Nothing sets the imagination alight like fire from the sky. On September 15, 2007, a fireball visible at mid-day fell from the vicinity of the Southern Cross, burst in the Peruvian jungle and brought pestilence to the village of Carancas.
Hundreds of people rushed to the huge crater – 40 feet in diameter, with a waist-high rim. Its cavity of about a dozen feet held a pool of boiling water. Many of those who gathered at the site fell ill. They had the usual array of mystery symptoms: nausea, headaches, rashes. While some of the Peruvians suspected a sneak attack by warlike Chile, other parties arrived at even darker conclusions.
On September 20, Pravda, a tabloid website of the Soviet school, reported that an American KH-13 spy satellite, not a chondritic meteorite, had impacted the Peruvian soil. The villagers had succumbed to the dissemination of its Plutonium-238 fuel.
Pravda said the satellite had been spying on Iran, as a prelude to a nuclear strike. Fortunately, a faction of the “American Military Establishment” shot down the satellite, stalling the plans of “United States War Leaders,” who hope to draw the Middle East into “Total War” by invading Iran. These same two factions have come to blows before, reported Pravda, most notably 9/11.
Let’s move on to even crazier ideas. Horror writer Nick Mamatas, on his blog, Nihilistic Kid, observed the similarity between the super-exogenic Peruvian sickness and H.P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Colour Out of Space,” in which a meteorite poisons, rots and taints a small farm in western Massachusetts. This observation brought weird horror into play, and a wave of enthusiastic speculation ensued.
Ectomo picked up on Mamatas’s post and drew some practical conclusions: “Face it, dear readers, something very nasty is on the way. Space AIDS or Ebola in the best case, the living dead in the worst.” Kim Paffenroth, an author and scholar of zombie fiction, joked that he was already heading to knock out the stairs to the second floor. You can’t help but notice the not-entirely-jocular glee in the title of his post: “This Could Be It!“
The major media hosted both camps. The Lede, a New York Times blog, stroked its chin at the oddity and inconsistencies of the reports out of Peru. The Pravda theory appeared in the second comment on the NYT post; Lovecraft in the third. We see here evidence of a bizarre phenomenon. Pravda‘s ravings and Lovecraftian horror both have materialist roots, but today their materialism serves to deny reality, rather than intensify it.
The Meteorite Giveth, The Meteorite Taketh Away
Meteorites retain the same place of prominence in the modern heart that they held in the ancient one. Perhaps no heavenly body beside the zodiacal constellations has endured in this way. We know a meteorite cleared an evolutionary path for us 65 million years ago. We also know a meteorite could block that path at any moment. Meteorites symbolize both Genesis and the Day of Judgment.
The tales of Pravda and the Lovecraftian blogs belong to a different order than your usual apocalypse. Each of these paranoias descends from a great materialist mythology. Pravda is a scion of Marx, who referred to his doctrine as “scientific dialectics” and meant to overturn romantic notions of historical progress and economic life. Lovecraft wrote allegories of the science and exploration of his day in the language of pulp fiction. Cthulhu is the theory of general relativity disguised as a sea monster and featured in a detective story.
Marx and Lovecraft had their work corrupted by epigones into Soviet communism and the Cthulhu Mythos, respectively, and it’s these latter things, the corruptions, that we find crawling out of that Peruvian crater.
The Red Meteorite
Pravda‘s genealogy glitters with stars: Trotsky founded it, Lenin revived it, Stalin commandeered it, Krushchev exploited it, Gorbachev de-fanged it and Yeltsin closed it down. “Pravda” means “truth” and there are now actually two “Truths”: one print, one online. Journalists from the Soviet publication founded both, but the two versions have no formal ties.
A story like the one on the Peruvian meteorite, though nuttier than a typical Soviet-era piece, doesn’t diverge from the bearing Pravda always had. Pravda‘s article is agitprop – propaganda meant to agitate the masses into action against the enemy. The Soviet Union used Pravda to disseminate agitprop to advance communism during the Cold War. These days, Pravda no longer functions as an organ of the state. It has no intrinsic interest in advancing an ideology, other than for its own profit.
Pravda generates hits through techniques developed by capitalist tabloids. But it has to delight audiences nostalgic for the glories of communism. Instead of Bat Boy, you get a grotesquerie of imperialism. Stalin, not Elvis, rises from his grave.
Back in the day, the Soviets had good reason to vilify the U.S. through any lie necessary: Communism promised utopia. Marx had revealed that the contingencies of history result more from what we do than from what we think. Flesh matters more than spirit. Controlling labor means controlling history. Science taught him that.
The Soviets believed nothing could refute Marx – not even better science. When genetics threatened Marx’s ideas about human nature, Stalin ordered up some new genetics. No scientific phenomenon could contradict party doctrine. Today, no phenomenon can escape party doctrine. Marx doesn’t care about meteorites, but Pravda does. All things occur because of the struggle against imperialism, even falling stars. Marxism has become mythology.
The Weird Meteorite
Pravda fans the embers of a utopian revolution; the bloggers who spot Lovecraft in Peru’s meteorite stoke the fires of dystopia. These bloggers have a strong case, however, because “The Colour Out of Space” does describe just the sort of thing that happened to Carancas.
Look at the science. Geologists have a hypothesis about the illness. The region where the meteorite fell holds plenty of groundwater and arsenic. The meteorite could have vaporized arsenic-laced water, which the villagers inhaled.
The event would have piqued Lovecraft’s interest, as it embodies the ideology behind his writing. Lovecraft wrote to convey his idea of cosmic indifference. The universe doesn’t intend to sicken us with meteorites, but the meteorites come; the sickness happens. “Humankind must understand that it lives in the universe on its own,” says Donald Burleson, Lovecraft scholar and retired Professor of Mathematics at Eastern New Mexico University, “with no cosmic concern one way or another.”
Wild speculation about the Peruvian meteorite makes some sense: We all make up stories about mysterious phenomena. All of us, except Lovecraft. He didn’t speculate about the science of his day. He wrote allegories of it; he tried to convey how he experienced scientific discovery. In the blogs, the meteorite became an allegory of Lovecraft. The weird horrors of his fiction became a way to dilute the strangeness of the meteorite, rather than distill it into something potent and dangerous.
The blogs convey an atmosphere of adventurous fiction. It’s pleasurable to imagine how one might fight zombies or invent a Space Drug Cocktail for Space AIDS. The bloggers, like Pravda, serve up a kind of agitprop. They fantasize about struggling against a great evil, as you might fantasize about spending lottery money or Pravda fancies itself overcoming capitalism.
These fantasies depend on there being something supernatural or conspiratorial about the illness in Peru. They need science to fail in the face of it. Lovecraft understood that science horrifies us not when it fails, but when it succeeds. The successes of science show us what is truly unknown.
The unknown means everything here. Lovecraft called fear the oldest and strongest emotion, and fear of the unknown the oldest and strongest fear. He didn’t mean ‘unknown’ in the simple sense of “inexplicable”; he meant that scientific explanation reveals an alien, inhuman world. Science shows us how little we really know. That’s the terror of the unknown. The idea that a meteorite could drop out of the sky, kick up some poison steam, and make us sick for no reason – that idea is worse than zombies. It’s worse than capitalism.
When I interviewed scientists about the meteorite, they took a different approach than the blogs. The statement I heard most from them was: “I don’t know.” They seemed unperturbed about the whole affair. They talked about “geometrical effects” and “weak latitude dependence” and referred me to other experts. They accepted the meteorite with curiosity, but also perfect equanimity, which seemed reasonable to me.
But what if they’re wrong?
The Horrifying Twist
Every alert reader of this article knows what happened on February 21: The United States shot down one of its own spy satellites, because its orbit had started to decay. The bus-sized thing was coming home to Earth. The government feared that, if it crashed in a populated area, not only might it crush people, its fuel might make them sick.
The Lockheed-Martin USA-193 satellite used hydrazine fuel, not plutonium. FEMA released its “First Responder Guide for Space Object Re-Entry” on February 14. The guide advises that exposure to hydrazine may result in … nausea, headaches, rashes.
Professor Burleson had thoughts on this satellite, as well, saying “someone should by now have a pretty good understanding of the decaying orbit itself and the space-to-ground probable trajectory, though what we hear in the news is that nobody does know this.” This could mean, suggests Burleson, that the government knew damn well where the big bastard was coming down, but they didn’t want to admit that it was Cleveland or Beijing or Paris.
Well, I suppose they would have admitted to Paris.
Let’s take this a little further. In “The Colour Out of Space,” the protagonist stumbles across the story of the weird meteorite while surveying land for a new reservoir. After the requisite dose of horror, the surveyor notes that the state of Massachusetts will proceed with plans to dam up the valley where the tainted impact site lies and where a portion of the alien entity still resides in an old well. The tale’s lingering dread comes from the thought that drinking water will soon cover the “blasted heath” created by the meteorite. Think about that: people made sick by water fouled with a poison from outer space.
Now all of that might give folks pause, but when I brought up the latest American satellite trouble with the scientists, we just laughed and laughed. It’s all just a funny coincidence. Isn’t it?
Ray Huling’s a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can’t wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.