Jason Colavito, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. New York: Prometheus Books, 2005.

reviewed by Dan Clore

(I ask that readers bear in mind throughout this review that a criticism of a criticism does not imply acceptance of the original claim. Nothing here constitutes support for the theories of lost continents, ancient astronauts, etc., discussed in Colavito's book. This review is not the place for a proper evaluation of these claims.)

This book presents the thesis that H.P. Lovecraft first originated the theme of ancient astronauts—that extraterrestrial aliens visited the earth in the distant past—and that Lovecraft's work was the source of this theme in popular culture, such as the once-omnipresent Erich Von Däniken. One would love to believe this thesis, but as I'll show in the course of this review, it is true on neither count. Further, Colavito's book is riddled with misspellings (Poe's "Metzengerstein" appears as "Merzetgerstein"), slipshod scholarship, and factual inaccuracies that often derive from the credulous use of inaccurate secondary sources.

Colavito states that: "Blavatsky's book [viz., The Secret Doctrine] claimed to channel the prehistoric Book of Dzyan, said to be older than mankind itself, though in fact it was an uncredited paraphrase of the Sanskrit Rig Veda". Now, first, Blavatsky claimed to have seen a physical copy of the Stanzas of Dzyan, not to have channeled it; second, only part of the work (generally the first six stanzas) has ever been claimed to antedate humanity (it would be odd if the entirety antedated man, as a large part of it is dedicated to describing the origin and history of humanity); third, only a small part of the work parallels the Rig Veda's "Hymn of Creation"; and fourth, Blavatsky placed the text of the parallel passages on the page facing the first lines of the Stanzas. Colavito derives his account from inaccurate secondary sources (he cites DeCamp's Lost Continents); it ultimately originates with the Spiritualist William Emmette Coleman, whose ire against Blavatsky was fueled by the fear that her advocacy of reincarnation would discredit Spiritualism's claim to contact with the deceased.

(In my essay "The Lurker on the Threshold of Interpretation: Hoax Necronomicons and Paratextual Noise" http://www.oocities.org/clorebeast/lurker.htm , which Colavito cites, I describe the evidence that Dzyan is an authentic Mahayana text, but Colavito ignores this material. This is not the place to repeat it.)

A large part of Colavito's work concerns The Morning of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. Colavito always misspells the former name "Pauwles" (I guess once it's in your spellchecker, you're doomed). Bizarrely, the two times that Colavito appears to directly cite this work, the endnotes instead give references to The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved, by Colin Wilson (the bibliography gives his name as Wilson, Colin Wilson) and Damon Wilson. If this represents the use of a secondary source, it is not clear, but it seems likely, as Colavito's bibliography gives no entry for Pauwels and Bergier's work, which he calls "a difficult volume to track down", though I have collected it along with their books Impossible Possibilities, The Eternal Man, Bergier's Extraterrestrial Visitations from Prehistoric Times to the Present (in which Bergier claims to have corresponded with Lovecraft in 1935), and the anthology Extraterrestrial Intervention: The Evidence, edited by Bergier and the Editors of INFO, all for $1.95 or less. Further, every other reference to Pauwels and Bergier derives from a secondary source.

Colavito tells us that James Churchward: "told his readers that monks in a Hindu temple in the Himalayas had shown him the history of Mu on tablets written in the lost and unknown language of Nacaal [sic]. The tablets, he explained, helpfully translated themselves while he looked at them". First, Churchward calls the language in question "Naga-Maya"; the tablets were (allegedly) written by a caste of priests called the Naacals—it is only in Cthulhu Mythos tales that the term is extended to the language. Second, Churchward claims that a monk taught him the language of the Naacal tablets.

Examples of the ancient-astronaut theme that antedate "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926) are not difficult to find. Colavito admits that Charles Fort speculated on the theme in The Book of the Damned (1919), a work that Lovecraft knew. Among pre-scientific conceptions, there are Cyrano de Bergerac's seventeenth-century satires, in which the Garden of Eden is placed on the moon, and Adam is the origin of the mythical Prometheus; in addition, the daimon of Socrates informs Cyrano that he and other creatures from the sun journeyed to the earth and were taken for various creatures of mythology. In Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898), by Garritt Serviss, Martians have visited the earth and helped the Egyptians build the Sphinx and the pyramids. In A. Merritt's The Moon Pool (1919), which influenced Lovecraft, earth life originates from cosmic spores, and the godlike Silent Ones derive from a separate evolutionary stream, again originating from cosmic spores.

But Colavito's scholarship is lacking even on more well-known aspects of science-fiction history. He states: "In the mold of Weird Tales, new magazines began popping up in the 1930s and reached their peak in the postwar years. Among the earliest was Astounding Stories, edited by the legendary John W. Campbell. Astounding Stories published several of Lovecraft's longer works after his death, including 'The Shadow Out of Time' and At the Mountains of Madness, stories rejected by Weird Tales." First, surely Amazing Stories merits mention here; second, Campbell was not yet the editor of Astounding Stories when Lovecraft's work was accepted there (Campbell would never have published Lovecraft); third, the two stories named were the only two Lovecraft works to appear in Astounding Stories; finally, they were published during Lovecraft's life.

More important than science fiction for the history of the ancient-astronaut theme in popular culture, though, is Theosophy. Colavito himself seems to realize this. He states: "In the 1935 William Lumley-H.P. Lovecraft tale 'The Diary of Alonzo Typer,' a personal favorite, the title character encounters the Necronomicon and the other Lovecraftian grimoires in an old house. To add verisimilitude to the tale, Lovecraft employs Helena Blavatsky's Book of Dzyan, 'whose first six chapters antedate man, and which was old when the Lords of Venus came through space in their ships to civilize our planet.' Could the ancient-astronaut theory have been stated any more bluntly, or its relationship to the pseudoscience that preceded it?"

At this point Colavito seems to concede that the first part of his thesis, that Lovecraft first invented the ancient-astronaut them, is false. But that is not all. For without realizing it, he seems to have stumbled upon the real source of the ancient-astronaut theme in popular culture. (Colavito, notably, provides no direct evidence for his claim that Lovecraft is the source, other than the vaguest similarities and post hoc propter hoc reasoning.)

The conception of the Book of Dzyan in Lumley and Lovecraft's tale is post-Blavatskian. In Blavatsky, the Venerians traveled to earth via reincarnation. Once Blavatsky had died, the Theosophical Society was taken over by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater. These colorful individuals were fond of undertaking "clairvoyant investigations", in which they made the most astounding discoveries, which most will consider simply the result of overactive imagination. It is Besant and Leadbeater who made the change to the use of spaceships to colonize the earth from Venus. For example, in their 1913 volume Man: Whence, How and Whither, A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation, occurs the following passage: "Then, with the mighty roar of swift descent from incalculable heights, surrounded by blazing masses of fire which filled the sky with shooting tongues of flame, flashed through the aerial spaces the chariot [!] of the Sons of the Fire, the Lords of the Flame from Venus; it halted, hovering over the 'White Island', which lay smiling in the bosom of the Gobi Sea; green was it, and radiant with masses of fragrant many-coloured blossoms, Earth offering her best and fairest to welcome her coming King."

Desmond Leslie quotes this passage (in a somewhat altered version, with "chariot" changed to "vessel", for instance) and a great deal of other Theosophical material in his 1953 book Flying Saucers Have Landed. (Colavito names the book as a volume by George Adamski. While Adamski contributed a contactee account, the bulk of the book is by Leslie.) He also informs us that this remarkable event took place in 18,617,841 BCE, a date that derives from The Secret Doctrine—but not for this particular event. In addition, Leslie interprets various mythological events as examples of likely historic visitation by flying saucers, heavily relying on the works of Theosophists as sources. While most later books in the ancient-astronaut genre are slim on source references, many show every sign of deriving their claims from Leslie's book rather than from original research. When readers come across a reference to the Samarangana Sutradhara in Von Däniken, for instance, they can guess with some assurance that the author had not seen a copy of this text.

I would very much have liked to give Colavito's volume a positive review and recommend it to readers (especially as my own work is cited as a source). But due to the profusion of errors and lack of knowledge of relevant material, I simply cannot do so. I would, most of all, like to believe Colavito's central thesis, that Lovecraft first invented the alien-astronaut theme and that his work was the source for the theme in popular culture. But instead I have to quote Colavito concerning Von Däniken's work: "even if it were not true, readers wanted it to be true." I fear that this accounts for the appeal of Colavito's work among Lovecraft fans.

Have any further information on the matters discussed here?
Please inform me: clore@columbia-center.org.

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