Rush Hour of the Old Ones
Lairs of the Hidden Gods, Volume 1
Rush Hour of the Old Ones
Introduction by Robert M. PRICE
It is a privilege to be able to introduce you to a number of highly talented horror writers from Japan, and not just horror writers, but Lovecraftian writers! As any American fan knows by now, the Old Gent has attracted quite a following internationally. A few specimens of the Lovecraftian scholarship of other countries have straggled into print here in the USA, but the fiction spawned in Lovecraft-infected imaginations around the world has been slow in proving the adage: “What goes around comes around”! But now it has come round at last! And we are the beneficiaries. I will comment on each of the stories in turn, as you get to them, but for the present, I want to think with you about the cultural significance of Japanese Lovecraftian fiction.
Alien God and Devil
For one thing, there is a great and happy irony when one asks what Lovecraft would have made of the “foreign” interest in his work on the part of people representing groups he liked to characterize as “Asiatic hordes, winking to alien god and devil.” HPL, a throwback to earlier, nativistic times in colonial America, desperately feared what he saw as the desultory influence of Asian and even South European immigration. He feared that all these cultures, possessing an admirable integrity in their natural homelands, must spawn a bastardized hybrid culture inimical to Western, Enlightenment values if they were allowed to take root in America. He did not attend Klan rallies or any such thing. But he made his opinions known clearly (and to us, repulsively) enough in both letters and fiction, especially “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the underlying horror is that of race-mixing, in particular breeding between hardly New Englanders and Asian islanders!
What Lovecraft appears not to have anticipated was that Western civilization would latch onto ancient Asian cultures through the twin media of Marxism-Leninism and American democratic Capitalism. Through military conquest and later commercial influence, Japan has in many ways become almost a caricature of what is most Western about the West. And the tales collected here demonstrate that. They occur in a very modern, even post-modern, Westernized Japan.
The Survivor and his Anxiety
Robert J. Lifton has made a great study of the psychological impact of the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, and especially of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. One profound and repeating theme in what he calls “survival literature” after the war is that of survivor anxiety: when so many died, the survivors feel they have betrayed their dead compatriots by not sharing their terrible fate. They feel and fear they are unworthy to live. I am not the first to speculate that it was such survivor anxiety that produced (perhaps as a cathartic technique for mitigating it) one of the most famous Japanese popular culture products of the post-War period, the Godzilla movies of Toho Studios. Could not one view Godzilla and his successors not only as nightmare allegories of the nuclear menaces that devastated Japan, but also as new and living A-Bombs appearing to finish the job the American warplanes had begun? Here was a fictive second chance to share in the random doom pouncing from fiery skies upon one’s countrymen.
An equally fantastic product of the post-War period was the flourishing of innumerable “New Religions” such as Soka Gakkai (a form of Nichiren Buddhism), the Unification Church (a Korean import) and the Electronic Church of Thomas Edison. These religions presented a kaleidoscope of syncretism, a mixing of demon exorcism, flying saucers, Jesus traveling to Japan, the Lost Continent of Mu, etc. Such a wild mixture of themes had previously been familiar only in B-movies and pulp fiction. Is it possible to understand the embrace by Japanese readers of the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft as something approaching the foundation of a Cthulhu Cult among the new religions? The answer is probably as elusive and as category-spraining as the kindred question as to whether the Elvis cult in America should be considered a genuine faith.
Cult of Death
Such a suggestion may appear to be facetious, even insulting —at least until one reckons with Aum Shinrikyo, a New Religion whose name means “Om” (the Hindu/Buddhist invocation mantra) “Supreme Truth.” Founded by ascetic and mystic Asahara Shoko, the cult was built on the worship of both the Buddha and the god Shiva (the two are connected in Tantra, where the mystical technique is revealed, strikingly, by Shiva appearing in the form of the Buddha (implying that the doctrine was borrowed from Buddhism by Shaiva Hindus). With these elements Asahara mixed biblical themes. He saw himself as something of a Christ analogue and made predictions of the near advent of Armageddon, a breakdown of world society into a chaos from which only he and his followers should emerge unscathed. In the meantime members of Aum Shinrikyo must undertake a rigorous routine of radical asceticism, so radical that one cultist died from the deprivations thus imposed.
The group began a cover-up of the death, fearing negative publicity and trouble with the law. Then they murdered a reporter (with his family) who had uncovered the truth. This was only the beginning of an alarming defensive posture by the cult. They grew quickly and had cells in many nations, but even so they failed to meet their unrealistically ambitious evangelistic goals. This failure signaled that the rest of mankind was just no good, unworthy of survival. A new attempt at spreading their influence in society was an election campaign in which Asahara and other members stood for various offices, only to go down in resounding defeat. This was just too much, and the paranoia of Aum Shinrikyo only increased.
At length Asahara used the cult’s considerable resources to build laboratories for the development of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, which he told his scientists were only for defense, which seemed to make sense given their paranoia. But in fact, Asahara had a two-pronged strategy. He determined to punish Japanese society for rejecting his God-given mission, and he hoped to simulate the very apocalyptic tribulation he had warned of. His minions never learned the trick to delivering these weapons very effectively, luckily for the sinners, and an attempt to disperse botulin came to naught. But the notorious releasing of vials of Sarin gas on two intersecting subway routes in Tokyo, near the major government complex, was somewhat more successful. A dozen hapless commuters perished, while thousands more were sickened. It did not take the authorities long to pin the blame, and litigation continues at this writing. But the public exposure of the murderous designs of the group has by no means killed it! It has entered a new growth cycle!
What does all this have to do with Lovecraft and Japan? Simply that, at least according to some reports, the doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo led to the attempted mass murder on the subway because the members believed all human life must be eradicated from the earth to pave the way for the return of the mighty Beings they worshipped, and for a new order in which they, the cultists, would participate, alone of all mankind. Does that premise sound familiar? Is it so hard to imagine an insidious cult so hostile to their own blood-species, votaries of ancient gods who should return to reclaim the earth and spread mayhem among its inhabitants, rewarding only those who, like Wizard Whateley and Old Castro, had paved the way for their advent?
Indeed, if life mimics art so completely that art is thrust into the shade as anticlimactic, it means that writers in Japan, if they are to make their own contribution to the Lovecraft tradition, must up the ante. There are various ways to do that, and you will find that our authors have found a number of them.
Al Azif and Bardo Thodol
Some might be skeptical whether the Lovecraft Mythos, at least as popularly interpreted in the wake of August Derleth (The Lurker at the Threshold, The Trail of Cthulhu, The Mask of Cthulhu, etc.) could ever even strike a note among those trained in the venerable Japanese culture with its implicit mythic structures. Is the Cthulhu Mythos too similar to the Greek myth of the fall of Kronos to the Olympians, or to the Christian saga of Satan’s Fall? Are the Great Old Ones inextricably bound to Western mythologoumena like the fallen angels and the Titans? I think not. Lovecraft sought, he averred, to approximate at least the chilly ring of Tatar or Tibetan folklore with some of the names of his entities, such as Nug and Yeb. He connected the Bonpa priests of pre-Buddhist Tibet with the cult of the Old Ones in “Clarendon’s Last Test.” And his famous fictive grimoire, the Necronomicon, has a title that boils down to the formula, “Book concerning the dead.” And that must remind us of the Tibetan scripture, also sacred to the Shingon sect in Japan, the Bardo Thodol, or “Book of Liberation by Hearing, on the Intermediate Plane,” i.e., between this life and whatever comes next. What does come next?
Upon death, one hovers incorporeally about the deathbed for some four days, then beholds the White Light of the Adi-Buddha, which is in fact one’s own Inmost Self. One must needs keep in mind the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that there is no individual atman, self, distinct from the one great Self of the Dharmakya, the Buddha-nature. To fail to grasp this is the predicament of the unenlightened. But if one does grasp the significance of the Light, one joins with it and leaves Samsara, individual existence in the world of reincarnation, behind forever. But if one has never meditated, one will not recognize the true nature of the Light and, stunned by it, one will flee into the first intermediate plane.
There one beholds a vista of celestial divine Beings, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, penultimate manifestations of the Buddha Nature, and thus of one’s own self. As one sees these glorious Entities, one must bear in mind that they are but projections of one’s own mind. But if one has lived a sinful life, one’s spiritual perceptions are to say the least dulled. And then one sees the Peaceful Deities, as they are called, transform into the bloody-tusked, weapons-wielding forms of the Wrathful Deities. Still oblivious of their true nature as illusions of the Mind, the carnal man retreats into the stage wherein one seeks a new incarnation on earth or in other realms, including existence as a ghost, an animal, or a denizen of one of the numerous picturesque hells.
If August Derleth found it fruitful to interpret Lovecraft’s Old Ones as analogues of the Greek Titans and the Christian fallen angels, the Principalities and Powers, and to oppose to them another group friendly to humanity, the Elder Gods, analogous to the Olympian gods and the Christian angels, I will venture that it is at least as productive and enlightening to compare the notion of the Great Old Ones and the Elder Gods to the notion of the Wrathful Deities as opposed to the Peaceful Deities. The difference between them is one created by the unenlightened mind’s tendency to split the Suchness of the Void into sets of opposed half-truths. As in the Bardo Thodol, where the difference between the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities is nothing more than the screen of good or bad karma through which one views them, in the Cthulhu Mythos, the moral coloring of each or any group of deities is a function of an anthropomorphic perspective. It is just as Yozan Dirk Mosig, himself a Zen practitioner, argued long ago: Lovecraft created entities that are utterly indifferent to the fortunes of man, much like impersonal cosmic forces. But, Mosig argued, the characters in the stories cannot help viewing them from a limited anthropocentric perspective from which it appears that Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth are evil, since they are a threat to us, though only in the sense that a hurricane or Tsunami might be. Not intentionally malicious: just inconvenient for us.
How did this particular collection come about? It was the brainchild of one of the authors, Ken Asamatsu. This notable gent is a young and indefatigable writer of both historical and horror novels. He is a dyed-in-the-wool Cthulhu Mythos fan. Asamatsu first conceived the collection as comprised of twin volumes, one featuring Mythos tales set in various historical settings, the other made of tales set in our own day. To this end, he invited a number of major Japanese horror scribes to join the project. He was successful, and so were they. In fact, the writers found themselves so carried away that before long the material had far outgrown the original parameters, pretty much like Wilbur Whateley’s brother popping the buttons on his farmhouse! So two volumes grew plump, and the project was taken on by Sogensha in Japan, a major publisher of mystery and science fiction books translated into Japanese. They were delighted to be able to offer a significant new homegrown product! And so now the shoe is on the other foot: we are offering you the same collection in an English translation! The present collection, Night Voices, Night Journeys, is, then, the first volume of a series collectively called Lairs of the Hidden Gods. I can only say I am proud and grateful to be associated with the project, and that I can’t wait to read the rest of the tales! (One word of warning: you might want to read my comments on each story after you’ve read the story itself, lest certain surprises be spoiled.)
Robert M. Price
Hierophant of the Horde
November 10, 2004
Robert M. Price
Robert M. Price, a half century old, dates his addiction to H.P. Lovecraft from 1967, when he first perused the Lancer paperback editions of The Colour out of Space and The Dunwich Horror. It was many years later that he entered the field of Lovecraftian scholarship with an article, “Higher Criticism and the Necronomicon,” in the pages of Lovecraft Studies and soon afterwards founded Crypt of Cthulhu (1982). Beginning in 1990, he edited a series of Cthulhu Mythos anthologies for Fedogan & Bremer, Chaosium, Inc., and Arkham House.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1954, Bob lived most of his life in New Jersey and now resides with his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica in Selma, North Carolina in a big, purple house filled with books, comics, action figures and antique furniture. You may get to know him better at his website http://robertmprice.mindvendor.com/.