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Transcript for
Cthulhu Rises

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Blake Smith: That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die. The literary work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft is dark and macabre. It casts a long shadow in American literature, influencing such writers as Rod Serling, Stephen King, Bob Howard, Robert Bloch, and many others. In his stories he wove a tapestry of mad alien gods and unspeakable horrors and of the insignificance of man. And of a mountainous evil that sleeps in the ocean, worshiped by mad cults in dark places, and known only as … Cthulhu.


Blake: Hello, I’m Blake Smith, the producer and co-host of MonsterTalk. Today, we’re going to flex our leathery wings and fly off into some new territory. Traditionally on MonsterTalk, I and my co-hosts, Ben Radford and Dr. Karen Stollznow; discuss monsters that are part of folklore and legend, but today we’re going to talk about monsters created by writer H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was not well-known in his lifetime, but his influence grew strong, and in recent years he attained a great deal of posthumous fame. His work is cerebral and literate, his erudition found no stricture in the pulps where he was published, and to approach his tales without a dictionary would be foolhardy for most. Yet within those multisyllabular and archaic syllables lay tales of terror as visceral as those of any writer in American literature. Today on MonsterTalk, we’ll talk with two guest regarding Lovecraft’s work: first, the well-known Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price will talk with us about the writer’s life and his works, and then the biologist P.Z. Myers will talk with us about the biological inspiration for Lovecraft’s most well-known creation … Cthulhu.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Tonight, we’re interviewing Bob Price, a scholar of religion, a member of the Jesus seminar, a teacher, a regular host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, and a noted scholar of of H. P. Lovecraft and his works. So… those are kind of, what’s the word, uhmm… different specialties that you have there, the Lovecraft stuff seems somewhat at odds with the religious studies maybe, but how did you become interested in the works of H. P. Lovecraft?

Bob Price: Well, I guess this is back in about ‘66 or ‘67 and Lancer Books had just done their second printing of the 2 Lovecraft collections: The Colour Out of Space, and The Dunwich Horror, and I was in the midst of just bathing in all this great pulp revival in the paperback books plus new stuff like Tolkien being offered, and I was reading Robert E. Howard and Doc Savage, Lin Carter, and you name it. And then a friend suggested I would really like this and so I did, immediately. And I loved the Poe-esque style, and the more the Cthulhu mythology business unfolded in the writings of Lovecraft and his buddies, the more intriguing it got, and I was deeply into conservative Christianity at the time and I was into Theology and eventually I got a Doctorate in Theology and another in New Testament, well the same interests made this very interesting to me to because here was Lovecraft fabricating a myth system and doing it in texts that required interpretation so this is the perfect sort of hobby for me and I’ve always been really equally interested in the writing itself and in the mythology of Lovecraft so it’s been a seamless thing, actually. Now, of course, I understand it all to be mythology and such, so it’s even closer but I think I always was in touch with the deeply mythological character of all that, and another favorite interest of mine: superhero comic books. That’s raw mythology also and I love all that stuff.

Blake: Now, I come from a very conservative religious background myself, and it’s been an interesting transition into, I guess the polite thing would be just to say liberal view. [Laughter] Did you find that when you were reading Lovecraft or even Robert E. Howard, or that sort of thing, did you feel like you were doing something a bit profane? Did you have to cover the book up if you were at school? The covers were kind of lurid, sometimes on those books.

Bob: Well, I seem to remember feeling occasionally that there might be some incompatibility, but on the whole, I don’t believe I did. But there was a time when I just felt like I needed to drop everything else away for a few years, but I was really into witnessing, and the whole thing and I got into inter-varsity Christian Fellowship when I was in college and I was then, instead of out and out fantasy writers, I was reading theologians and such and just loved that, I’m glad I did, but once I decided I just didn’t see the cogency of orthodox religion anymore, I decided I would take a second look at these old things that are always charmed me and got back into them as well.

Dr. Karen Stollznow: Bob, who was H. P. Lovecraft, and how did a writer who is so little recognized by modern readers come to be so well respected by modern writers?

Bob: Well, he was a proverbial pulp writer. He began just writing for himself. He had read a lot of 18th-century literature, because he lived in his grandfather’s house and just read the old books in the library, poetry and prose, cover to cover, top to bottom, and though he never finished high school, he was self educated and deeply so. He wrote for his own amusement and when somebody persuaded him to submit a couple of stories to the new magazine, Weird Tales, he did so with a letter to the Editor, saying, “If you publish these, I don’t want a single comma changed, are you willing to do that?” And so the Editor kind of laughed, we’re told, and said, “Sure”, and I guess kept his promise. Lovecraft, for years thereafter would curse himself for compromising his aesthetic standards to appeal to the audience of the pulps, which he graciously referred to as, “yaps and nitwits”. And yet he claimed he didn’t want to commercialize, or alternately would lament that he couldn’t unlike some of his friends like August Derleth, who was a chameleon and could do either one. Well, he was very, very popular with these young readers in his time, he didn’t have to wait for recognition there, though he never made much money out of it. He couldn’t get a book of his stories published during his lifetime, though he came close a couple of times. And there have been, of course, since his death, and the the preservation of his work in hardcover by a couple of us pals: August Derleth and Donald Wandrei who founded Arkham House expressly for that purpose. He’s attracted more and more of a cult, though Edmund Wilson was already denouncing the Lovecraft cult, in the 40’s, I guess it was, but it’s just continued to grow, and thanks to the work, I would say, mainly of S. T. Joshi, whom I interviewed recently, on our Point of Inquiry show. He has become recognized more and more in the literary mainstream, whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know I guess it is, but writers, as you say, have always realized this guy’s pivotal importance and great gifts and have been influenced by them even when they don’t want to admit it, though many do. And now you’ve got the critical mainstream taking a second look at him and whole new audiences of young readers, who come to him through role-playing games and the like. And they know all about his mythology before they’ve ever even read one of his stories. Some people come to him through the ever increasing number of Lovecraft based movies, and there’s Lovecraftian Rock, and then there are plush Lovecraft monster toys of Cuddly Cthulhu and so on, so it’s this flood of popular interest in Lovecraft that would have completely astounded him had he lived to see it.

Ben Radford: We talked some about the people who were influenced by him, what about some of his predecessors, such as Edgar Allen Poe? Obviously Poe plays a big role in Lovecraftian fiction, but what are some of the other lesser known influences you see in his work?

Bob: Well he loved M. R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in the English language, and he’s somewhat like him, though it’s hard to see specific influence other than of a few ideas in particular. I don’t think the mood or the style is very close to James, but Count Magnus, for instance, is a big influence on The Call of Cthulhu, as is Lord Dunsany’s… A House, or is it a Shop, I forget, in go-by street [A Shop in Go-By Street]. And a lot of things figured in there, Lovecraft seems to have gotten a lot of his notion of cosmic outsideness, this mystery impinging upon our own, from Algernon Blackwood and he said that probably the greatest supernatural story, was The Willows, by Blackwood and he also liked The Wendigo. Then, he just thought the world of Arthur Machen, who is, I think, possibly the biggest influence on him. Once you’ve read the book: White People, [or] The Great God Pan and one or two others by Machen, you’ve almost read The Dunwich Horror, already. And so he’s a major influence, especially the idea of the Old Ones, a surviving banished race from elder times. He got that, I think from Machen and though he interpreted it as a pantheon of unknown god’s and picked that up from Lord Dunsany, the Irish Baron and fantasist. In some ways Dunsany and Poe have always been considered the chief influences on him because his earliest work was very much in the classical, almost biblical style of Lord Dunsany, though he came upon it independently, he had already written The White Ship, considered a Dunsanian tale, before he encountered Dunsany’s work, but then went whole hog for a while, in that vein, but [he] really claimed Poe, he referred to him as my god of fiction, but I would say Machen was at least as much of an influence. Edgar Rice Burroughs, oddly enough, was a big influence on him, as well as John Taine [pseudonym of Eric Temple Bell], the science fiction writer and yet I find that having gotten into these other authors, and of course, come to appreciate them greatly, when I go back and read Lovecraft and see what he’s done, he did successfully just what you always hear writers ought to do, to assimilate influences and make them into something new by a kind of artistic alchemy. He sure did that.

Ben: So, most of these people [lived in the] what, mid to late 1800’s?

Bob: Machen and Blackwood, and I believe, M. R. James were contemporaries of his. Blackwood read The Rats in the Walls, and said that it was good, but a little too grossly physical in its horror. I don’t know if Lovecraft ever knew that, that he had commented on it, but most of these guys were late 19th, early 20th century. Except for Poe, obviously. But he saw Dunsany do a reading in person, for instance, so he’s the only one he met, I believe, out of this this bunch, but they were pretty much contemporary.

Blake: Lovecraft was a remarkable letter writer and correspondent, was it a conscious decision on his part to build that shared, fictional reality that he and other writers could place their works in?

Bob: He didn’t initiate the idea, as far as I know, but once his friends began to copy him, and say, “Oh, I like the Necronomicon, so I’ve come up with my own Book of Eibon.”, well he loved that, as you can see from his letters, and he said, “Oh yeah, by all means, and in fact I may refer to your thing”. And like young Robert Bloch said, “Here’s a story with my grimoire, The Mysteries of the Wyrm.”, Lovecraft would say, “Well, that’s good, but let’s pep it up a bit with a Latin title as the original. How ‘bout De Wyrmis Mysterius?”. And he would really get involved, like Richard Searight’s The Eltdown Shards, oh he loved that. And so he set about making up this long background story, little realizing Searight was working on his own in another story he hadn’t shown Lovecraft yet. And so we have two completely different accountings of that. Well he loved the game once someone started playing it, and he liked the fact that it would grow up and evolve these citations, especially insofar as they were somewhat inconsistent, because that apes the character of real mythology, it’s not all a neat system. So he just loved it. There’s some of his fans would say, “This is a big mistake!”, like if I’m not mistaken Will Murray, and David Schultz and others who are great, great Lovecraft scholars, who think that this made Lovecraft… made kind of a joke of it in some ways, and he probably should never have yielded to it, but, the result was this irresistibly fascinating pseudo-religion, that many Lovecraft fans find to be their favorite aspect of his work, the Cthulhu mythos, so called…

Karen: …And I was going to move onto Cthulhu. What is the Cthulhu mythos?

Bob: Well, it’s August Derleth’s, pretty good, attempt at coming up with a title for this, Lovecraft himself called it, tongue-in-cheek, Yog Sothothery, as if it were a religion and he said, well, Judaism and Christianity are no more valid than my own Yog Sothothery. And he he set up this system of myths, whereby there were ancient races, unknown to most people, beings who had come to the earth from unimaginable distances of outer space, or other dimensions, [who were involved in] the creation, or the evolution of humanity; or in some stories [the Old Ones] created human beings, as a mistake, or a joke, as some would say, at the Mountains of Madness, and it was all science fiction basically, but he has the poor, hapless, ignorant humans in certain esoteric, degraded cults doing the bidding of these ancient beings now shut away in caverns, and so on, communicating by dreams, and these people [who] are the dregs of society, are trying to do what they can to release their masters, to pillage the earth, and so forth, or to drag it off into a different dimension, as it says in the Dunwich Horror. And so there are these evil but really just sort of stupid and venial humans, trying to end the world as we know it and restore the rule of beings who were indifferent to humanity and the big horror of this is not just, well there’s King Kong throwing the subway cars around and swatting the biplanes off the Empire State Building: physical destruction. You almost don’t see that happen in his stories. One or two cases you do, but the shocking, humbling of the sense of human self-importance… “What? What, you mean there were millions of years ago intelligent cephalopods and sea cucumbers with wings who were vastly superior to our intelligence now?” We’re the beasts not them and that’s the really terrible humbling insight that he communicates, though this seems to be allegorical for Lovecraft’s worldview. Of course he didn’t believe there were monsters and such, but he said the very indifference of the universe, this is the humbling and shocking truth that science tells us, that the people don’t want to hear; so they retreat into religion and superstition. So it’s a kind of a philosophy that he really did believe using the image, the vehicle of science fiction, and the, kind of a hoax version of a religionist priest-craft and that’s where the mythos comes in, it’s gods and scriptures, but, even in his own stories, it’s only the duped fools who think so. So, a really interesting combination of all these insights.

Blake: It seemed to me that the mythos itself embodied a kind of cosmic nihilism.

Bob: Yeah.

Blake: It’s also informed by the science that was coming out at the time. Am I right in remembering, was he an amateur astronomer?

Bob: Yeah, when he was a little kid he was in the observatory and looking out at the heavens, and even hectographed, I think, a little Providence Journal of Astronomy, and sold it. The kid was a phenomenon, and just was absorbed in the vastness of the Cosmos, and I’m sure that was a big influence on his whole outlook.

Ben: Cthulhu mythos reminds me of something else, Do you see any parallels between Lovecraft and for example L. Ron Hubbard, with the cults, and alien gods and intelligences?

Bob: Well, from the little I know about the Scientology mythology, it’s more, it comes out of more properly called pulp science fiction with the space tyrant and all that stuff. Lovecraft, that would be more like the aspect of Burroughs that Lovecraft didn’t care for. Scientology sounds like it’s based on space opera, much like the the Nation of Islam, with the mother plane leaves the ship up in the sky, and the evil Dr. Yakub, mutating specimens till he got to the blue-eyed white devils, just sort of Saturday afternoon matinee stuff, and as I understand it, Hubbard took a plausible technique of consciousness raising, the dianetics thing, and then added this mythology to it to make it into Scientology, and Lovecraft would never have taught a doctrine like that or a method or anything. He thought people were generally all right as they were, and religion had a kind of an aesthetic value and to some degree a social control value, but… He met Hubbard once, by the way, but as far as I know, his only comment was on his brilliant red hair. But, I don’t see a whole lot because I think it’s, Lovecraft didn’t… his vision, his resulting mythology wasn’t as trite.

Ben: And I suppose also, that unlike Hubbard, Lovecraft didn’t really expect people to take it seriously.

Bob: Oh, yeah, and he was highly amused when they did.

Ben: He assumed his readers were smart enough to know this was just fiction.

Bob: But sometimes they weren’t, in fact, a collaborator of his William Lumley, no relation to the great Brian Lumley today, he was a pal of Lovecraft, he collaborated with him sometimes, he would sort of laughingly say, in letters to other people, well old Bill maintains that Smith and Howard and Long and I are really unwitting mouthpieces for elder entities and that Cthulhu etc. really exist and so it was already starting then. People would write to him and say, “Where can I get a copy of the Necronomicon?”. And he would write back and say, “I hate to tell you this, but I made it up, there’s no such thing.”, so it began immediately that people thought it must be real and he had to try to disabuse them.

Blake: I actually saw, I believe in the 70’s, there was a black-covered book that was called the Necronomicon, I think it was a hoax of some sort?

Bob: [There’s] a few of those…

Blake: …and I saw that before I ever read Lovecraft and so when I first read Lovecraft, I thought, “That’s odd, I’ve heard of this book before…” [Laughter] I got it all out of order, so.

Bob: [Laughter] Was it a big, did the book look kind of like a high school yearbook?

Blake: No, this was actually the paperback, umm, and it was in sort of the occult section of the bookstore, this was, would’ve been the late 70’s and I really wasn’t supposed to be in that section, ‘cause they had The Satanic Bible, and so over here with the occult stuff was a book called The Necronomicon, and it claimed to be the writings of Abdul Alhazred, but later on, I heard that that had been a literary hoax of a sort. Obviously it wasn’t the real Necronomicon, because as you say, Lovecraft made it up. I’ll look into that, see if I can find the history of that book, that particular one.

Bob: It’s probably Simon’s Necronomicon, this guy claimed to be a defrocked eastern monk or something, and called himself Simon. And, what he did basically, it was published by Schlangekraft/Barnes, I think, [Schlangekraft/Barnes Graphics: 1977] and it was a kind of a thing that looked like a big high-school yearbook and then eventually Avon, who published The Satanic Bible, published a paperback edition of this, that you still see. And I’m pretty sure that’s the one, and in it, he claims this is the real Necronomicon, but, it is real ancient text, but it’s part of some ancient Sumerian chants with a few mythos names thrown in, and it’s, it is a hoax, though, and I, one afternoon years ago, Lin Carter, S. T. Joshi and I, went to the Magickal Childe Occult Bookstore in the Village and Simon was lecturing in the back room and these kids were there saying, “Can you use The Necronomicon with your scrying crystal and see the Old Ones?”, and this guy was up there saying, “Well, it might work, but I don’t know if I’d try it…”, and we were just fuming, and it was obvious this guy was just pulling Shub-Niggurath’s wool over their eyes and having a good time about it, but uh, oh, man…

Ben: Did you say there was a publisher called Schlangekraft/Barnes?

Blake: [Laughter] Bob: Yeah, maybe that’s the most horrifying part of it.

Karen: [Laughter]

Ben: I’m still stuck on that, sorry.

Blake: Yeah the first I thought was, and they make great porn, as well.

Bob: Yeah, they should’ve. They may also have, for all I know.

Karen: [Laughter] So, who is this Cthulhu character, and why of all of Lovecraft’s creations, does he rank the fame that he has?

Bob: Well he’s the star of the story, The Call of Cthulhu, which is one of the first to begin to move toward a system, in that he pieces together documents about this hitherto unknown, cult of Cthulhu and eventually discovers a manuscript written by a Norwegian sailor, who happened to stumble upon R’lyeh, the non-Euclidean island in the Pacific, where great Cthulhu is imprisoned. And by this time, we know that Cthulhu is some sort of a space alien who ruled the world in the past but, he and his…, he was the great high-priest of the Old Ones, who might or might not have been like him, and Lovecraft describes him as having a roughly humanoid or ape-like form, a kind of a colossal octopus head, rudimentary wings and claws. He was the high-priest of the Old Ones and they can only exist when the stars seen from the earth were in [readiness] and when they moved from that, they would have to go into dormancy. But one day the day would come when they would be alive again on Earth, and in the meantime that were served by these, sort of idiot humans. But, it was kept a great secret, you might find them in the Louisiana Bayou, you might find the among Greenland Eskimos or who knows where. He threw a little theosophy into this, the undying leaders of the cult existed in the mountains of Tibet, and such. Well, this sailor finds that R’lyeh has risen from the ocean and great Cthulhu emerges. The stars are right, and the guy barely escapes with his life and Cthulhu is the huge lumbering of semi-material titan that follows him through the water but somehow, must have gone back into dormancy without explanation, because the world has not ended, but here’s a case where he describes the thing which he didn’t with all of is monsters. And since August Derleth coined the “Cthulhu mythos” and gave him the centrality, I guess people just like him the best. With some of these entities, like Nyarlathotep, he’s described in radically different ways or Azathoth, the Nuclear Chaos, is never described and couldn’t be. And Yog-Sothoth is described, kind of by implication as a huge mountain of eyes and gaping mouths and tentacles and so on. So Cthulhu is really the only one you could easily make toys out of, or do cartoons with, and that’s been done. So I guess that’s why, I don’t really know, cause there are about five or six that you could make the star of the show, but he’s emerged as number one.

Ben: It seems like in some ways he was kind of ahead of his time, for example envisioning the extraterrestrials with amazing powers and stuff. It struck me, I don’t know if you would agree or not, but it struck me that without the horror aspect of it seems like some of things he writes about could have been written by new-agey, or UFO buffs in the 70’s in terms of visiting alien intelligences, and gods looking over us.

Bob: Well, some of those writers, like, whatever, Pauwels and Bergier [Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier], something like that, who wrote The Morning of the Magicians, a big book in France, translated into English, the credit Lovecraft with being a pioneer in this kind of thinking, and he did precede the Erich von Däniken ancient astronauts thing. Of course, he wasn’t promoting it as a genuine theory, but he did try to make it plausible. So that the ancient gods were really misunderstood aliens. And that’s not an absurd theory, I don’t know how one would prove it, but it’s not ridiculous. I find it even more amazing that in his phobia of, oh… non-white, non-western, and to some degree, even the female groups of, factions of humanity, he was afraid that his, well to use these these terms logo-centric, euro-centric, phallo-centric, etc… the elite, the not-quite dead white males, that their cultural dominion was about to be overthrown by the forces as he saw them, of barbarism, superstition and irrationality, stemming from South-western Europe, Africa, Asia and so on. And he, if you just take the pejorative vocabulary away from it, it’s very much what many people think has happened or is happening and so, to some degree his insidious cults of rat-faced mongrel hordes and all that, and especially the inter-married people like the Innsmouth Deep Ones, represented non-whites, and the terrible possibility [Laughter]…

Ben: …the horror… [Laughter]

Bob: …of inter-marrying between the ethnic groups so, he didn’t like that. But, he did see just the kind of world cultural change coming about before a lot of people were talking about it, he didn’t like it, but I think he saw it pretty clearly.

Blake: I thought he married a Jewish woman but it’s not… not famous… I mean he gets a lot of negative press for his anti-Jew attitudes. I haven’t actually been able to, I’ve heard he’s written some pretty rude stuff along those lines, but you know, except for like The Horror at Red Hook, you know some of that stuff is pretty… I don’t if it was edited down or… He seems kind of vague about what it is he hates or doesn’t like. I was very mixed about that. In fact, I actually ran into Julius Schwartz, I don’t know if you know Julius Schwartz.

Bob: Julius Schwartz?

Blake: Yeah.

Bob: Yes, I had the pleasure of meeting him once.

Blake: Yeah, he was Lovecraft’s agent, for at least a little while, and I asked him about it, because he was the only person I ever got to meet that actually knew Lovecraft. And he said that all the time they had worked together he had heard about that, anti-Semitic sort of attitude, but he said that Lovecraft never showed it to him, and as far as he knew the woman he had married was Jewish, so…

Bob: That’s right…

Blake: The man’s a very… the man’s enigmatic to me. [Laughter]

Bob: Yeah, I think, I don’t want to defend him…

Blake: …right, right, no.

Bob: …he was definitely a racist, I don’t want this to sound like, “ Oh, some of my best friends belong to inferior races.”

Blake: Right, right.

Bob: But in fact, he, as you say, his wife was Jewish, Sam Loveman, who he loved, and was a good friend, he was a Jew, and Loveman, years after Lovecraft’s death, I think as late as the 70’s, heard about this side of Lovecraft, and was just flabbergasted, said, “The no good hypocritical S.O.B.!”, which is unfortunate, but Lovecraft asked for it by the things he wrote.

Blake: Yeah, I don’t in any way want to be an apologist for the man, I like his work separate from that aspect of his life, I just, I thought it was more confusing and surprising than an excuse, you know what I mean. It’s just, really? It’s not exactly like the people who are secretly gay, and work really hard to stop gays from having rights, but something like that. To me to be vocally anti-Semitic and write anti-Semitically, and marry and work with Jews, seems really, well it’s just odd.

Bob: Yeah, I guess it means it was just bad theorizing, like I know a guy who’s a New Testament scholar, and a scholar of Buddhism, and just a compassionate, intelligent person, but he’s also kind of a Holocaust revisionist. Not a denier, exactly, but it’s kind of startling to suddenly hear that. And then you think, “Well, at least it doesn’t seem to permeate the rest of him.”. Or like finding out Heidegger was a Nazi. He didn’t, as far as I know he didn’t remain one, when he was writing his famous philosophy, and I don’t see how it taints the philosophy, or Gogarten, one of the big dialectical theologians, another Nazi, and there’s a few of those guys, Islamic specialists, biblical scholars who were Sieg Heiling, you know, maybe they’re in Hell now, but I don’t see how it spoils what they wrote, since they didn’t actually write about that crap. You might say the same of Lovecraft, he just unfortunately had these stupid ideas on some things.

Blake: Yeah, the racism especially it seems it’s intellectual laziness, in my mind this is what the base is. It’s using race as an excuse for whatever you’re concerned with, but it seems it’s hard to get around it from that era in a lot of stuff. But I do like his writing, when we’re talking about fiction, but let me get back to some of these deeper questions. Here’s one for you: Bob, you’re a famous person for your atheism and you’re also well-known Lovecraft scholar, and S. T. Joshi is famous for his Lovecraft scholarship but is also a well known atheist, you’re kind of like bookends that way. Is this a coincidence or does Lovecraft scholarship tend one toward disbelief?

Bob: I think it’s part of a larger picture where, though I couldn’t prove this, I suspect that a huge majority of fantasy and science fiction and horror buffs are atheists or agnostics. As Lovecraft himself said that the idea of the fantastic is especially powerful since they don’t believe in it and it would require a big imaginative suspension of disbelief and that’s what they want to do when they’re reading fiction, also though, I think that the natural hunger people have for transcendence of the mundane, either comes to them through religion or through what they know to be fantasy. Somebody once asked Tolkien why he wrote so-called escapist fiction and he said, “I don’t see why we should require the prisoner to think of nothing but his four walls all day.”, so, you know, you do need a horizon of fantasy, and that’s what all meaning is, in my opinion. We have larger brains than the animals, and they have an instinctive environment that they inherit, in many ways we have to create one: a cognitive atmosphere and habitat. And depending on what word you want to use, that is what leads us to create culture, mythology, and symbolism. All of which give meaning and to weave stories which we then take as models to live by and so I think meaning is fiction; fiction is meaning. I like Jung, when he says that. That hardwired into the brain are certain images, that are presented to the consciousness in the form of religious symbols, magical symbols, fairy tales, myths, mandalas and so on. There may not be any supernatural thing to correspond to it, I don’t think there is, but we do need to connect to these fantastic archetypes of the unconscious, to be able to flourish as individuals. And I think atheists find this through fantasy or fiction. Other people find it through religion, some find it through bot, so I think that’s the larger connection. I asked S. T. the other day if he was influenced much by Lovecraft toward atheism. But he said he had never really been a believer, he was not raised with any religion where I was just the opposite, my problem was, I just came through critical study of a history and texts of religions, to believe there was not a credible case for these miraculous things having happened, and probably God was a human creation, albeit a noble one, so I’m not like an anti-religionist, like a lot of my atheist buddies. I love religion, I just don’t believe that it’s true, in a factual sense.

Karen: I was gonna ask you what were Lovecraft’s views on religion?

Bob: Well, he thought it hung on because people needed assurance and they felt, properly, threatened by meaninglessness in an empty cosmos, so they’d rather not think that it was empty, and it is helpful for social control and depending on the kind of religion your in, it does have aesthetic satisfactions, and so he didn’t think it would be better if there were no religion, but he thought intelligent thoughtful people would rise beyond the need, and, that he had.

Ben: Bob, I was trying to think of where the first place I actually remember seeing a clear film reference to Lovecraft was, and I think it was probably in Evil Dead, with the book and everything. What were some of your favorite film references to his work?

Bob: I like the sort of oblique tip of the hat in The Ninth Gate with this grimoire, the Delomelanicon, the black book, written by Satan himself, that’s kind of Lovecraftian, without beating to death the familiar names and such. I like the … Carpen… no…

Blake: John Carpenter’s: The Thing?

Bob: Oh, yeah that too. That’s great and very Lovecraftian.

Blake: Or were you going for The Mouth of Madness?

Bob: Yeah, that’s the one I was trying to think of. Both of them, one explicitly, one implicitly, Lovecraft. Of course, The Thing is based on the Campbell story, but many think that was based on Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but it’s certainly the same sort of stuff. I like that a lot. I have a great, oh I think this movie done by so-called amateurs a few years ago, called Cthulhu based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth is very, very good. I have a fondness for these old clinkers like The Dunwich Horror and Die, Monster, Die and The Haunted Palace, there are great cheesy moments in all of those. “Mr. Ward, have you ever heard of them Necronomicon?” They’re actually more Lovecraftian than the original stories. So, I get a huge kick out of those. There are others like The Resurrected, a serious attempt to do [The Case of] Charles Dexter Ward in the modern world. I thought that was not very interesting, or The Curse, based on The Colour Out of Space, I didn’t care much for that either, or this recent one, The Dunwich Horror with Jeffrey Combs as Wilbur Whateley, I thought that was awful, though not nearly as bad as Beyond The Dunwich Horror, this sickeningly terrible amateur work we screened up at the Lovecraft Film Festival. I’m kind of picky, the more I see of Lovecraft related movies, the more I am no longer eager to have a good one. I think there is still a chance, Del Toro says he wants to make At the Mountains of Madness and if he ever gets around to it, that will be a great Lovecraft movie. But, having seen all these things I kind of feel like let me just read the original stories, what the heck, but, keep up the attempts. I hope somebody does make a real good one.

Blake: Well, I tried to, just as a personal writing exercise, to do a screenplay of The Whisper in the Darkness, and it’s hard, because when you take a story apart, especially Lovecraft’s work, it seems that sometimes the story in your mind after having read it, flows much more smoothly than the actual words on the page. Especially that one, so much of the action is actually happening in letters, already in the past, it is almost like Kafka, it’s like The Metamorphosis, I mean. The actions already happened, everything’s already taken place, and you’re just left with the horror, which doesn’t really work on screen very well.

Bob: Almost everything is offstage, like you say, the letters, what you gonna do with that? But also, when Wilmarth is in the house, and he wakes up and hears these voices and realizes, I’ve got to get the hell out of here, even there, you don’t see what’s happening, and of course if you did, it would ruin it. So there’s not that much to see, and the biggest sequence would be this guy driving through the hills of Vermont which would look nice but you couldn’t even do that for very long . Yeah, it’s very tough so they always have to add in the things Lovecraft carefully omitted like characterization and action, so, what do you got left? That is tough.

Blake: Yeah, it’s been tough for me as a fan, you know, I don’t want to be a snob about the movies, but really the movies that seem to work best for me, are like you say, The Ninth Gate, I thought, did a very nice job, and I loved The Thing, these movies that are influenced by, but not necessarily directly derived from Lovecraft’s work.

Bob: Lovecraft’s, uh… he never quite got away from the idea of prose poetry which he learned from Dunsany, and even his scientifically technical prose works, like in The Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Out of Time, they’re artfully crafted in such a way that so much depends on the narration, not the story, that the whole experience is almost more like reading poetry than fiction and, good luck making a movie out of a poem. Look at the horrible attempt of making The Raven, oh brother…

Blake: Well I thought Night Gallery did a few nice pieces, I don’t know if you’ve seen those?

Bob: I have, but I don’t remember them well enough anymore to say.

Blake: They did Cool Air, and they did Pickman’s Model and for the time, I think they did a good job.

Bob: Yeah, I do remember those being pretty good.

Blake: Anyway, famous game designer Sandy Peterson designed a very influential role-playing game called Call of Cthulhu, which is how most of the people I know actually became introduced to Lovecraft’s work. Have you actually played those games or have you seen those games or looked into it all?

Bob: I played it once or twice, I know I played it once, because my wife and I got together with Chris Henderson, the great detective/mystery-writer and Gahan Wilson, the cartoonist and played a game of it which Gahan then reported on in the Twilight Zone Magazine, and thereafter, some people thought I must be a great aficionado of this game. I tried it that time, I just do not care for that kind of thing, I mean, all honor to those who like it, but I just would rather, if I’m gonna be plotting stuff out I’d rather just write it down as a story.

Blake: Makes sense.

Bob: But you’re right, I owe a great deal to this though because, I only did all those Chaosium anthologies, because I believe it was the late Keith Herber, came up with the idea that they had all these millions of Lovecraft gamers that wanted to know where all this stuff came from, and a lot of the fiction wasn’t even in print anymore, and so we did these thematic anthologies, that you want to know who Yog-Sothoth is, okay here’s the documentation you can study the concept from the stories that influenced it, to the ones Lovecraft has it in, the one’s others have done; and so it helped bring some of the gamers into the fold and then some of them began to get into the literary side of it and dump the gaming, interesting how it evolves.

Karen: Bob, here’s a final question, that we like to ask all of our guests, What’s your favorite monster?

Bob: Oooh, that’s tough, I guess I would probably say the Frankenstein Monster.

Blake: Alright, any particular reason why? [Laughter]

Bob: [He’s] Always striking in appearance, and as a character, terrifying and sympathetic, monstrous and childlike, almost a Christ figure. I love all these old movies he’s in, though I love all the Universal Monsters, but I guess he’s really the archetypal one.

[Music: Goblin Dreams by A. R. Morgan]

Blake: The alien god Cthulhu is depicted as a cephalopod head, set atop a ponderous humanoid body, replete with enormous wings. Implausible, but in the context of Lovecraft’s fiction, it’s alien weirdness is horrifically evocative. We now talk to biologist P. Z. Myers about the biology of actual cephalopods, and their weird, alien, but real, bodies. After all, it wouldn’t be MonsterTalk, if we didn’t sprinkle some science on our big bowl of horror.

[Music: Goblin Dreams by A. R. Morgan]

Blake: So, you’re P. Z. Myers and you’re famous for your blog: Pharyngula, you’re famous for your atheism, but I understand that you also are an evolutionary biologist and you specialize in octopus… es… i…

P.Z. Myers: Not exactly. I’m interested in evolution and development, [but] most of my work is actually done on a Chordate, [Family: Chordata] I work on Zebrafish. But cephalopods are especially interesting, if less well studied, because they represent such a radically different body-plan from what we’re familiar with.

Blake: True enough.

P.Z.: Yeah, so there’s been this long-term fascination with them.

Blake: It’s interesting, I watch a lot of science fiction movies, and I think for expediency, people tend to create monsters that are anthropic. It’s easier to put a guy in a suit, if the suit look something like a human.

P.Z.: Yes, bumpy foreheads and things like that.

Blake: Right, the body type of, what’s the right word here? I’m not sure what to call them, there’s octopus, there’s squid, there’s cuttlefish…

P.Z.: They’re all cephalopods.

Blake: They’re all cephalopod, so if you’re talking about them as a group, do you say cephalopods, cephalopodia, what’s the right way to say that?

P.Z.: Well, if you’re pedantic, you say cephalopodia…

Blake: …oh, well we’re very pedantic… [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

P.Z.: Oh, well darn, I prefer cephalopods. [Laughter]

Blake: We can say cephalopods, but I want our listeners to know that we understand cephalopodia is the right word. So that’s cool

Karen: So, P. Z., how did a person who has an interest in aquatic creatures end up in Minnesota?

P.Z.: [Laughter]Yeah, I’m about as far from the ocean as you can possibly be. It’s simple academic realities, there are a limited number of jobs out there for people of my persuasion, you know, weird developmental biologists, and so you take ‘em where you can get ‘em. I happen to be at a very nice school, a very good school, which has got a very strong student body, and that’s the kind of place I wanted to work, so… even though I’m far from the oceans, the student body makes it worthwhile.

Karen: I understand you’ve got to go where the jobs are, fortunately language is everywhere, for me.

Blake: [Laughter]

P.Z.: Aha! [Laughter] Well, the animal I work on in the lab is a Zebrafish, which you can raise in a tank anywhere, so that’s very portable. And then I get to travel a lot, and I get to see these cephalopods, wherever I go.

Blake: Did you pick Zebrafish for any particular reason?

P.Z.: Yeah, I did my thesis on them. This was way back in the 1980’s when they were just starting to take off as an experimental animal. I was in a lab at the University of Oregon, which was doing research on them, and the main appeal was, I’m interested in development of the nervous system, how do you make a nervous system function, and all this kind of cool stuff? We started looking for organisms that have very simple nervous systems, because… simple is easier. And then we realized: if you look at really young animals, the younger you get, the smaller the nervous system is and the more and more manageable it becomes. And Zebrafish just happen to develop really, really rapidly, and they’re transparent so you can right into the skull, and all kinds of cool stuff like that. So it made it very easy to study the nervous system.

Blake: Would you call them the fruit-fly of the aquarium? [Laughter]

P.Z.: Yes, the fruit-fly of the freshwater aquarium, sure, yeah.

Blake: So, what are you doing with them? This is way off-topic from Cthulhu, but…

P.Z.: Oh, well maybe not so far off-topic because the kind of work I do right now is transgenesis. I make monsters in the lab using various agents.

Blake: Ah, cool!

P.Z.: Yeah…

Blake: We had a recent guest who did the same thing with chickens. [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

P.Z.: Oh! And what did they use?

Blake: What did they use to make the monsters?

P.Z.: Yeah.

Blake: He just said agents. He didn’t say what he was doing, he said that there were different things they were doing.

Karen: It was all classified. [Laughter]

Blake: Yeah, it’s all Top Secret stuff. [Laughter]

P.Z.: Oh, OK. [Laughter]

Blake: Mustard and secret herbs and spices, that’s what I use in my chicken, so… [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

P.Z.: [Laughter] Oh, so that’s where that new KFC sandwich came from.

Karen: [Laughter]

Blake: [Laughter] Right. That’s a monster.

Karen: Yes, indeed.

Blake: Alright, so let’s talk about Cthulhu for just a moment. So, in H. P. Lovecraft’s work, he’s got this giant creature, that essentially has an octopus for a head, a somewhat anthropic body with wings, it’s not really clear… I guess it flies through space, I’m not sure. But it’s really big, so big, that he describes it as, a mountain walked, or stumbled. That’s how big it is, huge, huge, OK. But in real life, sea creatures don’t get as big as that, but octopus and squid do get pretty large. How big are these creatures… how big are they getting to, these days?

P.Z.: The giant octopus can easily get up to 6 to 8 foot span of tentacles, so you find those quite common. They’re a pretty good size, they can wrestle with a person. Giant squid, of course, even bigger, many meters long, but unfortunately, contrary to most of their reputation, they’re pretty placid animals. They’re deep sea creatures, they tend to live in environments that aren’t rich in resources, so they can be kind of sluggish, and soft and gooey. Tasty for a Sperm whale, I’m sure, but, they’re not quite the monsters they’re made out to be.

Karen: I hear that cephalopods are the most intelligent, or octopuses… octopi… what’s the plural, to begin with?

P.Z.: Octopuses.

Karen: Octopuses. I hear that they’re the most intelligent of all invertebrates, so how smart are these animals? Because I’ve seen experiments where they’ve opened jars to get to food.

P.Z.: Oh, yeah, they can unscrew jars, they can do all kinds of… they can remember things. They will cache things around their tank, and remember where they are. They can pass various types of memory tests, they recognize people and they’ll respond to people outside the tank. They’re escape artists, they’ve got all kinds of talents. They do some spectacularly clever things. The surprising thing is that their brain is very tiny. This we don’t understand, yet.

Karen: Is there a relationship between their size, and their intelligence at all?

P.Z.: Well, what do you mean a relationship? It’s like with vertebrates, there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship. You can look at a grey whale, you can look at a human being. A grey whale has a brain that’s 2 or 3 times larger than ours, but, I don’t think they’re as smart as we are. Unless it’s just that they’re keeping quiet.

Karen: [Laughter]

Blake: Ummm. [Laughter]

P.Z.: Yeah, but there’s a really poor correlation there, particularly when you look at something like an octopus. Their brain is a small ganglion, and it’s basically wrapped around their esophagus. When you look at tit, it’s got a relatively small number of neurons in it, compared to ours, but still a reasonable number. So it seems like they’re doing a lot with very little. Impressive stuff.

Blake: Wow! Their brain’s wrapped around their esophagus!?

Karen: Hmm… it’s incredible.

P.Z.: Yes. Yeah, most invertebrates have a ventral nerve cord. We have a dorsal nerve, spinal cord, that goes up and down our back. Their nervous system tends to run down the ventral side, right there where the esophagus is also located. And the primary ganglion is actually wrapped around, which is kind of neat, too. When the eat, when they chew up a big chunk of something, they pass it through their throat, it’s actually compressing the brain a bit.

Blake: Wow, well it’s not that surprising to me. I think part of my brain is in my stomach and parts in my pants, based on my previous behavior, so… [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

P.Z.: [Laughter]

Blake: Distributed brain.

Karen: So does it effect them, to eat, then? Does it effect their brain?

P.Z.: I don’t know, you’d think it would. In us if you do something to put pressure on the brain, you can get responses, these kind of cognitive responses and visual hallucinations and so forth. So, I always imagine when an octopus is eating it’s seeing stars as things flash by its throat. But I don’t know.

Blake: They also have spectacular eyes, too, don’t they?

P.Z.: They have very good eyes, yeah, large eyes, they’re very visual sorts of animals. In a lot of ways the eyes are better than ours. They’re not inside out like ours are, for instance.

Blake: So, do they see the same way we do? Or is it somewhat different?

P.Z.: It’s somewhat different. The general plan of the eyeball is very similar and they’ve got collections of photoreceptor cells, just like we do, they have a retina. They have a distributed nerve net that’s leaving the eyeball at the back, so there’s no single optic nerve. The photoreceptors are in the front, instead of the back like they are in us. Visual processing, they’ve got ganglia that handle a lot of the brainpower of figuring out what the the visual world is saying. That’s separate from the sub-esophageal ganglia, for instance. So, they’re fairly sophisticated, they can do a lot with their eyes.

Blake: Now, a lot of them change colors, so is it safe to assume they can also see color?

P.Z.: Yes, they can. So they’ve got lots and lots of photoreceptors and very good color vision. Well, I should say, they have good color vision, for them. Often what you find is color vision in aquatic animals is tuned for the environment, because the water filters light in particular ways, you find a different distribution of photoreceptors than you would in us.

Blake: Do they see in the same spectrum as we do, or is it shifted, or do you know?

P.Z.: Umm, I’m not sure. It’s probably shifted a little bit, but not much. That 400–800 nanometer range that we use is pretty universal.

Blake: Now, did they start off in the water, from an evolutionary perspective?

P.Z.: Oh, yes. Yeah, just like we did. [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

Blake: What?!?! [Laughter]

P.Z.: Yeah, all animals started out, their distant ancestors all evolved in the ocean many hundreds of millions of years ago. So yeah, they arose from creatures that were probably more slug-like. Most of what we regard as unique to the cephalopods, that big ruff of tentacles and so forth, all is a modified foot. If you kind of imagine a slug, and just the base of that slug, branches into tentacles,, and that becomes the tentacle end of the animal. And that big head, that you see back there, that’s actually not a head. That’s a big bag of guts. That’s where its abdomen and intestines and all that kind of stuff are located.

Blake: Wow.

Karen: The creationists don’t want to hear that.

P.Z.: [Laughter] Well, the creationists don’t want to hear anything.

Blake: I don’t think I wanted to hear that. [Laughter]

P.Z.: [Laughter] Have you ever cleaned them? If you work with squid or octopus for dinner some time and you’ve got to clean them, that big head part, the mantle part, is basically a bag of guts, and you have to scoop everything out of there and throw it away.

Blake: So do you eat that, what is that called… the mantle?

P.Z.: …calamari.

Karen: [Laughter]

Blake: Oh, I know that! [Laughter]

Karen: The food version.

Blake: I was thinking of the head of the squid,I think it was called the mantle, if I remember correctly. Do you eat that part, too? I thought it was just the legs we were eating, I’ve eaten a lot of calamari.

P.Z.: No, no. When you eat calamari, it’s rings. And basically what that is, it’s the mantle, which is a hollow tube which is then sliced up

Karen: Do you eat them?

Blake: You mean do I eat them?

Karen: No, does P. Z.? [Laughter]

Blake: I know. [Laughter]

P.Z.: Sure, I love them, they’re delicious.

Blake: They’re great breaded, with salt and pepper, I think. Deep fried, we deep fry everything in the south. They sell fried pickles down here, they sell everything’s fried

P.Z.: Ough, yeah!

Karen: [Laughter]

Blake: I know, I know. Sweet Tea and fried pickles.

Karen: Umm Hmm.

Blake: Yum. What’s the relationship between the squid, octopus and the cuttlefish, is one of them more, like a recent development than the others are the just branches, I mean what drove those evolutionary changes, do you think?

P.Z.: Oh, well, they have different lifestyles, for one. Most octopus are benthic, they live at the bottom. So they cling to the shores, they live in the rocks and the weeds, things like that. Squid tend to be deep-water, opelagic, and they’re specialized for swimming. There are variations, there are some squid that hover down in the bottom and dig in the sand for food. Basically there was a big split, many hundreds of millions of years ago. Largely into the 8-armed octopuses, and the 10-armed squid. The 10-armed condition is primitive, and so octopus are derived, they’re the specialized form that arose later.

Blake: So do the really large squid, and the giant octopuses, do they use ink?

P.Z.: yes, it’s a very common trait that they have.

Blake: And I understand that some versions, I guess even one of the most toxic animals in the world, is actually an octopus. I think it’s the blue-ring.

P.Z.: Yeah, their skin contains various toxins, in particular neurotoxins. That’s why they’re so lethal, they go right to your nervous system and fry things.

Blake: Is that normal for octopus, or is that just specialized for that one species?

P.Z.: It’s fairly common among invertebrates, actually, lots of them produce these things, for instance tetrodotoxin, which is a common nerve poison that they make. It’s rare for them to make it in such large volumes that the animal itself is entirely toxic. There are a number of cephalopods though, that secrete quantities of these poisons right under the beak, so if they bite you, it can be quite painful, can actually poison you that way. Many of them just trust in the fact that, there’s all kinds of filthy bacteria lurking there, they can essentially induce sepsis in the target by biting him.

Karen: Yeah, we have those in Australia, I’ve seen them on the beach, along with hypodermic needles and condoms.

Blake: So, they have a drug problem? [Laughter]

P.Z.: [Laughter]

Karen: No, I’ve seen them on the sand, and blue bottles and things.

Blake: Well, at least they’re using safe sex, that’s the important thing. [Laughter]

Karen: That’s right. [Laughter]

Blake: Australia sounds like a dangerous place, I don’t, I’m not so sure I wanna go there.

Karen: It is. Well your animals scare me as well.

Blake: Oh, do they?

Karen: Yes.

Blake: Oh, well OK. We’ll talk about that later.

Karen: Mountain lions, and bears…

Blake: Lions and tigers and bears…

Karen: And tree alligators.

Blake: Tree alligators are a real threat, but not so much in Colorado.

Karen: Still haven’t seen one, I don’t know why. [Laughter]

Blake: You’re not looking up. [Laughter]

P.Z.: [Laughter]

Blake: So what’s the fossil record like for these creatures? It doesn’t seem like much would be around.

P.Z.: It’s not great, because, of course they’re soft-bodied, there’s very little that can be preserved, but they found some specimens that are hundreds of millions of years old. They’re rare. You’ve got to have really good preservation to protect something that soft-bodied from immediate decay. But, yeah, there’s a few really cool fossils that have been discovered that show that octopuses, for instance, haven’t changed in a couple of hundred million years.

Blake: So, they survived the K–T extinction, interesting.

P.Z.: Oh, yeah, well they’re aquatic, and in general, invertebrates are so profligate in producing offspring that they’re really good at surviving.

Karen: Going back to eating these creatures, I was told that the giant squid have too much ammonia in them to be edible, why is that?

P.Z.: Right. Oh, many of the squid that live in mid-water, you know, that hover deep in the water, they use ammonia for buoyancy…

Blake: …ah…

P.Z.: So, they saturate the tissues to give them a neutral buoyancy . Yeah, cause it’s lighter than water.

Karen: Oh.

P.Z.: And that’s basically the strategy they’re following, so they’re kind of inedible unless you soak them for a long time and even then, by that time they’re mush, and who wants to eat that?

Blake: So, why do you think so many people are frightened of these tentacled animals?

P.Z.: oh, it’s the weirdness of them, it’s that they look so unusual and different. For instance, where is the face of an octopus?

Blake: I don’t know…

Karen: [Laughter] Not if it’s brains are wrapped around its esophagus.

P.Z.: [Laughter] We’re so used to looking at creatures, whether it’s a dog, or a tiger, or a bear, or whatever you’re afraid of. But at least you can see a face… there’s eyes, there’s a nose, there’s a mouth. And we can put them into a mental model of that’s what an animal should look like. Something like a squid, you don’t. You can look into it and you see two eyes there, then below, there’s this confusing mass of tentacles just branching everywhere. And I’m sure one of the reasons Lovecraft sort of seized on that imagery for his Cthulhu is, it’s so different to what we expect. It looks pathologically weird.

Karen: And probably because of the toxicity of these creatures, too.

Blake: Well, I didn’t even know about that, really. But that’s just me.

Karen: Coming from Australia, I certainly knew about that.

Blake: Yeah.

P.Z.: Yeah, but everything is toxic in Australia. [Laughter]

Blake: [Laughter] Have you tried Foster’s?

Karen: Including me. [Laughter]

Blake: That’s funny.

Karen: I think it’s just the visual impact of the animal. It’s a creature that’s just organized so differently from the way we are, that you get confused, you get baffled looking at it. And that’s one of the things that Lovecraft really tried to get across in his crazy writings, is the idea of things that you cannot grasp, that you look at, you see and they drive you mad, because they’re so different from everything you’re used to. I think a cephalopod fits that category pretty well.

Blake: I think so, too. At least one more question, what is your fascination with them, I notice you’ve got them as your wallpaper on Pharyngula?

P.Z.: As I mentioned earlier on, they have such a very different body plan from ours…

Blake: …yeah…

P.Z.: …that one of the things that I’m always interested in, in my own work, is how do you you lay out the blueprint of an animal? Invertebrates, we’ve got a good idea, for instance there are these things called Hox genes, that are expressed early on, and they sort of stake out the foundation of the animal. They say, this is the front end, this is the back end, and there’s all this stuff in the middle. And, when you look at a cephalopod, it breaks all the rules. It’s not a simple linear organism anymore. It’s got this kind of radial organization of it’s tentacles. So, I’m really curious to know how exactly, in a molecular sense, do they set up that pattern. What kind of genes are they using to do this stuff? We know some of the answers, we know that they are using Hox genes, the same Hox genes that we use to set up pattern along the longitude and latitude, they’re using in a weird combinatorial scheme, to set up the identities of each tentacle.

Blake: So, can you make tentacles grow in different places, if you change the genes around?

P.Z.: Well, theoretically, yeah. They’ve worked out the sort of Hox code for a tentacle, so they know which Hox gene is turned on for which tentacle. And if cephalopods were better experimental animals for molecular biology, and they aren’t, they’re really hard to raise, then theoretically, yeah, we could go in there and do some tinkering. Every once in a while, a cephalopod will wash up, that is strange, different, and it looks like it’s a mutant of some sort. And usually they’re dead, so they haven’t survived. For instance, there was one a couple of years ago, it was very exciting, because it actually had bifurcating tentacles…

Blake: …wow.

P.Z.: Each tentacle branched, and branched, and branched. So we know that there’s also interesting stuff going on with the regulation of growth.

Karen: What’s the cause of that, when that happens?

P.Z.: We don’t know. That’s what’s kind of neat about it. In vertebrates, we know how you regulate the branching pattern, that we get in our hands, you know, how many fingers, and again, it’s Hox genes, switching on in particular patterns. And in these, this was just a one-off, an odd specimen that washed up, we suspect it’s probably something similar, that there’s mis-expression of certain genes that regulate these patterned expressions. We don’t have [them] as experimental animals, so we can’t do the experiment, it’s kind of frustrating, …but cool.

Blake: Very cool, yeah it’s kind of funny, not like ha ha funny, but we talked to Dr. Marcus Davis, who’s at my local university in Kennesaw, and he was talking about some of the things they can do, and what controls there are for making genetic manipulation. And I’m torn, as a layperson, because you know on the one hand I understand you don’t want to be cruel to the animals, but on the other hand you know making an octopus with 24 tentacles sounds cool. [Laughter]

Karen: What are the implications for humans? [Laughter]

Blake: Right! When can I have tentacles? Exactly Karen, thank you. Not enough people ask that. [Laughter]

Karen: That’s what you were thinking.

P.Z.: It’s also just a way to look into the fundamental aspects of organization of matter. How did life get to be this way? And so, doing these kinds of experiments are essential for understanding what’s going on here. Like I said, we’ve got these little examples, like that octopus with the bifurcating tentacles, and it’s so provocative, I wanna know how that works, I wanna know what are the rules for branching, in a tentacle. And in order to figure it out, you gotta do experiments, I’m sorry.

Blake: Yeah, you got to.

P.Z.: It’s still no worse than chopping them up and eating them.

Blake: That was my thought, exactly, I mean, nothing personal against the chickens, but although you have to have these ethical sign-offs for doing the experiments, I can go to KFC and get my chicken on a chicken and whatever.

P.Z.: Yeah, and most of these experiments you can do in far more humane ways than even farming takes care of animals. Because we’re not interested in causing them harm, we’re not interested so much in ripping them to pieces, and putting their flesh on a plate to eat it. So we can do things, like very carefully anesthetize, monitor, we euthanize if there’s any sign of stress, so yeah, most scientists are pretty darn ethical about this sort of thing.

Blake: OK. Well, we have a sort of mandatory question we ask all of our guests, and that is what is your favorite monster?

P.Z.: Oh, well, gee… You mean like a cryptozoological monster?

Blake: No, could be anything you want it to be…

Karen: Any anomaly…

Blake: The last one we had was the titmouse. [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter] You just wanted to say that.

P.Z.: You know, I hate to say it, because I don’t think it really is a monster, but Vampyroteuthis is pretty darn cool.

Blake: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

P.Z.: Yeah, yeah… yeah.

Karen: …No? [Laughter]

Blake: [Laughter]

P.Z.: Vampyroteuthis infernalis is a deep-water squid…

Blake: …it’s wicked cool…

P.Z.: Yeah, it’s very creepy looking, it lives way down in the darkness, it’s got these tentacles that are bridged by webbing and so forth, you have to see a picture…

Blake: …I’ll shoot Karen a picture, we’ll put a picture in the show notes.

Karen: It sounds monstrous enough to me.

P.Z.: The creepy thing about them is the eyes, though. They don’t have eyelids, instead the skin around the eye just kind of irises shut around them…

Karen: ….wow.

P.Z.: And, it’s bizarre to see, it’s again, so alien-looking, to see that.

Blake: Well thank you so much for spending some time with us today P. Z., I appreciate it.

P.Z.: Oh, my pleasure.

Karen: Thank you, P. Z.

P.Z.: Yeah

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Thanks for listening to this special literary edition of MonsterTalk, I enjoy putting the show together, and if you enjoy listening to it, let us know. Today we heard about American cosmic horror writer, H. P. Lovecraft. Our guests were Robert M. Price and P. Z. Myers. Your hosts were myself, Blake Smith, Ben Radford and Dr. Karen Stollznow. As I put this show together, I had envisioned interviewing S. T. Joshi, the biographer of Lovecraft we mentioned during the show, however, Bob Price effectively conducted the exact interview I wanted, over at Point of Inquiry. So, as an adjunct to this episode, I suggest you check it out. A link is in our show notes. Also while I was putting this together, a paper was published on the evolutionary basis for cephalopod pseudopods. The CBC show Quirks and Quarks did an excellent interview with PhD candidate Martin Smith on his findings. It’s a great interview, and I’ve put that link in the show notes. MonsterTalk is produced with the assistance of Skeptic magazine. When the stars are right, Cthulhu will rise, and destroy us all!!! In the meantime, why not relax and enjoy a nice read of Skeptic, you might gain 1d10 sanity. No promises on that. Music for today’s episode included MonsterTalk’s theme, by Peach Stealing Monkeys, 1000psi, A. R. Morgan, and now, by special permission, a snippet of a most excellent song by The Eben Brooks Band; Hey, There Cthulhu.


The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.

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