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Tag Archives: The Thing on the Doorstep

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.

Feel free to listen to listen to the following while reading this post:

Yep, it’s yet another installment of “Things that irritate the Cultist about modern mythos fiction”, except for I can’t fully place the blame on post-Lovecraft writers. Lovecraft himself started this particular trend*, and by god, I just don’t like it.  Not one bit.

The trend I refer to is the depressing tendency for a huge number of Lovecraftian stories to invoke one of the following tropes:

  1. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he is in fact in an insane asylum, and can’t get anyone to believe a word of his story, despite the odd, potentially supernatural, clearly unusual nature of his infraction.
  2. Alternatively, the story begins with the narrator fretting about how he will surely be locked up in an insane asylum once he puts this story to paper, so unbelievable is the tale he is about to tell you.
  3. The narrator is fine, but he isn’t at the center of the story he just told you–the brunt of the horrible, terrible, unthinkable experience fell upon his close friend or relative, who now wastes away in an insane asylum.
  4. A whole bunch of things happened that were creepy and amazing and impressive and delightful to read about, and then at the very last minute, literally in the last two or three paragraphs, something happened that drove someone absolutely insane (and they are now in an insane asylum).  No one is quite sure what that something is, because the insane fellow can’t manage to string a coherent sentence together.  (I’m looking at you, At the Mountains of Madness.)

I’m not trying to insinuate that the loss of sanity isn’t an important component of a lot of mythos fiction–the bleak, impossibly vast nature of the cosmic entities (along with a sense of humanity’s complete powerlessness) combine to make madness inviting, far more preferable to the alternative**.  But…I have weird suspension of disbelief issues.  Which is not to say that I have trouble suspending disbelief, but rather that tiny details succeed in kicking me out of the warm glow of fantasy/sci-fi/horror.

Which is to say: If you act normal, behave normally, can put together a coherent/logical/convincing (if bizarre) story, command respect, and are a member of the academic elite (as so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists are), I find it very, VERY hard to believe that EVERYONE will immediately shun you the moment you step forward with your weird, unbelievable tale, let alone make a discrete call to the doctor who will trundle in the white coats and sippy cups at a moment’s notice.  (Seriously, is this how psychiatry worked in the early 20th century?)

Which is also to say: Even if someone is acting weird and/or criminal (for instance, if he just randomly shot his best friend) BUT there’s also something extremely strange about the case (let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the putrefying corpse of his best friend’s wife has randomly shown up on the presumed-insane individual’s doorstop, with no sign of human intervention), I find it extremely hard to believe that literally no one would think about the case beyond, “Whelp, that was weird!  A truly strange coincidence that happens to align with your bewildering story perfectly!  Hope the food in the asylum isn’t too bad!”

Which is very seriously to say: There is literally NOTHING more disappointing than ending a story with “And then someone saw something SO BAD that it immediately drove him insane, but we have no idea what it was.  Whelp.  The end!”

(I’m not joking, not even a little bit.  Come up with a worse ending than that.  I challenge you.)

At_the_Mountains_of_Madness_-image002

I’m also not trying to say that incorporating the need for (or inevitability of) insanity is simple.  It’s very hard to tell a first-person narrative of insanity that straddles the line between coherency/disbelief and incoherence/verisimilitude.  I think it’s well worth the effort, though–when the balance is perfect, the uneasy feeling it creates is second-to-none.  Furthermore, I don’t necessarily think that a sight or experience that results in insanity necessarily mandates a clear, easy-to-visualize description.  It just absolutely shouldn’t be the last-minute twist to a story.  (Do I seem a little hung up on At the Mountains of Madness?  Maybe a bit.  I read it when I was 15 or 16, and I STILL remember that moment of letdown at the end.)

While “The Repairer of Reputations” definitely stands out as featuring a superb unreliable narrator, I think that insanity in general has been handled much more masterfully by modern writers.  The stories I’ll talk about on Friday showcase some of the most impressive improvements on the original source.

The Cultist

* I think he started it?  Maybe?  I’ve got an anthology of Lovecraft’s favorite horror writers I’ve been meaning to read, so when I’m finished with that I may be able to make a more educated case, but right now the only Lovecraft predecessor I can think of who pulled out the “I’m so utterly INSANE!” stops was Robert W. Chambers, who noted in the afterward to “The Repairer of Reputations” that the narrator died in an insane asylum.  I’m reasonable okay with this.

**To quote Captain Ahab:

Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmy; sanely woeful to me. In no paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?

***Wellllll…I heard a rumor that not only was Guillermo del Toro was going to make the story into a movie, but that Cthulhu would show up. Everything happening + Cthulhu randomly showing up at the end and driving the one guy who saw him insane=Possibly a more disappointing ending. Possibly.