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A friend asked me recently how I felt about the World Fantasy Award association’s decision to stop using the bust of Lovecraft as its trophy.

These handsome fellas right here.

Short answer: I think it was a great decision, and will benefit us all in the long run.

Long answer:  Have you ever read “The Thing on the Doorstep”?

Some people might argue it’s one of Lovecraft’s best–or, at least, most innovative–works.  Aaron Mahnke (of the podcast Lore) claims that it’s the first horror story to introduce the setting of the insane asylum.  (I take a bit of issue with that…insane asylums were definitely present before then–“The Repairer of Reputations”, anyone?–but he still was one of the first.)  The story revolves around mind control and the living dead, all well before they were popular in mainstream horror.  On top of that, it’s a classic unreliable narrator set-up that starts off with a bang.

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

Damn, right?

Well, I’ve always just fucking HATED it.

Why?  (Spoilers, but come on, the man died in 1937.)

Because the malevolent force is a wizard who’s functionally immortal because he possesses the mind of those close to him.  Only–wouldn’t you know it?–he was unfortunate enough to have a single daughter.  And her mind was weak, as a woman’s is.  And thus he would not have the full force of his strength as long as he inhabited his daughter’s body.  So, of course, he possessed her, got her to seduce a man (our hapless protagonist), and then gained control of his mind.

While I can appreciate its literary merits, I’m never going to like it.  I’m never going to embrace it and think that this work encapsulated his genius.  I read it and think things like, “Oh, come on.”  Or, “Motherfucker, your long-suffering estranged wife was vastly more powerful and hearty than you ever could hope to be.”*

I can deal with that, though, because clearly women confused and baffled Lovecraft.  That’s really the only story with a female protagonist.  Most of the time, he just seems to forget they exist, and honestly, I’m okay with that.

But what if elements of the weak-willed, silly woman was present in every. single. one. of his stories?  Would I be able to ignore it?  Would my feelings about his writing stay the same?

I don’t think any of us would deeply enjoy reading an author who highlighted a feature of our core identity and used it as a weapon, a threat, or a joke in every single one of his works.  But I think it’s really easy to forget that those elements–and to be clear, I am talking about his blatant racism, there’s no getting around that fact–are there, if you’re not the one being singled out.  As a white female, I’m not phased by the cat’s name in “The Rats in the Walls”.  It doesn’t immediately jump out at me that every single black person in his stories seems to be either simple but upstanding or literally a member of a barbaric death-cult.

But if you’re the target, each and every slip and descriptor is a reminder that you’re not welcome.

I hate boring horror.  I hate things that strive to be as traditionally frightening as possible, both within horror as a whole and within Lovecraftian fiction specifically.  I think a lot of us do.  I think we seek out innovation, and that’s why the mythos has been such a fertile stomping ground–because there are so few rules, so few facts set in stone.

But if we keep telling people they’re not welcome–or tell them not to be silly, of course they are, and then expect them to be happy about a gift of a hateful man’s head–we’re never going to learn all that horror can be.  Diversity can be a buzzword, but it can also be our salvation.

We can only read stories of broad-chested English adventurers exploring the deep sea/Antarctic/Congo who stumble across an ancient cult and then get destroyed by something unthinkable or unknowable.  We can do that for the rest of our lives, if we want.  There’s certainly plenty of that ilk out there to last a lifetime.  For some people, that might be enough.  But it’s not for me.

The Cultist

*I love Sonia Greene.  I really, really do.

I haven’t written since March?  Good god.  Are any of you still out there?  I don’t blame you if you’re not.

Since March and now, I have defended my dissertation, gotten the hell out of graduate school, and dove back into medical school.  Life is far, far better than it was.  I never did finish Flatland (yes, I know, it’s like 90 pages).

Apparently, horror country/bloodgrass is its own musical genre.  I’m baffled I haven’t heard about this until now.

I’m not sure if that’s a digiridoo or throat-singing in the second one, but I approve wholeheartedly.

I’ve been writing in fits and starts, but I’ve been fighting to get to a more regular schedule.  I’ve gotten one short story accepted so far…I’ll post the deets when it’s out.  (I was told sometime this fall…so, here’s hoping.)  Its subtitle might as well be, “Here’s how the Cultist feels about graduate school!” (and I will admit I was in tears writing most of it), but, eh, I guess they liked it well enough.

I’ve got a lot of questions about horror-writing (or, more broadly, speculative fiction in general).  And yes, I have read Stephen King’s On Writing, and I did find it quite useful.  But it’s not all-encompassing.  Particularly

  1. As far as I can tell, darkmarkets.com seems to be the go-to for current fiction calls.  And it seems to boil down to two classes: the calls that pay a (tiny) flat fee per story ($5-15), and the kind that pay per word (generally .3-.6/word).  The former seem much more casual and independent, and, as far as I can tell, the per-word folks seem to be better established and more serious.  Is it better just to apply everywhere and get your name out there, as beggars can’t be choosers?  Or should you be somewhat judicious?  I can see arguments for both, TBH.
  2. How can you tell if your pseudonym is stupid?
  3. Where does one find feedback?  I don’t know any other horror writers in the immediate proximity, and Stephen King seems to feel that feedback is necessary, but writer’s groups are/can be a bit masturbatory.
  4. Is there a market for people only interested in writing short stories?  It seems that people use short stories to break into the world of novels, but I think that horror novels are a very different (and frequently more disappointing) beast than short horror.  (It is far, far harder to avoid telegraphing the ending in a novel than a story–furthermore, short stories have room to be weird and inconsistent, and I adore that.)

So, I’m at a bit of an impasse right now (not that it’s keeping me from writing).  I’ll try to figure this out and post as I go.  Until then, I remain

The Cultist

Currently reading: Flatland (because man cannot live on Lovecraft alone, and I’m woefully ignorant in the classics of sci-fi.  I’ve read Vonnegut, the Ray Bradbury one about people on Mars we had to read in middle school, and The Lathe of Heaven, and that’s pretty much it.  No Octavia Butler, no Isaac Asimov, no Earthsea*, nothing.)

Finished: The Madness of Cthulhu, volume one.  I wasn’t super taken with this one, I have to admit.  I’ll probably do an in-depth review of it, but suffice it to say only two or three stories jumped out at me, and one of them is arguably more body horror than Lovecraftian.  (My own opinion, clearly, but this is a safe bet with any story that involves the protagonist itching their skin off.)

Surprised I’m recommending: The Gothic Fantasy series, specifically, the host stories, horror, and sci-fi ones.  If the cover puts you off, I don’t blame you one bit.  But I picked up the horror stories one, because, well, horror, and I was tremendously surprised to find only a few stories I had read.  Ignore the gilt, swirling covers and the cheesy title pages.  These stories are excellent, a great mix of the classic (I had never read Le Fanu before, and now I suppose I have no excuse**) and the new.

Posts in the future: I hold that the less frequently drawn-upon Lovecraft references make the best short stories***.   While they’re few and far between, I have read a number of absolutely spectacular short stories based on “The Whisperer in the Darkness” (the Mi-Go, Yuggoth/Pluto, the collection of brains in jars…all that).

Plus, all things considered, they're substantially scarier than bubbles mashed up with a train.

Plus, all things considered, they’re substantially scarier than bubbles mashed up with a train.

I’m also starting to become more mindful of authors writing in the guise of Lovecraftian fiction to touch upon sociopolitical issues–these are perhaps even rarer, but they’re hard to shake off once you’ve read them.

Me: Defending my PhD May 20.  25 pages into my thesis and counting.  Lots of experiments to run, but determined more than ever to keep my quality of life intact.  Which means MORE: more reading, more writing, more thinking about horror.  So yes, I’m back on this blog, and with a vengeance!

The Cultist

*Although when I was in elementary school I DID read Le Guin’s series Catwings, four picture books depicting the adventures of winged cats.  Seriously.  (TBH, I thought it was awesome, but my dad did a double-take when he saw the name on the cover…)

**Though I am not a fan of gothic literature, no sir.  There’s one story where the big, epic, awful reveal is that the bride and groom-to-be are actually siblings (the groom’s wretched father had raped the bride’s mother and insisted that all keep it a secret)…but they were already cousins to begin with.  Say what you will about cousin-cousin marriages and the low risk of deleterious mutations, I’m just saying that the punch of the capital I Incest was somewhat lessened by the pre-agreed upon, less squicky lowercase incest.

***Excluding everything August Derleth ever wrote.  Water elementals.  My ass.

As part of my new year’s resolution, I’m trying to read a book a week.  This got a little rocky mid-January to now, but I’m firmly back on the horse.

Currently reading: The Madness of Cthulhu, Vol. 1.  I have to say, I hadn’t heard of this anthology until I stumbled across it in Half Price Books, but it’s edited by S.T. Joshi (score 1!) and I hadn’t read any of the stories before (score 2!).  So far it appears to be focused on the Mountains of Madness–lots of Old Ones and shoggoths.  The intro did give me a bit of pause, particularly when Joshi claimed that the encounter with the shoggoth is one of the most chilling in weird fiction.  (It was train-like.  And also very bubbly.  Those were my sole take-aways.)

Madness of CthulhuI’m a little non-plussed so far.  Most of the stories revolve around the shoggoths and/or old ones, and to me, they were probably the least affecting elements of the story.  The real horror (I think) lies in the isolation and the sheer helplessness of Antarctic exploration, combined with the wonder/weirdness/growing sense of inferiority as the scientist explore the ruined city.  But we’ll see (and this anthology also has a mythos story by Caitlin R. Kiernan that I haven’t read, which I’m stupidly excited about).

The AV club recently ran an interview with Matt Duff, the author of the newly-published Lovecraft Country, in which he lists his five favorite books and stories that combine real and supernatural horrors.  I have to admit, I haven’t read any of Duff’s stuff, but his commentary on these stories struck me as very insightful.  He doesn’t seem to be a Lovecraft fan boy (which, I will admit, was the first thing I thought when I read the title), and it’s always interesting to see what non-explicitly-Lovecraftian writers do with the mythos.

In horror video game news, while *I* haven’t been playing anything new (thanks to my lack of hand-eye coordination), I am currently watching as my husband plays through Soma.  It’s by the same people who made Amnesia, which was unequivocally terrifying.  I’m not quite sure what point we’re at in the game play, but I have to admit, I’m not really finding this frightening.  Lots of hand-wringing about What It Means to Be a Human and What it Means to Exist, which, frankly, does not really move me overmuch, at least not in the context of our fearless protagonist waxing melancholic (and very explicitly) about these issues.  And given the underwater setting, it’s basically a really, really mopey Bioshock.  Will update you all if any plot twists happen to blow my mind and make me see everything in a new light.

Any book suggestions for me?  Any new horror caught your eye?  Anyone ready to argue for the merits of Soma?  Lemme have it!

The Cultist

Well, so.

I’m still here, still reading away, still mired in the Weird as ever.  But obviously, I’ve been absolutely terrible at updating this site.

Why is that?

Half of it is the usual stuff: grad school, writing papers, and what I hope to God is an impending defense.

The other half is a little more interesting, and much more exciting*.  Every time I wrote a post critical of Lovecraftian work, every time I read a story and got frustrated, a little nagging voice at the back of my head would whisper, “If you’re such an expert, why don’t you write your own?”  Some of the time (if I had been particularly vitriolic), the little voice was snide.  Most of the time, though, it was just wistful.  I love the community of weird horror.  I love seeing writers talk back and forth to each other.  And I couldn’t shake the thought that I wanted to be a part of it, so badly.

And so, finally, around the time that I was getting hung up on Derleth and his MOTHERFUCKING water elementals, I decided to give it a shot.  So I wrote a story.  And then another.  And I haven’t really looked back from there.

Nothing has been published yet–I’ve gotten a bunch of form rejections, a couple of non-form rejections that were quite kind and encouraging, one shortlist then a no, one shortlist and still waiting.  But I’m writing.  And I don’t intend to stop.

But this takes time, obviously.  I don’t want to transform this blog into a LET ME FOIST EVERYTHING I’VE EVER WRITTEN THAT NO ONE ELSE WANTS TO READ ONTO YOU, MY BLOG READERS!!! shitshow.  Furthermore, I remain (as ever) dedicated to diving headfirst into quality Lovecraftian fiction and then speculating/raving/complaining about it.

So, I intend to start writing on this blog again, with the same focus and tone, on the same old M/W/F/S schedule.  But the pieces might be a little more cursory, a little more split-up.  I might talk a little bit about writing on occasion.  And if anything does get published, I’ll let you know.

It’s good to be back.

Also, for those of you keeping track at home, my Cthulhu steins did arrive.  They are, indeed, wonderful.

The Cultist

*To me.

I would like to begin this post with the story of a shirt.

I tend not to buy clothes very much, but a few years ago, I decided to treat myself to a new t-shirt.  And, as everyone knows, one of the few perks of being a graduate student is the complete lack of anything resembling a dress code.  Hello yoga pants, hello shirts that may or may not have been washed in the recent past, and (most importantly), hello nerdy t-shirts that most everyone stops wearing mid-college!

I have a very, very large soft spot for nerdy t-shirts.  So, it was with great delight that I happened upon This, the Funniest T-Shirt in Existence.

innsmouth

So, of course I bought it.  And I put it on, knowing full well that it would go unnoticed by most people but knowing (in the cockles of my weird little heart) that surely, at least a handful of people would greet me with a giggle, a nod, or a “Fhtagn!”.  I mentally reminded myself not to be put off by random strangers interacting with me, because that’s a well-accepted risk of wearing a T-shirt that was, to be frank, unbelievably hysterical.

Well.

99.9% of people either did not comment or asked me about being on the swim team in high school.

.1% of people, and by .1% I mean one very specific person, thought it was a blow job joke.  When I asked him to explain, he told me it was like, you know, Innsmouth–in your mouth, right?

And it was instances like this that led to the creation of this blog, because A) my thoughts and feelings about Lovecraft tend to fall on baffled ears in everyday life, and I needed an outlet and B) Lovecraft is clearly dangerously under-appreciated in modern society, and this is my two cents toward rectifying that.

But anyway.  Why Innsmouth?

I just got back from two much-needed trips, and am now feeling about as refreshed and relaxed as a grad student can ever hope to feel.  I’m almost finished with Shadows over Innsmouth and Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, both edited by Stephen Jones. It’s a standard Lovecraft mythos mix: some very by-the-book and traditional, a handful that made you scratch your head and wonder if the authors had read beyond the first few paragraphs of the original*, a few that were deeply unusual and inspired.

The first volume contained the complete The Shadow over Innsmouth, and the second contained unpublished notes from an initial version.  I hadn’t read the original in years, so I was eager for the chance to go over it again.  On the whole, I have to say…not super-impressing.  Spoilers ahead, but it was published in 1931, so I think the statute of limitations is up:

-I was deeply entertained by the regional clerk who describes the residents of Innsmouth for the first time: he explains that everyone’s negative reaction to the Innsmouth natives is mostly borne of “race prejudice”, but that’s totally okay, because he shares the same feeling.

-My favorite part of the story was definitely Zadok Allen’s narration of the legends of Captain Marsh.  It was the most effective part of the story: original, creepy, and a nice resolution to the mystery of the blight that had fallen on the city half a century before.

-That being said, I was not ready for that little “Have you ever seen a Shoggoth?” throwaway line.  Although–interestingly enough, The Shadow over Innsmouth predates At the Mountains of Madness by 6 or 7 months…I wonder if he wanted to make the shoggoths a regular addition to his cannon, but never really wound up exploring it beyond that.  I suppose it was supposed to fill me with a feeling of mystery and horror, but instead I just kind of wound up wondering where in the name of everything unholy the Deep Ones had acquired a shoggoth, and for what purpose.  (Apparently, modern mythos writers think as I do: there was nary a shoggoth to be found in either volume.)

-Wikipedia describes The Shadow over Innsmouth as being unusual for Lovecraft, as it contains a lengthy and effective action sequence.  I would describe the “unusual” and “lengthy” descriptors as accurate, but effective?…goddamn, his escape from from the Gilman House and Innsmouth seemed like it took years to explain.  I found myself unintentionally skimming, because (like all first-person narrations written down after the fact), I mean, come on…there’s no way he’s not making it out alive.  And every interminable scene was very methodical, and no directional detail got lost in his re-telling.

-One thing that struck me as (unintentionally) off-putting and weird: by the end of the narration, he’s come to the conclusion that someday, he will join his ancestors in Y’ha-nthlei.  But from the very beginning of his tale, he admits that he’s the one responsible for bringing about the genocide and dynamiting of Devil’s Reef–and in his revelation, he shows no remorse or shame in his actions.  There’s no real internal conflict (apart from some initial horror and waffling over the transformation), just a dream in which one of his ancestors notes that he will have to be punished for his misdeed, but it’ll be okay.  The character development lags behind the plot development, and it’s kind of strange to consider it as a whole.

So, on the whole–I wouldn’t say it’s one of his most astounding works.  But I do definitely have a new appreciation for why Lovecraftian writers have seized on the setting and characters he outlines: between ritualistic metamorphoses, strange oaths, decrepit backwater (but American!) coastal cities, and a genocide and cover-up ordered by the federal government, Lovecraft created a remarkably fertile weird environment for the modern writer.

The Cultist

*I’m thinking mainly of the one that described Deep Ones as having a lizard head and a translucent, worm-like body.

 

Back from a sunburned country just in time for a committee meeting, so the longer posts will have to wait for another few days.  But in the meantime, I thought you might get a kick out of the life-sized sculpture of H.P. Lovecraft that Guillermo del Toro keeps in his house, because of course he has one and of course he does:

HP Lovecraft

Dang.

The Cultist

As grad school ebbs and flows (it’s pretty much all ebbing, at this point), I tend to fall into treat yo’self mode pretty hard.

treat yo self

Except for, you know, I’m a not-very fashionable nerd with limited social skills.  So what sort of thing tickles my fancy?

Sweets, books, and shit like this.  I present to you Lovecraft-inspired bottles.

bottle 1

Ooh yeah.

bottle 2

I don’t even know what I’d do with them, but man.  So nice!

The Cultist

 

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a PhD student in the fall of (what I hope to God to be) my final year.  There are currently three big hurdles to my defense:

  1. Convincing my committee that I can publish a first-author paper by May-June 2016
  2. Actually writing the damn first-author paper and convincing my PI to publish it
  3. Writing the actual dissertation (lol, you know, that thing?  My thesis?)

Which is all well and good, and if it’s not all well and good it’s an unavoidable part of the PhD process, but this is just a long-winded way of saying that I’m currently in the quagmire of hurdle #1.  I have a committee meeting November 23rd, which seems like a good distance away–except that I’m leaving for a conference on the 12th and get back the 19th (at which point I will be hideously jetlagged), so functionally I have very little time to prep things.  Which is a still long-winded way of saying: No long posts in the immediate future.  Mostly links and random thoughts on horror.

I’m still thinking about horror, believe me!  I’m in the middle of The Girl with All the Gifts, and while I’m not usually one for zombie fiction, it’s written well enough that I’m enjoying it immensely.  In anticipation of the conference and the flights that come with it, I’ve ordered both Shadows over Innsmouth and Weird Shadows over Innsmouth.  And I have, like, 4 volumes of Caitlin Kiernan’s short stories.  I will be in good shape, I promise.

But yes, in the meantime, I wanted to bring your attention to Junji Ito.  I don’t read manga at all, but I make a major exception for Junji Ito.

Lovecraft ItoWhile I wouldn’t describe Junji Ito’s work as blatantly Lovecraftian (although The Thing that Drifted to Shore captures the sheer horror of the sea in ways that Cthulhu and the Deep Ones could never do for me), he creates a sense of bleak loneliness and the notion of inescapable destruction that haunts you for days.

This is a good place to start: and yes, I know it’s not cool to pirate, translations for pretty much everything he’s done are available online.  (Incidentally, the Human Chair was based on a 1925 short story…how cool is that?)

snail

It’s definitely worth checking out: I think The Enigma of Amigara Fault is probably his most famous in America, but nearly everything I’ve read of his I’ve enjoyed.  And by enjoyed I mean “found horrifically depressing, vivid, and disturbing”, but for good cultists, it’s pretty much po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

-The Cultist

Today: An essay about the modern relevance of H.P. Lovecraft, written by someone who is probably much better informed than I am!

colour

The Cultist