A trope that seems to pop up occasionally in stories that I read is something I’ve begun calling “The Pit of Lovecraft”. The theme seems fairly standardized: people discover some sort of unspeakably alien and utterly ancient artifact, attempt to study and/or weaponize it, and then through some catastrophic failure, unleash their research on the world. Once unleashed, the world is irreversibly altered and unfit for human existence. I call it “The Pit of Lovecraft” because the objects are contained underground or within a pit, and the results are usually Lovecraftian in nature.
I think Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space (1927) is particularly relevant to the discussion of this theme, and I’m pretty sure that the roots of Lovecraft pits lie here. There’s also a dash of The Call of Cthulhu (1926) and The Dunwich Horror (1929) thrown in the mix, but I think The Colour Out of Space is really the main wellspring here.
For those of you unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fiction, he specialized in weird fiction straddling the fields of horror and science fiction. His stories were about a collection of godlike alien beings (far beyond the understanding of humanity) that had chosen Earth as a home in the distant past. To them, humans were vastly insignificant, and when they awoke from aeons-long slumber they would likely destroy humanity either for fun or by accident. The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror are among the archetypical Lovecraft stories (although in my opinion, The Call of Cthulhu itself isn’t a very good story. Alien god temporarily defeated by getting stabbed with a boat, what?)
The Colour Out of Space is a little bit thematically different from the grand stories of monsters, though. Instead, it concerns an innocuous-seeming meteorite that lands in western Massachusetts. The meteorite has several strange properties, though: it attracts lightning and seeps a mysterious metallic liquid containing elements unknown to science. Over the span of a summer, the liquid contaminates the landscape near the meteorite’s landing site, making plant life grow in strange ways before dying off into a gray dust. A family is also affected by the liquid, to horrifying effect. Eventually, it is revealed that the liquid is actually a life form of its own, parasitizing the life energy from objects around it. Eventually, a fruiting body grows, which propels “seedlings” back into space. The rate at which contamination spreads slows dramatically, but the author is unsure whether the organism is dead.
In a way, this seems really typical of the trope. Aside from humans directly unleashing the organism upon the Earth, everything else is there: the creature grows in a well (the pit), and renders everything around it unlivable for Earth’s ecosystem. The human component is the next logical step, and it springs somewhat organically from the ideas that permeate Lovecraft’s fiction.
For a little bit of background on Lovecraft, he came of age in during a time where the traditional world was shattering. The foundation of physics was being shifted from totally constant Newtonian mechanics to the relativity of Einsteinian mechanics. The effects of the Great War showed the destructive power of humanity unleashed upon itself. Science was heading in new, terrifying directions, and was ripping away the anthropocentric illusions that humanity had of itself. These directions had a profound effect on the arts at the time, and science fiction was not spared.
Lovecraft worked with these themes to create fiction that tapped into the underlying uncertainty that came with the times. Alien beings that regarded humanity was insignificant reflected the vast expansion of the universe. The idea that physics could change based solely on perspective is reflected in the idea that visitors from outer space could bring their own physics with them. The idea that humanity shattered a generation in the span of four years is reflected in the idea that alien gods could wipe out humanity in a few days.
A few generations later, we’ve gotten used to the ideas that were shocking in the 1920s. Today’s readers might be slightly uncomforted by the vision that gave Lovecraft night terrors. Part of the effect is rooted in the zeitgeist of the times. However, they still crop up in modified and in slightly more effective forms to this day in the form of the Lovecraft pit.
The first example of this that I can think of offhand is Steven King’s novella The Mist (1980). Severe thunderstorms knock out the containment protocols on a secret military research facility, which allow Lovecraftian horrors to escape into the world in a veil of heavy gray fog. The story is a work of survival horror, and doesn’t deal with the military facility directly: all the main characters know there’s a military base and that the fog is coming from the direction of the base. However, it’s enough information to clue everyone into the idea that this is the direct result of military experimentation.
I think one of the prime embodiments of this trope is Charlie Stross’s novella A Colder War (1997), in which the Iran-Contra scandal unfolds across a geopolitical backdrop in which the Soviets are using shoggoths for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Cthulhu as a very different type of Star Wars program. In Iraq, the Baath party is attempting to open a gate to Yog-Sothoth to defeat their foes in Iran. Ultimately, Cthulhu is awakened and promptly destroys much of Europe, while nuclear war annihilates the Middle East. Earth soon becomes uninhabitable, while a skeleton population lives on in a small base on the other end of a warp portal.
Perhaps the most recent story that I’ve read that contains this theme is Zack Parsons’s Liminal States (2012), which I will be reviewing soon. The book concerns two men who become immortal through the use of a bizzare pool. When killed, they respawn at the pool, which soon begins producing duplicates of the two men. After one begins serious research on the pool, he starts dragging other things through the pool, culminating in a series of plagues and a disaster which unleashes an alien ecology that dislodges Earth’s.
The trope of Lovecraft pits seems to have faded by the late-40s, as Lovecraft’s mythos friends moved into different topics. A few writers kept the tradition alive, but it largely devolved into cheap monster-of-the-week stories that you’d find in B-movies in the 1950s. Another reason for the disappearance of Lovecraft pits is that our culture got over the shock, and began making uneasy peace with the ideas that horrified Lovecraft.
Events of the 1960s (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis) picked at the scabs a bit, but I think the impetus for the revival of the Lovecraft pit begins with the modern environmental movement. Carson’s Silent Spring alerted us to the possibility that we are capable of wiping out other species and rendering formerly pristine environments uninhabitable with our actions.
The major disruption of losing prime living space has been a prime source of horror throughout human history, and you see that theme reflected in classical myths such as the Garden of Eden and Atlantis. This theme lost some of its potency after the 1920s as well: science was not only capable of creating horrors, but amazing wonders as well. We learned to record ourselves, travel around the world rapidly, and put ourselves into space. As a result, despite the unnerving themes discussed in Silent Spring, most of it was regarded as avoidable or reversible given enough time and resources.
The US military’s research programs also had much to do with the reversal in fortunes for the Lovecraft pit. In March 1968, a stray test of VX gas killed over 6000 sheep near the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, which the Air Force refused to confess to. Further, the existence of a biological weapons research program was also coming to light at the time. If the military was willing to experiment with chemical and biological horrors, what else were they willing to experiment with?
By combining environmental horror and the unaccountability of military research programs with Lovecraft’s alien horrors, the stage was set for the reintroduction of the Lovecraft pit by the early to mid-70s. Steven King was touching on these themes in his short stories, but I think the first one to really put it together was The Mist. The Mist used the Lovecraft pit well, effectively reestablishing it as a routinely used trope in sci-fi and horror.
The Lovecraft pit is routinely, but not commonly used. Perhaps that is part of the reason for its staying power. Thirty years after its reintroduction, it still shows up, in contrast to it’s rather quick disappearance off the stage in the early 40s, only about a decade after it was first introduced. Perhaps it stems from the increased effectiveness of combining Lovecraftian horror with the environoment and military-industrial complex. Environmental degradation and military unaccountability are still major concerns of our culture.
Whatever the reasons, I find Lovecraft pits to be an interesting artifact from the 1920s that somehow manages to resonate through to us a hundred years later. It’s mutated a bit, but I think that Lovecraft would still be interested in it anyway.