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Tag Archives: Potentially unpopular opinions

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.

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