The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestrial Pop Culture, by Jason Colavito (Prometheus Books, 2005), is a strange book. From the title and a quick check of the summaries available, I thought it would be more about Lovecraft’s work and its influence on pop culture in general. It’s not, not really.
It’s mostly a debunking of ancient astronaut theories and related fringe “science”, such as the work of Erich von Däniken. That’s fine, although it’s not so interesting, at least not to me. I read von Däniken back in the day, and found it sort of intriguing, but weak, and it’s been a long time since I considered any of it as anything but fantasy. Linking ancient astronaut theory back to a possible origin in Lovecraft’s fiction sounds like an interesting idea, though, and even though that’s a much more narrow analysis of Lovecraft’s influence than I was hoping for, it still seemed interesting. And to an extent, it is.
But the book fails on a number of points. First, and most importantly, the “linking” of ancient astronaut theory and the like to Lovecraft’s works just fails. The author keeps claiming there’s a link, but never shows much for it, and indeed, from his examples of parallels to other works, it seems much more likely that ancient astronaut theory had some of the same influences as Lovecraft, such as the writings of Blavatsky and Charles Fort, or the ancient civilizations craze of the late 19th century. Lovecraft used it as inspiration for fiction, while others have used it as inspiration for writings they pass off as fact, of course, but otherwise it seems obvious. Colavito is committing the same mistake as people who think humans descended from chimpanzees, while in reality humans and chimps have a common ancestor.
Even that would be excusable, though, since the book could be read as an investigation into the links between fiction writing and fringe science anyway. But there are other problems. There’s the never-ending smugness and feeling of intellectual superiority that oozes off every page, like the author is a particularly precocious and nerdy member of a high school debate team. He used to write for Skeptic magazine, which is full of this kind of arrogant attitude (and that’s probably why people in general don’t listen to them). It’s like hearing Penn Jillette’s debunkings on Bullshit, slightly amusing, but you get the feeling it would actually work better if he calmed down a bit and tried to be more objective, instead of frothing at the mouth. And that’s for a half-hour TV show, imagine a whole book of it.
Which brings me to the third and perhaps biggest problem. Colavito has that particularly American right-wing libertarian point of view, where society is seen as in decay, “everything is relative”, we’re overly politically correct, and people can study GAY HISTORY in universities! Imagine that, surely western civilization must fall. He links this to the rise of ancient astronaut theories, since apparently the gays have tricked people into not believing in science. It’s not surprising he’s a Lovecraft fan, since Lovecraft also ranted endlessly about the moral and racial decay of society and whatnot. He conveniently glosses over the racist and xenophobic aspects of Lovecraft’s fiction in an early chapter as well. Colavito sees western society as being in decline, the “rot” having set in “shortly after” the revolutions of the 18th century. All that because some people believe in UFOs? Let’s get some perspective here. How much scientific knowledge did an average person have in the late 18th century, as compared to now? Fundamentalist religion and superstition was almost universal back then, and that’s generally improved a lot now. It’s ironic that Colavito, as an obvious atheist and believer in science, can skirt so dangerously close to arguments we’re most used to coming out of the Religious Right.
All in all, this is an ok book, if you can get by the problems above. When it sticks to the facts, it’s interesting material. Just don’t read it without a healthy dose of skepticism towards the author and his motives. If someone’s claiming to be the only person who’s honest, unbiased, and without an agenda, just telling it as it is, that’s who you should scrutinize the most.