Children of the Elder Things, or Echinoderm Horror


Japanese theater poster for the 1956 SF movie Warning from Space

As I talked about here, H. P. Lovecraft’s Elder Things were such a unique creation both of their time and for SF in general that their caliber was not duplicated  for many years. There were echoes of them in the BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) of the lurid SF pulp covers of the 1930s through the 1950s, after which the BEMs began to be derided as an artistic trope. But the rise of the cheap SF paperback also meant Lovecraft’s work was more widely disseminated, and let’s not forget, too, the influence of that seminal indie publisher Arkham House. Through these media, the Elder Things spread their influence, albeit in a watered-down form: their starfish heads.

Let’s face it, starfish are pretty horrible, with or without an Elder Thing to be attached to. Behind the myriad forms, colors, and textures lurks a strange alien being. It has no eyes or brain.  Instead of a normal animal’s up-and-down, fore-and-aft, symmetrical body plan the starfish is radial. It doesn’t have a head or a butt and is literally all arms, or tentacles, and if one of these goes missing, it grows a new one… while the missing tentacle, if it’s still intact, grows a body plus four others.

And, as schoolchildren are always shocked to learn from one of those  “amazing facts about animals” book, starfish ingest food by turning their stomachs inside out through their tiny mouth apertures and digest it outside their bodies. After pulling a clam or scallop open with their tube feet, of course. If that’s not alien, I don’t know what is.

Starfish eating an anchovy it has caught

To top it off, even scientists don’t fully understand the starfish and its echinoderm cousins. As larvae they are free-swimming, fore-and-aft creatures like any other kind of plankton but at some point in their development they root themselves on a fleshy stalk and reconfigure their bodies, the left side evolving into the top, the right, the bottom, and the arms develop radially and the mouth and anus at the center. When complete, the tiny starfish blasts off from its stem like the lunar lander from its base. The twists and turns the HOX genes (which regulate the fore-and-aft animal body plan) must take to accomplish all this remains a mystery.  However the change occurred, and why, it’s been a positive one, as starfish are very successful marine creatures.

So, keeping this in mind, the post-WWII horror boom cast about for a monster and decided that the starfish was it… in Japan, at least. It’s not hard to see why: the Japanese have always revered the sea and its creatures, and add to that anxiety about nuclear bombs mutating those creatures (fresh in memory was the irradiation of the fishing boat Lucky Dragon 5 and its crew. from the American nuclear bomb test Castle Bravo) and possibly a Japanese translation of At the Mountains of Madness, and a movie came to be: Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru, or in English, Warning from Space.

It’s not a bad movie, though certainly RiffTrackable. It’s of the genre of serious-minded Japanese movies before the camp of Godzilla came to predominate in the late 1960s. I had the sense watching it that real horrors were being addressed and processed  — the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, certainly, but also more primal ones, like the the disasters of tsunami and earthquake which were always a risk in an island nation on the Pacific Rim. The disaster comes from above, a wandering planet that threatens to crash into Earth destroying not only it but also a sister planet, Paira, sharing the same orbit but on the opposite side of the sun. This other planet is inhabited by starfish-shaped beings and they send emissaries to Earth to warn them.

“We come in peace… and mosquito coils.”

OK, actors dressed up in giant, waddling starfish costumes, each adorned with a fabric eye at their midriffs, are pretty silly. But looked at in an B&W, expressionistic way, as many of the movies of the 1950s were at heart, it’s marvelous, an abbreviation for the inhuman and strange. When they speak, they waggle back and forth in their roomy spaceship, a set adorned with chiaroscuro lighting and circular radiating coils. There’s even a neato special effect of a rotating set of hoops that creates of optical illusion of two circles melding an splitting. Easy to make fun of, but so spare and neat! To make over the film with today’s technology would be to miss the point.

To make contact with humans the aliens pop up in Japan in odd places — a seaside dock, a geisha bar, a nightclub with a feathered, sequinned female singer doing a Latin tune — but shock and horrify bystanders, and in the case of the singer, make them faint. Which is also very silly, but gives a fascinating look into Tokyo life in the mid-1950s. Which is portrayed as realistically as the starfish aliens are not, but that’s what makes the movie so fun.

And admit it. The idea of a starfish with one huge eye is plenty horrifying, like this species of starfish that has a human-like mouth.

Chompers! Note also starfish can have more than five legs.

In the modern Western world, any symbol with a human eye on it is unsettling. In America, there is one on our currency: a Masonic one, if rumor is to be believed, of an all-seeing eye stop a pyramid. Perhaps it’s a reminder of a pagan past Christianity has tried hard to stomp out, an era of gods in the form of an all-seeing eye, and eyes as amulets and charms working to protect the wearer against another form of supernatural eye, the Evil Eye. What was once a valid symbol of protection has become primal and horrifying.

In 1960 DC comics’ The Justice League faced the peril of Starro, a giant starfish alien with, you guessed it, a central eye, who spawned thousands of little starros that latched on to peoples’ faces and controlled their minds. This was years before Ridley Scotts’ Alien used the idea of the face hugger.

Starro appeared off and on in the DC line until the present day, when he, or it, made an appearance in the recent Suicide Squad movie. It was the creation of Gardner Fox, a writer who worked both in comics and mainstream publishing, where he specialized in SF and fantasy. A few of his stories appeared in Weird Tales, which also published Lovecraft, and it’s not that far of a leap to assume he was familiar with the works of the Master.

Pestar and his friends

In 1966 this monster, part bat, part starfish, made an appearance in the original Ultraman Japanese series from 1966. Here they multiply in pastel colors. Known as Pestar, it drank oil.

Artwork by Stephen Lewis

Now Lovecraft comes full circle with Vthyarilops, the Starfish God, a Great Old One invented by writer Dan Perez for his 1994 horror novel The Likeness.

I am sure there are tons more of starfish aliens and alien-seeming starfish out there, and that I’ve only scratched the surface. But it’s been a fun scratch!

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  1. […] movies and TV had been grotesque and cartoony up to this point, like the one-eyed starfish of Message from Space. But Ultraseven’s aliens were aesthetically pleasing, if, well, alien and implausible. There were […]

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