Sunday, May 27, 2012

Musing on Lovecraftian Horror


    I got into another debate today on the nature of Lovecraftian Horror. A lot of people have different and varying ideas about what constitutes Lovecraft's 'vision.' The most commonly given definition is that it's based on there being a 'cold, uncaring, impersonal universe where there's no God and humans are an insignificant part of creation.'

     Well, this is a valid interpretation for some of Lovecraft's stories but I don't think it really covers them all. I also think it attempts to conflate Lovecraft's own atheistic views on the world with his writing is a mistake. Part of the horror of Lovecraft's universe is there are gods. They're not malevolent per say but the very act of humanity being subject to their presence is terrible.

     Which is worse, really, that we live in a universe where there's nothing higher than humanity and we're complete masters of our fate or that there is something more important than us but we're of negligible importance? In the Cthulhuverse, humanity is to the Great Old Ones what ants are in the Christian universe. A fairly unimportant creation which has no relevance beyond the occasional infestation.

     Brr, scary.

    Really, I think Lovecraft's horror is best summarized as being marveled by the inexplicable. What really separates H.P. Lovecraft from other writers of his day was his willingness to throw the bizarre into daily human life. Much like Stephen King, who admits to learning much about horror from reading Lovecraft, the heart of Howard Phillip's writing is the arrival of the "wrong" into an otherwise normal existence.

     My favorite Lovecraft story is The Colour from Outer Space, which is a story lacking all of the traditional elements of horor. A guy encounters something which he can't really put into words. Simultaneously, I think The Unnameable is the quintessential Lovecraft story. A guy encounters something which is totally beyond his understanding. The End.

    H.P. Lovecraft's protagonists were, by and large, very ordinary men who were suddenly divorced of their comfort zones. A vampire is a seminal creature of horror but the thing about vampires is they've become familiar. We understand how vampires operate, as often as not. A vampire attacking you would be horrifying and call into question your sanity. 

    A gigantic indescribable thing appearing in your front street at night is everything a vampire is but about a hundred times worse. Doubly so if you can't comprehend its motivations or purpose. A vampire wants blood. The indescribable thing may be here to kill the protagonist, observe him, or any number of other things. The not knowing is what makes Lovecraft's universe terrifying.

    Horror readers are best kept on edge and a good way to do that is to never quite let them recover their footing after things go to hell. While as far removed from Lovecraftian horror as you can get, Jason Voorhees reminds me of this adage. The inexplicably immortal slasher wanders into the lives of most of his victims with almost no warning. He is implacable, unreasoning, and indestructible with his motivations being obtuse. Yeah, he kills teenagers having sex but not just them. Worse, there's nothing which will drive him away or satisfy his blood thirst.

    If I were to seek the quintessence of Lovecraft's writing, it is the fear of the dark. We don't actually fear the dark, per say. We fear what might be inside the dark. It could be anything. What drives the Lovecraftian protagonist to his proverbial madness is not the revelation of monster's existence--bad enough as this may be.

    No, it is the fact these revelations spark the imaginations of their discovers to the point they're unable to look at the world the same way. From Beyond has a man who discovers countless horrible things invisible around us. Could you ever be comfortable again, knowing there's sharks flying around you which could eat you at any moment? It's not paranoia when they really are out to get you.

    I think Howard Phillips enjoyed subverting mythology as well. The Ghouls of Pickman's Model are pretty far removed from fairies but that's the closest thing they resemble. The Mi-Go, those brain removing nutters from Outer Space, are actually described as the basis for Yeti. To be thoroughly blasphemous, the Great Old Ones rising and Yog-Sothoth's arrival would be not nearly so effective if not for a cultural awareness of the Christian Apocalypse.

    Lovecraft, himself,  commented that part of his philosophy is to go one step further. In one of his letters, the exact quote has slipped my mind, he talked about a fan writing him about his own work. The fan talked about his premise: a mad scientist wants to conquer the world with a virus. H.P. Lovecraft said the story had promise but if he wanted it to be scary, he should have the mad scientist try and destroy the world. After all, plenty of people in real life have tried to conquer the wold (he cited Napoleon) and weren't particularly scary. Obviously, HPL lived before WW2.

     Another element for capturing Lovecraftian horror is the "fear of self." Specifically, the fear of losing those qualities we use to justify ourselves as human. Much has been made of H.P. Lovecraft's racist worldviews and their influence on his writing but the overpowering fear of the Other does not end at racism. Nor, necessarily, does one have to read racism into the stories beyond the literalness of the text.

    H.P. Lovecraft has a large number of protagonists, none of whom I'm going to spoil here, who undergo shocking changes to their body. Others still, discover they are not who they thought they were. The attack on identity and what it means to a Lovecraftian protagonist is a powerful tool. Your parents are not your parents, your friends are not your friends, and oh yes, you're turning into a gigantic fish man are all things Lovecraft uses to tell a whopping good story.

    Interestingly, one of the biggest elements of "fear of self" is that these changes are things which don't limit themselves to the body. The changes happen in the mind as well, warping a person's mind and turning them against their former selves. If you can't trust even yourself, who can you trust?

    I think if a person really wants to capture the feel of Lovecraft as opposed to just using his monsters they should work on making them strange. The Justice League of America and Ghostbusters have fought Cthulhu (or at least thinly-disguised knock-offs) so he's not as scary as he used to be. That is, of course, unless you're willing to make him strange or able to go one step further. Preventing the rise of Cthulhu isn't scary. Dealing with Cthulhu rising, destroying the world, and flying off is.

    My .02.

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