“Lovecraft Thesis #5” (2021) by Brandon O’Brien

The man you say brought us here is a kind of prophet.
—Brandon O’Brien “Lovecraft Thesis #5” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 59

Every Lovecraftian thesis in O’Brien’s collection includes a soundtrack; for #5 it is Visions of Bodies Being Burned (2020), Track 6: Make Them Dead, by clipping. An experimental hip-hop piece of carefully constructed distortion, slow to start, building in speed and lyricality. The track provides added context for the thesis; one should be read with the other, not rushing through O’Brien’s free verse, but savoring the way the lines scan. Like good poetry, and good lyrics, there is something more there than just a clever bit of wording or an evocative image.

Lovecraftian is a state of mind. There’s no hard definition, and it means different things to different people. For folks like W. H. Pugmire, “Lovecraftian” was an aesthetic, a mood, an attitude. You don’t need Cthulhu or tentacles to be Lovecraftian;  you don’t even need Lovecraft. The idea is bigger than the man or his fiction, and sometimes it can be crafted in a poem or found by chance in the verse of a song. Every person who comes to Lovecraft and his work brings with them their own experience, their own syntax through which to view and define what “Lovecraftian” means for them—and can put their own stamp on what is Lovecraftian.

Does it bear repeating that the caliber of racism he espoused in his heyday of the 1910s to the 1930s was not uncommon among white Americans? Of coure—but it would be a sorry excuse, as if to imply racism was some unaboidable product of circumstance rather than the deliberate ideology of spiteful people, some of whom may be honestly otherwise remarkable (much to the benefit of that spite). There is no shame or cruelty in observing this. He was a truly remarkable creative mind, but one whose creativity was colored by a misguided value of monoculturalism.

Science fiction is a radical genre, but that fact is a neutral one.
—Brandon O’Brien “Author’s Note” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 68

The “Lovecraft theses” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? are meditations on a theme, but deliberately ambiguous, letting the reader fill in the gaps. The language is evocative of Lovecraft’s themes, but there are no proper names to hang certainties on. In other poems in this collection, like “Kanye West’s Internet Bodyguard Aks Hastur to Put Away the Phone,” the specificity and pop culture references are played for laughs, surreal humor masking the darker reflections, in the vein of Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky.

how they huddle around warped symbols,
pledge fealty to idols long since dust,
—Brandon O’Brien “Lovecraft Thesis #5” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 59

For myself, reading these lines about the hooded figures, listening to this track, I’m reminded of Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark. Yet one could just as easily read this as a poem of the fantastic, of any group of cultists; even absent its context, the track, the author’s note, the other poems in the collection, it speaks to familiar themes, people staring into the past, defined by hate and a kind of fanatical devotion. The tenor of the thesis has that kind of Lovecraftian universality to it, picking up its color and timbre from its context.

O’Brien knows what he is doing.

This is not the only work that has taken the most recognizable parts of the Cthulhu mythos and reshaped them for thoughtful and critical effect.
—Brandon O’Brien “Author’s Note” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 70

One of the key points of the 2010s and 2020s has been not necessarily a rising awareness of Lovecraft’s racism—that was never a secret, and no serious biography has ever shied away from the subject—but a rising awareness that there is a body of literature in response to that, whether it be “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders, “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios, or The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin. Anyone that accuses these writers of whipping a dead horse is missing the point: the issue at hand is not berating Lovecraft for his racism, but demonstrating that Black people have a voice in Lovecraftian fiction too. They get to have their part in defining what “Lovecraftian” means to them, to tell Cthulhu Mythos stories in their own way, reflective of their own interests and experiences, just as white people have been doing for decades.

After all, in terms of Cthulhu, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. There is no reason a Black character cannot be the protagonist of a Lovecraftian story, cannot experience the same sense of cosmic horror and insignificance that Lovecraft’s white protagonists did. The experience of cosmic fear should ultimately be colorblind.

“Lovecraftian thesis #5” is a little different.

The end goal of this collection is in the same spirit as those works, but hoping to accomplish the inverse: for Blackness ot be seen as radically significant.
—Brandon O’Brien “Author’s Note” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 70

You can see that in a close reading of the verse. The identity and the perspective of the speaker is critical: they are not among the group of hooded figures, they are apart, watching, questioning. In the first line, the speaker specifies “The man you say brought us here”—the speaker is addressing the audience, and identifying as part of a group that was brought somewhere against their will, set against these hooded figures—you don’t have to see the speaker as a former slave set against the Ku Klux Klan, but you can see how that experience could have informed those words.

What else than to own the carcass
of a land already bought in blood?
—Brandon O’Brien “Lovecraft Thesis #5” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 59

All five “Lovecraft theses,” along with other poems by Brandon O’Brien can be found in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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