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Tag Archives: At the Mountains of Madness

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

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

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

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

innsmouth

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

Well.

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

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

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

But anyway.  Why Innsmouth?

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

The first volume contained the complete The Shadow over Innsmouth, and the second contained unpublished notes from an initial version.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cultist

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

 

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.