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Tag Archives: Mythos fiction

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

Late today, sorry!

I went through a bunch of my favorite anthologies in anticipation of this post, but just like I discussed on Wednesday, my puny human brain with its pathetic heuristics failed me.  I’d remember a story I loved and think, “Ooooh, how evil!”  And then, paging through it, I’d find myself thinking, “Is this evil, or just really, really horrible?”  I think it’s fundamentally difficult to avoid interpreting threats to soundness of mind/body as necessarily malevolent.  I could probably make some comment on evolutionary biology, or the importance of social mores, or the philosophy of evil as a human construction…but I am a biology grad student, and my profound thinking pretty much boils down to “What can I add to these cells to make them stop doing this thing?  What can I add to make them do it even more?”  So I’ll spare you my deep thoughts, and for that, you should be grateful.

science!

An uncannily accurate representation of my first year of grad school, complete with the mirth of onlookers.

Instead, allow me to play to my strengths: going on and on about modern mythos fiction featuring themes of Legit Evil that you really ought to read.


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!

 

 

Insanity is central (if arguably not always essential) to true Lovecraftian horror.  But it’s really tough to incorporate it smoothly.  The protagonist is too lucid, the purportedly unthinkable seems rather logical and quite thinkable (looking at you, Derleth), or the onset of insanity is just a little too sudden and convenient.  (Protagonists frequently lose their minds right at the moment the author needs to deliver the punchline, I’ve discovered.  See “In the Plain of Sound”, by Ramsey Campbell…actually, see if you can get this anthology from a library, it’s one of the less impressive ones I’ve read.)

And maybe it’s a matter of taste.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who would argue with me until the end of time that the conclusion of At the Mountains of Madness was both necessary and terrifying.  (And because this is my blog, and because as a grad student the control I exert over my environment is so precious and limited, I will say: They are dead wrong, but I acknowledge their right to be dead wrong.)  But to me, the traditions I talked about on Wednesday just seem so…tired.

But here’s the thing about weird fiction.  Insanity is not tired.  Insanity is raving and howling and all-consuming, either the product of unspeakable knowledge or our sad attempt to protect ourselves against the futility and meaninglessness of human life.  Insanity should roar!

So the loss of one’s mind can be done well in mythos fiction, and it’s important and fascinating enough that it should be done well.  Here are a few of my favorite examples (spoilers assiduously avoided, but I’ll provide cuts nonetheless):


It's more or less like this, yeah

It’s more or less like this, yeah


The Cultist

 

*Poe wrote on both, both produce notes (but they’re flat), neither is ever approached without caws…so on, and so forth

Despite the issues I raised in the last post, Innsmouth and Deep One mythos fiction can be done extraordinarily well.  Some of my favorite mythos fiction revolves around that strange, backwater town, and I’ll mention a few of them here.  No cuts, because I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can.  (The stories I’ll reference today come from a handful of anthologies, but if you’re looking for one to try out, The Book of Cthulhu is extraordinary.  I haven’t read Shadows over Innsmouth yet, but it makes me hopeful and is probably next on my list.)

“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, by John Hornor Jacobs: Like the ukiyo-e print that inspired its name (no, I will not link to it here, and if you choose to Google that at work be prepared to explain to your boss that it’s a valid and extremely historically significant piece of art rather than the frank depiction of bestiality that it appears to be), this extremely brief story, set in a modern tourist-oriented beach town, combines the erotic and the disturbing in the most alluring way possible.  (And it’s one of the most interesting takes on the sacred Oaths of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that I’ve ever encountered.)

“Boojum” and “Mongoose”, by Elizabeth Bear:  I know Elizabeth Bear like the lepidopterists of yore probably felt they knew Vladimir Nabokov: they applauded him for a handful of highly specific, specialized exploits (he was only an amateur entomologist, but was dedicated and knowledgeable to the point where he described several new species of butterfly), while being only vaguely aware that he did something else for his main line of work, something about novels?  Didn’t he write something about a young girl that got him a lot of attention?  Which is to say, I’m kind of…sort of…aware that Elizabeth Bear is kind of a big deal in the land of sci-fi…or something…did she win a Hugo or something like that?  Those are important, right?

http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/sf-squeecast-wins-2013-hugo/

Those things that they’re holding are Hugo awards, right?

But anyway, I only know her from the Lovecraftian-inspired universe she created in “Boojum” and “Mongoose” (and also the alternate-history narrative of “Shoggoths in Bloom”, HOLY CRAP is that one good).  The former is a sci-fi take on the Mi-Go, the latter deals with the Hounds of Tindaloos.  But the incorporation of the traditional Lovecraft characters into the realm of space travel is seamless and endlessly interesting.  They’re never at the forefront of the action, just another inhabitant of deep space occasionally , but the bulging-eyed, vaguely amphibious Gillies are a far cry from the stereotyped fishy residents of Innsmouth.

So…this Elizabeth Bear, she’s pretty darn good at modern weird fiction.  Did she write anything else worth reading?

“The Doom that Came to Innsmouth”, by Brian McNaughton: “The Doom that Came to Innsmouth” is definitely my favorite Deep One piece of all time.  That may change as I read more, you never know, but it’s extremely hard to top.  The narrator is a descendant of the Innsmouth inhabitants come back to visit his old town, now a hollowed-out shell due to government intervention.  There are whispers of a holocaust, whispers of research-related atrocities…and now, to make amends, the government is offering reparations to anyone who can prove they share Innsmouth blood.  With his bald head and bulging eyes, the protagonist assumes he’s a shoe-in, and makes his way to an outlying research station.  Because it’s known that the narrator is a member of the clan, seasoned readers are stripped of their expectations and are forced to enter an alternative Lovecraft existence without any preparation whatsoever.  The ending kicked me in the gut, and, having read as much mythos fiction as I have, that’s rare to the point of being remarkable anymore.

The Cultist

 

First of all, sorry about missing the Monday post.  I have no excuses.  But I’m back now!  And I’m here to whine about stuff again!

Specifically, I’m here to kick off my new series: Problems in Lovecraftian fiction!  (Or, more informally, Things in mythos fiction that drive me up the fucking wall, and what can be done about them.)

I’m not trying to be a total jerk about it. World-building in fantasy and sci-fi is hard, but on some level, I think that utilizing the world and characters of another writer can be harder. Creating something new within pre-established boundaries results in numerous pitfalls that can (and do) trap even the best writers. So, in this series, I’ll be discussing a handful of what I think are the most common issues that reduce the appeal of modern Lovecraftian fiction—by highlighting both stories that fall prey to these problems as well as stories that blaze new paths to avoid them, my goal is to ultimately come to a better understanding of what makes good horror.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I am highly specialized in modern weird fiction.  And, to be sure, specialization has many rewards, but I’ve found that with the rewards come unexpected trade-offs. As I read more and more Lovecraft/Lovecraft-inspired anthologies, I began to realize that stories that I would have loved unreservedly in the past were now inspiring a kind of dull frustration. To highlight what I mean, I ask you to examine the following phrases:

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

Bug-eyed. Pop-eyed. Fish-eyed. Something about him reminded me of Peter Lorre. Glassy stare. Her face was reminiscent of Betty Davis. Squat. Recessed jaw. Protuberant eyes. I didn’t like the way they never seemed to blink. Frog-like. Clammy hands.

If you haven’t read much Lovecraft, you’ve probably sussed out that these traits are all describing a very specific, probably somewhat moist and amphibious character, but you don’t really see a problem beyond that (and thus you think I’m a huge snob). If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s works but don’t’ read a lot of mythos fiction, you’ve probably recognized these qualifiers as a way of characterizing an inhabitant of Innsmouth, but again, you don’t see what the big deal is (but here I am making a fuss, and therefore I am a huge snob). So, to be completely fair, I should clarify—I don’t mind these descriptors in and of themselves, but they can be easily problematic.

I feel a little guilty pointing this out, because the stories themselves are often fantastic and beautifully written—and it is truly a problem on the part of a very specific class of reader who knows too much through experience.  For example, take a few of the stories from The Book of Cthulhu. Here’s a line from the beginning of “Bad Sushi”, by Cherie Priest, as a chef catches a glimpse of the new delivery boy bringing a shipment of fish from a mysterious new seafood company:

He walked like a sea lion, with a gently lumbering gait—as if he might be more comfortable swimming than walking. His big, round eyes stared straight ahead as he made his deliveries.

So, while we’re surely intended to recognize the delivery boy as weird or off, he’s juuuust a little too familiar to the experienced mythos reader. And sometimes that’s okay, depending on where the story will go.  For example, if it takes place in Innsmouth, I think all bets are off, and it’s okay to describe the inhabitants as they are.  But if the story relies on surprise, like in the case of “Bad Sushi” (just who is behind this mysterious seafood company, anyway?), the punch is completely gone, and the dramatic buildup suffers terribly.

IMG_7018Innsmouth Bus Driver, by Casey Love

But herein lies one of the catch-22s of Lovecraft mythos fiction. Here I am whining about a rather blatant application of dramatic irony (*I* know these people aren’t fully human, but our fearless protagonist hasn’t got a clue! WHOA!) and, at worst, a complete spoiling of a surprise.

But can you really write mythos stories about Innsmouth that don’t involve a few of these qualifiers?  I can only imagine the tone my complaints would take then.  WTF, you know, this is Innsmouth, why is everyone just trotting around like everything is normal.  How were we supposed to know those were Deep Ones?  You can’t just spring that shit on us.   To be fair, this is a problem with short fiction in general, summarized neatly by Chekov’s gun, which I will write more about later: if you don’t drop enough hints at the beginning, the ending will be surprising in the most unsatisfying way possible. A crappy deus ex machina.

A prime example of Chekhov’s gun.  Except for not really.  Mostly I just love this sketch and was waiting for an opportunity to post it.

So, what can be done?  How can Innsmouth mythos fiction be written in a way that it’s approachable for the newcomer and yet still surprising and frightening to someone familiar with Lovecraft’s universe?  It is difficult, but by no means impossible.  And, more importantly, it’s unbelievably fantastic when the subject is handled well.  A handful of weird fiction authors have succeeded masterfully, and I’ll write about a few of my favorite examples on Friday.  Stay tuned!  (And if you have any personal favorites, feel free to add them to the comments!)

The Cultist

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.

A note on the posts to come: As I wrote last 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. As such, this week’s longer posts will be devoted to Derleth.

So, for today: The good

It seems only fair that I start this post with a confession—I was pretty much ready to write Derleth off entirely about halfway through The Watchers Out of Time—and I still wouldn’t include him on my personal list of the best mythos writers in existence.

But the truth is, not only was he responsible for protecting and promoting Lovecraft’s legacy, there’s a lot that Derleth did right.

He’s anti-technobabble*: One of my least favorite tendencies of Lovecraft is the constant dropping of tantalizing hints that go absolutely nowhere. Quick! Tell me about Shub-Niggurath! Yes, she is the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, but where is she from, and where does she dwell? Who worships her? Why do they worship her? I have no idea. If you read Lovecraft and Lovecraft alone, you’ll be familiar with the name and title, and that’s it. I’m not exaggerating. The name is mentioned three or four times in his authored work**: once as an exclamation (a la Iä! Shub-Niggurath!***), and in later works as a name and a title. Praise the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, I guess, but why?

Shub-NiggurathThe Black Goat of a Thousand Young, for a certain definition of the word “goat”

Maybe some readers are much more accepting of the use of this sort of jargon—it’s scene-setting, it’s mysterious. I just find it frustrating. While Derleth certainly uses plenty of mysterious incantations and arcane quotes from various texts, he’s significantly more devoted to explaining the who’s and why’s of old one worship and genealogy. I do take some issue with how he explains the deities and the abominations that occasionally traipse across earth, but that’s a post for tomorrow.

He’s liberal: Lovecraft was, by pretty much every account, a bigoted ass. His stories are chock-full of swarthy, shifty-eyed foreign-types, dark-skinned natives worshipping unspeakable abominations, cats named with ethnic slurs, and absolutely useless woman. (See “The Thing on the Doorstep” for a great example of the woman issue—the strong, menacing female character turns out to be literally possessed by the spirit of her dead father.) None of that is present in any of the Derleth stories I’ve read, beyond a few stereotypes about drunken Native Americans****. And I was very pleasantly surprised by “The Shadow in the Attic”—the protagonist is a typical Lovecraft type, a blustering academic fellow. But he just so happens to have a fiancée: an intuitive, intelligent woman who recognizes the evil machinations underlying a strange clause in a will. Her bookish lover scolds her for her irrationality and begs her to be logical, even as things get stranger and more menacing. And, like all Lovecraftian academics, he gets sucked in beyond the point of escape—but she’s there to save the day. The story ends on a snippy note, by the chastened but still persnickety man of letters:

Women are fundamentally not rational creatures. Nothing will shake her free of her notions about the house on Aylesbury street. It annoys me that I find myself unable to come up with a more rational explanation myself…

He’s a good writer: In On Writing, Stephen King vividly describes the learning process he went through to become the writer he is today. For quite some time, whenever he wrote, he’d unconsciously replicate the style of whichever writer that particularly interested him at the moment. Looking back on it, he notes that this period of replication was both inevitable and essential—by taking on and removing the identities of the authors he admired, he was learning about himself as a writer—likes, dislikes, preferences, you name it. So, if you read The Watchers Out of Time in the order it’s written (each story arranged by date, as I did), you might be tempted to give up the entire experiment a third of the way through the book (as I was.) The first few stories read like an inept imitation of Lovecraft, which, frankly, they most likely were. Ham-fisted country dialect spoken by wizened elders who know too much, batrachian everything, lists upon lists of weird titles found on some mysteriously vanished professor’s shelves, so on and so forth, with endings that telegraph themselves from the opening line and foreshadowing that beats you over the head, leaving you bruised and bloody. But I pressed on*****, and by the end of the book, the fog had lifted. Derleth tried on Lovecraft’s prose and liked it, but with time he found his own voice. The stories in The Cthulhu Mythos are refreshingly clear, and full of new deities and abominations entirely of his own creation.

In essence, Derleth began by parroting Lovecraft, but ultimately he wrote to the point where his own tone—curious, detail-oriented, and wry—began to shine through. He wasn’t a complete acolyte—he recognized that his own world-view was very different from Lovecraft’s, and he came to write accordingly. Buuuuuuuut

(and of course there is a but)

therein lies the problem, or part of the problem, anyway. To be continued on Wednesday…

The Cultist

 

*Or whatever the Lovecraftian equivalent of the term might be.

**He goes into a bit more detail in his ghostwriting/edits, but that’s a post for another day.

***Embarrassing admission for your Monday morning: I never learned what umlauts mean, in terms of pronunciation, so I have NO idea how you say this. Eeee-ahh? Eye-ahh? Eeee-ay?

****It really says a lot about the racism inherent to Lovecraft’s writing that I’m so willing to write off a “half-breed” whose tongue is loosened by liberal applications of fire-water, but here we are.

*****Mostly because I thought I might use the material write yet another hilarious “terrible mythos fiction” post, but hey, you know, I’m of the mindset that it’s okay to do the right things for the wrong reasons.

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

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

But, you guys.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And then he learns of Great Cthulhu.

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

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

marvin martian

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

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

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

Wait…wait…

hypnotoad

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

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

Yep.

Darn tootin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duh.

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

SONY DSC

My hero

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

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

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

The Cultist

 

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