The movie missed some stuff. It didn’t mention the Old Ones or Cthulhu or the shoggoths. You hardly ever see Maine in books, unless they’re Stephen King books.
—Cynthia Ward, “Ancient Astronauts” in Weirdbook Annual 2: Cthulhu, 24
Meddling kids didn’t show up much in the pages of Weird Tales. The period of extended adolescence which would define “teenagers” as separate from children was just beginning in the 1920s and 30s, when the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew made their debut. It was and is something of a rare Mythos story to focus on the younger point of view, such as Arthur Machen’s “The White People” (1904), Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (1951), “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins, and “Lilloth” (2006) by Susan McAdam.
The teenage perspective is an interesting one for a Mythos tale. They are innocent of the world, although not necessarily in all the ways that grown-ups think. Cynthia Ward’s Joanna, Mike, and Bradley are boiling over with hormones, insecure about their place in the world, trapped in their small town lives, limited in their ability to go and do anything.
Ward’s kids can be gullible and insightful, precocious and hard-headed. They sit out at night listening to the horror-host on the radio, talking about ancient astronauts and how nothing ever happens in Maine, Joanna waiting for Mike to get a clue and see her as more than “Just one of the guys.” But there are stranger things afoot than unrequited crushes.
Technically, “Ancient Astronauts” is a much-delayed sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Things are moving again in Maine, decades after Ephraim/Asenath Waite finally shuffled bodies one time too many and was pushed off this mortal coil. Old white men in robes, up at the standing stones in gray robes and waving daggers, and the kids are there to meddle with it. Yet—there’s a little more to it than that. Joanna and Mike only have their limited perspective; they don’t understand half of what they see, and what they do see they interpret through their own lens.
For Joanna, it’s “Ancient Astronauts.” Which is rather fitting. Lovecraft placed the standing stones atop Sentinel Hill in “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” long before Erich von Däniken wrote Chariots of the Gods? (1968); which ignited the contemporary phase of the whole “ancient astronauts” line of thought. Jason Colavito actually traced Däniken’s thesis back to Lovecraft in The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (2005). More soberly, Dave Goudsward goes back to Lovecraft and examines his inspiration for putting ancient American megaliths in the Mythos in Lovecraft and the Great Altar Stones of New England (2016).
Which all runs into a familiar problem: Joanna knows about Old Ones and shoggoths, ancient astronauts and Stephen King; how can she live in a world which doesn’t seem very different than our own if so much of it must be different? Her world is a setting where Lovecraft and his fiction existed, but none of the fiction was fictional—there really is or was an Innsmouth, and people that come from there are different. There really is a pit up in Maine, with stairs descending into the lightless depths…and at the bottom? Well, no-one’s come back. So how did Lovecraft know, to write it in his story?
This isn’t a plot hole, at least not more so than any other story which puts Lovecraft’s fiction and his Mythos together. It is how Cynthia Ward frames the story: through the eyes of meddling kids who have grown up on a diet of ancient astronauts and Stephen King. That is how they see things. It is only the readers, as more widely-read adults, who recognize the different things that are going on in the story—both in terms of Mythos shenanigans and teenage crushes.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).