Saturday, February 2, 2013


"When at last I awakened, it was to discover myself half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see, and in which my boat lay grounded some distance away. Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear. The sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet. … Nor were there any sea-fowl to prey upon the dead things."
From Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft
Upon encountering three news stories about the sorry state of the world's oceans a while back, yer old pal Jerky's thoughts turned to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the prodigy of Providence, living anachronism, gentleman nihilist. In his lifetime, Lovecraft barely eked out a living as an author of weird fiction for pulpy journals of ill repute. Sickly since birth, he died a pauper in his early 40s, just before World War II really got rolling. Fortunately, he left behind a devoted circle of correspondents and admirers who refused to let his visions of cosmic dread be relegated to the recycle bin of literary history. Today, nearly seventy years since his death, many consider Lovecraft the 20th century's most important author of fantastic fiction, a Poe for the nineteen-hundreds.

Make no mistake, he remains a cult commodity; multiple cults in fact, including a number of literalists who've made fetishes of the master's McGuffins. Among these, the reality of a blasphemous grimmoire entitled Al Azif, or the Necronomicon, remains the most persistent rumor. For some, the idea of a book containing knowledge so unutterably awful that anyone reading it risks going insane is simply too good not to be true. Occasionally, academics eager to bolster their "geek cred" with a certain phenotype of student will invoke the name of H.P. Lovecraft, but in the world of learned elites, his work remains a guilty pleasure.

Lovecraft is not without his champions, however. Jacques Bergier, nuclear chemist and World War II hero, introduced his work to the Continent. There, Lovecraft's adjectival excesses were more easily forgiven -- even appreciated -- and his resonance with Nietzsche, Spengler, Freud and Einstein were more readily detected. Not a few who lived through this terrible age of death camps and atomic annihilation sensed the tremor of prophecy in Lovecraft's words. It's not for his style, but for his substance -- or, perhaps more accurately, his subtext -- that Lovecraft's reputation grows more formidable with every passing year.

French novelist and enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq counts himself an unabashed fan. Recalling his youthful first encounter with Lovecraft's work, he writes: "To call it a shock would be an understatement. I had not known literature was capable of this. And, what's more, I'm still not sure it is. There is something not really literary about Lovecraft's work."

Reading The Colour Out of Space provides clues as to Houellebecq's meaning. Besides being Lovecraft's most unnerving work -- and a rip-roaring yarn -- this is a story that captures with skin-crawling accuracy the arcane befoulment wrought by radioactive poisoning. That it was written decades before man first tried to split the atom only adds to the frisson one feels when reading it.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subject at hand. Though he seldom strayed far from his coastal hometown, Lovecraft loathed the ocean. In its depths, he saw a reflection of the boundless void irreversibly exposed when reason ripped away the comforting veil of superstition. It seems oddly fitting, therefore, that the world's oceans are rapidly deliquescing into a zone of Lovecraftian ruin. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the septic sea we call the Gulf of Mexico.

Along the shores of Englewood Beech a few years ago, seekers of sun and fun bore witness to an astonishing phenomenon; an abyssal procession of sea-life, flopping and wiggling and slithering along in their thousands. All manner of fish, crustaceans, mollusks and eels were observed traveling south in a narrow band stretching for miles, hugging close to shore. Predator swam alongside prey, ignoring the easy pickings in favor of beating the hastiest possible retreat. "You name the species of fish and they were there", one onlooker marveled. "It's incredible. I have never seen anything like that in my life."

As is so frequently the case in Lovecraft's fiction, the scientific community was at a loss to explain. "We just don't know what's happening," declared one researcher. "That's a lot of maybes and what-ifs. I know the state is working on that and some other reports, so maybe by next week we'll have some answers."

Elsewhere in the Gulf, some were coming face to face with a phenomenon so terrible in scope and portent that it makes the story above seem almost quaint. SCUBA divers are returning to shore with hair-raising descriptions of an unprecedentedly vast dead zone. "I'm talking zero things are alive out there", said witness Mike Miller, grimly adding: "The only way to describe it is a nuclear bomb."

The main candidate at this point is the presence of a "stealth" Red Tide. This so-called natural phenomenon bears more than a passing resemblance to the Old Testament plague, and is an otherworldly terror in its own right.

When the algae that thrive on human, livestock and industrial waste begin to multiply unchecked, it has a necrotizing effect on vast swaths of ocean. The blooming flora gives the water a murky crimson taint, but that's the least of it. After a while, the darkness begins to spread, choking out all the oxygen and killing everything in its path. Red Tide produces a potent neurotoxin that has been known to kill people unlucky enough to drink the foul corruption. That which the Red Tide kills sinks to the bottom and rots, providing further fuel to make the Red Tide grow… and the feast goes on.

Need your humble narrator point out that our Red Tides get worse and worse with every passing year?

On the global scale, the news isn't much cheerier. In what scientists warn might be a tilting point in the acceleration of Global Warming, an expanse of Siberian permafrost the size of Western Europe is beginning to thaw for the first time since the Ice Age ended.

But this Global Defrosting could lead to things far worse than just the world's biggest muck-pit. The region consists mostly of a vast peat bog, with billions of tons of methane -- a greenhouse gas 20 times more destructive than carbon dioxide -- trapped in its frozen depths. If unleashed, this methane could double or triple the already accelerating rate of global temperature increase, leading to consequences that can only be described as Apocalyptic. Russian scientist D. Kirpotin described the situation as an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible, and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming."

And so it's come to this. The oceans are choking to death. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. The toxic effluvium of our waste-based society threatens to make our bloody bickering as meaningless as our very lives. We know the consequences, but we can't seem to stop ourselves.

At some level, most of us understand that the human species is going through an unprecedented metaphysical crisis. And most of us understand that this crisis is probably terminal. Like the cultists and malcontents who populate Lovecraft's fiction -- who know that if their incantations succeed, the best they can hope for is a quick death -- we are hastening our own obliteration. We collectively rush to be folded up into the formless tentacles of the boiling chaos that birthed us, and be devoured whole. In other words, we rush to embrace the ultimate doom that is the destiny of all living things, no matter what.