They Took Our Myths
June 8, 2015 8:41 PM   Subscribe

So why does the Mythos have such draw? Is it because the Mythos is classic?

Absolutely not. It's because, comparatively speaking, it's modern.

The Cthulhu Mythos is almost 100 years old. And it's the most modern part of our mythology that we're allowed to access.


Hugh Hancock on copyright and ownership of modern mythologies.
posted by Artw (53 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wondered why all the Lovecraft movies blew seaweed, except Dagon.
posted by clavdivs at 8:53 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Interesting read and relevant to my interests; when we visit a bookstore I usually spend a good 10 minutes comparing Lovecraft collections, trying to figure out which one is the 'best' edition. Quality? Quantity? Fancy extras? Then I sigh and put 'em back.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:59 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Cthulhu wishes he had Mickey Mouse's grip on the human unconscious.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 9:01 PM on June 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


My thoughts on this:

It mainly seems to apply to things with proper names attached, less things relying on loosely grouped concepts. I'd actually say Romero style Zombies are bigger than the Cthulhu Mythos in terms of cultural mythology, and much more recent. Everyone knows what they work, what they do, the kinds of story you tell around them, and it doesn't much matter what you call them - ghouls, walkers, whatever - people just know what they are.

That also makes me wonder how much that would have been the case had Romero taken better steps to lock his work down. It's a sort of accidental open sourcing.

Superheros are sort of the opposite end of the spectrum. Sure you can do something with *A* Iron Man, but nobody really cares quite as much if it's not THE Iron Man. Part of that is Continuity, which is a whole other bundle of stuff.

Also, ironically, though Lovecraft open sourced all his proper nakes takes on his work are actually better when the actual names are avoided and authors use the kind of oblique approaches associated with doing take-offs of things, or even, *gasp* make their own stuff up using the concepts.
posted by Artw at 9:04 PM on June 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


I appreciate this story's proximity to the Margate Shell Grotto story. I hope that was intentional.
posted by wotsac at 9:07 PM on June 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Eh... I'm not a huge fan of copyright law, but the idea that we've stopped making myths doesn't seem right. People write fanfiction with their favorite characters all of the time. The quality is highly debatable, but fanworks even become canon culture at a certain point, like 50 Shades. Clever artists also find ways to work within the system. Alan Moore originally wanted to use Charlton Comics characters for Watchmen, but because of copyright issues with DC (and DC wanting to use those characters for more marketable purposes), Moore ended up creating a whole new mythic and iconic set of characters. To that end Watchmen has its own mythic power, and comics have reflexively incorporated his take on superheroes.

To the point in the article, I think that Lovecraft is better when it's not just a bunch of things playing off Cthulhu and Yog Sottoth, or whatever. For example (mild spoilers for Bloodborne), the way that Bloodborne incorporates elements of that world into its fabric is so, so much better than anything Howard Phillips ever penned.
posted by codacorolla at 9:14 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Artw: "So why does the Mythos have such draw? Is it because the Mythos is classic?

Absolutely not. It's because, comparatively speaking, it's modern.
"

It can be both, you know.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:17 PM on June 8, 2015


so yeah I tweeted some stuff that made artw decide to post this here because he felt it needed more nuanced discussion than could happen in 140-character chunks. (he was correct in this feeling.) Here it is, cut and paste from my twitter:

* * * *

This article posits - rightly I think - that the corporate ownership of modern mythical figures (supers, Star Wars, etc) constrains other creators from working on these myths. I wonder if our overstrong copyright may have a good side though. Because it encourages EXPERIMENTATION and EVOLUTION of these myths.

Is it better for a thousand folks to write their own versions of Spider-Man? Or a thousand riffs on the various components of Spidey? We have an evolutionary pressure pushing us towards an explosion of new potentially mythic characters. Because you have to make your riff on the part of the Spidey myth distinct enough to not get sued. Make it something half-new. Keep in mind that I still think modern copyright terms are pretty fucked up. But they have interesting side effects.

Full disclosure wrt those tweets: I’m really fucking stoned. My thoughts may not be as baked as I am.

* * * *


Now that I'm less stoned, and sitting at a computer instead of walking around with my phone, I still think I might have at least a half a point there. Because of the corporate ownership of a lot of culture, we have these giant cultural dinosaurs taking up a lot of the middle of the mythic ecosystem. Both by creating mythic characters like Batman, Harry Potter or Han Solo, and by co-opting pre-existing mythic characters like Snow White or Thor. You cannot grow beyond a certain size and significance if you're too close to one of these beasts; you'll get stomped. You're forced to riff on it and make it yours by combining the bits you like with something new and different - say, maybe you like Spidey's smart-assery, but you also like Aztec mythology and salamanders, maybe you'd end up with The Black Mudpuppy. And maybe that'll strike a chord with someone soon and I'll be able to say "I knew Ethan when he was just some dude making web comics" after the six-movie deal that he was wise enough to get ahold of a lawyer before making, and the subsequent ten years of expanding on the Black Mudpuppy mythos by hired hands.

I am rambling; I may still be a little stoned. I also want to note that I liked Art's succinct tweet that this piece 'seems to place an over-emphasis on proper nouns over ideas'.

I also had some half-baked thoughts about how the slow growth of an infrastructure (Kickstarter! Patreon!) to support all these little creators who are forced to do all kinds of wild combinatory experiments lest they get lawyered into oblivion may well be a crucial step in the transition to a post-capitalist society (Basic income! A girl can dream), which may well also be one that these corporate behemoths selling our myths to us can't survive in, but those are definitely ones I had while still halfway baked; I'm both too tired to expand on them and not quite sure this is the place. Maybe I'll come back to this tomorrow.
posted by egypturnash at 10:44 PM on June 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


We'll always have fanfics to reclaim modern "commercial" mythos as our own.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:57 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I run afoul of copyright law during my occasional Wikipedia editing. A book published in 1923 is still under copyright, so I can't use the cover to illustrate an article, even though it was published before my grandparents were born.

Wikipedia can't include audio clips of bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson. These songs were incredibly influential on the development of modern music, and the musicians died more than 70 years ago, yet their songs are still under copyright.

If you spend billions of dollars developing a new cancer drug, our patent system grants you a limited monopoly for 20 years. That's enough time to make a lot of money, as evidenced by the fact that people still spend billions of dollars on the research.

But if you take a picture or record a song, the government grants you a monopoly for up to 120 years! That is totally unnecessary to encourage art and innovation, it is straight up government corruption. It's a handout to the rich to allow them to profit off our shared cultural heritage. We would all be better off if the artists (and encyclopedists) among us were allowed to use material from Lord of the Rings, James Brown, Salvador Dali, Stanley Kubrick, etc.
posted by foobaz at 11:55 PM on June 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


Eh... I'm not a huge fan of copyright law, but the idea that we've stopped making myths doesn't seem right.

You people are looking in the wrong places: San Jose Public Library. Google Search. There's your modern mythology- a REAL one. Organic, not subject to copyright law, stories told and retold over and over again, because even the people who don't believe, WANT to believe.

And for pure storytelling,even the mythos really doesn't cut it as modern deliberate mythmaking- for that, try THIS.
posted by happyroach at 11:57 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


People do like to be whistling the tune as they enter the theatre; but I don't know whether that quite justifies this slightly grandiloquent Mythos talk.
I don't know Lovecraft, so shoot me down by all means, but isn't the appeal as much his splendid straight faced absurdity as mythic qualities of any great power? He gets referenced because it's amusing, not because he has metaphors of universal poetic power.
posted by Segundus at 1:30 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why is the Cthulhu Mythos so popular? - umm wait a minute - Cthulu is popular? more like the definition of niche. The audience for Cthulhu is tiny.

This article seems to be consist of a bunch of unsubstantiated broad statements about "What humans do", mixed with some mistaking of your small niche world as the mainstream world.
posted by mary8nne at 2:03 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


egypturnash: one of the things I've always appreciated about the furry fandom is that it isn't focused around a pre-existing commercial property. That is liberating on a profound level.
posted by hippybear at 3:22 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't know Lovecraft, so shoot me down by all means, but isn't the appeal as much his splendid straight faced absurdity as mythic qualities of any great power? He gets referenced because it's amusing, not because he has metaphors of universal poetic power.

Look, if you see something that defies all understanding of space and time, you're going to reach for the thesaurus.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:35 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, that's only if you retain enough of your sanity to even be able to reach.
posted by hippybear at 3:47 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


And for pure storytelling,even the mythos really doesn't cut it as modern deliberate mythmaking- for that, try THIS.

I wonder how many times movie executives have heRd about Slenderman, gotten all excited about it, then gotten sad when they realise it didn't just spring out of nowhere and they can't own it.
posted by Artw at 4:15 AM on June 9, 2015


Thinking more about this article, I get where he's coming from, but I'm not sure I agree wholeheartedly. There are more differences between the Marvelverse and the Cthulhu Mythos than who controls the copyright. For example, they were born looking in different directions. At its root, the Marvelverse is about the new - it is a forward looking setting (both in comic and movie form). Characters master new technologies and respond to new settings. Even attempts to retrofit the past (the first Captain America movie) were set in such a way that we saw history unfurl 'live' rather than in flashback form.

Contrast this to the Cthulhu Mythos which is all about the past and how we can never shake it. Even when it was 'new' it was dressing itself in ancient books of forgotten lore, lost cities, and forbidden tombs. Characters discover dread truths about the past and react to them - usually by being destroyed.

The difference here is more that copyright - people want to play in the Marvelverse because there, they are the hero. The Mouse's walled garden keeps them out and that's frustrating. In the Cthulhu Mythos, there is nothing really keeping others out (the copyright behind Lovecraft is murky at best*), but to play in it does not yield the same results and to keep playing is actually pretty tricky (which is why, I think, Stross' Laundry Files are an accomplishment - a sustained narrative in the Cthulhu Mythos is really, really hard to do). The Marvelverse is a honeypot - everything about it is attractive and encourages people to want to participate, but to actually do so outside of consuming it results in a fleet of lawyers dropping from the nearest helicarrier. Maybe it's appropriate that the Cthulhu Mythos itself is an uncaring god who does not care if mere mortals deign to pray to/create for it.

As an aside, I think happyroach's mention of the UFO Mythos as a modern, organic, uncontrolled myth cycle is a good one. But even there we see the same sort of split that we see between Marvel and Cthulhu. On one hand, we have the more Marvel-ish futurists where alien contact will help raise all of humanity via vibrational awareness or new technology or whatever. On the other, we have the Ancient Alien take (that falls in line with the Cthulhu Mythos approach to our past) where the past holds secrets that we are the unknowing products of.

* Which suits me fine as otherwise I'd be sued to oblivion rather than making a whole 3 Etsy sales and living the high life as L'Artiste.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:46 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


... if you take a picture or record a song, the government grants you a monopoly for up to 120 years! That is totally unnecessary to encourage art and innovation, it is straight up government corruption.
Why is this government corruption? The recent copyright extension acts exist purely because of the lobbying of giant corporations like Disney. The reason these statutes exist, in other words, is the outsize influence of monopolizing content owners and their ability to capture the legislature. It's not a problem of government overreach, but government weakness.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:50 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


But if you take a picture or record a song, the government grants you a monopoly for up to 120 years! That is totally unnecessary to encourage art and innovation, it is straight up government corruption.

Mickey Mouse falling into the public domain seems to be the US's equivalent of the ravens leaving the Tower of London, a harbinger of the imminent and inevitable collapse of the nation.
posted by acb at 5:11 AM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Why is the Cthulhu Mythos so popular? - umm wait a minute - Cthulu is popular? more like the definition of niche. The audience for Cthulhu is tiny.

Cthulhu's 11,700,000 Google hits is smaller than King Kong's, but it's the same ballpark. The difference of course is that people have been fighting over King Kong's copyright ever since its early days.

Alan Moore originally wanted to use Charlton Comics characters for Watchmen, but because of copyright issues with DC (and DC wanting to use those characters for more marketable purposes), Moore ended up creating a whole new mythic and iconic set of characters.

All things considered, maybe Watchmen is not the best example for a discussion about copyright and creative ownership.
posted by Doktor Zed at 5:20 AM on June 9, 2015


Why is this government corruption?... It's not a problem of government overreach, but government weakness.

I'd posit that government weakness is pretty much indistinguishable from government corruption.
posted by dng at 5:21 AM on June 9, 2015


Why is this government corruption? The recent copyright extension acts exist purely because of the lobbying of giant corporations like Disney. The reason these statutes exist, in other words, is the outsize influence of monopolizing content owners and their ability to capture the legislature. It's not a problem of government overreach, but government weakness.

The governement has, by your own telling, been captured and corrupted. It is odd to then conclude that it is not corrupt.
posted by jaduncan at 5:28 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Public domain seems to be the collective attic where works that are long past their prime gather dust. As long as there is profit to be made, a work will stay out of public domain ala Mickey Mouse. You'll see nobody lobbying to keep "The Telegraph Chums Get Dropsy" in copyright.
posted by dr_dank at 6:16 AM on June 9, 2015


The length of copyright in the United States will always be epsilon plus whatever age Mickey Mouse happens to be.
posted by jonp72 at 6:21 AM on June 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


The weird thing is in terms of mythology, unless I'm missing something and that's entirely possible, Mickey Mouse seems utterly empty. What is he? What does he do? He's some flickery old cartoons and a logo, but other than that I don't know what substance there is to him.
posted by Artw at 6:34 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


A book published in 1923 is still under copyright, so I can't use the cover to illustrate an article

That's pretty clear fair use. Amazon and EBay don't sweat it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:43 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of my favorite ever Metafilter quotes is appropriate.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:49 AM on June 9, 2015


Also, the classic quote from Henry Jenkins: "Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk."
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:50 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


The length of copyright in the United States will always be epsilon plus whatever age Mickey Mouse happens to be.

And thousands of years from now legends will tell of the rodent god who dwelt in a sprawling palace in the Florida swamps, his immortality ensuring the prosperity of the merchant-kings
posted by prize bull octorok at 8:05 AM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Back when everybody had a show.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:12 AM on June 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think the appeal of Lovecraft's work is complex and somewhat unique in current pop culture. His mythos writings succeed through vagueness and letting the reader provide most of the details, which is tantalising enough on its own, but combine that with him not being the greatest writer and the feeling that he was scaring himself while writing these stories and you have a weird creative concoction. It's like looking at a strange painting in a dim room through a window with warped glass panes. And that's catnip for creative people.

Cthulhu and the rest of Lovecraft's creations are obviously a big part of the allure, but it's less the specific mythos, and more the heady fumes that rise off Lovecraft's various stories as a byproduct. Writers, artists, video game developers... they're all trying to bottle those fumes. Sometimes they manage to, sometimes they don't. They are just as likely to succeed if they never directly reference anything from the 'canon'. This makes me wonder how much it matters that Lovecraft's work is largely free from copyright violation concerns.

Regarding DC/Marvel, I don't personally think their characters and stories will resonate through the ages as people seem to assume they will. Batman could persevere, but most of the rest of them, if they ever went public domain in, say, 20 years, I could see them dissipating out of the public consciousness for the most part. The copyright controls artificially stoke the flames of their relevance.

I know that seems silly now, given the popularity of the movies, but I just don't think there's as much there as people think, for the most part. Most of the characters are just thin origin stories and a set of powers. This is especially true of DC characters, most of whom are total cardboard. Marvel at least sometimes tried to give its characters some kind of emotional hook. Even then, you look at someone like Dr. Strange, and see people raise a cry of outrage because the movie version might not have a moustache, it's hard not to wonder at the quality of the character when one of his chief characteristics is a bit of facial hair.
posted by picea at 8:12 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


And thousands of years from now legends will tell of the rodent god who dwelt in a sprawling palace in the Florida swamps, his immortality ensuring the prosperity of the merchant-kings

But legends will also hint of the gibbering, quacking, pantsless behemoth who rules the underworld and his cabal of followers...
posted by Renoroc at 8:17 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Telegraph Chums!
posted by benzenedream at 8:45 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


The weird thing is in terms of mythology, unless I'm missing something and that's entirely possible, Mickey Mouse seems utterly empty. What is he? What does he do? He's some flickery old cartoons and a logo, but other than that I don't know what substance there is to him.
posted by Artw at 9:34 AM on June 9 [+] [!]


Mickey is purposefully empty.
posted by edbles at 9:11 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


This article seems to be consist of a bunch of unsubstantiated broad statements about "What humans do"

For a long time I've been baffled by the way nerd-culture apologia conflates myth, the universal human activity of folk storytelling, with "mythos," Lovecraft's self-promotional name for sharing a few story credits with his buddies. Like, even just once it'd be nice if someone betrayed any awareness of folklore as a field of study, or shared folk storytelling practices as an ongoing thing different from what gets published and copyrighted, or the critique of mass culture even to the minimal extent that they'd grant some difference between a franchise and a mythos, before launching into the customary (yes, Henry Jenkins-pioneered) handwave about how name-checking a bunch of pulp-SF niche heroes is somehow the same thing as talking about contemporary culture tout court. At this point though it's become clear to me that this is what the mythology of "myth" is for — easing the conflation of mass culture and folk culture, late-capitalist corporate culture and universal human life, by lending a veneer of old-nerdy autochthonous authenticity to the current batch of corporate cultural product.
posted by RogerB at 10:02 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


the copyright behind Lovecraft is murky at best

Is it? I thought the only bone of contention was the C.M. Eddy estate being dicks whenever someone tries to quote The Loved Dead. All those slapdash H.P.L. anthologies that Alvy was talking about are in the bookstore because it's considered settled that his solo works are in the public domain.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2015


Speaking of: behold the soon to be released definitive Lovecraft collection.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:27 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


edbles: That's why I only read the duck comics as a kid.
posted by ckape at 11:10 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


"mythos," Lovecraft's self-promotional name for sharing a few story credits with his buddies.

IIRC that was Derlerth after he was gone, Lovecraft called it "Yog Sothery" if he called it anything.
posted by Artw at 12:02 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


He's some flickery old cartoons and a logo, but other than that I don't know what substance there is to him.

You don't have kids addicted to Mickey Mouse's Club House? Be grateful.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:10 PM on June 9, 2015


I love the "mythos" because it neuters Lovecraft. Lovecraft tales always started out with loneliness and miscegenation and ended with something moving just out of the corner of your eye and OH GOD WHAT IS THAT WHY CAN NOBODY ELSE SEE THAT!

The large body of "mythos" cataloguing reduces it to D&D bestiaries and beanie baby collecting. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving racist canon.

But for my money, the best subversion into a new mythology is Night Vale!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 11:34 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


FWIW, Cranor is not a fan of having WtNV described relative to Lovecraft.
posted by phearlez at 11:28 AM on June 11, 2015


The reinterpretation of symbols and heroes does play a part in maintaining a mythos' relevance over time. Copyright, however, doesn't constrain that, it merely keeps people from getting paid for it. People have been and will continue to write fan fiction for the sheer love of it.

I'd argue that the Lovecraft mythos has maintained its relevancy because it was arguably the first coherent work of fiction to paint a working symbology onto the increasingly impersonal worldview that secularism and science was creating. It still provides us working symbols to tap into that idea of an uncaring, non-human-centric universe.
posted by future buttmind at 12:38 PM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


FWIW, Cranor is not a fan of having WtNV described relative to Lovecraft.

Hmmm. But as a pastiche of things that so clearly have Lovecraft in their DNA it's clearly Lovecraftian whether he wants it to be or not.

Slenderman, I think, has similar indirect parentage.
posted by Artw at 12:57 PM on June 11, 2015


@happierman
i've definitely described NV as lovecraftian before. it's a p good shorthand, but i've moved hard away from it.
In a Newsrama interview mentioning Lovecraft.

Some talk of that interview and pushback on Lovecraft as deeply racist.

counter-counterpoint on that from David Nickle: "Don't mention the war." - Some Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft and Race
posted by phearlez at 2:01 PM on June 11, 2015


“People area always assuming is a major influence, and the funny thing is that Lovecraft is not something that I’m into – in fact, I strongly dislike his work,” said Fink in the course of the interview. “I don’t think it influenced me, though I do like horror in general, and I recognize the strong influence Lovecraft as a writer and idea man had on horror.” Citing Stephen King, Cranor then added: “Like Joseph, I’m not a fan of Lovecraft’s work, and he kind of sounds like an awful person. But his influence on other writers was considerable, and those in turn were writers who influenced me – that concept of growing dread, of something so terrifying that to look upon it would cause you to lose your mind.”

Pretty much sums it up I think.
posted by Artw at 3:49 PM on June 11, 2015




Slenderman, I think, has similar indirect parentage.

I just lost The Game.

the game of not having Slenderman nightmares this weekend
posted by hippybear at 4:11 PM on June 12, 2015


For me, the best Lovecraftian fiction expresses the fear that the universe is completely uncaring. It's not that it's actively trying to get you; you'll just get squashed completely accidentally. Stephen King's "From a Buick 8" and the short story "1408" have always expressed that well for me. As well as SCP, now that I think about it. The Laundry Files does it quite well, as previously mentioned.

Lovecraft is a writer of fear. He was afraid of people of color, he was afraid of poor people, he was afraid of his genetics. He's not just xenophobic, he seems to be just phobic. Given that, I don't reread the racist stories.
posted by stoneegg21 at 9:22 PM on June 12, 2015


Fink does not deny a changing perspective over time.
posted by phearlez at 7:19 AM on June 13, 2015


What a weird little dance to perform.
posted by Artw at 7:21 AM on June 13, 2015


On the subject of following on from Lovecraft while acknowledging his crappier aspects I rather like this piece by Mark Laidlaw: The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft
posted by Artw at 7:26 AM on June 13, 2015


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