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Tag Archives: H.P. Lovecraft

A note on today, and the previous week: I’m pretty uncomfortable with the apparent tendency of Lovecraft scholars to write off Derleth entirely. But I knew almost nothing about him as a writer, so I picked up The Watchers Out of Time and The Cthulhu Mythos. Having read an arguably representative sample of his weird fiction, I realized my feelings toward his work were extremely complicated, difficult to organize into a single post. Last day, last day, I swear…

So. I’ve now read approximately 500 pages worth of Derleth’s take on Lovecraft. I’ve got about 200 more to go before I exhaust my very limited library. I’ve been surprised by the ending approximately once in twenty-odd stories. Not once have I been frightened, unnerved, or even mildly off-put (unless you count all the babbling about elemental beings). If Derleth had tried to submit one of them to a modern weird anthology, I doubt very much it’d ever make it out of the slush pile*.

However, in the middle of this somewhat reluctant education, I read “The Lamp of Alhazred”, published 1957. It’s not a horror story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a tribute to Lovecraft, but calling it a tribute seems a little too trite.

The story is an imagined history of H.P. Lovecraft’s life—from sad childhood to lonely adulthood to death by cancer. The only difference is the source of his inspiration: an oil lamp, inherited from a mysterious relative, said to show the most beautiful and the most horrible things. He lights it, and realizes that where the lamp shines, he can see images of the most spectacular and horrible landscapes imaginable. He begins to write, applying names and inventing stories. The reeking, recently exposed island of black basalt becomes R’lyeh. The decaying, gray ocean-side town with the malign black reef becomes Innsmouth. And so he continues, writing (to no great success) until it becomes clear that he is ill, and the illness is grave. Weak, with only days left to his life, he lights the lamp again, and sees now the wooden groves of his childhood that he’s loved and missed all his life. And this time, he’s able to enter them.

It’s a love letter, but not in the usual sense of the term, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it almost made me cry. I might be wrong, but I think everyone loves or has loved someone whose life has been too hard, too sad, or just so much less than it should have been. It’s not fair. It’s heartbreaking. And so this story, published 20 years after Lovecraft died, feels raw. It’s by far the most emotional mythos story I’ve ever read, because the subtext is so bright and painful and clear: I’m sorry your life turned out this way. I wish it had been better. I hope you were happy, I hope you died satisfied, but if I’m being honest with myself, the sad, horrible truth is that I’m pretty sure you weren’t, and you didn’t. You deserved more.

It’s not a tremendously relevant story to this narrative, but it’s one of the most unexpectedly beautiful things I’ve ever read.

But, to step back, and put this entire week into perspective:

How to explain how I feel about Derleth? In an odd way, it can best be understood in the context of a conversation about modern art. (Fair warning: It was a conversation that made me feel—and will doubtlessly make me look—like an unevolved simpleton at best and a misogynistic philistine at worst, but it illustrates the point better than anything else I can come up with.)

The subject of the conversation was an artist named Judy Chicago. We were talking about one of her prints that—to summarize my really, really long diatribe—I didn’t like at all. It expressed a fear of aging in a way that struck me as horribly privileged, out-of-touch, and whiny. And this, of course, led me to rant about her other work.   For example, I wasn’t sold by the argument that a photograph of a woman removing a tampon was IMPORTANT, because this was a sight familiar to pretty much every woman and yet it was never once shown in the world of art. This was because I felt that there were far more universal sights and experiences that the art world had chosen not to celebrate**. And I was deeply irritated by The Birth Project, in which she celebrated her “primordial female self ” despite the fact that she was childless—it struck me as she was trying to vicariously win value and validity as a female.

The artist wasn’t phased by my irritation. Instead, he pointed out that it’s not tremendously meaningful to view Judy Chicago outside of a historical context. By being so loud, so strident, so irritating, so gratuitous (okay, these are mostly my words) she made it possible for women to be in art in a way that they hadn’t before. And once those women were in art, they didn’t need to just parrot her style and message—they could be themselves. If life were fair, Judy Chicago shouldn’t have had to exist—but it’s not, she got frustrated and protested through her art, and the resulting benefit to the field (in the panoply of new and exciting perspectives from female artists) was undeniable.

Judy_Chicago_The_Dinner_Party

The Dinner Party, 1939 (image from Wikipedia)

And that is, more or less, how I feel about Derleth. For the most part, I don’t enjoy his stories, not even a little bit. I’ve been dragging on writing this week’s posts, and I really couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that instead of being inspired and excited by the horror stories I was reading in my free time, I’m just sort of clumping along like a high school student reading My Ántonia***. (But don’t worry—I rushed off and bought two new promising anthologies this weekend, so I’ll be back to my breathless nerdy self in no time.)

But, in order for horror to evolve, for modern Lovecraftian fiction to be able to embrace the delightful protean form it has today, I truly believe that Derleth had to exist. He single-handedly rescued Lovecraft from obscurity. I mean, the man made up his own freaking publishing company when that failed, because he truly believed that these works were too important to be ignored—and if that’s not beautiful, I don’t know what is. And no, I don’t like his writing, but he showed everyone what the genre could do. Lovecraft created one of the most beautiful and flexible literary framework I’ve ever encountered. Derleth inserting water elementals and black masses and italics for emphasis does nothing to cheapen that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if his take on Lovecraft inspired many a horror fan, who read his works and said—“No, this isn’t right at all, I can do better.” And that’s not an insult to Derleth. That desire, to improve and expand and explore, is what has kept the field alive, and so tremendously rich.

And so, that is why I will always be grateful to Derleth, and on some level, I hope you will be too.

The Cultist

 

*Unsolicited manuscripts sent directly to a publisher or agent. I…might be…writing a little bit outside of the realm of the blog, and so that term has entered my vocabulary.

**For example: Sneezing and farting simultaneously in public, and wondering which one everyone heard.

***The famous 1918 novel by Willa Cather, much lauded by literary critics for its bold decision to not include any trace of a plot whatsoever.

Foreshadowing a bit of a cinematic kick next week, for this Saturday I’m sharing my favorite film adaptation of Lovecraft of all time.

shot_nyarlathotep_movie_director_christian_matzke_2001This was my computer wallpaper for the LONGEST time.

If anyone else has any favorite short film adaptations, send ’em my way!

The Cultist

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