|Cybernetic culture research unit|
Miskatonic Virtual University
Can fiction become fact? It always does, when it's hyperfiction. This special report takes us from the 1920s into the near future, in a bid to track down the origins of a contemporary myth
Some say that Miskatonic University is nothing more than a rumour, or a joke. Yet rumours have an unsettling ability to make things happen, and jokes, it is often said, have a serious side. My journey to the semi-fictional Miskatonic Virtual University hasn't yielded much definite. But perhaps that's the point
Starting with the most straightforward data, such as it is. MVU dates back to the early 1970s, when the N.W. Peaslee Chair in Hydro-History was created for Professor Echidna Stillwell. The "University" had no campus as such (it still doesn't) - hence the "Virtual" of its title - but was a loose agglomeration of scholars, most affiliated to other institutions, especially MIT. (Miskatonic had been described as the "Shadow MIT.") What bound them together was a shared interest in the "hyperfictional" aspects of the work of H.P. Lovecraft. MVU thus brings together experts in fictional systems, mathematics, physics, geology, semiotics: all engaging in strange, crossdisciplinary pollenations that, if they are not actively forbidden, are unsupported in any other academic institution. The University has only one rule; all of its meetings must take place in Lovecraft's beloved state of Massachusetts.
The story of MVU is inextricable from that of Echidna Stillwell. Stillwell had done pioneering fieldwork in ethnology in the 1920s, but her reputation quickly fell into eclipse. University authorities began to fear that she had gone native, credulously and uncritically adopting the strange folk beliefs of her beloved Mu N'Ma. Some went so far as to suggest that she had been "creative" with her findings; that much of her data had been simulated. Fearing that they had a Blavatsky-type fake on their hands, the University moved to dissociate themselves from her work. A whispering campaign was orchestrated , and Stillwell was first discredited and then "forgotten" by an anthropological community increasingly keen to establish its scientific credentials. The result was that her voluminous works - on Mu folklore - went unpublished. Complete disreputability was assured when her work began to be championed by occultists, poets and cranks of every persuasion.
One of these champions was Captain Peter Vysparov. But Vysparov was no lone obsessive or starry-eyed mystic. To all outward appearances, he was a respectable army Captain, who had played a distinguished role in the Special Operations Executive during World War II. Scratch the surface, though, and a stranger, shadier picture begins to emerge.
Vysparov was a Russian émigré, whose family had fled to the USA during the Revolution. The Vysparovs were a reclusive family, shrouded in rumour. Serf legend had it that they had acquired their wealth through "abominable magical pacts". And, sure enough, rumours of occultism followed Peter Vysparov into World War II. Coincidentally, Vysparov had been posted to the same theatre where Stillwell had done much of her fieldwork. He worked with the Dibboma, the degraded rump of the Dib N'Ma, who were one of the three original N'Ma tribes. It was said that Vysparov had employed "unorthodox" means in his war against the Japanese, using Dibboma sorcerers in a "magical war". Since Vysparov's methods highly successful, military High Command were not overly concerned to investigate them. And neither was much anyone else. In 1947, an American journalist began to research the story, but he was unable to substantiate anything before an untimely, yet apparently accidental, death.
It is only with the recent release of correspondence between Vysparov and Stillwell that the events of the war - which throw a great deal of light on the subsequent development of Miskatonic - have become clearer. The provenance of this correspondence, it should be pointed out, is still highly disputed. The Stillwell estate - notoriously and understandably touchy - is reluctant to confirm the authenticity of the letters, while lawyers acting for the Vysparov family made strenuous, but ultimately failed, efforts to suppress the correspondence. Nevertheless, Dr Edward Blake, the author of a forthcoming Stillwell biography, believes that the letters are genuine. "They bear many of Stillwell's characteristic stylistic traits, and all the facts seem to square with the available data. If they're a fake, they're an incredibly detailed one; I'd certainly like to meet someone with knowledge of Professor Stillwell this precise!"