“2001: A Space Odyssey” and H. P. Lovecraft

A couple weeks ago I posted “What is “2001: A Space Odyssey” About?”(http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/what-is-2001-a-space-odyssey-about/). In it, I mentioned in passing that I saw some similarities between it and the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Since then I’ve delved a little deeper into that idea.

Arthur C. Clarke and H. P. Lovecraft

I was reluctant to make too much of the possibility that Lovecraft’s work dad an influence on “2001”, because I didn’t know if Clarke was familiar with Lovecraft. A quick search showed that he did.

In 1940, Clarke wrote “At the Mountains of Murkiness”, a parody of Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness”. In “Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares” S. T. Joshi mentions the story and notes that both “2001” and “Childhood’s End” both share some ideas with Lovecraft’s stories.

Lovecraft and “2001” Similarities and Differences

Lovecraft’s basic idea is that extraterrestrials visited Earth far in the past and influenced the development of humans. The same idea underlies “2001”.

Lovecraft suggests that these extraterrestrials were the inspiration for the gods that humanity worships. This is not suggested in the movie or book “2001”, but Clarke does make the suggestion in his later novel “3001: The Final Odyssey”.

A major difference between Lovecraft and Clarke is the attitude of the extraterrestrials. In Lovecraft they are at best indifferent to people and can be very antagonistic. Clarke sees the attitude of the  extraterrestrials as positive to people. In Clarke’s earlier short story “The Sentinel”, which was the basis for “2001”, the attitude of the extraterrestrial is not so clearly positive. In “3001” the attitude of the extraterrestrials is also not necessarily kindly toward people.

Is it possible that maybe “2001” could be viewed as a Lovecraftian horror story? In the book Clarke does seem clear that the extraterrestrials are benign, but that might not be true of the movie. Like many of Lovecraft’s heroes, at the end, Bowman appears to become overwhelmed by what is revealed to him. The scene in the “hotel room” could be just a figment of his imagination after he has lost his sanity.

Robert E. Howard and the Monolith

An interesting parallel to “2001” can be found in another Cthulhu Mythos story, “The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard. In it the hero finds an ancient black monolith that was set up by ancient extraterrestrials. Although a different shape than the monolith in “2001” (octagonal) it is about the same height and depth.

“2001” and the Ancient Astronauts

In his book “Cult of Alien Gods” (http://www.jasoncolavito.com/cult-of-alien-gods.html), Jason Colavito makes the case that the ancient astronaut theory popularized by Erich von Däniken in his book Chariots of the Gods? was inspired by Lovecraft’s stories. A review I read suggested that the case is weak, but it convinced me.

The ancient astronaut theory predates “2001”, but I suspect that it could have played a role in the popularity of the ancient astronaut theory. In 1968, “2001” was a very high profile cultural event, and even people who did not go see it were aware of some of the ideas in the movie. Chariots of the Gods? was published the same year and was more broadly promoted by a TV program in 1970.

Because of “2001”, the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting Earth in the past was an idea that was “in the air”. This could have made people more open to the idea when von Däniken book was released. I know that this was a factor in my own interest in the theory. I was completely sold on the idea then, although eventually my interest led me to the skeptic movement.

What Can We Conclude?

I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of the connections I found, but I think the comparisons do help me to understand “2001”. Arthur C. Clarke said that the book he wrote was just his thoughts about what the movie was about.

I suspect that “2001” is more of a question than a statement. The explanations of the story suggested by comparisons with Lovecraft show that the “answer” to what “2001” is about is not straight forward. I think it is the stimulation we gain from the exploration that is important.

2 Comments

  1. The Robert E. Howard Black Stone connection seems solid to me! I just read it, and the story is vividly memorable. Clarke would have been 14 years old when Howard’s story was first published. Evidently Arthur began writing for fanzines by the age of 20, so this isn’t too much of a stretch.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I haven’t read that story yet, but from what I see, it is a stronger parallel.

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