Some time ago, I was introduced to a parody of the pop love song “Hey There Delilah” entitled “Hey There Cthulhu”, originally done by a fellow named Eben Brooks. As one might expect from the new title, our intrepid parodist replaced the words to the earnest love song with references to the Lovecraftian Mythos. In particular, he chose to recast the song as a message of devotion from one of Cthulhu’s insane cultists to the big guy himself, capping it off with a rather creditable maniacal laugh.
Well, I was looking for the song again one day a while back and I came across the above link. In it, a young lady with a fine sense of humor covers the parody. But the interesting thing is that she plays it completely straight. There’s no over the top maniacal laughter and no mugging to the audience. She has a nice voice. And there’s nothing about the tune that belies the effect. The song was written as a sweet love song and in her hands, that it remains. It’s just a sweet love song that happens to be dedicated to one of the Great Old Ones.
At the time, I thought little of it. But in a way quite similar to that of the obsessive, introspective, neurotic intellectuals of whom Lovecraft loved to star in his macabre happenings, I found my thoughts inevitably pulled back to this amusing cover of a parody of a song I don’t particularly care for. Why would I dwell on this so, I wondered? What about it seemed so important?
Then, months later, it hit me. I knew where I’d heard a song like that before: Christian Rock. The whole idea behind the Christian Rock genre is that the moderately devout like to listen to pop music, but they don’t so much enjoy the fact that if one listens even a little, one discovers that most of the lyrics are about young people engaging in activities they consider sinful. So instead of writing sappy love songs about other people, they write them about God. And then, depending on the denomination, they get together to sing these new songs together at church.
This song is actually a gateway into a parallel universe. One in which the cult of Cthulhu swept out of the deserts of the Middle East and over the globe in lieu of the followers of Jesus. One in which the people of the Book are those that venerate the Necronomicon instead of the Bible or the Koran. One in which the winding road of history eventually led to a girl with a guitar singing earnestly on YouTube about the long-awaited return of her beloved Cthulhu.
Having realized that, I naturally began to wonder. What sort of world would that be? To begin to answer that question, we can look toward the tenets of the cult as laid out by Lovecraft. He tells us that the followers of Cthulhu are generally mad and prone to strange ecstatic orgiastic rites. They speak a strange ancient tongue and work to wake their sleeping master, who they say speaks to them from his home that is somehow simultaneously beneath the waves and a billion light years distant.
Intriguingly, Cthulhu is not a particularly generous or caring god. He is deeply, essentially alien to human existence. To him, we are an extraneous background detail, and when the stars are right and R’lyeh rises to the surface of the ocean, it is written that he will consume all humanity as something of an afterthought. The only benefits that seem to accrue to the cultists themselves are the revelry they’ll enjoy knowing the hour is at hand, followed by the assurance that they will be devoured first, quickly and comparatively painlessly.
However, if you look a little closer, you can see some surprising parallels to Christianity in there. They both share the pattern of a god that once walked upon the earth and, for whatever reason, is yet to return. They both agree that the final return of their god will herald the end of human existence as we know it. And they both share the concept that, even though their god is absent now, he can still reach out and inspire his followers through dreams and visions.
It’s also worth noting that the early Christians expected their god to return real soon now. This belief has come down to us as millenarianism, since a similar wave of enthusiasm swept Europe around 1000 AD. It made sense to lots of people that God would come back at the millennium. It’s a nice, even, round number after all.
But back when Jesus had just bodily ascended to heaven within living memory, it seemed quite reasonable for anyone who accepted his claim to be god that he’d be back any day now. And when people are convinced that the world will be ending soon, they tend to stop caring about things like going to work. After all, what does it matter if the harvest won’t come in next year if there won’t even be a next year? And that’s a very reasonable conclusion: the only stable equilibrium in an Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma with a known end date is immediate defection. So the early Christians understandably acquired a reputation as a weird, nutty cult.
But God never came back. And the people who sold their houses and quit going to work to await the blessed coming of the Lord found that this was a tremendously bad idea; a lesson that cults have continued to painstakingly relearn over the centuries. Even still, the faith continued to grow and spread, with the believing Christians managing to grow their numbers through conversion and natural increase until they made up a majority of the population of the greatest empire the world had ever known.
Meanwhile, there was a massive tumult over the proper interpretation of the sacred texts. The original Christians didn’t spend a whole lot of time documenting everything they were doing because, again, they’d been expecting the world to end any minute now. So their heirs were left to struggle over countless points of doctrine that seemed to have profound implications on how God was calling his people to live. Eventually, they hammered out something resembling a consensus about three hundred years after they reckoned Christ had walked on the earth. building a common basis by which they could then declare beliefs like millenarianism heretical.
One can fruitfully see the history of these doctrinal struggles through something resembling a Darwinian lens: variation and selection. Regardless of what the holy books actually demand of their followers, the actual praxis of the religion needs to conform to a lasting solution in civilization configuration-space. If it doesn’t, the followers will fail to replace themselves and eventually die out. Therefore, we would expect the doctrines that support successful equilibria to triumph over their rivals, even if their reasoning is much more tortured than the alternatives.
There is no reason to believe that Cthulhuism would be any less subject to these pressures than Christianity. At first, the ecstatic followers would revel in freedom from all restraint in the name of their dark lord. But the ones that went on to win, and we’re presuming here that there is a sub-sect that does, will be the ones who somehow conclude that the correct interpretation of the Necronomicon is to perform the rites to call out to Cthulhu and patiently await the rising of R’lyeh from the depths, since no man can set the stars to rights on his own.
Fast forward a few hundred years and Cthulhuism is no longer a cult. It’s graduated to a full-fledged religion: a belief system that can support a civilized order over an indefinite period as the dominant current of thought.
As such, in this parallel universe, it would almost certainly have a few key differences from the Christianity we know. For instance, it’s highly unlikely Cthulhuism would put such a high emphasis on forgiveness as an ideal. And they’d probably be a lot more interested in astronomy than the Christians historically were.
But there’d be a lot of stuff that’d be the same. For instance, copies of the Necronomicon would certainly be held securely by the priesthood and carefully interpreted for the peasants, so that they avoided the countless heresies and madnesses that stem from staring too long into the abyss. And history would be pocked with rebellions and peasant insurrections stemming from the wrong person getting a hold of the Necronomicon and drawing one of the many possible wrong conclusions from it.
Along those lines, I suspect that parallel-Earth would eventually have a destructive Reformation when the printing press is discovered. From the perspective of variation and selection, the Protestant Reformation looks a lot like another Cambrian explosion in doctrinal diversity resembling that of the early church. With the expected concomitant shakeout of the unworkable long-term doctrines that separate the cultist from the religious.
And then, finally, if you run the clock all the way up to the beginning of the 21st century, you find Cthulhuism on the back foot around the world. By now, people have sent submarines down to explore the sea floor and didn’t find any conclusive evidence of the great city of R’lyeh. The devout claim that’s because R’lyeh is in a dimensional pocket that is inaccessible to man until the stars are right, but that traditional explanation seems a little too pat to the men of science who have solved so many other mysteries.
Meanwhile, the Necronomicon has been subject to literary and historical deconstruction, with some people going so far as to claim that the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred didn’t really exist. What had been taken as the sign of his divinely inspired madness by generations of scholars was actually the result of three different original authors whose fragmented work was recombined at one of the countless early synods.
And so, if Cthulhuism is built on a tower of lies, then the critics conclude that there is no reason why people should be expected to maintain the retrograde cultural folkways. Why should people remain chaste and honor their parents if there’s no Cthulhu out there to waken and reward their devotion with a painless end to their lingering existence? Or why shouldn’t they just commit suicide themselves right now and cut out the middleman?
Amidst the conflict and despair, one can imagine a lower-middle class middle-aged father of two somewhere in North America. He’s worried. The economy never seems to be getting better, so his wages are stagnant and money is always tight. Meanwhile, college is so expensive nowadays. How will he manage to give his kids a better life than he had?
Speaking of his kids, his thirteen-year-old son seems to be hanging out with the wrong crowd. And his fifteen-year-old daughter has started wearing scandalous clothing and keeps missing curfew. He knows what they’re up to; he was a little wild himself at their age. But he came back to the Church when he married their mom. And he’s not sure that, at this rate, there will be anything left for them to come back to. With those heavy thoughts weighing down his mind, he clicks the radio on and starts humming along to an old favorite.
And thus our two universes briefly intersect.