Appearing soon is a new academic book on popular culture, albeit with only one Lovecraft essay in it. Swedish adademic Van Leavenworth’s “The Developing Storyworld of H.P. Lovecraft” is the final essay in a chunky 340-page University of Nebraska book on transmedia storytelling (transmedia meaning: multiple linked stories told across multiple media, often with fan creators and re-mixers being as active as the original creators). Storyworlds across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology is set to ship at the start of July 2014.
I’ve only read the editor’s brief summary of the essay. But it sounds like the essay is not a historical study of Lovecraft’s role as the ur-site for the core structures and ‘structures of feeling’ of such participatory fan cultures. But I wonder if Lovecraft’s unique approach to fiction could have played a part in bringing about his own fan culture? I mean that a case might be made that Lovecraft, consciously or unconsciously, tapped into old oral culture forms of storytelling: what with his poet’s stress on precise internal rhythms and patterns; his almost archaic ring composition -like plot re-structures; his slow working up of primal ‘ancestral’ fears, often while evoking wild or strange or marginal types of landscapes; his tapping into New England’s oral folklore; and also how well his stories work and flow when read aloud by a compelling reader. This idea is not incongruous with the nascent desire of some in academia to make Lovecraft respectable by claiming him as a modernist. Since much of early modernism had deep tap roots in the primitive and the archaic. A Lovecraft who approached his audience with techniques based partly in oral culture would then presuppose — and perhaps organically draw to himself — a ‘recognising’ audience ready to play with, reinvent and pass along the stories being told. Many of whom were the children or grandchildren of immigrants steeped in a living oral culture. He certainly had that audience fairly early on, if only in small measure. But to then suppose the same cultural effect operating in the 1970s and 80s is probably just wishful academic thinking. A media industries history approach might instead suggest he was simply ready to start being co-opted by wider commercial forces: he had some cool monsters; many questing young paperback readers; and the spurious copyright claims were crumbling.
Sadly it appears Van Leavenworth doesn’t enjoy the stories themselves. I found someone noting that he complained at a conference of the… “leaden Lovecraft prose”. Which is perhaps a pity, since reading the stories as thinly veiled autobiography is another form of transmedia, especially when the reader knows the finer details of his biography via the abundant fan-scholarship and contextualising cultural histories. But, fair enough, it appears Leavenworth’s Storyworlds across Media essay is not about that. It’s labelled by the book’s editor as an “extensive case study” of the appeal of the post-Lovecraft Mythos and the constraints of genre for participating fans. He also engages with early transmedia theory, reportedly building on and challenging aspects of…
“Klastrup and Tosca’s concept of transmedial worlds [“Transmedial Worlds: Rethinking Cyberworld Design” (2004)] as abstract content systems”.
For his essay’s actual case-studies Van Leavenworth thankfully avoids the ‘plushy-dolls ‘n occult loons’ end of the Mythos spectrum, instead focussing on discussing: the HPL Historical Society’s Cthulhu movie; the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG game; and the interactive fiction Anchorhead.
At conferences Van Leavenworth has reportedly previously argued that two key elements in the fan popularity of the Mythos are: i) “the loss of control involved in ‘cosmic fear'”; and ii) “humanity’s inability to understand cosmic knowledge”. His conference papers aren’t online, but I guess this means that these factors naturally appeal to intelligent and sensitive readers, and as such they provide a fairly flexible post/non/anti-religious cultural base on which to build new stories that seek some kind of spiritual accommodation with the universe. Of the sort perhaps exemplified by the Derleth strand of the Mythos. The task for the cultural historian might then be to explain how much of that initial cosmic appeal gets seeded into the later and more diluted fan-works, and if those works are then potent enough in themselves to sustain those two key elements which make for fan popularity. If not, then other cultural mechanisms will need to be found to explain the ongoing longevity of the Mythos culture, especially for those participants who never read or who actively dislike the stories. For such “yaps and nitwits” (Lovecraft’s words) perhaps the Mythos is just about the cool monsters and scaring your credulous girlfriend with tales of owning the Necronomicon (“like, it’s real, girl…!”).