some human motivations and characteristics to inhuman actors.

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yronimoswhateley

Cthulhu himself, potentially.  He sure doesn't display any human traits unless we count waking up in a cranky mood, but it's an earthquake that wakes him and it seems another earthquake sinks him.  Ultimately, he's as helpless before the universe as we are.

 

The Fungi in Whisperers in Darkness are acting like the bad guy mining barons in a Western, trying to run a guy off his land so they can mine there undisturbed.  But one thing that struck me about the story was how long it took them to resort to violence.  Long enough that I can only attribute it to deliberate reluctance, even after a couple of them had been killed.  Even after they did, they put his brain in a case rather than kill him, and allowed him into the debate on what to do about Wilmarth.

 

I'd never thought of the Fungi in "Whisperer" that way before, but now that you've offered the description, it's hard for me to un-see it.  In many ways, that almost-human quality of mercy, after its fungi fashion, actually makes the Fungi from Yuggoth seem far more alien and scary than the Western Mining Baron's gang of human, black-hatted mooks, which infamously tend to exhibit just about all of the depth of humanity to be expected of vaguely-human-shaped cardboard cut-outs with six-guns....

 

You touched on the narrators, and I think this is the crux of the issue. We all experience the world through the lens of our own perception, which is shaped by that which we know and have experienced before. Therefore, as Lovecraft uses unreliable human narration, it is only natural that the narrators would try to assign some human motivations and characteristics to inhuman actors.

 

True.  And the opposite can be just as true - that unreliable narrators might assign the alien, bestial, and monstrous to that which is different on a surface level.  The great unreliable narrator himself, H.P. Lovecraft, on his less-than-best days, provided some unfortunate examples of exactly that sort of of reverse....

 

In the case of Lovecraft's better fiction, this "humanization" is usually an ambiguous and subtle thing, and perhaps it works at its best when it is at its most ambiguous and subtle:  the most effective forms of weird and horror fiction seem to thrive on ambiguity and subtlety.

 

I would suspect that in those cases where the "humanization" of a monster is handled in an artless, ham-handed, and indelicate manner, the attempts fail in a most noxious and offensive way, whereas those cases where it is handled by a master of ambiguity, leaving us with a feeling of uncertainty and mystery regarding the exact nature, motive, and degree of familiarity and humanity of a monster, are accepted far more freely.

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CTPhipps

H.P. Lovecraft humanized the Elder Things as a subversion of what we might normally think of them. They're the most alien of looking things but the expedition notes they're scientists and treating the Antarctic Expedition the same way the Expedition treated them.

 

I think people are mistaken in the fact that humanizing must mean this makes a monster LESS terrifying when Lovecraft was a master of the opposite. It is the fact many of his monsters are related to humans and close to us (Rats in the Wall, the Shadow over Innsmouth, Pickman's Model, and Dunwich Horror) that makes them terrifying. It's the fact he brings the cosmic horror right up until your bedroom.


Mind you, if you tried to have Cthulhu have a pleasant chat with a PC then that's ridiciulous. He's scary because he's as far above humanity as humanity is above ants. We couldn't communicate anymore than man and bacteria.

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The_Tatterdemalion_King

I wouldn't say I "humanize" monsters, but I do tend to make them fairly pathetic. 

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