The Reading Room
A Response to Lovecraft: A Review of “1899”
Imagine you wake up alone on a boat, surrounded by a vast expanse of water with no land in sight. You have no memory of how you got there, what land the boat sailed from or where it is going, or even if you are on an ocean or a lake. Now imagine that while you are trying to answer these questions, you repeatedly encounter things so strange they make you question your sanity: flashbacks from a past you don’t remember, flickers and crackles of static as if you are inside a barely functioning computer, strange looks from passengers who act more dead than alive.
Such are the sensations that 1899 evokes, a show quite aptly identified by one reviewer as “maritime horror.” Any and all things are possible on the high seas, and 1899 is no exception. Ostensibly set in the year 1899, the show quickly gives hints to other times, other places, beginning the very first episode with a narration about the powers of the human mind to encapsulate entire oceans within it, and flashing the audience hurried glimpses of a mysterious black pyramid sticking out from what appears to be arctic snows.
The first impression I had from the show was that it was incredibly Lovecraftian. Though no Elder Gods or horrible monstrosities graced the show with their presence, the aura, the underlying tone of the whole show never ceased to ooze with a vaguely eerie and unsettling Lovecraftiness. This is because the show shares with Lovecraft the same fundamental philosophy, the same understanding of what sets a tone, what creates an atmosphere of dread, intrigue, and curiosity that keeps the audience engaged with mounting horror and curiosity from episode to episode. That philosophy is cosmicism.
In his Master’s Thesis, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” Lovecraft writes that in the true weird tale:
“a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
There must be something in the tale that defies our logic, our knowledge of the world; it is in large part this reminder that there are things outside our control or ability even to comprehend that makes up the weird, or cosmic horror, story. And it is this feeling in particular upon which 1899 thrives, turning instead from Elder Gods to the depths of the human mind and to memory. Indeed, even the beginning narration of the show comparing the human mind to the ocean depths and our susceptibility to drowning in them is a twist on Lovecraft’s opening to his famous short story, “The Call of Cthulthu”, wherein he writes:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
The show only increases its adoption of Lovecraftian elements from there, featuring mad cults, rooms which defy all rules of geometry and space, and strange structures hidden in the remote arctic, all set in the same era in which many of Lovecraft’s own weird tales take place. Yet the show’s use of these elements is wholly its own, putting far more focus on the human mind and the mysteries that lie within each person than on those which lie in other dimensions. It investigates the inner mind of each of the characters, baring their souls to the audience through their altered memories. In one of the unique elements of the show, few of the characters even share a common language, and they able to break out of this barrier and unite only because the cosmic horror elements drive them together. The focus, however, remains always on the interior, on how each soul has been tampered with by unknown forces and how they might begin to heal.
In this way, the show departs vastly from and deliberately responds to Lovecraft’s largely impersonal narratives, and succeeds greatly in so doing. For where Lovecraft declares that the human character has no meaning in the face of such cosmic mystery, 1899 responds that the exact opposite is true: it is the character, and how she responds, that truly matters. It is in how she clings desperately to her own humanity in the face of such madness, in how she forges relationships with those around her, that true meaning in the narrative is found. This turning from the cosmic back to the personal is a brilliant and clever twist on standard Lovecraftian stories, and I’m sorry the show has been canceled.