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Category Archives: Modern mythos fiction

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.

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

Sorry I’m late (something something figures for paper, something something conference coming up, something something OH MY GOD HOW IS MY COMMITTEE MEETING IN LESS THAN A MONTH I NEED TO DEFEND AND GET OUT OF HERE, etc.)!  But I assure you, I have not been idle.  When not frantically teaching myself Adobe Illustrator and trying to replicate 10-year-old experiments (yeah…not so much), I’ve been reading and attempting to watch as much horror as I can handle.  Today, I’d like to tell you about Event Horizon, a movie I started to watch, freaked out about badly, tried to continue to watch, gave up, retreated, and looked up plot points on Wikipedia/IMDB and key scenes on Youtube.

Before I get any further: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS in this post, spoilers abound, I will not cut because everything would be cut, because this entire damn thing is just one big SPOILER.  If you do not want Event Horizon SPOILED SPOILED SPOILED, you should look at this adorable lizards in adorable little outfits, and then you should read something else.

lizard 2SO MAJESTIC!

lizard 1(Both of these are from Holy Mountain.  Seriously, how can you not love this movie?)

Anyway, so.  Event Horizon.  Never have I watched a movie with such terrible CG that has upset me so badly*.  (Belated note to animation team: Yes, I know that you wanted to show the abandonment of life and the cessation of normal daily activities by showing frozen items floating idly in zero G.  You intended to create a powerful sense of desolation and horror.  It was a noble endeavor, but my sole reaction was a powerful sense of “That is the fakest can/watch/piece of clothing I have ever seen”.)

From a superficial perspective, it might seem surprising that I consider Event Horizon to be a perfect encapsulation of modern Lovecraftian horror.  Event Horizon is a nominally sci-fi horror movie about Hell.  And I do mean that literally–not just extreme discomfort or unpleasantness, not even a sort of Gary Larson-esque landscape replete with flames and moderately bored devils

Larson hell

Hell is the worse thing you can imagine.  Hell is physical pain beyond imagining, but more importantly, every regret you’ve ever lived and tried to move past thrown in your face relentlessly, for eternity.  Hell is all things evil.

Evil, Hell–these are words that a Lovecraft fan should react to with unease.  There’s no arguing that it’s effective horror, but it’s the complete opposite of the indifferent cosmos that Lovecraft creates.  A force that creates a special, personalized inferno that you and only you will respond to–that’s the definition of care and attention, albeit in a twisted, remarkably disturbing way.

Over and over again, characters in Event Horizon talk about Hell.  Their personal Hell.  The existence of Hell.  A dimension of pure chaos and evil.  It’s the antithesis of Lovecraft.

Right?

I would argue Event Horizon is not a thin veneer of sci-fi masking a gooey center of horror.  I would argue that it is is pure sci-fi–but sci-fi precisely as Lovecraft would have imagined it, not as we’re primed to recongize it.

The main characters in the film are Cowboy Curtis (if you’re slightly older than me)/Morpheus (if you’re my age) as the intrepid captain and that guy from Jurassic Park as a scientist.  They’re in search of the Event Horizon, a ship the scientist designed to test an experimental gravity drive that would enable ships to move faster than the speed of life.  But a distress signal was dispatched, and it’s now up to the crew to figure out what happened.

A lot, as it turns out.

Immediately upon arrival, there’s clear evidence of a massacre.  And by that I mean body parts floating around, mostly.  Blood everywhere.

And here’s where the first hint of Lovecraft shines through.  There’s a lot of hand-waving about how this gravity drive works (it creates a black hole, which I imagine was a moderate surprise to everyone but physicists and other people familiar with the term Event Horizon), but one thing immediately becomes clear: a portal was opened into another dimension.  And the scientist has NO IDEA what or where that dimension was.

Blithe forays into different dimensions in the name of science, activation of novel and tremendously powerful scientific devices or artifacts without full understanding of what they’ll do…From Beyond is the most striking manifestation of this theme, but it’s not the only one, not by a very long shot.

But what happened?  The gravity drive was activated, a portal was opened.  Something came through.  Something was experienced, and all humans that came into contact with experienced dreadful, personal hallucinations and were summarily destroyed in what Wikipedia describes somewhat quaintly as a “blood orgy”.  Was it truly a portal to Hell?

Maybe.  It’s possible we’re supposed to suspend disbelief even more than usual and just assume that the good ship stumbled into a parallel universe that is Evil with a capital E, one that PRECISELY matches all our conceptions about hell.

Is that likely?  I don’t think so.  And I think Event Horizon is a great film because it captures the human reaction to the unknowable (yes, I must say it) far, far better than Lovecraft did.  What do humans do if they’re faced with something that their minds cannot expand to comprehend and cannot dismiss or ignore?  It’s hard to believe that the experience would be anything other than sheer horror.  But…if they’re in a Lovecraft story, they’re packed up neatly into a padded cell, where they spend their days alternating between sitting quietly and babbling on about non-Euclidean geometry.

What would happen in real life?  The first crewman to experience the gravity drive attempts to kill himself, telling the others that the dimension had shown him “the dark inside of him”. I think it’s much more likely that the incomprehensible capital-W Whatever he experienced punctured his understanding of the world, leaving a void that struck his conscious/subconscious brain as so wrong that he filled with the worst thing it could conceive.  He created his own hell, and it was more than enough.

It must be mentioned that, as much as I like this movie, the crew’s general conceptions of Hell/Absolute Evil look AN AWFUL LOT like literally the entirety of Hellraiser, which is delightfully Lovecraftian in its own right.

big puzzle box

That is a damn big puzzle box

barbed wire

Pinhead: “We have such sights to show you.”

Woman from Event Horizon: “I have such wonderful, wonderful things to show you.”

But, you know, Hellraiser came out in 1987, and the shenanigans aboard the Event Horizon take place in 2047.  Perhaps the images of Hellraiser, at this point, were fully embedded in the collective identity of humanity at that point.

The Cultist

 

*Other than The Phantom Menace.  *Ba-dump tish*

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

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!

 

 

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.

Despite the issues I raised in the last post, Innsmouth and Deep One mythos fiction can be done extraordinarily well.  Some of my favorite mythos fiction revolves around that strange, backwater town, and I’ll mention a few of them here.  No cuts, because I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can.  (The stories I’ll reference today come from a handful of anthologies, but if you’re looking for one to try out, The Book of Cthulhu is extraordinary.  I haven’t read Shadows over Innsmouth yet, but it makes me hopeful and is probably next on my list.)

“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, by John Hornor Jacobs: Like the ukiyo-e print that inspired its name (no, I will not link to it here, and if you choose to Google that at work be prepared to explain to your boss that it’s a valid and extremely historically significant piece of art rather than the frank depiction of bestiality that it appears to be), this extremely brief story, set in a modern tourist-oriented beach town, combines the erotic and the disturbing in the most alluring way possible.  (And it’s one of the most interesting takes on the sacred Oaths of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that I’ve ever encountered.)

“Boojum” and “Mongoose”, by Elizabeth Bear:  I know Elizabeth Bear like the lepidopterists of yore probably felt they knew Vladimir Nabokov: they applauded him for a handful of highly specific, specialized exploits (he was only an amateur entomologist, but was dedicated and knowledgeable to the point where he described several new species of butterfly), while being only vaguely aware that he did something else for his main line of work, something about novels?  Didn’t he write something about a young girl that got him a lot of attention?  Which is to say, I’m kind of…sort of…aware that Elizabeth Bear is kind of a big deal in the land of sci-fi…or something…did she win a Hugo or something like that?  Those are important, right?

http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/sf-squeecast-wins-2013-hugo/

Those things that they’re holding are Hugo awards, right?

But anyway, I only know her from the Lovecraftian-inspired universe she created in “Boojum” and “Mongoose” (and also the alternate-history narrative of “Shoggoths in Bloom”, HOLY CRAP is that one good).  The former is a sci-fi take on the Mi-Go, the latter deals with the Hounds of Tindaloos.  But the incorporation of the traditional Lovecraft characters into the realm of space travel is seamless and endlessly interesting.  They’re never at the forefront of the action, just another inhabitant of deep space occasionally , but the bulging-eyed, vaguely amphibious Gillies are a far cry from the stereotyped fishy residents of Innsmouth.

So…this Elizabeth Bear, she’s pretty darn good at modern weird fiction.  Did she write anything else worth reading?

“The Doom that Came to Innsmouth”, by Brian McNaughton: “The Doom that Came to Innsmouth” is definitely my favorite Deep One piece of all time.  That may change as I read more, you never know, but it’s extremely hard to top.  The narrator is a descendant of the Innsmouth inhabitants come back to visit his old town, now a hollowed-out shell due to government intervention.  There are whispers of a holocaust, whispers of research-related atrocities…and now, to make amends, the government is offering reparations to anyone who can prove they share Innsmouth blood.  With his bald head and bulging eyes, the protagonist assumes he’s a shoe-in, and makes his way to an outlying research station.  Because it’s known that the narrator is a member of the clan, seasoned readers are stripped of their expectations and are forced to enter an alternative Lovecraft existence without any preparation whatsoever.  The ending kicked me in the gut, and, having read as much mythos fiction as I have, that’s rare to the point of being remarkable anymore.

The Cultist

 

First of all, sorry about missing the Monday post.  I have no excuses.  But I’m back now!  And I’m here to whine about stuff again!

Specifically, I’m here to kick off my new series: Problems in Lovecraftian fiction!  (Or, more informally, Things in mythos fiction that drive me up the fucking wall, and what can be done about them.)

I’m not trying to be a total jerk about it. World-building in fantasy and sci-fi is hard, but on some level, I think that utilizing the world and characters of another writer can be harder. Creating something new within pre-established boundaries results in numerous pitfalls that can (and do) trap even the best writers. So, in this series, I’ll be discussing a handful of what I think are the most common issues that reduce the appeal of modern Lovecraftian fiction—by highlighting both stories that fall prey to these problems as well as stories that blaze new paths to avoid them, my goal is to ultimately come to a better understanding of what makes good horror.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I am highly specialized in modern weird fiction.  And, to be sure, specialization has many rewards, but I’ve found that with the rewards come unexpected trade-offs. As I read more and more Lovecraft/Lovecraft-inspired anthologies, I began to realize that stories that I would have loved unreservedly in the past were now inspiring a kind of dull frustration. To highlight what I mean, I ask you to examine the following phrases:

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

If you haven’t read much Lovecraft, you’ve probably sussed out that these traits are all describing a very specific, probably somewhat moist and amphibious character, but you don’t really see a problem beyond that (and thus you think I’m a huge snob). If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s works but don’t’ read a lot of mythos fiction, you’ve probably recognized these qualifiers as a way of characterizing an inhabitant of Innsmouth, but again, you don’t see what the big deal is (but here I am making a fuss, and therefore I am a huge snob). So, to be completely fair, I should clarify—I don’t mind these descriptors in and of themselves, but they can be easily problematic.

I feel a little guilty pointing this out, because the stories themselves are often fantastic and beautifully written—and it is truly a problem on the part of a very specific class of reader who knows too much through experience.  For example, take a few of the stories from The Book of Cthulhu. Here’s a line from the beginning of “Bad Sushi”, by Cherie Priest, as a chef catches a glimpse of the new delivery boy bringing a shipment of fish from a mysterious new seafood company:

He walked like a sea lion, with a gently lumbering gait—as if he might be more comfortable swimming than walking. His big, round eyes stared straight ahead as he made his deliveries.

So, while we’re surely intended to recognize the delivery boy as weird or off, he’s juuuust a little too familiar to the experienced mythos reader. And sometimes that’s okay, depending on where the story will go.  For example, if it takes place in Innsmouth, I think all bets are off, and it’s okay to describe the inhabitants as they are.  But if the story relies on surprise, like in the case of “Bad Sushi” (just who is behind this mysterious seafood company, anyway?), the punch is completely gone, and the dramatic buildup suffers terribly.

IMG_7018Innsmouth Bus Driver, by Casey Love

But herein lies one of the catch-22s of Lovecraft mythos fiction. Here I am whining about a rather blatant application of dramatic irony (*I* know these people aren’t fully human, but our fearless protagonist hasn’t got a clue! WHOA!) and, at worst, a complete spoiling of a surprise.

But can you really write mythos stories about Innsmouth that don’t involve a few of these qualifiers?  I can only imagine the tone my complaints would take then.  WTF, you know, this is Innsmouth, why is everyone just trotting around like everything is normal.  How were we supposed to know those were Deep Ones?  You can’t just spring that shit on us.   To be fair, this is a problem with short fiction in general, summarized neatly by Chekov’s gun, which I will write more about later: if you don’t drop enough hints at the beginning, the ending will be surprising in the most unsatisfying way possible. A crappy deus ex machina.

A prime example of Chekhov’s gun.  Except for not really.  Mostly I just love this sketch and was waiting for an opportunity to post it.

So, what can be done?  How can Innsmouth mythos fiction be written in a way that it’s approachable for the newcomer and yet still surprising and frightening to someone familiar with Lovecraft’s universe?  It is difficult, but by no means impossible.  And, more importantly, it’s unbelievably fantastic when the subject is handled well.  A handful of weird fiction authors have succeeded masterfully, and I’ll write about a few of my favorite examples on Friday.  Stay tuned!  (And if you have any personal favorites, feel free to add them to the comments!)

The Cultist

I’m not a game person.

the rapture is coming

I never was allowed to play video or computer games as a kid, so I don’t really have the hand-eye coordination or basic know-how to do so as an adult.  And for the most part, I’m fine with that.

rapture3

But sometimes a game comes along that I’m just desperate to play, and when that happens, I make one of my more skilled friends play it for me while I watch over their shoulder.

TRIHAYWBFRFYH-ss-1

I have very patient and wonderful friends.

The Rapture is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home is one such game.  Thankfully for them, it’s only 20 minutes long.

Buzzfeed (yes, I did find this on Buzzfeed, and no, I am not ashamed of this fact) wrote up a pretty good piece on it.  It’s visually striking but simple.  There’s no real goals, nothing to do.  It’s an exploratory game, and the premise is simple.  The world is ending in 20 minutes.  You have 20 minutes in which to walk around, and do whatever it is one might want to do in the last 20 minutes of the world.

For my money, the stark beauty, the growing oppressiveness, and the feeling of hopelessness encapsulate the best aspects of Lovecraftian horror.  I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the existential side of weird fiction.  If you’re all about the tentacled monstrosities and the protoplasmic jello…well, there’s none of that here.  But it’s only a 20-minute commitment, so I feel comfortable recommending it anyway.

The Cultist

P.S. Does anyone have any recommendations for weird horror games?  I’d love to check them out, and by check them out, I mean holler directions, commentary, and expletives over my husband’s shoulder as he makes his way through them.