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Category Archives: Modern mythos fiction

H.P. Lovecraft would have turned 125 yesterday, and as such, the internet was chock-full of interesting stuff.  So, in lieu of the ordinary essay, I figured I’d show you all the best of what I found!

First, there’s this song by the Mountain Goats, about a man living in a big city beset by loneliness, confusion, and anxiety who finds himself relating to Lovecraft’s year-long exile to NYC:

Then, I happened across this compilation of Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers.  Some of it didn’t quite speak to me (study the King James bible?), some of it did (please, for the love of god, stop using nouns for verbs, everyone–he said/she said/they said will always work beautifully), but all of the tips and tricks give really interesting insight into how he created his stories–from the careful outlining to the use of unusual vocabulary with care.  (Care needed not because he was concerned about alienating his readers, but simply because it’s easy to use unusual words incorrectly, and that simply would not do.)

Relatedly, here’s the original outline for At the Mountains of Madness!

MadnessPlotOutlineFinal.jpg.CROP.article920-large

I posted this to the Facebook page yesterday, but in case you missed it, here’s a Lovecraftian alphabet.  (Bonus nerd points if you watch it for the first time with the sound off to see how many you can identify.)

…okay, I will admit, I didn’t actually read this one (and I likely will not), but it contains all sorts of…links…and stuff…for those of you who might be…interested in this sort of thing: The Posthumous Pornification of H.P. Lovecraft

(Without reading it whatsoever, I would just like to say: I blame hentai.  Hentai is that which wrought this.)

Lovecraft’s stories are always good to read on your own, but they have potential to be mind-blowing if read out loud.  Check out this playlist for some good examples (although I’m certain there’s plenty more floating around the internet that I just haven’t found yet).

And lastly, if you didn’t celebrate enough yesterday, here’s a fine list of fun suggestions to honor the man this weekend.

Happy birthday, H.P.L!

The Cultist

One of the things that I love the most about modern mythos stories is their sheer creativity. I am not a purist in any sense of the word. I’m much less impressed by stories that replicate Lovecraft’s tone and structure perfectly than stories that toss elements of his fiction into the most unlikely settings and somehow—how?—make it work. The weirder the premise, the more intrigued I am. A detective story and tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle in a world where Queen Victoria is an elder god?  Amazing.  A history of the Cold War in which the USSR and USA struggle to weaponize the technologies and powers written about in the Necronomicon? It’s one of the bleakest, realest stories I’ve ever read. And while I can be critical, I do try to keep a lid on my own judgment unless I’m explicitly reviewing a book or story—I’m certain that half of the stories that I hold closest to my heart would make a serious Lovecraft scholar vomit, so who am I to roll my eyes at something that might be just as dear to another cultist?

In summary: I started this blog to celebrate weird fiction, not to shit on it.

But, you guys.

I just read the worst piece of Lovecraftian fiction ever written. The. Worst.

And ordinarily, I would just keep this to myself, because I aspire (in general) to not be a complete asshole, either by ruining works of fiction by picking them apart or insulting authors who love this genre as much as I do, but ultimately I decided to write this post for three reasons:

  • The work was published in 1949, so I’m well past any risk of spoilery.
  • The author died in 1966, so I’m doing nothing to discourage or insult an active writer.
  • It is so sincere in tone and so astoundingly bad in content that it has brought me tremendous, unironic joy, and I wish to share it with you.

 

I won’t hold you in suspense any longer. The worst piece of Lovecraftian fiction in existence is “The Final War”, by David H. Keller. It’s a very short piece, but I promise you, it will linger in your mind long after you’ve closed the book, or thrown it across the room in disbelief or disgust.

A brief biographical note, derived entirely from Wikipedia: David H. Keller was a practicing psychiatrist who wrote for pulp magazines under a variety of pseudonyms. As per a sci-fi historian: “Keller’s conceptual inventiveness, and his cultural gloom, are worth more attention than they have received; it is also clear that he fatally scanted the actual craft of writing, and that therefore he is likely never to be fully appreciated”. (Read: creative enough, dreary enough, but a crap writer.) He was something of an early Lovecraft historian, as he was apparently the first to posit the “influential but wrong” hypothesis that Lovecraft inherited syphilis from his parents.

This last bit is the part that boggles my mind. He loved Lovecraft, he clearly appreciated the man, and yet “The Final War” reads like a short story by an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic who once heard the name “Cthulhu” and thought it sounded cool.

“The Final War”, by David H. Keller, MD: A synopsis

A scholar sits alone in his library, reading a grimoire* bound in the tanned skin of some unfortunate sacrifice. He learns of hideous interplanetary beings, of cold, fungus-laden worlds, of “living things with shapes that could only be imagined by the opium eater”. He becomes horrified as he learns of the doom that will soon claim all of Earth.

And then he learns of Great Cthulhu.

You know about Cthulhu, right? No, you don’t.

Oh really? Well did you know that Great Cthulhu currently rules Saturn, after enslaving the beautiful men and women of Venus, forcing the brilliant scientists of Mercury to create technological atrocities, and forcing the armies of Mars into battle on his behalf?

marvin martian

You have defied the Great Cthulhu.  This makes me very angry, very angry indeed.

But you know what he looks like, surely. A winged squid? A many tentacled and taloned beast? What the hell are you smoking?

Cthulhu has many shapes but usually assumes that of a gigantic toad, with hypnotic eyes, poisoned claws, and an intelligence which defies earthly mind to understand.

Wait…wait…

hypnotoad

But if his mere appearance isn’t terrifying enough, Cthulhu will attack with “spaceships, mechanical armies, poisons and obscene weapons”. You know, as he does. But—what if we’re somehow able to route his technological horrors? Don’t think Cthulhu’s tricks end there, dear reader:

If all these fail, he will, in the end, transform himself into a beautiful woman, and, thru [sic] her seductive beauty enslave and torture their souls.

Yep.

Darn tootin’.

But! Earth is doomed. Perhaps not quite in the manner that Lovecraft envisioned, but doomed nonetheless. But do these heroic men give up? Do they curl into the fetal position and wail and whimper at the infinite blackness lying just outside their consciousness. Or, more realistically, does everyone shrug and ignore the one poor Cassandra who knows the truth, going about their daily business until suddenly they’re swept into the cold, warty clutches of the OverToad?

No! They do not! Everyone listens to this man with the skin-book, and within hours, the world is at work! The UN erects an experimental laboratory! Astronomers scan the skies for spaceships! Biologists prepare anti-serums against potential biological threats, which, coming from Saturn, surely is close enough to the threats we face on earth that we could prepare for it. (And you thought the Independence Day OS issue was bad enough.) So…we prepare, and wait. And Cthulhu does not disappoint.

“I will destroy their cities!” Cthulhu boasted to the lesser Gods. “I will make their earth a waste place. Finally, in their despair they will lose the power to resist and will seek only death, not realizing that I will take their souls and torture them in many obscene ways thru [sic] an eternity of years.”

Cthulhu, it appears, is a bit of a dick.

And this is no idle brag—he has prepared a space ship, and is sparing no expense.

At the appointed time, he went to the tube which housed the ship and for the last time went over every detail of its construction. Once again he correctly charted its course so that it would land in the rich corn belts of the United States.

Shit. It’s heading right for us! To the Midwest! I’m impressed that he’s so detail-oriented, honestly…I hadn’t really known Cthulhu to do anything more than sleep, destroy minds with his incomprehensibility, and inspire deadly cults intent on honoring him. He’s a very Type A Lovecraftian abomination.

But fear not, dear reader. We are prepared. Many die in the atrocious, very-much-like-War-of-the-Worlds war that followed, but we prevail! But Cthulhu does not give up easily. Do you know what he does next, to enslave our minds and torment man? If you’ve read any Lovecraft mythology whatsoever, I bet you do. As per pretty much every Cthulhu mythos story in existence, he lands on earth, splits into a male and a female, impregnates himself, and gives birth to a beautiful woman.

Duh.

What on earth will we do? How will we survive the onslaught of this very beautiful woman? Fear not, I say again. The scholar knew that this was coming, and he devised a plan. A cunning counter-strategy, an inescapable trap. As the woman makes her way from the desert in which she landed, she is confronted with a strange sight:

Suddenly the Woman saw a gigantic hand rearing out of the sandy desert. It was a very masculine hand with short, stubby, powerful fingers. The back was covered with hair; the palm was soft.

“What a beautiful hand!” exclaimed the Woman. “I could rest in that hand while the fingertips caress my lovely body”. She crawled into the hand and cuddled on the soft palm.

“Love me, you wonderful, masculine hand,” she commanded.

The fingers and thumb closed on her, slowly crushing her to death.

The end.

SONY DSC

My hero

If this was written with an ounce of irony, a trace of mockery, I think I would have thought much less about this work. BUT IT’S NOT. The author is so clearly sincere and genuine that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I haven’t been able to get it out of my skull for two weeks now. It’s still bothering me. I don’t know that it’ll ever stop.

…so actually, maybe this is the best Lovecraftian piece ever written.

I’ll end this post with a challenge: Has anyone encountered a piece of Lovecraftian fiction—whether that be video game, short story, novel, or movie—worse than this? Comment away, I’m a glutton for punishment.

The Cultist

 

*A textbook of magic, pronounced “grim-war”. Not trying to be a jerk, I didn’t know that word either before I started writing this post.

 

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I read both The Andromeda Strain (purchased, if I recall correctly, at a book fair) and The Hot Zone (brought to a family reunion and abandoned by a unknown relative). Now, don’t get me wrong: I was not a brilliant child. HUGE swathes of both books completely evaded me—I think I just unconsciously skipped over everything I didn’t understand. But, to this day, I can’t quite pry either book out of my brain:

The Andromeda Strain: A perturbed 10-year-old’s summary

  1. All your blood will clot instantly.
  2. Everyone in the small town where it originates either dies in seconds or kills themselves in bizarrely elaborate ways.
  3. They cut into one guy’s heart and chunks of spongy blood fell out.
  4. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen in real life.

 

The Hot Zone: An increasingly terrified and despondent 10-year-old’s summary

  1. It’s real. This really happened
  2. The guy on the plane threw up what looked like coffee grounds and then his intestinal lining sloughs off.
  3. Sometimes your testicles swell up and get rotten.
  4. We are all going to die of Ebola.

(Yes, during the Great U.S. Ebola Panic of 2014-15, my parents did congratulate me for being ahead of my time.)

So, this exposure (har!) had three major consequences:

  • It turned me into a life-long hypochondriac
  • It kick-started my interest in medicine and health (although try working that seamlessly that into a graduate or medical school essay)
  • It sowed the seeds that would become my full-blown love of body horror*

 

I would define body horror rather loosely (“Anything that really squicks you out”), although I’m sure there are much better and much more formal definitions**. And, for reasons that may be at least somewhat obvious, I particularly like the horror of contagion. (If you want a fantastic example of this, check out The Best Horror of the Year Vol 2, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an amazing anthology, and one of the first stories—and neither Google nor Amazon is particularly helping me out here with title or author—is a very modern take on the Masque of the Red Death in the most satisfying possible way.)

Initially, when I started to write this post, I didn’t think that it would be possible to find good examples of body horror in Lovecraft’s work. I could only think of the gray and brittle wasting of the farmer in “The Colour out of Space”. But there are indeed some good examples if you broaden your definition beyond illness, and I may touch on these in a future post:

  • The devolution of man to pale, maggot-like humanoids of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls”.
  • The metamorphosis of Innsmouth residents in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
  • The monstrous appearance of the Whateley twins in “The Dunwich Horror”

But on the whole, I’d say that these examples take a backseat to the cosmic, indifferent horror that plagued and intrigued Lovecraft to no end. But never fear, lovers of body horror—mythos writers have taken up the torch, and taken it up handily since the 1930’s. Here are a couple of prime examples:

  • “The Hour of the Tortoise”, Molly Tanzer: Excellent depiction of unwilling metamorphosis, plus the only Lovecraft fiction I can think of that makes liberal use of Victorian smut. (Think Fanny Hill.) The smut alone would probably make it worth reading, but it’s an excellent story in its own right.
  • “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee”, Christopher Reynaga: An excellent re-telling of Moby Dick: much shorter than the original, and guess how Ahab lost his leg!

But in terms of contagion/disease horror, I can only think of a handful of mythos stories:

Even if you’re not as disease-oriented as I am, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story, both for its detective-like story arc, as well as the sheer joy the enthusiastic narrator takes in the unusual biology of the Tibetan plains.

“[We arrived]…in the midst of the Summer Grass Festival, which celebrates the harvest of Cordyceps sinenis, the prized caterpillar fungus…Phupten led me several blocks to the café—and what a walk it was! Sidewalks covered with cordyceps!   Thousands of them laid out to dry on tarps and blankets, the withered little hyphae-riddled worms with their dark fungal stalks outthrust like black mono-antennae, capped with tiny spores…never have I seen so many mushrooms in one place, let alone the rare cordyceps; never have I visited a culture where mushrooms were of such great ethnic and economic importance.”

cordyceps100% not made up, for the record: You can find tons of references to cordyceps on alternative health websites.  You eat them.  For your kidneys, apparently.

Let me know if you know of other examples of fear of disease in Lovecraftian works—I desperately want to read more!

The Cultist

 

*Although, for completion’s sake, I’d throw in the original “Violet Beauregarde turns into a gigantic blueberry” from the original Gene-Wilder-as-Willy-Wonka movie. To this day, I’m still faintly amazed they show that to children.

**“Horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create ‘monsters’ out of human body parts.” Thank you, Wikipedia!

I’ve talked this week a bit about some of the characteristics that I think makes a mythos story authentically Lovecraftian, beyond slavish devotion to his characters (or, at worst, pure imitation of his writing style). I think if I had to chose the most essential element, it would have to be the indifferent universe: the blackness that swallows you up without noticing you, the destruction that’s as automatic and unthinking as a computer algorithm, the despair that comes from recognizing your complete insignificance. But lately, I’ve been noticing a strange element in a number of mythos stories that have really stuck with me: complete lack of concern on the part of the protagonist.

I don’t think that most Lovecraft mythos stories are particularly heart-wrenching—in fact, a lot seem to go out of the way to establish that our protagonist is (at best) pathetic and incompetent or (at worst) a complete asshole, so we don’t get too personally torn up when he’s ripped limb from limb by elder god peeved by how badly said asshole mangled his summoning ritual, or what have you*. But the one way in which we expect to relate to these doomed souls is in our reaction to the unknown: the inability to process what is about to occur, gut-wrenching fear at our eminent destruction, and, on some level, the anger at the knowledge that it was never personal, and there was never a way out. This existential dread typifies this type of weird horror. When the story is stripped of this characteristic, things become immensely bizarre.

In this story, the passiveness of the protagonist leaves me distinctly unsettled. For some context, I had a very vivid dream as a young teenager. It was night, and I was walking up the driveway to my house, when I saw myself standing there, waiting for me on the porch. I didn’t feel any fear or confusion, but a blinding, visceral rage. At being impersonated, maybe, at being replaced in the universe, possibly—but I didn’t pause for a second to figure out where it was coming from. I tackled my doppelganger and started to rip and tear at it with my bare hands, mutilating it however I could. As I rent and tore it more and more, it started to shrink, until eventually it withered into something like those old-fashioned apple head dolls.

apple head dolls

 

Folk art is terrifying

My point is that I can’t imagine a scenario in which one would give up their own place in the world so easily. But maybe that’s the real point of the story—maybe there was already something so broken, so underutilized in the protagonist that he can slip out of humanity without too much fuss. Maybe it was that emptiness that enabled something—a stack of pillows?—to take his place so effortlessly. And that potential strikes me as truly terrible.

These sorts of stories, I think, turn typical Lovecraft completely on its end, and almost always are stronger for it. I hope I encounter more stories of this nature as I read more—as always, your recommendations are deeply appreciated!

-The Cultist

 

*I have been surprised, and usually delighted, by more evocative mythos stories, but that’s a post for another day.

**Check out “Possession”, an essay about apartment-hunting abroad by David Sedaris.

***A play on “What we talk about when we talk about love”, by Raymond Carver. I haven’t read it yet, but I suppose I ought to—it might put the story in a different perspective.

There’s a devotion to Lovecraft that strikes me as improbable and amazing. There have been so many amazing horror writers in the last century but, so far as I can tell, none of them boasts the strange communal legacy that Lovecraft has developed. A lot of it, I’m sure, was derived from Lovecraft’s tendency to correspond with and encourage his fellow struggling writers as they all banged out oft-rejected horror for the pulp magazines. Some of it relates to the rather prosaic fact that the gods and creatures Lovecraft developed lend themselves to experimentation more effectively than the characters created by other horror writers: it’s hard to, say, write “Return to the House of Usher” when by the end of the original two of the principle characters are dead, the third has fled and is probably going to go mad really soon, and said house itself has been subsumed into the living earth, or whatever.

But I feel like there’s more to it than that. And I don’t have a great handle on Lovecraft yet, but (obviously) it’s a subject I love to think about. Lovecraft has undoubtedly influenced modern horror tremendously, so what was it about Lovecraft’s horror that proved to be so fertile? He died in 1937, for Christ’s sake. How many other 1930’s writers inspire so much popular thought in 2015? And, within his twisted pantheon, what leads to popular success? I’ve read maybe one mythos story about Azathoth*, but…

…I’ve been beating around the bush for two paragraphs now, so I might as well just come out and get to the topic of today’s post:

I have NO IDEA why everyone is so impressed by Cthulhu.

On my ever-growing shelf of Lovecraft horror, I see (and these are just for starters): On the Black Wings of Cthulhu I through III. Acolytes of Cthulhu. The New Cthulhu. The Book of Cthulhu I and II. But:

  1. Squids are not particularly scary.
  2. Adding bat wings and legs to a squid does not make it scarier.
  3. There’s exactly one Lovecraft story in which Cthulhu features.
  4. He gets wiped out by a dude who drives a boat through his head.
  5. He’s not even a particularly powerful god. (See #4)

I’m not saying “The Call of Cthulhu” is a bad story. On the contrary! You’ve undoubtedly heard the opening sentence thousands of time, plastered at the start of every other mythos story in existence, but in my opinion, the entire paragraph is startling in its bleak assessment of humanity’s path:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

We’re ignorant, yes, cozy in our false sense of isolation and certain of a security built on an imaginary foundation. But if that were the sole source of the horror in Lovecraft, we’d surely have moved on by now. In a few (surprisingly clear, uncluttered sentences), Lovecraft mercilessly pinpoints the source of our doom: our insatiable curiosity. As much as we crave coziness and safety, we keep digging. Despite everything, we keep digging. The only outcome possible is our destruction, and (and! Not but, but and) we keep digging.

The inevitable self-destruction, the curiosity that overcomes our innate, tragically weak sense of self-preservation is one of the most powerful currents in Lovecraft’s work. It continues to inspire horror writers today.

And as we read further, we’re introduced to another key Lovecraft trope: the manipulation of humanity’s shared consciousness. We may live on a placid island of ignorance, but we’re shockingly weak against outside forces that wish to make their presence known. They will be known, regardless of whether we’re the lowest cult worshipper or a foppish, rather delicate young artist. They poison our dreams. They are inescapable.

Part II, I would say, is excellent as well. The Tale of Inspector Legrasse introduces the reader to the worshippers of the Great Old Ones, the backwater practitioners of unspeakable rites performed to please their dead and dreaming masters.

And then…and then…we come to Part III. (Trigger warning: apostasy ahead!)

To a group of sailors that come to a mystical isle, and, after encountering a multitude of slimy rocks and grotesque obelisks, encounter a most dreadful beast. It emerges from its lair, “visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings” (all right). It grabs the poor sailors with its “flabby claws” (huh). It slides into the water, this dreadful “pursuing jelly” (I…okay) , but our brave Norwegian protagonist (whose yellow hair was whitened by this encounter) still has the presence of mind to drive his boat into the “awful squid-head with writhing feelers”, which results in a collision typified by the “bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper” (ewwww). And then Cthulhu is dead, but he was dead all along so maybe he’s not dead (but, I mean, he is dead, maybe just temporarily stymied and dead, not dead-dead).

It’s not a bad ending, by any means. I just don’t think it’s worthy of the two parts that preceded it. And I certainly don’t understand why Cthulhu remains the most recognizable (and, arguably) beloved of the Lovecraftian pantheon. He’s certainly recognizable. (Although, it must be pointed out, the hideous tentacled behemoths are perhaps a far cry from what Lovecraft himself had envisioned, as you can see from his sketches.)Lovecraft's cthulhu

And it can’t be denied that while I might be somewhat unimpressed by the visuals, a lot of Lovecraft’s characters suffer from similar or worse impediments. A friend of mine pointed out that Cthulhu is the only mythos character that isn’t actively, you know, stupid-looking. (Fighting words, for sure, but when the horrible civilization-ending Shoggoths are compared to both subway trains and luminous bubbles in the same breath, you can’t ignore the fact that the argument holds water, at least slightly.)

While my perception of Lovecraft’s fiction is constantly in flux, I would say that the real horror of Lovecraft’s work isn’t derived from its villains itself. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite: the lonely and horrible realization that the villains aren’t really villains, per se, because a villain takes an active interest in its prey. Lovecraft’s most immortal monsters are as indifferent as they are powerful. And the identification and creation of a mascot with a tentacle-y head and little flappy wings diminishes the impact of this conclusion.

The Cultist

*”The Sect of the Idiot”, Thomas Ligotti

I should preface this by saying that the title of the post is as much a genuine question as clickbait, and I welcome any and all opinions on the subject. As I’ve alluded to in the past, my sole qualification for talking about Lovecraft fiction is pretty much exclusively limited to having read a buttload of Lovecraft fiction. But I’m not a Lovecraft purist: I’ll read pretty much any horror story I come across, and one thing I often find myself wondering is whether or not what I’ve just read could be considered—intentionally or unintentionally—to be Lovecraftian in nature. (I say “unintentionally” because I’ve definitely stumbled across compilations of Lovecraft mythos containing stories by authors whom I’m fairly certain emulated Lovecraft’s style accidentally*.) So, here is a list I’m likely to revisit as I read more, discuss more, and widen my scope.

  • The obvious: Cthulhu, the Deep Ones, Wilbur Whateley, night-gaunts, ghouls in the grave-robbing, tomb-dwelling, meeping sense of the term: if the story you’re reading contains one or more of the previous terms, it’s Lovecraftian by default. This definition pleases me the least, even though it’s clearly the least arguable and most correct. I’ve read plenty of poor Lovecraft pieces whose drama and development hinged on the incorporation of Lovecraft’s characters and settings—while I don’t think anyone who considers themselves a Lovecraft cultist can or should be snobby about this sort of borrowing, defining Lovecraftian character in this way runs the risk of removing a key element of creativity. And furthermore, it tends to smooth over subtleties in a way that makes the genre less meaningful. Some of the works that incorporate Lovecraft’s monsters have such a unique tone or direction that I’m hesitant to lump them in with the rest of Lovecraft fiction. I’ve read plenty of fiction that feels like pure Lovecraft but lacks a single reference to one of these touchstones.
  • Complete indifference: I love love love Clive Barker. He’s one of my favorite authors of modern horror in existence, and he frequently writes stories of unspeakable abominations, hideous monsters beyond imagining, terror that spans beyond the world and into mysterious dimensions beyond. But I absolutely wouldn’t classify him as a writer in Lovecraft’s genre. His abominations are too involved in the lives of the hapless humans they terrify. In the opening to Books of Blood, a fraudulent young medium is mutilated beyond recognition by a swarm of spirits. This premise could easily be made to fit the Lovecraft cannon, but it doesn’t: the spirits are angry. They’ve been misrepresented by the medium for years, and they’ve finally found an outlet to wreak vengeance. Lovecraft powers are uninterested in vengeance. Even in cases where curiosity leads to disobedience leads to destruction (see the next principle), only in very rare instances do the powers themselves seem angered by human impudence. The punishment is not a product of vengeance, but of adherence to protocol. This indifference is tremendously frightening: if evil is personally invested in you, there’s room for error (play “You Find Yourself in a Room” as a great demonstration of this principle).
  • Compulsion and curiosity: In my opinion, older horror stories often seem to embody a highly frustrating trope.  It’s easier to give an example than to define it: there’s a character that knows he’ll be doomed if he does this one HIGHLY SPECIFIC THING, and he knows it, he knows it so well, everyone knows it, but despite literally everything goddamn if he doesn’t go and eat golden raisins while wearing a kilt on his 44th birthday exactly like the chain-rattling ghost told him NOT TO, and then he’s doomed to an eternity in hell. Or something. For no reason whatsoever. Lovecraftian protagonists suffer from the same foolhardy tendency, but there’s a key difference: our actions are not entirely under our own control. Maybe a relic exerts an incomprehensible pull, or maybe a god or a witch controls us in our dreams. Sometimes the culprit is our own greed or hubris, but more often than not, action in the face of everything screaming at us not to act is the product of intelligence and curiosity. A surprising number of the damned in Lovecraft fiction are professors: anthropology professors studying primitive races and their mysterious gods, engineering professors trying to make heads or tails of a strange dismantled machine, linguists studying old Arabic texts…the list goes on and on.
  • Heritage: Lovecraft was obsessed with the power of bloodlines. The sins of the father—his perversions, his unorthodox interests, his twisted racial heritage—would undoubtedly surface in the son, regardless of the son’s identity, interest, or choice. Abomination, to Lovecraft, was both massive—incomprehensible, traveling beyond the stars, skipping dimensions left and right—and unbelievably tiny, written indelibly on the genetic code. Even if you skip “Arther Jermyn” (which I’m sure I will rail about at some point in the future), it’s in virtually every Lovecraft story in some form or another: it’s the twist at the end of “Shadow over Innsmouth”, it’s the mysterious parentage of “The Dunwich Horror”, it’s the hideous crescendo and climax of “The Rats in the Walls”, it’s the strange history of the Martense family in “The lurking fear”. It’s a topic frequently embraced by modern mythos writers—if used well, it’s terrifying.
  • Doom: Compulsion, curiosity, heritage: all lead to one of two predictable ends: death or something worse. Some might argue that the same conclusion becomes easily tedious. I will admit that the “it was so scary I proceeded to lose my mind, and now I am crazy despite the fact that I just told you a wonderfully lucid story” element of Lovecraftian fiction is not a favorite, though it can be done brilliantly well. To me, though, the real horror arises from the fact that choice is never really a factor. While we might consciously struggle and rail against the powers that be, what makes us human—our intellect, our needs as people, our parents—damn us to the same predictable, awful fate. Sometimes we’re horribly aware of our fate and we run as far as we can. Sometimes we don’t recognize our doom until it’s upon us. Sometimes we might even escape (as indicated by the fact that we’re currently writing our memoirs in the first person)—but have we really?

That’s what I’ve got thus far, but I’m sure it’ll bear revisiting as time goes on. Feel free to leave your additions in the comments!

The Cultist

*Although, to be fair, I’m frequently surprised by how far-reaching Lovecraft’s influence really is. I’m in the midst of a Lovecraft compilation that included “There are more things”, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. I feel like most people (non-cultists) draw a pretty hard line between horror (pulpy, cheap tropes, cheap shots, too plot driven) and Real Literature (art! imagery! character development! noble!), and that Borges was always on the right side of that line. But, much to my amazement, a quick search revealed that the story bore the dedication “To the memory of H.P. Lovecraft”, a fact all the more impressive given that Borges was no real fan of Lovecraft, whom he considered to be “an involuntary parodist of Poe”. (Take THAT, Real Literature people…kinda.)

As much as I’m dismayed that Robert W. Chamber’s genius for weird fiction went largely underutilized, one could easily make the argument he did the world of horror a tremendous service by creating and essentially abandoning such a magnificent construction as The King in Yellow. The King, according to Chambers, is defined in the faintest of terms: the sane have only the dimmest understanding of what he represents (namely, something that should be avoided by all costs). Those who have been exposed to his influence are not only insane, but obsessed with the practical power associated with this knowledge: it’s never quite clear how, or why, but Hildred’s association with the mysterious play will lead to his ascendancy as The Last King of the Imperial Dynasty of America, but this fact is treated as completely irrelevant. He knows the King, he has found the Yellow Sign, and once everything falls into place he will claim the power that is rightfully his.  His obsession renders him completely non-concerned by the questions that might intrigue us about the King.  As such, Chambers has provided weird fiction writers with tremendously fertile ground to develop.

So, it’s actually a big surprise to me that I haven’t seen nearly as much King in Yellow mythos fiction as, for example, fiction revolving around Deep Ones or ghouls. But I have encountered a handful of stories that definitely bear reading:

The more I think about this story, the more I love it, because the crappy, badly-dubbed film both modernizes and perfectly mirrors the nature of the original play: there’s nothing outwardly wrong with it, it’s maybe a little weird, hard to exactly pinpoint why…but it changes you. Irrevocably.

But, to be honest, I’ve gone through all of my anthologies and these are the only stories I’ve found featuring the storied King. Have you encountered any? Recommendations are always appreciated!

The Cultist

 

*Lovecraftian tidbit for you: This story was apparently Lovecraft’s response to “The Shambler from the Stars”, a short story by Robert Bloch. The doomed protagonist is a college student, an academic type who wishes to write weird fiction but his work is continually (and consistently) rejected by the editors of the leading pulp magazines. Sound like a familiar character? Well, in order to avenge the death of his literary doppelganger, Lovecraft wrote “The Haunter of the Dark”, in which a foolish young man finds an artifact capable of summoning a dread creature across time and space. Which, of course, leads to said young man’s—named, of course, Robert Blake—untimely and hideous demise due to a three-lobed burning eye.