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I have a somewhat informal and ill-defined mental system for ranking my preferred characteristics of horror fiction.  I like it when the unexpected happens, but I love it even more when the unexpected keeps happening and never, ever lets up.  (See “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet”, by Robert Shearman, one of my favorite horror stories of all time, or The Holy Mountain, which I have seen twice, understand not at all, and love with all of my heart.)

I like twists, but if you’ve read enough horror and are familiar enough with the genre, a good twist is hard to find, thanks to Chekhov’s gun and the internal rules (such that they are) of Lovecraft’s horror stories.  I prefer stories about lesser-known Lovecraftian deities over sucker-and-tentacle freak fests.  I don’t like regular books about war and politics, but I adore stories about war and politics superimposed over a Lovecraftian reality.  (“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear is a great example.)

But one of the rarest pleasures is a short story that unnerves without any explicit fright or departure from reality.  Everything seems as though it could happen, and the parts that seem less likely are still easily explained away.  Nevertheless, the world created by the author just seems off.  A bit torqued, slightly wrong, however you’d like to call it.  And all events–from the mundane to the horrific–seem inexorably tainted by this ill-defined offness.

I don’t quite know what to call it.  The corruption of the mundane?  Horrific realism?  It’s difficult to pin down, but I know it whenever I come across it, and it seems like one of the most difficult feats in horror writing to pull off.  Two examples in particular jump out at me–no spoiler cuts, because there’s nothing to spoil.

The Night Ocean”, by R.H. Barlow: I was trying to figure out why the name Barlow was familiar to me, and then I realized–he’s the fellow to whom Lovecraft dedicated his sketch of Cthulhu!I have no idea who he is, but I think this officially makes Barlow a BFD.

“The Night Ocean” is featured in The Horror in the Museum, a collection of stories that Lovecraft either ghost-wrote or edited heavily, so it’s not clear to me how much of the final product was Barlow’s and how much was Lovecraft’s.  It is a story about a man who rents a cottage on the ocean during the off-season.  That’s literally it.  No tentacles, no menacing inbred fish-faced people, no sense of danger, no ill-concealed threat.  But.  I’ve never had thalassophobia, but the shifting nature of the ocean–its moods, its secrets–is captured in such a vivid way that I’ve never quite looked at the sea in the same way.

There were drownings at the beach that year; and while I heard of these only casually (such is our indifference to a death which does not concern us, and to which we are not witness), I know that their details were unsavory.  The people who died–some of them swimmers of a skill beyond the average–were sometimes not found until many days had elapsed, and the hideous vengeance of the deep had scourged their rotten bodies.  It was as if the sea had dragged them into a chasm-lair, and had mulled them about in the darkness until, satisfied that they were no longer of any use, she had floated them ashore in a ghastly state.”

“Rotterdam”, by Nicholas Royle: There’s more plot to this story than “The Night Ocean”, but not by much.  A man is scouting Rotterdam for potential shooting locations for a film adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s stories.  He runs into the writer of the script, a man he views with both vague disdain and apprehension.  But what’s truly striking is not the palpable decrepitude of some of the areas he sees–that’s why the scout is there, after all–but the strange statues that pop up all over the city, a pop-up installation by the odd London artist Antony Gormley.  He creates cast-iron molds of himself, which appear seemingly at random throughout major metropolitan areas.

On the Westzeedijk, a boulevard heading east away from the city center, Joe came upon the Kunsthal: a glass-and-steel construction, the art gallery had a protruding metal deck on which were scattered more Gormley figures in different positions.  Lying flat, sitting down, bent double.  Inside the gallery, visible through the sheet-glass walls, were more figures striking a variety of poses.  Two faced each other through the plate glass, identical in all respects except height.

gormley

It would appear Antony Gormley is a real person. 

I did not know that.

Google searches inspired by horror stories are literally the only reason I have any semblance of culture whatsoever.

Anyway!  No one really comments on the figures–they’re accepted as a part of life–but they cast a weird shadow on everything.  When something terrible happens, when someone may or may not have given in to an uncharacteristic act of violence, there are no clear answers, but plenty of suspicions.  There’s reason at all why Lovecraft’s stories would be related to the bizarre, omnipresent figures–and there’s definitely no reason why the two of them together should have precipitated a bloody murder.  But as the story fades to a close with no real resolution, it’s hard not to try to draw the strings together.  Whether or not that’s a valid interpretation is entirely up to the reader.

The Cultist

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