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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Grad school may kill my free time, my peace of mind, my dignity, and my ability to talk about anything other than failed experiments at parties, but it can never touch my love of weird fiction.  (It’s not quite Braveheart, but it’s something, I suppose…)  Work has taken me offline for the past few weeks, but 3 of the 4 time-consuming talks that I’ve had to put together this fall are now concluded (and the 4th is almost here).  And so I am very pleased to say that regular posts on the W-F-Sa schedule will resume forthwith.

Also good news: I just gave the Madison Nerd Nite talk, which was recorded and will be posted in podcast form!  I’ll post the link as soon as I have it, so give it a listen if you want to hear me wax poetic about Hellraiser and say “fuck” a lot.  (Also give it a listen if you want to hear one of the most awkward interviews in the history of perhaps forever.  I haven’t given an interview since applying for MD/PhD programs, and as it turns out, once the script veers away from “Tell me about your research” and “How do you view the balance between science and medicine?”, I am laughably dead in the water.)

But it was a really fantastic talk–people had some great questions (and the ratio of drunken ridiculous questions to very good insightful questions was wonderfully low!), and afterward I got a LOT of tips for future reads.  (How had I never heard of the Neonomicon?)

If you’re new to this blog, feel free to check out the associated Facebook page: I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a little redundant, having a page on a website for another website, but no, I am not immune to the dopamine spike of another Facebook “like”, so go ahead and follow away!

So I’m very excited, and very happy to be back and blathering on about Lovecraft once more.  But it’s late, so right now I have only one thing left so say:

The Cultist

So, if you love a Miyazaki fan who’s also a Lovecraft fan but you don’t know what to get them for their birthday, there’s always this:

Cthulhu totoro

Yes, that is a Cthulhu-Totoro plush music box, available here on Etsy.

It plays “Killing me softly with his song”, because what else would it play?

The Cultist

Thanks to Clickhole and an anonymous acolyte for this link, and for reminding us all that even those of us whose genitals refute earthly geometry and would make a Hound of Tindaloos flee in terror are still sexual beings.

(Personally, I had always just assumed that your average adult penis typically rivaled the Lament Configuration in terms of sheer complexity and brain-bending horror…is that not the case?)

Hellraiserbox

I have such sights to show you…in my pants.

-The Cultist

Late today, sorry!

I went through a bunch of my favorite anthologies in anticipation of this post, but just like I discussed on Wednesday, my puny human brain with its pathetic heuristics failed me.  I’d remember a story I loved and think, “Ooooh, how evil!”  And then, paging through it, I’d find myself thinking, “Is this evil, or just really, really horrible?”  I think it’s fundamentally difficult to avoid interpreting threats to soundness of mind/body as necessarily malevolent.  I could probably make some comment on evolutionary biology, or the importance of social mores, or the philosophy of evil as a human construction…but I am a biology grad student, and my profound thinking pretty much boils down to “What can I add to these cells to make them stop doing this thing?  What can I add to make them do it even more?”  So I’ll spare you my deep thoughts, and for that, you should be grateful.

science!

An uncannily accurate representation of my first year of grad school, complete with the mirth of onlookers.

Instead, allow me to play to my strengths: going on and on about modern mythos fiction featuring themes of Legit Evil that you really ought to read.


The Cultist

First and foremost, a shameless plug for a talk I’m giving September 30th.  It should be crazy good fun…I promise lots of pictures and humorous anecdotes.  Also, I don’t actually drink, and I’m given free alcohol coupons by way of reimbursement…so I might just be able to spot you a beer if you show up!

Anyway.  I’ve been thinking a lot about evil in Lovecraftian horror stories because I’ve started reading Clark Ashton Smith.  (No, I haven’t yet finished The Cthulhu Mythos, yes, it was getting too painful, yes, I will finish it at some point…I swear.)  Smith writes a lot about evil–evil sorcerers, corruption in the church, necromancy, the worship of demons.  And yet I haven’t encountered anyone complaining about his incorporation of evil into the mythos the way that EVERYONE seems to hate on Derleth (myself included).

I almost double-majored in Contemporary Literature, but one introductory class made me floor it out of there.  (As it turns out, I am much better at enjoying books than I am at reading enough into the subtext to generate papers on the topic.)  I seldom regret this decision, but I can’t help but think that if I had stuck with my original plan, I’d be much more adept at explaining why the evil of Smith is so much more effective in the Lovecraftian cannon than the evil of Derleth.  But I’ll give it a shot anyway.

First of all, I categorically reject the notion that incorporating themes of evil into the Lovecraft cannon goes against Lovecraft’s original intentions.  My guess, however, would be that evil was a fundamentally human invention: there may be savage cults and witches and warlocks and those with intent to do harm or seek vengeance, but the cosmic entities they worship and struggle (in a usually futile attempt) to control exist outside our knowledge to the point where assigning them values of “good” or “evil” is almost humorous.  They are a means to an evil, human end.  I feel that this theme is very well represented in Lovecraft’s stories, and Clark Ashton Smith makes great use of it.

Second, and perhaps more divisively, I tend to believe that it’s not necessarily a grave violation for Lovecraftian characters (and, by extension, Lovecraftian readers) to interpret cosmic horrific entities as evil.  We’re as limited as the characters in the sense that our ability to interpret the universe is bound up in the same heuristics we use to make sense of everyday life.  And, in the context of Lovecraftian horror, those heuristics are absurdly limited.  This is why we react to Lovecraftian character’s abrupt descent into insanity with bemusement rather than horror.  For instance, how are we meant to interpret the end of At the Mountains of Madness*?

He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about “The black pit,” “the carven rim,” “the protoShoggoths,” “the windowless solids with five dimensions,” “the nameless cylinder,” “the elder Pharos,” “Yog-Sothoth,” “the primal white jelly,” “the color out of space,” “the wings,” “the eyes in darkness,” “the moon-ladder,” “the original, the eternal, the undying,” and other bizarre conceptions…

I’m not sure we’re meant to read this and be overcome with horror.  I think we’re supposed to read this and think, “…?”  My guess is that the disjointed phrases are supposed to emphasize how little we know and create a sense of general unease rather than abject terror.  Who knows.  Regardless, I think it’s an acceptable tendency for protagonists to assume that the monstrous, faceless entities that cause destruction and insanity wherever they shamble must be evil; it’s much easier to accept that such cosmic entities are deliberately malicious rather than completely indifferent.

So–wherein lies the difference between the evil of Smith and the evil of Derleth?

http://www.eldritchdark.com/galleries/by-cas/

For starters, the evil beings of Smith look creepy as shit.

Derleth’s evil cosmic entities have a tremendously human backstory.  The Great Old Ones are constantly entwined and embattled with each other: Tsathoggua hates Nyarlathotep, who happens to be Cthulhu’s half-brother.  They all got thrown out of paradise one day by the benevolent Elder Gods, and now they’re scattered across the universe in various cosmic prisons, each of them struggling to regain ascendance.

Struggling, I think, is the key word in that paragraph.  Derleth’s evil is not omnipotent.  It’s weak, it’s sneaking and striving for a chance to get a foothold.  To be fair, evil sneaking in the back door is very much an accepted, valid horror trope (see The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby).  But this rings extraordinarily false in the context of Lovecraft’s work: Great Cthulhu waits dead and dreaming, not gritting his teeth and wringing his tentacles and plotting revenge.  Cthulhu is worshiped, but one doesn’t get the sense that he’s infinitely grateful to his cultists for helping ease him back into power.  One gets the sense that he is hungry.

Compare that to Smith’s incarnations of evil.  In one of his short stories, Smith hypothesizes that there’s an element of pure evil in the universe–we as humans can only see it filtered through humanity, in petty instances of crime, hatefulness, and murder.  A devotee of evil–a traditional Lovecraftian cultist–decides to create a device in order to experience pure cosmic evil, and it goes about as well for him as it would for any cultist.  The sense of evil here is creepy (as is the devotion of someone who’s dedicated their life to worshiping evil), but I don’t think it’s the source of the horror.  The horror comes from the invocation of cosmic forces, which we are powerless to control.  Evil, in this case, didn’t come knocking on the back door looking for an entry: it was deliberately sought out, and the consequences of this incautious act were inevitable.

There’s a fantastic element to Smith that I quite enjoy–you don’t see it as much in modern mythos fiction.  There are evil emperors and sorcerers in control of fantastic, malign gardens and hideous labyrinths, all described in loving detail.   But beneath the poisonous flowers and contorted statures and acid baths, there’s the same sense of powerlessness: people try to fight the evil, to be sure, but evil always wins.  It’s not even really in question, despite the best and most sincere efforts of humanity.  Not a single one of the evil entities ever seem threatened by the angry do-gooders who confront them.

Evil can (and often does) fit seamlessly into Lovecraftian fiction, as long as it can co-exist with a sense of indifference and the ultimate powerlessness of humanity.  On Friday, I’ll talk about a handful of my favorite mythos stories that unabashedly incorporate themes of good versus evil.

The Cultist

*Beating a dead horse, I know.  I swear there’s a purpose to this, though!

 

 

I have to admit: While I’m a big fan of graphic novels, my repertoire is very sorely limited.  (I’m working on it, I really am!)  So I had never heard of Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows.  But I found this interview extremely interesting, and I’ll definitely be checking out this comic in the future.

Providence04-pantheon-600x928

I also learned that Alan Moore has plushy Cthulhu Slippers, which is a delightful mental image.

The Cultist

Insanity is central (if arguably not always essential) to true Lovecraftian horror.  But it’s really tough to incorporate it smoothly.  The protagonist is too lucid, the purportedly unthinkable seems rather logical and quite thinkable (looking at you, Derleth), or the onset of insanity is just a little too sudden and convenient.  (Protagonists frequently lose their minds right at the moment the author needs to deliver the punchline, I’ve discovered.  See “In the Plain of Sound”, by Ramsey Campbell…actually, see if you can get this anthology from a library, it’s one of the less impressive ones I’ve read.)

And maybe it’s a matter of taste.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who would argue with me until the end of time that the conclusion of At the Mountains of Madness was both necessary and terrifying.  (And because this is my blog, and because as a grad student the control I exert over my environment is so precious and limited, I will say: They are dead wrong, but I acknowledge their right to be dead wrong.)  But to me, the traditions I talked about on Wednesday just seem so…tired.

But here’s the thing about weird fiction.  Insanity is not tired.  Insanity is raving and howling and all-consuming, either the product of unspeakable knowledge or our sad attempt to protect ourselves against the futility and meaninglessness of human life.  Insanity should roar!

So the loss of one’s mind can be done well in mythos fiction, and it’s important and fascinating enough that it should be done well.  Here are a few of my favorite examples (spoilers assiduously avoided, but I’ll provide cuts nonetheless):


It's more or less like this, yeah

It’s more or less like this, yeah


The Cultist

 

*Poe wrote on both, both produce notes (but they’re flat), neither is ever approached without caws…so on, and so forth

Feel free to listen to listen to the following while reading this post:

Yep, it’s yet another installment of “Things that irritate the Cultist about modern mythos fiction”, except for I can’t fully place the blame on post-Lovecraft writers. Lovecraft himself started this particular trend*, and by god, I just don’t like it.  Not one bit.

The trend I refer to is the depressing tendency for a huge number of Lovecraftian stories to invoke one of the following tropes:

  1. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he is in fact in an insane asylum, and can’t get anyone to believe a word of his story, despite the odd, potentially supernatural, clearly unusual nature of his infraction.
  2. Alternatively, the story begins with the narrator fretting about how he will surely be locked up in an insane asylum once he puts this story to paper, so unbelievable is the tale he is about to tell you.
  3. The narrator is fine, but he isn’t at the center of the story he just told you–the brunt of the horrible, terrible, unthinkable experience fell upon his close friend or relative, who now wastes away in an insane asylum.
  4. A whole bunch of things happened that were creepy and amazing and impressive and delightful to read about, and then at the very last minute, literally in the last two or three paragraphs, something happened that drove someone absolutely insane (and they are now in an insane asylum).  No one is quite sure what that something is, because the insane fellow can’t manage to string a coherent sentence together.  (I’m looking at you, At the Mountains of Madness.)

I’m not trying to insinuate that the loss of sanity isn’t an important component of a lot of mythos fiction–the bleak, impossibly vast nature of the cosmic entities (along with a sense of humanity’s complete powerlessness) combine to make madness inviting, far more preferable to the alternative**.  But…I have weird suspension of disbelief issues.  Which is not to say that I have trouble suspending disbelief, but rather that tiny details succeed in kicking me out of the warm glow of fantasy/sci-fi/horror.

Which is to say: If you act normal, behave normally, can put together a coherent/logical/convincing (if bizarre) story, command respect, and are a member of the academic elite (as so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists are), I find it very, VERY hard to believe that EVERYONE will immediately shun you the moment you step forward with your weird, unbelievable tale, let alone make a discrete call to the doctor who will trundle in the white coats and sippy cups at a moment’s notice.  (Seriously, is this how psychiatry worked in the early 20th century?)

Which is also to say: Even if someone is acting weird and/or criminal (for instance, if he just randomly shot his best friend) BUT there’s also something extremely strange about the case (let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the putrefying corpse of his best friend’s wife has randomly shown up on the presumed-insane individual’s doorstop, with no sign of human intervention), I find it extremely hard to believe that literally no one would think about the case beyond, “Whelp, that was weird!  A truly strange coincidence that happens to align with your bewildering story perfectly!  Hope the food in the asylum isn’t too bad!”

Which is very seriously to say: There is literally NOTHING more disappointing than ending a story with “And then someone saw something SO BAD that it immediately drove him insane, but we have no idea what it was.  Whelp.  The end!”

(I’m not joking, not even a little bit.  Come up with a worse ending than that.  I challenge you.)

At_the_Mountains_of_Madness_-image002

I’m also not trying to say that incorporating the need for (or inevitability of) insanity is simple.  It’s very hard to tell a first-person narrative of insanity that straddles the line between coherency/disbelief and incoherence/verisimilitude.  I think it’s well worth the effort, though–when the balance is perfect, the uneasy feeling it creates is second-to-none.  Furthermore, I don’t necessarily think that a sight or experience that results in insanity necessarily mandates a clear, easy-to-visualize description.  It just absolutely shouldn’t be the last-minute twist to a story.  (Do I seem a little hung up on At the Mountains of Madness?  Maybe a bit.  I read it when I was 15 or 16, and I STILL remember that moment of letdown at the end.)

While “The Repairer of Reputations” definitely stands out as featuring a superb unreliable narrator, I think that insanity in general has been handled much more masterfully by modern writers.  The stories I’ll talk about on Friday showcase some of the most impressive improvements on the original source.

The Cultist

* I think he started it?  Maybe?  I’ve got an anthology of Lovecraft’s favorite horror writers I’ve been meaning to read, so when I’m finished with that I may be able to make a more educated case, but right now the only Lovecraft predecessor I can think of who pulled out the “I’m so utterly INSANE!” stops was Robert W. Chambers, who noted in the afterward to “The Repairer of Reputations” that the narrator died in an insane asylum.  I’m reasonable okay with this.

**To quote Captain Ahab:

Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmy; sanely woeful to me. In no paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?

***Wellllll…I heard a rumor that not only was Guillermo del Toro was going to make the story into a movie, but that Cthulhu would show up. Everything happening + Cthulhu randomly showing up at the end and driving the one guy who saw him insane=Possibly a more disappointing ending. Possibly.