When one browses Steampunk websites and forums, one cannot fail to spot the frequency with which Kraken, octopuses and other tentacled things are swimming and slithering into the picture. This is only natural, after all 40.000 miles under the sea is a classic in the steampunk scene and the image of a brass-helmeted diver fighting a giant octopus is simply too iconic. Also, steampunk involves a lot of exploration, and what more of an epic feat could an undersea voyager encounter than the Kraken.
To top it all of, Air Kraken Day is an official holiday in the steampunk community, so you really get the tentacled beasties everywhere.
If you feel confused about this Air Kraken, know that is actually an invention by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the father of Sherlock Holmes.
He wrote a science fiction story called The Horror of the Hights, in which an aviator discovers an aerial ecosystem in the upper atmosphere with beasties living between clouds and comets. He eventually gets eaten by the Air Kraken.
But all this is just an appetizer. Once you get more acquainted with the steampunk scene you notice a good chunk of them are quite infatuated with the biggest tentacled baddy there is: Great Cthulhu himself.
Now, why is this? As far as one can tell from the outside, steampunk is as far removed from the Cthulhu Mythos, when philosophy and word view are concerned, as it can be. Steampunks are generally a happy and optimistic crowd, they do things, they get things done, they look towards the horizon.
H.P. Lovecraft in contrast was a nihilist and this is reflected in his writing. The Cthulhu Mythos is all about the futility of human endeavors. No matter how hard we try, we are doomed to go extinct when the Great Old Ones return.
The reason for this close connection is most likely not a simple one and every steampunk who is also a fan or even devoted cultist of Great Cthulhu, has probably his or her own reason to love both aspects of pop culture. What I want to do is shine a light on possible reasons for this attraction.
From a purely objective point of view and in retrospect, there are a number of steampunk elements in H.P. Lovecrafts writing:
- The Mi-Go’s devices for keeping brains and helping separated brains communicate with the world are made of brass and are wonders of mechanical engineering
- The machines used by the Yithians are distinctly steampunk, both the ones described as being used in and around their ancient city of Pnakotus and the one constructed by the mind possessing Prof. Peaslee’s body to send it back to Pnakotus.
- The machine constructed by Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond.
It is only natural that advanced technology in Lovecraft’s fiction is steampunk. In his time, many concepts we use today when thinking about advanced technology were unknown or in their infancy: Semi-conductors, electronics, quantum mechanics, superconductors, hard drives, crystals as memory storage, all those things came years after Lovecraft’s death. Lovecraft had to use what he knew. He knew optics (he was a bit of a nerd in that respect) and he most likely knew something about clockwork and mechanics, if only because of the world he lived in. He had to use the things he knew to imagine advanced technology, and those elements of the still very Victorian technology Lovecraft was familiar with are what steampunk tech is made of.
So, there is some overlap there already, but you have to dig relatively deep to find those elements and they are coincidental, not deliberate. Lovecraft saw himself in the tradition of Dunsany and Poe, not Verne and Wells. Also, in two of Lovecraft’s most popular stories, The Call of Cthuhu and The Colour out of Space (the ones most often found in anthologies) there are no steampunk elements at all.
Cthulhu himself is not steampunk, yet, there is a steampunk version of Cthulhu available as a sculpture. There are also several steampunk/Cthulhu Mythos crossover anthologies available in one form or another, one actually by Chaosium, the publisher of the Call of Cthulhu role playing game.
On top of that, there is a steampunk/Cthulhu crossover role playing game. So obviously, there are enough fans of both genres to create a market.
My personal speculation why the overlap between the fans of H.P. Lovecraft and the steampunks is significant, is because both steampunk and the Cthulhu Mythos share something significant: The beauty of weirdness.
H.P. Lovecraft is a master of weird fiction, and although the world he created is hopeless and uncaring, it is a fact that his is one of the most fascinating and compelling fictional universes. It has lost none of its appeal almost 80 years after Lovecraft’s far too early demise. In fact the very contrary is true: Due in large part to the internet, Lovecraft’s work is more popular than ever.
Steampunk is beautiful and weird but, as I stated earlier, with a lot of optimism. Steampunk, too, grew with the internet, before that, it had only existed as a literary sub-section of sci-fi. People who are into Lovecraft and into steampunk are people who are attracted by the weird and the wonderful.
Steampunks also tend to have some form of fantasy element in their background. They may be cosplayers, role players (LARP, Pen & Paper and/or computer), comic collectors or something else that is geeky or nerdy. It is very likely that some if not most of them have encountered Cthulhu in one way or the other.
Now the next step is relatively simple: Kraken and other tentacled beasties are a common occurence in the steampunk scene, as decoration, adversary, hunting trophy or even pet. Since many steampunks already know Cthulhu, why not go the extra mile and take the ultimate tentacled beastie in: Great Cthulhu himself.
Interestingly, the “steampunkification” of Cthulhu is more than just creating one made out of gears (although that one also exists). If you enter “steampunk/Cthulhu” on Deviant Art, you’ll see that crossover art is out there.
You will notice one thing:
As far as steampunk depictions of Cthulhu are concerned, the menacing, close to the original adaptions are outnumbered by far by the ones depicting Cthulhu as a jovial gentleman, more often than not with a smile on his tentacled face.
Steampunk Cthulhu is a gentleman and as such serves as a prime example of the power of the steampunk scene: the spirit of steampunk has managed to turn the greatest horror of 20th century fiction into a gentleman you want to invite for tea, and this is just splendid!
So, while the actual reason why there is such a prevalence of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Mythos elements in the steampunk scene remains an eldridge mystery, possibly with an unspeakable answer, the result is clear, the Cthulhu of the steampunk scene is a gentlemonster, someone you would love to be a member of your club.
I think this is something we can all live with.
Marcus R Gilman is a general geek who conforms to too many clichés and has a faible for monocles, Zeppelins, cyberspace and cities beneath the ocean housing ancient deities. A long-time RPG enthusiast, he also dabbles in computer programming and works full-time annoying Google. On the side, he is an author with a range spanning from anthropology to steampunk (both fiction and non-fiction) to horror to Japanese poetry. His main outlet on the web is the bilingual blog project Daily Steampunk, complete with one steampunk and one occasional science podcast. Cameos of him can be found in four different Steampunk novels and he is the official representative of Section P, the Imperial German equivalent to Pip Ballantine’s and Tee Morris’ Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. www.daily-steampunk.com; http://www.resae.net; https://twitter.com/Yithmas.