Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Santa Claus Mythos

The popular legend of Saint Nicholas is of course founded on the life of that sainted fourth century presbyter of what is modern-day Turkey, but his journey to twentieth century America had many winds and turnabouts along the way. The modern concept Santa Claus owes as much to English folklore and slick Madison Avenue advertising as it does to any hagiographical accounts of the original St. Nick. Yet perhaps one of the most unusual twists in the tale of Kris Kringle was provided by early twentieth century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who added new dimensions and perhaps extended the life of our most popular holiday icon.


Lovecraft grew up in 1890s Providence, Rhode Island at the time when Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” had just captured the popular imagination. Children all over New England, and indeed all over America, thrilled at the newly minted notion of a Christmas Eve visit from a jocund elf distributing holiday gifts of toys and sweets. Yet it is clear from an 1897 short story by the young Lovecraft that the tale had made quite a different impression on him. Only the title, “The Sorcerer of Winter’s Darkness,” survives, though it gives some indication of Lovecraft’s attitude toward Saint Nicholas, whose name he would eventually reconstruct as Hsintauur-Khlaous, and which would be irretrievably bowdlerized by publishers of as Santa Claus. Late in life Lovecraft would complain that the name didn’t do justice to a creature he regarded more terrible than any of the “night gaunts” of his youth.

In his late teens Lovecraft expanded on his earlier concept of Hsintauur-Khlaous (hereafter referred to as Santa Claus). The origin of Santa Claus is set down in blasphemous texts such as the Necronomicon, in which the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred tells of a servant of the Elder Race who betrayed them and was punished in turn with the dissolution of his body, for he could not be destroyed by any power known in this world or beyond. Over the aeons his body slowly reconstituted, eventually completing that horrendous process in the Korvatunturi Mountains in what is modern day Finland. This was still before the dawn of man but after the war between Cthulhu and the Elder Race, when they were at their weakest and had forgotten the being that would be known in the tongues of man variously as Kringle, Noel and Santa, to mention but a few of his names which can be safely uttered.

Though the Elder Race was broken and largely vanished, Santa was also weak and bided his time, allowing his strength and menace to grow. As it did the mountain range he dwelt in became known as a loathsome and dreaded place by the tribes of the new race of men who dared venture so far north. In his chilling grip the mountains of Korvatunturi came to be regarded as the remotest, most alien point of the frozen north lands where men had begun to settle. Those who did venture near the foothills of those mountains brought back tales of a distant, hollow laugh unlike that of any human, forced and mirthless. They passed on cautionary stories of the reindeer of that region, who watched the traveler cautiously and intelligently during the day. Any man brave or foolhardy enough to sleep in the shadow of those cursed mountains at night heard the pawing of hard-shod creatures in the branches of the forest canopy, and in the morning cloven prints could be seen in places impossible for any normal reindeer to reach by leaping.

Dread of Santa grew into awe and fascination, and a Santa cult developed among the more secluded, fallen tribes of the men who dwelt in the north in those days. The cult was already ancient at the arrival of the Norse gods, and Santa mingled with the pagan religions in various guises. Later Christian scholars mistakenly discounted as erroneous depictions of Loki as a crimson, adipose figure resembling a man, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, who smoked a pipe and carried a sack with mysterious contents. In part they were disquieted by accounts of this figure’s fixation on the dreams of children and his attempts to engender avarice and covetousness in households dug in for the long northern winters, perhaps in an attempt to drive them to panic and violence, whence they might lose hold of all reason and venture out into the blinding snow, where reindeer or small unspeakable beings in league with Santa might await them.

Lovecraft’s Santa Mythos spread across sixteen short stories, mostly set in modern New England. In these stories rustics and academics struggle with, and usually succumb to, attacks both psychic and material that occur in the midst of the Christmas holiday season. The insidious essence of Santa’s power insinuates itself by way of the restlessness, tension, and ennui Lovecraft associated with a New England Christmas. His characters can be seen arming themselves against the Christmas spirit, though never in an explicitly irreligious sense. Lovecraft was never closer to impiety than he was with his Christmas-themed tales, and he seemed aware of this in choices of language and narrative focus as his characters did battle with the forces of Christmas.

Lovecraft’s reaction to Christmas’ social phenomenon resounded strongly with his readers, who demanded of his publishers a new Santa story every year. The first story in the Santa Mythos appeared in the December 1923 issue of Weird Tales, and one followed every year, even as the publishers rejected Lovecraft submissions such as “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Though Lovecraft maintained a regular output of Santa stories he steadfastly refused his publishers’ demands to feature Santa in the works of his Cthulhu oeuvre, which he regarded as vastly superior. To a colleague he wrote:

“To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the local attributes and concerns of mankind are acknowledged cosmically. I have done my best to reform the popular Christmas legend of this revolting conceit, but it cannot be done away with entirely in the character of Hsintauur-Khlaous. His interference in human events, for good or ill, smacks of the sort of convenience I’ve striven my entire life to avoid in my work.”

Numerous anthologies of Lovecraft’s Santa Claus stories have been published over the years, most notably an Oxford World Classics edition edited by S.T. Joshi, who is among the many Lovecraft scholars and admirers who have expressed distaste at the latter-day pastime of pitting Santa Claus against the Old Ones in popular role playing games. There have also been several successful stage adaptations of Lovecraft’s Santa stories, which are regularly performed during the Christmas season by both community and professional theaters, the most popular of which are “The Shadow Over Bedford Falls” and “The Caroler in Darkness.”

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pirate Pets Part 44: Parrots

The parrot became a favorite pet of seafaring pirates in the Caribbean Sea during the Golden Age of piracy (the late 17th century). It is likely the buccaneers first claimed tame parrots from the plundering of Spanish ships laden with exotic tropical goods on the way back to Europe.

A parrot

The parrot soon became a popular choice of animal companion, eventually eclipsing the ever popular monkey as pet of choice. This was largely due to the parrot’s unique nature and the demands of the larger, more complex pirating operations of the buccaneer age. The parrot had one skill the average rum-addled pirate did not: the ability to memorize and repeat random facts and figures ad infinitum. Lacking both this and an ability to read and write, many pirates came to rely on parrots to retain key pieces of data that could mean the difference between finding crucial land markers, remembering debts and sums, and other values that couldn’t easily be counted in physical objects. The parrot kept many swashbucklers sailing independently who otherwise would have had to join larger concerns of the day.

When rival bands of pirates did close in battle, one of the top priorities was to capture the enemy’s parrot in attempt to learn information that could be of value. Many pirate captains taught their birds a word or phrase the bird would have to hear first before it would recite anything else.

The pirate parrot entered popular culture in 1881 in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island. In it, the pirate captain Long John Silver is depicted with a parrot ever perched on his shoulder. Pirates of the day did often take their parrots with them for security, but often wore capes of rough fabric to keep the parrot’s feces from building up on their clothes.