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Tag Archives: Shoggoths

As part of my new year’s resolution, I’m trying to read a book a week.  This got a little rocky mid-January to now, but I’m firmly back on the horse.

Currently reading: The Madness of Cthulhu, Vol. 1.  I have to say, I hadn’t heard of this anthology until I stumbled across it in Half Price Books, but it’s edited by S.T. Joshi (score 1!) and I hadn’t read any of the stories before (score 2!).  So far it appears to be focused on the Mountains of Madness–lots of Old Ones and shoggoths.  The intro did give me a bit of pause, particularly when Joshi claimed that the encounter with the shoggoth is one of the most chilling in weird fiction.  (It was train-like.  And also very bubbly.  Those were my sole take-aways.)

Madness of CthulhuI’m a little non-plussed so far.  Most of the stories revolve around the shoggoths and/or old ones, and to me, they were probably the least affecting elements of the story.  The real horror (I think) lies in the isolation and the sheer helplessness of Antarctic exploration, combined with the wonder/weirdness/growing sense of inferiority as the scientist explore the ruined city.  But we’ll see (and this anthology also has a mythos story by Caitlin R. Kiernan that I haven’t read, which I’m stupidly excited about).

The AV club recently ran an interview with Matt Duff, the author of the newly-published Lovecraft Country, in which he lists his five favorite books and stories that combine real and supernatural horrors.  I have to admit, I haven’t read any of Duff’s stuff, but his commentary on these stories struck me as very insightful.  He doesn’t seem to be a Lovecraft fan boy (which, I will admit, was the first thing I thought when I read the title), and it’s always interesting to see what non-explicitly-Lovecraftian writers do with the mythos.

In horror video game news, while *I* haven’t been playing anything new (thanks to my lack of hand-eye coordination), I am currently watching as my husband plays through Soma.  It’s by the same people who made Amnesia, which was unequivocally terrifying.  I’m not quite sure what point we’re at in the game play, but I have to admit, I’m not really finding this frightening.  Lots of hand-wringing about What It Means to Be a Human and What it Means to Exist, which, frankly, does not really move me overmuch, at least not in the context of our fearless protagonist waxing melancholic (and very explicitly) about these issues.  And given the underwater setting, it’s basically a really, really mopey Bioshock.  Will update you all if any plot twists happen to blow my mind and make me see everything in a new light.

Any book suggestions for me?  Any new horror caught your eye?  Anyone ready to argue for the merits of Soma?  Lemme have it!

The Cultist

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.

 

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

 

I’ve talked this week a bit about some of the characteristics that I think makes a mythos story authentically Lovecraftian, beyond slavish devotion to his characters (or, at worst, pure imitation of his writing style). I think if I had to chose the most essential element, it would have to be the indifferent universe: the blackness that swallows you up without noticing you, the destruction that’s as automatic and unthinking as a computer algorithm, the despair that comes from recognizing your complete insignificance. But lately, I’ve been noticing a strange element in a number of mythos stories that have really stuck with me: complete lack of concern on the part of the protagonist.

I don’t think that most Lovecraft mythos stories are particularly heart-wrenching—in fact, a lot seem to go out of the way to establish that our protagonist is (at best) pathetic and incompetent or (at worst) a complete asshole, so we don’t get too personally torn up when he’s ripped limb from limb by elder god peeved by how badly said asshole mangled his summoning ritual, or what have you*. But the one way in which we expect to relate to these doomed souls is in our reaction to the unknown: the inability to process what is about to occur, gut-wrenching fear at our eminent destruction, and, on some level, the anger at the knowledge that it was never personal, and there was never a way out. This existential dread typifies this type of weird horror. When the story is stripped of this characteristic, things become immensely bizarre.

In this story, the passiveness of the protagonist leaves me distinctly unsettled. For some context, I had a very vivid dream as a young teenager. It was night, and I was walking up the driveway to my house, when I saw myself standing there, waiting for me on the porch. I didn’t feel any fear or confusion, but a blinding, visceral rage. At being impersonated, maybe, at being replaced in the universe, possibly—but I didn’t pause for a second to figure out where it was coming from. I tackled my doppelganger and started to rip and tear at it with my bare hands, mutilating it however I could. As I rent and tore it more and more, it started to shrink, until eventually it withered into something like those old-fashioned apple head dolls.

apple head dolls

 

Folk art is terrifying

My point is that I can’t imagine a scenario in which one would give up their own place in the world so easily. But maybe that’s the real point of the story—maybe there was already something so broken, so underutilized in the protagonist that he can slip out of humanity without too much fuss. Maybe it was that emptiness that enabled something—a stack of pillows?—to take his place so effortlessly. And that potential strikes me as truly terrible.

These sorts of stories, I think, turn typical Lovecraft completely on its end, and almost always are stronger for it. I hope I encounter more stories of this nature as I read more—as always, your recommendations are deeply appreciated!

-The Cultist

 

*I have been surprised, and usually delighted, by more evocative mythos stories, but that’s a post for another day.

**Check out “Possession”, an essay about apartment-hunting abroad by David Sedaris.

***A play on “What we talk about when we talk about love”, by Raymond Carver. I haven’t read it yet, but I suppose I ought to—it might put the story in a different perspective.