Skip navigation

Tag Archives: H.P. Lovecraft

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.

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.

 

Back from a sunburned country just in time for a committee meeting, so the longer posts will have to wait for another few days.  But in the meantime, I thought you might get a kick out of the life-sized sculpture of H.P. Lovecraft that Guillermo del Toro keeps in his house, because of course he has one and of course he does:

HP Lovecraft

Dang.

The Cultist

As grad school ebbs and flows (it’s pretty much all ebbing, at this point), I tend to fall into treat yo’self mode pretty hard.

treat yo self

Except for, you know, I’m a not-very fashionable nerd with limited social skills.  So what sort of thing tickles my fancy?

Sweets, books, and shit like this.  I present to you Lovecraft-inspired bottles.

bottle 1

Ooh yeah.

bottle 2

I don’t even know what I’d do with them, but man.  So nice!

The Cultist

 

Today: An essay about the modern relevance of H.P. Lovecraft, written by someone who is probably much better informed than I am!

colour

The Cultist

All right, now that we’ve firmly established that I can’t watch scary movies to save my life, there are lots and LOTS of good horror books for children, and that Lovecraftian elements abound even when we’re least expecting them…I feel as though I should return to the main theme of this blog, to wit: y’know, H.P. Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction.

I dedicated a week or more of this blog to slogging through August Derleth (STILL have not finished The Cthulhu Mythos, damn it all…seriously, the water/air/fire elementals are like nails on a chalkboard to me), but I’ve only mentioned Clark Ashton Smith in passing.  Which is completely unjust, because I LOVE his stories.  Love them to pieces.

I didn’t know very much about Smith at all, beyond the fact that he was good friends with Lovecraft.  Beyond their friendship, I knew that the “E” in T.E.D. Klein (who wrote “Black Man with a Horn”, one of my favorite Lovecraftian works of all time) stood for “Eibon”, the name of one of Smith’s evil wizards.  Anyone who Klein respects that much was surely worth a look from me, so I got a collection of his works.

As I have said before, I’m faaaaairly certain that horror writers of the 1930s were the isolated, anti-social neckbeards of their time, and letter-writing was their 4chan.  Or something like it.  I’ve written plenty about H.P. Lovecraft’s sad life, but it seems like Smith might have been even worse off.  He spent his entirely life in almost complete isolation (although, to his credit, he did get married at age 61, and remained married until his death seven years later).  He got no education after grammar school, and learned to write by studying the dictionary.

The book I got contains poems, “prose poetry”, and short stories.  Apparently, Smith considered himself a poet primarily, and wrote stories for the pulps just to make ends meet.  But I think his short stories are the best of the bunch (although this probably speaks a lot more to my un-literary nature than to the quality of his poems).

CASalien013

Most of the stories that I read were shamelessly fantastic in nature: endless lists of strange debauched princes and their concubines, gardens of evil wizards filled to the brim with venomous flowers and cunning traps, necromancers by the boatload, sorcerers and sorceresses, and ancient temples laden with squatting, malign idols.  But the worlds he describes are tremendously compelling, and they’re tinged with the same sense of unease that permeates Lovecraftian work.

According to his website (worth checking out–I definitely plan to read through this in the future), two of his most famous works are “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and “The City of the Singing Flame”.  The former is a science fiction story, a tale of the exploration of an abandoned city of Mars.  Their Martian guides are curiously reluctant to explore it, but offer no explanation.  (I feel that the “native guides refusing to enter the abandoned city/temple/cave/area” trope is the “girl has sex on prom night” of 1930’s-40’s horror fiction.)  And then…well, it pretty much ends as you’d expect with that beginning, and even though I saw the ending coming, it did definitely creep me out, which is a pretty significant feat anymore.

CASsouthseaidol012

“The City of the Singing Flame” is the story of two American artists who discover a portal in the desert to another world, which is the site of a temple which is the site of a strange alien pilgrimage.   It’s interesting, but didn’t strike me quite as profoundly.  Probably my favorite of his exploration stories is the tale of a sailor who gets stranded on a strange island.  The island isn’t deserted–it’s full of people, but no one interacts with him.  He quickly realizes that they’re all preoccupied with something.  Everyone, even the women and children, are anxiously scanning the sky and studying astrological charts.  Day in, day out, they never do anything else.  It’s a profoundly lonely and disquieting tale–being lost and helpless in the middle of a crowd.

cone-shaped

  Unlike Lovecraft, Smith’s stories tend to be more emotional.  The first of his works that I read was the story of a powerful necromancer whose demonic familiar hints that there might be a limit to his power.  Ignoring his familiar’s warnings, he calls up the image of his lost paramour–a girl he fell completely and utterly in love with as a youth.  His spell is perfect, she stands before him–but something is very wrong.  She’s not what he remembered, she’s less bewitching, less enticing.  He dismisses her shade in a huff, and asks his familiar if he went awry.  The familiar explains that his spell was perfect, but his memory was far better than the reality.  By summoning the reality, he’s forever tainted his memory, and now he has no choice but to live without the pleasure of that remembered love.

antehuman_groteque

I’ve definitely enjoyed all of Smith’s works that I’ve read so far, and I’m looking forward to reading new ones.  If you’re in the market for the dreamlike mood of Lovecraft’s fantastical stories–Randolph Carter, the Gates of the Silver Key, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, the Cats of Ulthar–Clark Ashton Smith is an excellent addition to your library.

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.

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.

So, as you’ve probably already heard, the hackers that stole data from Ashley Madison (a website explicitly devoted to extramarital affairs) and threatened to publish it did indeed make good on their promises.  I’m guessing A LOT of uncomfortable preemptive conversations right now.

And, as I complained about just a short time ago, I’m a little pooped out re. horror fiction right now.  (Never fear, though!  I’m in the middle of a Caitlin Kiernan story, though, and those never fail to pep me back up–I really ought to write a blog post devoted to her Lovecraftian fiction, it’s in a world of its own–so on Friday, I anticipate a return to a more normal state of affairs here.)

But anyway, this is just a round-about way of explaining today’s blog post: a short meditation on the brief, awkward love life of H.P. Lovecraft, inspired by the Ashley Madison hacks and cemented by my temporary lack of inspiration re. modern mythos horror.  (Fucking water elementals…)

H.P. Lovecraft grew up lonely and sheltered, frequently sick.  His family was a wreck: initially wealthy, mismanagement forced them into abject poverty.  His father had died of neurosyphilis when Lovecraft was 8 (which Lovecraft stubbornly maintained was “paralysis due to nervous exhaustion”).  The a shock caused his mother (a frail, needy woman) to cling to her son desperately.  They maintained an uncomfortably close, love-hate relationship until his mother was admitted to a mental institution in 1919.  She died as a result of a mismanaged gallbladder operation in 1921.  Lovecraft was 31 and more or less a complete hermit.

Things would start to change very quickly for Lovecraft, though–throughout the course of his seclusion from the world, he maintained contact with his writer friends.  (By the end of his life, he had written over 100,000 letters, a figure which apparently puts him second only to Voltaire in terms of written correspondences.)  His support for his friends and his devotion to his craft would prove to be his salvation time and time again, and this was no exception.  At an amateur press conference, mere months after his mother’s death, he was introduced to Sonia Greene.

Sonia Greene is…well, I feel like she doesn’t get enough attention.  She sounds like an absolutely remarkable woman.  She was seven years older than Lovecraft, but several orders of magnitude more experienced in life.  She was married at 16 and had two children by the age of 19, one of whom died when he was only 3 months old.  Her husband was, according to her friends, “a man of brutal character”.  The marriage was brutal, but (thankfully? I feel like you shouldn’t say that, but maybe?) he killed himself in 1916.

Nevertheless, she was fiercely independent.  She had bootstrapped her way into the middle class, working as a milliner and traveling frequently for her job.  Not only was she able to rent a house for her and her surviving daughter, but she was able to afford her writing hobby, traveling to conventions and supporting independent magazines.

And so they met, the virginal xenophobic anti-Semite with terrible mother issues and the older, world-wise, Russian Jew.  Surprisingly (although maybe not entirely surprisingly, given the “Naaaah, man, I mean, sure, I don’t like the blacks/Jews/gays/etc., but you’re not like them, you’re super cool!” tendency of most racists), they hit it off.  They started writing.  He edited one of her stories (“The Horror at Martin’s Beach”, published 1923 in Weird Tales–I’ve read it, and it’s pretty damn good).  In 1924, they were married.

sonia greene

And how did that go?

God bless him, but Lovecraft was no slouch.  Wrote one of Lovecraft’s friend’s after the fact:

Sonia told me that prior to their wedding, HPL purchased and read thoroughly all subject matter he could obtain regarding the marriage, sex and the duties of a husband in the connubial bed. He was perforce a conscientious lover.

This was no small feat, considering how ashamed he seemed to be when it came to sex (he hated listening to his writer friends joking about it) and how much damage his mother had inflicted.  (It’s all well and good to joke about bad mother-son relationships, but consider this: the main motivation for H.P. Lovecraft’s seclusion was due to the fact that growing up, his mother told him constantly that he was grotesque, and should go out only at night to avoid frightening the neighbors.)

They seemed happy, but tragedy (and Lovecraft’s stubbornness) struck.  Sonia’s hat shop closed and she grew ill.  Lovecraft tried (a little) to support his wife, but no one really wanted to hire a 34-year-old with no job experience.  And he turned down a job offer to edit weird tales because it would have necessitated a move to Chicago.  In 1925, Sonia had improved enough to take a job in Cleveland, and Lovecraft moved into a single apartment in Red Hook.

This was not an acceptable state of affairs for Lovecraft.  There were far too many people speaking different languages.  “The Horror at Red Hook” should pretty much sum up all you need to know about Lovecraft’s feelings for New York.  He stuck it out for one year, hightailing it back to Providence in 1926.

Lovecraft still loved his wife, but he loved his family and his routine more.  His aunts told him how terrible it would be for his wife to set up shop in Providence (their nephew was of the gentry–he couldn’t be seen with a tradeswoman wife!) and he made no effort to contradict him.  Sonia pleaded with him, cajoled him, sent him a weekly allowance as she worked on the road, but it was over.  Functionally, the marriage had lasted two years, but they weren’t formally divorced until 1929.

Sonia moved to California in 1933.  She married again (learning much, much later that Lovecraft had neglected to sign the final decree of divorce, making her technically a bigamist).  Lovecraft stayed in Providence for the rest of his life, dying of intestinal cancer in 1937.

I’m not really sure what to make of this story, really.  I don’t have a good moral or a pithy ending to close with.  I mean, you can’t really make the argument that Lovecraft wasn’t an emotionally immature jerk.  Sonia deserved a far more loving and supportive husband, and I’m glad she finally got that.

However…and this is sort of a weird trait for Lovecraft horror fans…in my little cultist heart, I feel a strong, irrational warmth for the man.  He had a horrible life.  I believe (without exception) that everyone on earth is trying to do the best that they know how to do with what they have.  And Lovecraft did that.  Despite a cold, abusive upbringing, despite violent depression and nervous breakdowns, he stubbornly maintained contact with his friends.  He devoted himself to his true passion.  And I admire that.  And, on some irrational level, I’m so glad he got to experience adult love and sex.  He deserved it.

The Cultist

Sources:

A short biography of Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi

Wikipedia article on Sonia Greene

Lovecraft and sex, as told by one of Sonia’s friends