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Tag Archives: Elements of Lovecraft

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

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.)