Charioteer of the Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and the Invention of Ancient Astronauts

Article excerpt

THE IDEA THAT EXTRATERRESTRIALS served as humanity's earliest deities came to popular attention with Swiss author Erich von Daniken's 1968 best-seller Chariots of the Gods and the influential 1973 NBC documentary based on the book, In Search of Ancient Astronauts. But for people familiar with the science fiction magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, von Daniken's "revolutionary" assertion held more than a hint of other writings that previously claimed that the gods were of an extraterrestrial nature. In fact, much of von Daniken's case perfectly parallels the work of a certain New England writer of horror stories, and the journey from horror story to nonfiction bestseller starts in America and takes us to France and Switzerland.

The author in question is none other than H. P. Lovecraft, from Providence, Rhode Island, justly hailed as a master of the horror story. His work claims a place beside Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King in the pantheon of the genre. Born into a wealthy family in 1890, Lovecraft's life was a series of reverses and declines as his family lost their fortune and his parents succumbed to madness. He was a precocious and self-taught scholar who read voraciously and devoured as much literature as he could read, including the novels of H.G. Wells, whose War of the Worlds told of the coming of alien creatures to earth. He also read the 18th-century Gothic masters of horror, above all Edgar Allan Poe.

When he set about writing his own works, Lovecraft began to blend the modern world of science fiction with his favorite tales of Gothic gloom. Lovecraft tried to bring the Gothic tale into the 20th century, modernizing the trappings of ancient horror for a new century of science. Lovecraft published his work in pulp fiction magazines, notably Weird Tales, though many of his works were not published until after his death in 1937. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction and horror magazines reprinted Lovecraft's tales numerous times, and he became one of the most popular pulp authors.

Lovecraft's works recast the supernatural into materialist temps. He took the idea of a pantheon of ancient gods and made them a group of aliens who descended to earth in the distant past. Lovecraft summed up this startlingly original idea in his 1926 short story "The Call of Cthulhu." In the story, a young man puts together the pieces of an ancient puzzle and discovers the shocking truth about a monstrous race of alien creatures who served as gods to a strange cult:

   There had been aeons when other Things ruled on
   the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains
   of Them ... were still found as Cyclopean stones on
   islands in the Pacific. They all died vast epochs of
   time before men came, but there were arts which
   could revive Them when the stars had come round
   again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity.
   They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars,
   and brought Their images with Them. (1)

In just these few short sentences we see the root of the entire ancient astronaut hypothesis. The ancient gods or demons were aliens who descended to earth in primal times. They raised great stone cities whose remains are the ancient ruins of today. Lastly, the ancient sculptures depicted the aliens. All of these claims are to be found in von Daniken's Chariots:

   These first men had tremendous respect for the space
   travelers. Because they came from somewhere
   absolutely unknown and then returned there again,
   they were the "gods" to them.

      In advanced cultures of the past we find buildings
   that we cannot copy today with the most modern
   technical means. These stone masses are there;
   they cannot be argued away.

      Another quite fantastic discovery was the Great
   Idol [of Tiwanaku] ... Again we have the contradiction
   between the superb quality and precision of the
   hundreds of symbols all over the idol and the primitive
   technique used for the building housing it. …